After her daughter Hannah died suddenly and inexplicably just shy of her second birthday, Lele Ashworth would sit in the child’s room and “just weep.” Cindy Vatalaro and her husband Michael after losing their six-year-old boy, who had been chronically ill most of his life, “rattled around” for three years, grasping every opportunity to escape their empty house. And Evelyne McNamara, whose Maggie, age four, died of a brain tumor, recalls, “I couldn’t hold someone else’s child. It was hard to believe my life could be a good place to be.”
The Greatest Loss of All
Suddenly to be without a child in the house was “surreal,” Lele says, especially with so many reminders of Hannah around. “She sat in that high chair. She drank from that sippy cup.” These families remember the loved ones who gathered around them, as well as the spiritual guidance and psychological counseling that helped them survive the most terrible time in their lives. Yet even in the midst of the “craziness, grief, and pain,” they began to find a way out of their despair. As Tom Mauser, whose son Daniel was killed at Columbine High School, says, “You can’t stay in that state of devastation.” The Mausers set up a scholarship fund and web site to honor Daniel, and Tom became a spokesperson for gun control. And a month after Daniel’s death, Tom and his wife Linda, herself adopted, began to discuss adoption options. They would ultimately adopt their daughter Madeline in China.
Saving the Family
John Bonafide, another bereaved father, says the very night his beloved nine-year-old son Justin died of sudden cardiac arrest, he knew “instinctively” that the only way to save his family was “to have another child in the house.” John and his wife Anna Marie had an older son, Jason, then 12, for whose sake they kept going. But beyond that, they asked themselves, “Would it just be a future in which we constantly grieved for our child and brother, never moving forward, always looking back? Or did we want to leave a legacy to Justin, the little boy who loved every minute of his life?” The Bonafides first discussed trying to conceive a child, but were worried about possible risks because of their age and difficulties during Anna Marie’s pregnancy with Justin. And they did not know definitely what had caused Justin’s death. What if another child inherited the condition?
Cindy and Michael Vatalaro had the same concerns. Although still in their twenties, they rejected the idea of a biological child because of uncertainty as to why their little boy, also named Michael, had suffered continual seizures. Cindy Vatalaro needed a guarantee, she told the genetic counselor, that she “would not lose another child.” Adoption was not an option the Vatalaros considered—until the day Cindy drove Michael to the airport for a business trip. Waiting for his plane, they noticed a commotion at a nearby gate—an ebullient crowd waiting for a flight from Korea. Suddenly, people carrying babies streamed through the door and began handing the infants to delighted families. “Finally it dawned on me what was happening,” Cindy remembers. “It was so exciting. Tears were streaming down my face.”
A Difficult Decision
But the decision to adopt a child was not an easy one. “I knew we needed children in our lives,” Cindy says, but I also felt “I shouldn’t be happy again.” She was in turmoil, asking herself, “Could I love that much again? Did I even want to?” And she was worried “that people would think I was trying to replace Michael, even though you can never replace a child.” When Cindy got her daughter, Kayla, all her doubts were resolved. Jim and Nanette Moore, who had lost two babies as infants, were prodded into considering adoption by Griffin, their surviving two-and-a-half-year-old son, who asked, “When is our new baby going to come?”
Once the Bonafides decided to pursue adoption, they quickly settled on the idea of doing so internationally because it appeared to be the fastest way to get a baby. Warren Reier, father of Irene, who died suddenly and without a known cause at 15 months of age, felt the same way: “The extra months seemed intolerable.” Evelyne McNamara saw a story in a magazine about adoption from China. “I was in shock. There were tons and tons of kids available.” By the time she broached the subject with her husband Bob, she was so sure this was what they should do that he immediately agreed. Evelyne claims she “set the speed record for assembling a dossier.”
For both the Bonafides and the Mausers, however, there was a second reason for a foreign adoption: choosing a child of a different ethnicity—and the opposite sex—would ensure that the child looked nothing like the sons they had lost. “Even though there’s no denying we wanted another child, it’s not a replacement. People worry that they might pressure the adopted child to become a stand-in for the lost child. That’s something that just never happens.”
The Bonafides’ daughter Lucy arrived from Korea on March 30. One night a few months later, Lucy ran a high fever, triggering a febrile seizure. She stopped breathing. The scene was an eerie reprise of what had happened when Justin died. But this time the outcome was happy, and Lucy was fine. The family found that they actually relaxed after this: they had been “waiting for something to happen,” because of having lost Justin so suddenly. It became clear to them, John says, that they could not avoid risks in raising children.
Roadblocks en Route
Nanette and Jim Moore were surprised that several adoption agencies either discouraged them or turned them down flat. Two other families, Warren and Ellen Reier and Mark and Dawn Ringes who sought to adopt after losing children, sensed resistance from the agencies they approached. The Reiers ultimately identified an agency which helped them bring home Julia, from China. The Ringeses were held up by a Connecticut regulation mandating a wait of at least a year after a child dies to initiate an adoption. However, they obtained a waiver and adopted Katarina from Russia. The Ashworths ran up against the same regulation, but also fought and won. They adopted Grace less than a year after Hannah died.
Evelyne and Bob McNamara didn’t face any constraints in adopting their daughters Mimi and Cai, now both almost five years old. But subsequently, when Evelyne was on the way home from Vietnam with her sons Ryan and Jack, she realized that Ryan was desperately ill. She took him straight to the hospital—the one in which her daughter had died—where he was treated for a massive infection. Doctors did not expect him to last the night, but Ryan quickly responded to antibiotics. He and Jack are now healthy toddlers. Evelyne, because of her sad experience—”I’ve had a child die in my arms”—feels she had a special destiny to become Ryan’s mother. The McNamaras, Ashworths, and Ringeses are all planning to adopt again.
The families are overwhelmingly positive about having their new children in their lives. Evelyne recalls that when she held Mimi for the first time she felt “the hole in my heart fill.” Cindy puts it succinctly: “We are a family again.” And the Bonafides can’t imagine life without Lucy, their “crazy-maker.” She has refocused their lives and allowed their son Jason “to regain his youth”—no longer feeling he has to protect his parents. But John notes that Lucy “has not taken away our pain—we are still bereaved parents.”
Indeed, it is a bittersweet experience. Tom Mauser notes that the adoption of their darling Madeline, now just over a year—old, doesn’t “hide the grief.” He adds that he and Linda always feel a “little touch of fear” that something might happen to her. Lele Ashworth speaks of a “sadness behind our eyes that wasn’t there before.” For her, the “greatest honor and challenge” is “the complexity of loving a child after losing a child.” She strives to “celebrate Grace and her uniqueness” without feeling that doing so “brings me farther away from Hannah.
Keeping the Memory Alive
One of the ways parents keep the memory of their lost children alive is to speak to their other children about them. Evelyne McNamara will always miss Maggie but has found an answer to the “why?” of her little girl’s death. Maggie taught her “patience, tolerance, and to make others my priority.” And, as Evelyne adds, “Maggie’s leaving meant these other kids could find their family.”
The Worst Grief
The grief of losing a child is the most intense and prolonged of any bereavement, according to Therese Rando, Ph.D., clinical director of the Institute for the Study and Treatment of Loss in Warwick, R.I. There are no rigid timetables to which parental grief adheres, she says. Rather, mourning varies from parent to parent—depending, among other factors, on their personalities, their relationship with the lost child, the cause of death, and the family’s support network.
Rando feels that although guidelines for when to adopt after a child’s death may hurt parents who are ready to move ahead, they may also be useful in screening out those who are not candidates for adoptive parenthood.
When bereaved parents decide to adopt, Rando recommends that they undergo a psychological evaluation to assess the accommodation they have made with their grief. It is important, she emphasizes, that another child not be perceived by the parents as a “replacement” child but as a “subsequent” one. Each family must establish a balance between honoring the lost child without detracting from surviving or subsequent children. It should always be made clear, Rando adds, that the other children are unique and loved for themselves, not because they are filling someone else’s place.