They say the death of a child is the greatest loss by far. They’re right. I have lost parents, grandparents, and other family members, but the loss of my daughter was by far the most painful.
Disastrous, crushing, overwhelming—these words can hardly describe it. When you lose a parent or grandparent, you mourn the past. When you lose a child, you grieve for the future that will not be.
I lost my 24-year-old daughter Lela in 1995, the same year my father died. Her death was very sudden and unexpected. Of course, I thought she was special; I knew no one like her. She had enormous potential but was an amazing person at almost any age. I remember everyone remarking on how much “presence” she had at all her dance recitals.
We had a deep connection, so much so that when she was in college, she became a family-planning counselor and went on to work in a reproductive health center after college. I had been working on women’s issues for years, specifically reproductive health. She was working in an abortion clinic as a counselor when she decided to take off on a cross-country trip with a college friend to figure out her future. She knew reproductive health was the field she wanted but wasn’t clear as to the role she wanted to play. This trip would be her time to explore and think about her possibilities.
It had been a very wet summer; when she and her friend arrived at Glacier National Park, it finally had stopped raining after several days of bad weather. She was hiking on one of the most scenic trails in the park when she stopped for a break and was struck unconscious in a rock avalanche. Her friend later told me how difficult it was to watch park attendants trying to resuscitate her for a long time before they declared her dead. Her death is listed in Death & Survival in Glacier National Park: True Tales of Tragedy, Courage, and Misadventure, a book about tragedies in the park; she was only one of ten who had died this way in over a hundred years of recorded history. For me, it was unimaginable. My grief was devastating.
I knew there were two paths after her death: one led to bitterness and despair; the other toward healing. I chose the latter.
Soon after Lela’s death, I went to a fundraiser given by a woman working on climate change. She mentioned that she’d lost her son and talked about how adopting a child had helped her to heal. The lecture was about climate change, but all I heard about was her trip to Costa Rica with her son she’d adopted after an earlier child’s death. This made perfect sense to me. My quest began.
I remember when I expressed the idea of adoption for this first time. I was fifty-three. It had been over a year since my daughter died. I was at dinner with my husband, Dan, and two
of my lifelong friends. They’d all been there the night I learned of my daughter Lela’s death. When the conversation came around to how I was doing, I told them I wanted to adopt. I had mentioned it before to my husband, who had responded cautiously. My friends indulged what they imagined was my fantasy and politely smiled at the thought. I was the only one who took it seriously.
I soon learned of the many hurdles involved in adoption. First were the questions about my motivations. Was I looking at an adoption to deny my loss? Was it a way to bury my grief? As an
educated, early childhood specialist and psychotherapist, I carefully looked at my reasons for wanting to adopt. As a parent, I’d learned to treat my son and daughter as distinct individuals, not to compare them to each other or to my image of what a child should be, based on my own past or dreams for the future. Both Lela and her brother, Josh, had taught me I could never make a child a reflection of my own unrealized self. I expected to learn to love my adopted child in this same way. This would be my promise to Lela: I was not starting over. I was starting a new beginning.
Many of the questions about adoption dealt with my age. Was I too old to adopt? Could I handle an infant? Was it fair to a child to have old parents? My son, Josh, was the most honest and up-front with his reservations and questions about my taking on this responsibility. He asked for a three-way meeting with him, my oldest friend (who also happens to be a psychotherapist), and me. He was concerned about what the adoption would mean for him, our relationship, and what it would mean for me. He was very challenging, and my friend helped me listen to all his piercing questions.
In the discussion, we talked very frankly about future possibilities. Was he really ready to be an older brother or a caregiver if something were to happen to me? If anything should happen
to me, he would not be the only person to raise his new sibling.
We also had his stepfather; my sister, who was living close by; and several family members and friends. He would not be alone.
Was he concerned about how adopting a sibling would affect his relationship with me? Yes, it would change our connection, but it didn’t come from any lack in our relationship. My love for him would never be lessened by a sibling, as it had not been lessened because of Lela. Josh’s questions came from a very compassionate and caring place. Would I have the energy it would take? Did I have the resources? Would I have the support I needed? He helped me remember that his dad and I hadn’t figured everything out before we had his sister and him.
No, you figure it out as you go.
I never wanted to adopt because my son wasn’t enough. I wanted to adopt because he was everything. In fact, I realized that parenting him and his sister was and is literally at the heart
of who I am. I love parenting; watching an individual evolve into their true self is the most exciting, creative activity I can imagine; it’s the most important, hopeful, and successful thing I have ever done. When I raised him and his sister, his dad and I had to find the resources and support to make it work—and my son agreed that it turned out really well. He helped me see that although it would be difficult, I had a lot of support in my life that could make it work.
Then there were questions about why I wanted to adopt a girl.
This was never a question for me—from my first feeling about adopting, I wanted to adopt a girl. I had raised a magnificent son who clearly embodied the best of what a young man could be.
So why a girl? I had worked so long, trying to ensure that girls could realize their own power, that I believed I had a lot to offer a girl. Seeing a young girl become an independent, loving, powerful person was a significant part of the future I’d lost and the future I wanted to have.
I was fifty-five years old and my husband was fifty-three when we flew to Guatemala City to meet our daughter, who was already five months by the time we could visit. Every moment of this trip remains vivid to me, especially when I opened the door of my hotel room to see Olga, my daughter’s foster care mother, holding a baby wearing a frilly, light-blue dress.
The first evening was my introduction into what it would be like to raise an infant at my age. The three of us spent a lovely day in the city. I remember being somewhat cautious walking an infant past the young soldiers who seemed to be on every corner with machine guns, but the day was wonderful.
We were exhausted when we got back to the hotel. From the moment we got to our room, our daughter started to cry without stopping. Having had children before, I tried every trick I knew,
but it wasn’t until I turned on the TV and she heard Ricky Martin singing “Livin’ La Vida Loca” in Spanish that she stopped crying and was calm. After bathing her in the hotel sink, feeding her by bottle—though I had breastfed my other children—and putting her to bed that evening, I knew this would be challenging, but I never doubted our decision to adopt. I felt that that my age had given me the experience I would need to parent our daughter, whom we named Mya. I knew we were in store for many hurdles, but we felt prepared to love her unconditionally.
Perhaps the most difficult thing about being an older parent has been confronting my own mortality; I didn’t have to face this with my other children. My daughter Mya was less than two when I received a diagnosis of colon cancer. Catching it early and being able to get the best medical care in the world certainly helped; I had to stay positive and focused on getting better, but I’m sure it took a toll on my daughter. And then, when Mya was sixteen, I was in the hospital for a month after I was hit by a car as I was crossing the street. It was difficult for her to visit me in the hospital, but she has witnessed me survive and come home. She has seen what resilience looks like, though I’m sure it was a frightening experience.
These events weren’t necessarily a function of my age, but they made me more aware of the shortened amount of time I will have with Mya, compared to what I will have with my son or what most younger mothers have with their children. I am sad when I think about how I will miss some of her life’s milestones because of my age. Yet I also know that parenting her has given me some of the most meaningful and wonderful moments in my life. She is living proof that grief can be turned into joy.
As the thirteenth-century poet Rumi wrote, “Grief can be the garden of compassion. If you keep your heart open through everything, your pain can become your greatest ally in your life’s search for love and wisdom.”
Excerpted from Tick Tock: Essays on Becoming a Parent After 40 edited by Vicki Breitbart and Nan Bauer-Maglin (Dottir Press, 2021).