"Mourning His Birth Mother with Her Extended Family"

The tragic loss of our son's birth mother helped us create powerful new connection with his birth family, and links to his heritage.

One boy meets his extended birth family.

When my husband, Don, and I filled out our adoption application, we checked “semi-open adoption.” We thought it was auspicious that the birth mother who chose us shared my first name, Jennifer, but we still decided to keep the rest of our identity private.

We sent letters and pictures through our agency. I created a separate e-mail account for communicating with our son’s birth mother, but I had to remind myself to check it. Still, my heart jumped each time I logged on and found a note.

We heard from Jennifer sporadically. Then, just before Michael’s second birthday, her 14-year-old daughter (and Michael’s biological sister), Vanessa, e-mailed us. We learned that no one had a current address for Jennifer, so we mailed our next letter to Vanessa, in care of her stepmother, Steffaney. In that letter, we dropped the privacy, embraced open adoption, and gave Vanessa our full contact information. Even as we began to build a relationship with Michael’s birth siblings, our allegiance was to Jennifer first, and we planned to visit her when Michael was older.

Heartbreaking News

Last March, just months after opening contact with Vanessa, Steffaney left us an urgent message, saying there had been an emergency. My mind immediately raced: Was it about Jennifer? Vanessa?

We called back and learned that Jennifer had died the night before. She was 33. All I could think at first was that she had died of a broken heart because she placed her child for adoption. But I pushed my guilt aside and asked how the children were doing, and whether funeral arrangements had been made. As I hung up the phone, the finality sunk in and my guilt turned to grief. We could tell Michael that he’d been held by his birth mother when he was first born, but he would never feel those arms again.

Later that day, I took the photos of Michael’s birth family off the refrigerator and brought them to my son, but I couldn’t find the words to explain why I was heartbroken. He patted my head. At two-and-a-half, my son was too young to understand much about adoption. We’d look at photos, and we called his older birth siblings the previous Christmas, but we didn’t have a foundation on which to add this new development, his birth mother’s untimely death. Yet, on the day that Jennifer died and the days that followed, Michael held on tightly to the blue bear she gave him when he was born.

I did what I always do. I sought more information. I wrote a poem about my feelings. And I asked for support. Our adoption agency was sympathetic, but they hadn’t had much experience with situations like this. I had learned that, in closed adoptions, it’s not uncommon for children to find out, long after the fact, that one or the other parent had passed away. It was a small comfort to realize that at least Michael would know.

Jennifer’s obituary listed her children. As I read the names, I was tearful, but happy to find Michael’s name among them. Through the online guest book, we also connected with Jennifer’s aunt and her mother. Her aunt had recently learned about Michael, and was still getting used to the idea that Jennifer had “given up” one of her sons, but they both welcomed the opportunity to get to know him. They were delighted to learn that Michael loves to dance, because they had regular dance parties. I e-mailed a few photos that sealed the deal. Jennifer’s family would be Michael’s family, too.

A Legacy of Love

Six months later, just after Michael’s third birthday, in November, we took a trip to his birthplace. We’d considered flying out for Jennifer’s memorial service, but decided it wasn’t the right time for the children to meet.

We began the visit by meeting Jennifer’s parents. We’d already agreed that they would be known as Nana and Tata — the names they were called by the rest of their grandchildren. Nana, Tata, and Michael’s biological great-grandmother met us at the car with big smiles and hugs. I noticed that Michael shared his grandfather’s forehead. And our little boy, who usually takes time to get used to new faces, went right to his great-grandmother.

Nana’s sister and her extended family were there, too. We gave each family a small album, filled with photos from Michael’s first three years, and with spaces for new ones. They pored over the pictures as we told them stories. It felt like meeting the family of a new boyfriend and realizing that you like them, too.

Nana showed me a collage of photos of Jennifer and pointed at one that was taken of her as a toddler. “See, Michael has the same crooked smile,” she said. I’d often deleted those digital photos that showed Michael’s partial smile. Now, as I stared at this photo, I could see that it was part of his genetic makeup, along with his forehead and love of dancing. The opportunity had come from a terrible sadness, but I was grateful to be learning so much more about Michael’s heritage.

After lunch, we went to the cemetery. Jennifer’s grave was under a tree. There was no headstone yet, but her family had marked it with an angel statue and we learned that Nana decorated the plot for each season. It reminded me of a child’s grave, which is always the most festive part of any cemetery.

Michael and I placed a favorite little plastic giraffe next to the statue. Jennifer had told us this was her favorite animal, too. I read the poem I’d written when the feelings were still raw, and Don and I spoke quietly with Jennifer’s parents about the sadness of losing a child. We connected as mothers and fathers and daughters and sons.

Gaining a Family

Our next stop was the other side of the city, where Michael’s three oldest birth siblings live with their father and Steffaney and four step-siblings. They, too, poured out of the house to meet us.

Vanessa and Steffaney had put together a box of photos from Jennifer’s life, including the one with the crooked smile. Before the trip, I’d wondered how I’d ask for a copy of Jennifer’s death certificate. I wanted it for a sense of closure, and for Michael, when he’s older. But Steffaney had already requested one for our records. They also helped me fill in Michael’s birth family tree. Dinner was filled with the kind of good-natured bantering that happens in large families.

We returned the next day, so Michael could ride a horse with his oldest brother. At the city park, his sisters followed him up the tall slides. By the third time we saw Michael’s older siblings, our little boy was completely out of his shell.

When we left, Michael hugged each of his newfound siblings, and said, “I love you.” In the end, we had lost Michael’s birth mother, but we gained his extended birth family.

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