‘I’ve been putting the pieces together. Of our adoptions, our lives, and your death.’: Adoptee reflects on trauma of adoption in open letter to late sister

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“Dear Lark,

I miss you. Over the years, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about you, our family, adoption, and have even taken an interest in the historical context of how our very unique lives came to be. It’s more than just dates, names, and events—and I have come to appreciate the stories more as I piece them together. It now makes sense why you were so good at doing puzzles. I remember how you’d have these large scraps of cardboard with the piles of puzzle pieces separated by color. These were puzzles with thousands of pieces so small it seemed you could fit them together in whatever way you wanted. Yet you would always piece them together.

brother and older sister
Courtesy of Moses Farrow

I also remember the time our family dog, Mary, came bounding into the room and destroyed a puzzle you were working on. What a mess! You were definitely frustrated, but simply started again, and successfully solved it, as you always did. I only wish solving the puzzle of your pain during your time with us had been easy.

So much has happened since you left us in 2008, and I’ve been putting the pieces together around the circumstances of our adoptions, our lives, and your death. I’ve learned to stop asking why and instead I’m asking how. Asking why this happened to you has been more about me dealing with my pain over losing you. Being stuck in the realm of my own imagination and disbelief, blame, and guilt. Perhaps this letter is speaking to that, but I believe it’s also questioning how this happened and wanting to understand more deeply.

Asking about the ‘how’ has placed my own personal experience of adoption, my pain, and grief, into a broader context where it’s not merely about me being stuck feeling like I’ll never know why you’re gone. It’s a journey of piecing together the truth, mine and yours. We’re not alone in this either. These days, there are many adopted people trying to make sense of their existence. Knowing the subject is now far less taboo, perhaps now you’d take a stronger interest. Or perhaps not…I can hear you say, ‘I can’t do anything about what happened, so why would I give it any thought now? You simply make the best of where you’re at.’

I really wish you were here.

This is how I remember you. You always dealt with what was in front of you head-on. Like the time I was 9 or 10 and had the bright idea of running across the stone wall that lined the patio outside the house in Connecticut. You remember—the wall made of flagstone chiseled into large rectangles with sharp edges. Of course, I fell. In a flash, you picked me up out of the pachysandra and carried me straight to the TV room where you laid me down on the couch and instructed me not to move or touch my knee. I had a good size chunk of skin missing from the inner side of my left kneecap. I don’t remember being in any pain. I think I was more shocked at how fast you reacted. How my big sister suddenly appeared out of nowhere. There were other times you sprang into action as well, like when I chipped my tooth and when I cut my finger opening a can of dog food for Mary—these memories made it seem like you were always there for me.

As we got older, I noticed how you took charge more and more, in a way acting as a buffer to avoid getting into trouble. You were the one who did most of the cooking during the summertime, the one who did the grocery shopping, the one who took care of us when our mother went away on weekends. In a way, you made yourself indispensable, irreplaceable in the family. The times you were left in charge of us were filled with laughter, playing cards, watching cartoons, and playing outside while being on the lookout for deer. I had an overall sense of relaxation when I was in your care. It was in those times that I felt safe.

little brother laying in older sisters lap
Courtesy of Moses Farrow

When I think about how our lives started, I find myself asking, ‘But where does the trauma fit in?’ I mean, it’s undeniable you came from a war-torn country. Even the term ‘war orphan’ elicits questions—so many children were deemed ‘undocumented’ and therefore unidentifiable. Those who had records have since learned to question if their documents had been falsified or could be trusted at all. It is hard to find out the truth, especially when the process itself can be traumatizing. With adoption campaigns such as Operation Babylift —which removed children en masse from their countries of origin—how do you even begin to make sense of it? I know we never talked about this.

I struggled enough in school merely learning about other people’s histories. It’s more than a collection of stories and events though, it’s our heritage. It’s an important piece of who we are, it’s our connection back to our lineage. All throughout our childhood, did we have people in our lives who took this into consideration? To have the thought: ‘They’re too young to understand, but one day we should be prepared for when they might ask about where they came from.’

This is one of the many things I have come to understand and realize we missed out on. We didn’t have the internet back when we were adopted. We didn’t have support groups and even today, adoption trauma is still largely unknown and unacknowledged. One of the assumptions people have made about children is that they are ‘blank slates’ and can adapt easily because they won’t remember. Where was Bessel Van Der Kolk? Or Stephen Porges, Bruce Perry, or Paul Sunderland when we were kids? Why were adopting couples told they could raise us as if we were their own? We were adopted at a time people believed that ‘love is enough.’ However, things might have been different for us if our unique stories—and the traumas that often accompany them—had been acknowledged and addressed at some point, any point in our childhood.

I don’t think I told you, but I was involved in a research study in college called ‘Denial of Youth.’ It asked the question: ‘Was there a point when you were done being a child and just wanted to be an adult?’ What I didn’t realize then was that this study actually was capturing the phenomenon of denying oneself. Thinking about this, I wonder what adoption has done to us. I understand that in some cases, people see adoption as a new beginning: giving the child a new identity, new name, home, and family without any notion of their past or origin having any significance. However, times have thankfully been changing and there are now many adopted people who are searching for their families of origin, their roots, their truths making use of resources and technologies available today—because, sometimes, having a roof over your head isn’t enough to call it ‘home.’

It was obvious we were adopted, we were Asian, and we were different from our adoptive mother’s biological children. At that time we stood at the forefront of this new wave of creating blended families—transnational, transracial adoptive families. We had no idea what we represented whenever we’d go out in public. The way I’m putting it together now made it clear to me that it’s a fundamental denial of identity. How I wish I could talk about this with you! You, me, as well as Tam and Thaddeus have epitomized the findings of a couple of landmark studies about adverse childhood experiences and the rates of suicide, addiction, and mental health issues among adopted teens and young adults.

Would it have made a difference if we had even one person in our lives to say we had experienced trauma from adoption that would require extra care or attention to help manage such an additional weight upon our consciences? The vast majority of people continue to say how lucky adopted people should feel to be adopted. This trope has insinuated itself so deeply into the cultural fabric of modern (globalized) western society it is often impossible to convey to others how condescending and insulting the notion truly is. People who aren’t adopted don’t see the harm it can cause.

In reality, we certainly didn’t see it either. We knew just how different we were and how different it made us. That’s the underlying issue. When we go about our lives not even realizing we’re carrying the trauma from our childhood—when we deny who we are, where does that trauma go? How does it manifest? The ACES study revealed these experiences emerge as health-related issues that often lead to premature death. If caught early enough, perhaps these issues could be prevented or at least reduced and better managed. If only we knew this back then. In spite of ourselves and the self-sabotaging nature of trauma, we still strive for health. At least we try.

I’ve got to tell you, this has not been easy to figure out, or to face and accept. I’m still learning and struggling to find peace within myself. Would I prefer a life of ignorance and believing a false reality, or would I take on the truth no matter how hard it is to accept? I know this wasn’t even a choice for you. I know you face the truth every day, but I don’t even want to presume to understand what it was like for you. I hope that as more people put these pieces together for themselves, one day the cycle of trauma will be broken and we will complete this puzzle. There are so many others speaking up now, sharing their own stories and advocating for changes, it’s pretty incredible to witness. I wish you were here to see it too.

I’ll keep seeking truth for the both of us.

Love you,

Moses”

photo of sister
Courtesy of Moses Farrow

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Moses Farrow of California. You can follow his journey on Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, their website. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribeto our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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