‘We’ll never ask a child to leave our home.’ The most terrified child was dropped off. She was haunted.’: Cancer survivor bonds with adopted daughter, ‘We stepped into her grief with her’

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“I grew up in northeastern Pennsylvania, surrounded by family. Almost daily, I would see my grandparents, great grandparents, aunt, uncles, great aunts and uncles, cousins, second cousins, and third cousins twice removed. From an early age, I learned the importance and value of family. Being loved and loving others the way I did as a child allowed me to develop healthy attachments with people other than my parents.

My granny was at the top of the list of people I loved most in the world. She made me feel delighted in, special, and known. She made everybody feel that way. She was a deacon at our church and would take me to serve communion to the sick and elderly. During our visits, I learned to genuinely listen and to care about those who are suffering. Granny cultivated empathy and compassion in my life. She died right before my tenth birthday from kidney cancer, and I experienced overwhelming feelings of grief. That same year, both of my great grandparents died, a great-great-uncle died, and my maternal grandfather had a stroke paralyzing one side of his body. It was grief, grief, and more grief.

Courtesy of Janice Reyes

I lived in a duplex with my paternal grandparents. Every morning, I’d wake up and sneak over to their side of the house, hug Grandma before she walked down to the sewing factory, and plop myself down in Grandpa’s recliner. I’d turn on Disney channel while he warmed up some hot chocolate milk. At some point, my mom would come to get me to get ready for school. I’d kiss Grandpa on the cheek and tell him I’d be back for The Wheel (of Fortune) in the evening. But when I was 12, my paternal grandfather died suddenly from a heart attack at 57 years old. 

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No one told me what to do with the grief I had experienced over the past few years, so I turned it inward. My adolescent years were hard. I was anxious and depressed. I learned some hard lessons about relationships because I was emotionally guarded. I didn’t know how to talk about how I felt.

Just a few weeks before my senior prom, unavoidable pain led me to need surgery, and I learned I had endometriosis. I was told I probably wouldn’t be able to have children. Right around that same time, one of my best friends posted a hurtful blog post about me. This was another period of intense pain. 

I continued to struggle with friendships and relationships through college. This is always the hard part of the story, but grief turned to shame, and for a very long season, I felt worthless. The ending of this very short version of my long and painful journey is I found hope and healing. By my senior year, I knew the direction I wanted to take in life, and that sense of purpose and meaning was incredibly grounding. 

5 days after my undergraduate commencement in 2006, I moved to NYC to pursue a master’s degree in secondary science education while I taught middle school science in the Bronx. On the morning of the first day of graduate school, during what turned out to be the most extraordinary elevator ride of my life, I met my husband, Brandon. 

Courtesy of Janice Reyes

I talked almost daily to my paternal grandma over the course of my life. When she died only a couple of months into our relationship, Brandon was there for me. My grief didn’t overwhelm him or push him away. This time, there was hope and healing in my grieving process. 

I really liked him, so I told him ALL THE THINGS. I told him how I’d been hurt in relationships and things about myself I had never told anyone. Over a shared basket of soda bread at our favorite Irish diner in the Woodlawn neighborhood, I shared told him about my diagnosis of endometriosis and my likely inability to have children. It didn’t scare him off. Instead, it led to the first of many conversations we would have about adoption. He really liked me too, and after just five and a half months since we’d met, he asked me to marry him. 

We got married that summer in my parent’s backyard. 9 months later, I submitted my thesis on a Monday afternoon and welcomed a 10.8-pound baby boy into the world on Friday of the same week. We moved to Stamford, CT, where Brandon was working as a plumbing and fire protection engineer. The world’s easiest baby slept through the night at just 6 weeks old. Then, just 13 months and one c-section later, my second son was born.

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Shortly after that, just 10 years ago, we Googled ‘family-friendly cities’ and ended up in Austin, Texas. The boys are 13 months apart, and I can’t imagine life any other way. Those first few years were exhausting, but our memories of that time are nevertheless sweet. When the boys were 3 and 4, Brandon and I started having serious conversations about adoption.

We filled out several agency applications for international adoption. Brandon was ready, but I’d let the applications sit around for a week or two before I would shred them. We went into research mode. I read everything I could—especially from adoptees. Between reading and having conversations with adoptive parents, Brandon and I came to realize we wanted to become foster parents.

Courtesy of Janice Reyes

When people would ask if we wanted to foster to adopt, we responded, ‘We will never ask a child to leave our home. A judge might, but we won’t.’ That heart posture felt right for us. I’m not saying it is easy! I was terrified. The first thing people say to you when you start talking about foster care is, ‘I could never love a child and give them back.’ I kept coming up with ALL the excuses to not do this, and all of them were rooted in a fear of grief. I grew up living with grief from all of my family deaths and it was horrible. What kind of person signs up for the unbearable feeling of grief and loss? 

In 2014, we were leading a small group at our church and a single foster mom and her five-year-old foster daughter showed up at our house. I had been so wrapped up in my own fear and unresolved grief I had lost sight of the people involved in the foster care system. We became foster care babysitters and began the process of becoming a licensed foster home. 

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Babysitting a little girl allowed us to better understand foster care. I can think of so many amazing memories, from baking together, hikes, and camping, to Brandon teaching her to ride a bike. And we learned about trauma. This little girl was haunted by nightmares leaving her fearful of sleep. With patience, great resources of wisdom, and the decision to stick with her through her suffering, we truly started to understand the hope and healing a trauma-informed foster home can offer to a child. Recovering from trauma is serious and hard, but someone who experienced trauma is not hopeless. 

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After 12 months, we eventually decided, while plans were being made and changed for the little girl’s future, we wanted to be part of it, even if that meant being plan C. The state did eventually find an out-of-state kinship placement she would move on to. Our community threw her a Frozen themed send-off party where, yes, the cake song was ‘Let It Go.’ It was all the feels, including grief.

But here is what I learned. When I support others in their grief and let them support me in mine, our relationship actually grows stronger. Also, grief isn’t something to fear. It’s the indicator I loved unconditionally and without reservation. And love like that—it’s worth it. 

A few weeks after saying goodbye, we got a call for a 6-year-old girl who needed a new foster home. We say yes. 2 days later, the most terrified child I had ever seen was dropped off at my house. Slowly, she learned to feel at home with our love for her. 9 months later, we adopted our daughter. The boys are 13 months apart, and she is right in the middle. We have had some amazing moments of utter delight, but that isn’t the whole story of really becoming a family. We stepped into her grief with her and it brought us together. 

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Sometimes I think about what I would have missed out on if I would have let fear win. I wouldn’t have the memory of my oldest son, 6 years old at the time, reading to his new foster sister in front of a nightlight at 4 in the morning. Or the way he said, ‘I love her and think she is the best sister I could ever have,’ and how he saved up to buy her a Kendra Scott necklace for her first Christmas with us. I wouldn’t have the memory of my youngest son brushing his sister’s hair, playing pretend with Beanie Boos, and the two of them making mailboxes to write one another letters.

Courtesy of Janice Reyes

I think it’s normal and right to worry about your biological kids and how foster care will impact them. But goodness, fostering made my kids compassionate and kind. And my daughter? She is thoughtful and empathetic. Last year, her class continued to be late for lunch because a student was struggling to line up quietly. She came home and said, ‘I think he has a hard time regulating his body, and when the teacher gets frustrated, it doesn’t help at all.’ As we have used trauma-informed parenting strategies with her, she is turning around and using those strategies with others. It’s incredible.

Courtesy of Janice Reyes

Of course, we have faced challenges as a family. However, when it comes to adoption and parenting a child who has experienced trauma, we weren’t surprised by any behavior or anything she might have said. We’ve learned to look deeper, digging for the reason behind the outburst. Incidents would typically end in her eventually giving voice to more feelings of grief, us hugging, all the while reassuring her there’s nothing she could do or say to make us stop loving her.

Courtesy of Janice Reyes

Several years later, after we had settled into our new family dynamic, I started to get really sick. After months of pain, dozens of doctor visits, and way too much poking, prodding, and scanning, I found out I had the same kidney cancer that killed my grandmother. Cancer is never part of the story you dream up for yourself. For me, cancer was physically painful. For my family, cancer was emotionally painful. For all of us, my cancer was an unexpected season of suffering. Once again, my kids needed to mature beyond their years. We doubled down on compassion and empathy, and everybody used our trauma-informed care strategies on one another.

 

In February 2019, I had a partial nephrectomy that removed my kidney cancer and part of my kidney. The debilitating pain went away.

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That summer, my parents took my kids for a few weeks, and Brandon and I took one of my favorite trips of all time. It was a secluded bungalow at Los Chonchos Beach in Mexico that cost us $36 per night. Cancer treatments are really expensive and this frugal trip worked with our post-cancer budget. It was on that trip I found Tiktok and told Brandon I wanted to become a counselor to work with foster and adoptive families. 

Courtesy of Janice Reyes

I originally downloaded Tiktok because a parenting book told me I should do so to understand the social media available to my kids. There are no words to express the shock I experienced when a couple of videos I posted had over a million views. I was bopping around to show-tunes talking about trauma-informed care, and people wanted more. Eighteen months ago, that kind of content was not on Tiktok, and I think it’s incredible how the foster care, adoption, and trauma-informed parenting niche has grown there. I’m encouraged and inspired by Gen-Z’s passion for learning about trauma.

I’m currently enrolled in graduate school to become a professional counselor with the goal of working with foster families. I speak from experience when I say foster families face stress and grief that is unique to fostering. People involved with foster care in Texas are always talking about foster parent retention and burnout, but not many people talk about the challenges foster families experience in accessing mental health resources. 

The best advice I can offer people considering adoption is to make sure you know what you bring to the relationship. Do you have unresolved issues from your past? Fostering and adopting will push you to your limits. What do you do when you are stressed? When you grieve? What are your relational strengths? Weaknesses? What biases and prejudices do you have toward people different from you? If you can honestly answer those questions, you probably realize the importance of personal awareness and growth. And if you are looking for a sign to take the next steps in becoming a foster parent, this is it. Take the next step.”

 

Courtesy of Janice Reyes

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Janice Reyes. You can follow her journey on Instagram and Tiktok. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

Read more touching stories like this: 

‘I think it’s best to move them into a 2-parent home.’ I had failed. They were concerned I wasn’t committed to their care.’: Single mom of 5 shares adoption journey, ‘These girls are my world’

‘You’re my best friend!’ She cupped my face with her hands, and I was hooked.’: Single foster mom adopts daughter after ‘bump in the road’ delays finalization, ‘she is safe, she is loved, she is home’

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