Grief and Empathy and Snow Balls


I’m not sure I experience grief in the traditional Kubler-Ross five stages. Rather, I think my grief has five food groups. I’m the kind of gal who uses anything I can get my hands on to stuff my feelings into oblivion. For the past week I’ve been in the fourth food group of grief: Chocolate. The fifth is probably Weight Watchers.

Since Jennifer died, I’ve been having a hard time clearing the fog from my eyes long enough to even answer my emails much less to be creative or to be a present parent. I’m going to tell you what I prayed for at the bedside of my friend, who had just overdosed herself into a coma. I prayed that I be shown a way to give my son the tools he’ll need in life to never wind up in a bed like that.

I’ve been worried lately that I’m failing at that very task. Both Scott and I have been spending too many nights with our heads in our hands- unsure how things got out of our control, unclear about how to make it better.

I was well aware of the challenges involved with adopting a child who wasn’t a newborn, particularly one who had spent a significant portion of his young life in an orphanage. Theoretically, I was prepared for the behaviors connected to early childhood trauma. But, as any parent knows, theoretical parenting is about as good as theoretical dancing. You ain’t gonna learn to do a pirouette by reading about it.

Even before we were parents, Scott and I were immediately attracted to Non-Violent Parenting, which is based on empathy and nurturing rather than judgement and control. We knew a lot of people who had gone through the parenting classes at The Echo Center and were inspired by the respectful way they interacted with their children.

We’ve been trying to practice non-violent communication with T, except we keep screwing up. For instance, I’ve been unable to keep myself from screaming at him. And then I absolutely hate myself for it. But honestly, he’s infuriating. He’s beyond infuriating. Nearly every interaction with T is a battle. It always takes us an hour to get out of the house. Scott and I get bit and spit at and hit in the face many, many times a day. An hour ago he pulled a hunk of hair out of my head and then got grossed out and asked for my help getting it out of his mouth.

And most of the people I know have been saying- why the heck don’t you discipline him? Why don’t you give him a time out?

Well, it’s complicated. We don’t punish him because instead we’re trying to empathize with the needs behind his behaviors and to help him start to identify his feelings. But the problem is that I haven’t been all that successful in figuring out his needs. I thought it would be a lot more obvious. Maybe the difficulty arises from the fact that I’ve always been someone who stuffs my feeling rather than addressing them.

So Scott and I went in last week for a private counseling session with Ruth Beaglehole, the woman behind the Echo Center and the Nonviolent Parenting movement. It was amazing. We both walked out with a big shift in our perspective. We learned that, like parenting and dancing, empathy isn’t a theoretical exercise. I intellectually understood that I was meant to be empathetic with my child. I read about trauma for a year before we adopted him; I went to Africa and saw it with my own eyes. And yet, in the moment I simply wanted him to stop acting like such a freaked-out, aggressive wierdo and just fucking sing along with the rest of the well-behaved kids at Music Together.

Ruth helped us to acknowledge the fact that his behavior is fear-based and grounded in the assumption that the world is a frightening place in which everyone he loves will abandon him. Every time we let him push us over the edge we’re confirming that assumption and re-enforcing the trauma.

I have a picture of T when he first arrived at the orphanage and I can barely look at it, it makes me so sad. He looks absolutely terrified. It’s hard for me to remember that my hilarious, charming, fierce little man is somewhere in him still that scared baby. So now every time I’m confronted with his maddening behavior, I try to access the same empathy I feel when I look at the picture. It’s hard. It’s painful. And it makes me realize how little empathy I was feeling before.

We’ve recommitted to non-violent strategies and we’ve been doing better. On Sunday we took T up to Mt. Baldy to have his first glimpse of snow. And because it was a new experience, he was anxious and controlling and combative all morning. But we were somehow able to breathe and move through it and arrive at the magical moment of him saying, “SNOW!” We even got it on film. Here it is.

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6 thoughts on “Grief and Empathy and Snow Balls

  1. Hi Jillian,

    My children were 2 1/2, 3 1/2 and 5 1/2 at adoption, so I have some idea of what you’re going through. I hope you’ll try to be empathetic to yourself as well as your son. You’re grieving and probably tired, but you’ve reached out for help and you’re doing the right things for your son to make it better. And it will get better with time.

    One helpful suggestion I received when my kids were young came from Dr. Nancy Curtis at Oakland Children’s Hospital International Adoption Clinic. She encouraged me to make the kids’ lives as routine and predictable as possible so that after so many dramatic changes they’d experienced, they could start to anticipate what was coming next and feel confident and not fearful. She even urged me to go so far as to only let them watch one video with no variety! My life was pretty boring before I became a mom so it was easy to keep it boring and predictable on their behalf for awhile. This may not be practical for your lifestyle, but wanted to throw it out there. I do think it helped us a lot.

  2. First of all I just want to say that even in the best possible circumstances, parenting a toddler is a blood sport! And it’s your blood that is most often spilled! They are like wild animals! We are also committed to raising a child who respects us rather than fears us. Fear is an easy way to control a child. Respect is exponentially more difficult to earn. We never use physical punishment and try to use time-outs in a positive, non punishing, “maybe you need to take a moment” kind of way. I say ‘try” because mostly Riley sees it as a punishment. Riley is generally a happy guy but when he loses it, he loses it BIG. And he hits us. As a close friend of ours once said, “There is nothing more embarrassing than being hit in the face by your child in public.”

    I feel like I try SO hard to be good at this parenting thing and I agonize over every detail, every decision. But despite all of this focus and all of this care and concern – On a good day I feel barely competent and on a bad day I feel like I am surely creating a bug squishing sociopath. Loving your child with more intensity than you ever imagined possible is natural. Being a good parent takes a lot of work and practice! Work that our 1970’s, early-20-something parents didn’t have time for. I love my mom but her advice when Riley lashes out is, “You never had a single tantrum and you certainly wouldn’t have dared to hit us! Smack him back!” Thanks mom… I’ll be sure to explore that happy little nugget of my childhood at my next therapy appointment. And don’t worry about being asked to babysit… ever.

    Hang in there and take time out of every day to reflect upon your victories, no matter how small. And try to see your failures as opportunities to learn and improve. I’ll go now since this was embarrassingly long and I’m starting to sound like a fortune cookie =) But seriously, you guys rock!

  3. You two are great parents for even acknowledging all of this..or for even reading a book about parenting or going to parenting therapy, for God’s sake! But it isn’t about us, it is about the kids. All the books and advice in the world may not give peace to a shaken soul. I don’t have an adopted child but I do know what it is like to raise a human with a soul that is hard for me to handle. No book can change a personality either..not to say your kid is a bad egg. Sometimes we as parents want to control so much that we don’t see that some things are out of our control. Wouldn’t it be nice for someone to come and take those things that are out of our control and control them for us? This is what parents CAN do for their children. We can discipline our kids in a loving, firm, conscious way so that they know they can “Give It Up To Us” and that its okay. It is amazing how thankful and refreshed a child is when what they can’t understand (emotionally, physically, environmentally) is buffered by their parent in the form of a time out, swat, etc. I haven’t swatted much but when I do it is like a relief for my kid..really. It is hard to explain. It’s like after the initial shock they are like “Wow, I don’t have to act like an idiot. Mom just took that negative stuff that was floating around inside of me with her force. She is stronger than that bad feeling. She is good.”
    Not to say they LIKE being reprimanded but they do simmer down and appreciate the peace that comes from it.
    I don’t know if T’s situation is soley an adoption based issue cause it sounds to me like it is also a toddler issue. Anyone who has raised a toddler that has any sort of humanity and awareness can sympathize with what you are going through. It is tough. You will get through it. (Then they turn 12 and holy !#$%)

    p.s. this is just my experience. everyone has their own way to maneuver through the jungle that is parenting. it is truly about energy exchange.
    Good Luck~
    Oh, I posted something about another interesting food group you might like..ever hear of the Girl Scout Cookie Diet? Yea, gotta love February!!

  4. hang in there.
    the line:
    “An hour ago he pulled a hunk of hair out of my head and then got grossed out and asked for my help getting it out of his mouth.”
    pretty much sums up parenting.

  5. I just reread this post and wanted to share with you my favorite line. The line which is simply my favorite because it is so perfectly perfect:

    “And yet, in the moment I simply wanted him to stop acting like such a freaked-out, aggressive wierdo and just fucking sing along with the rest of the well-behaved kids at Music Together.”

    I mean, seriously? Perfect.

  6. One of the best writers I’ve found on parenting kids who’ve experienced trauma is Christine Deadman Moers. She and her husband adopted 3 Haitian kids at older ages. She blogs at

    Thanks for sharing your experiences here and for linking to The Echo Center. I really enjoyed reading through their website–really interesting and helpful stuff.

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