Coping with Loss from Adoption Suicide

by Lina Vanegas adopted from Colombia to the USA, MSW.

Artwork by Adriana Alvarez

I have lost two people in my life to suicide, the father of my children who was also my ex-husband and my mom. The father of my children was adopted and my mom was impacted by adoption because she lost me to adoption. Both of them sadly fit the statistics. Adoptees are four times more likely to attempt suicide. I would argue that moms (first mothers, original mothers, natural moms) also have high suicide attempt rates.

I am a transracial and intercountry adoptee who was adopted from Bogota, Colombia and have lived the majority of my life in Michigan in the United States. Suicide loss is a death like no other. It is not like a car accident, heart attack, or cancer where there is a clear explanation of how someone died. People who die by suicide are struggling immensely. There is no closure with this death. Suicide is also highly stigmatised, people do not want to talk about it, and many judge the death. Suicide loss for us as adoptees is further compounded and amplified with all of the loss and grief that we have already experienced and it can trigger many of the issues we suffer with related to adoption. 

If you are reading this and have lost someone to suicide, I want you to know that you are not alone and that I am so sorry you are experiencing this horrendously painful loss. I also want you to know that it is not your fault. There is nothing you could have done or should have done. The person who died was in so much pain. You may also be reading this and have been shocked by the person’s death because you had no idea that they were suffering and maybe they seemed happy and like everything was okay. It is still not your fault. Please do not blame yourself or hold onto any guilt. It is extremely painful to know or learn that our loved one was suffering so much.

One thing that I have learned is that some days are harder than others. It  has helped me to know that I can break up my days and I can take it moment to moment, minute to minute or hour to hour or one day at a time as the famous Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) slogan says. The first year for me was a complete blur. It seemed to drag on forever and I was in a hurry to put it all behind me because it was so painful and difficult. Honestly, I cannot remember much because I was in so much shock. Please be patient, kind and gentle with yourself if you have experienced a suicide loss. Suicide loss is such a painful and life changing loss. The first year of loss was really hard because everything becomes a first without them. 

Some of the hardest days for me are, the person’s birthday, anniversary of their death and the holidays. I have learned to sit with my emotions and feel them. I give myself permission to cry and mourn if that is what needs to happen.  If something was too hard, then I created a new tradition or decided not to do it. Then there are times where I just break down because something triggered me and I am back to feeling my grief. Grief is a journey, it ebbs and it flows. It is not linear and there is no expiration date. Please do not let anyone tell you differently or push you to get over it or heal in a certain amount of time. We all grieve differently and grief is not a one size fits all thing experience. 

Artwork by Nicholas Down

It has been a real journey for me to figure out ways to cope and begin to heal. Suicide loss has really changed the way that I have looked at life. I now see that life is short and fleeting and that each day is not promised. I have chosen to use the loss of my mother as momentum to help me live my life in honor of her. I strive to turn my pain into purpose, a path, and power. There have been many ways that I have found to help me cope which I want to share with you.

For me, sitting with my feelings and truly feeling them has been so helpful. Crying, bawling and literally losing my breath sobbing and having that deep soul cry have helped my grieve and mourn.  Therapy has also been instrumental for me. It is really helpful to have a safe and non judgemental space that is just for me.  It is important to find a therapist who works solely with trauma and ideally someone who is adoption competent. Many therapists honestly have not studied adoption so it is hard for them to truly understand us.

I am an avid reader and for me reading and researching gave me answers and helped me gain understanding.  I threw myself into reading and researching suicide. For me it was important to understand suicide so that I could make sense of things. I read a lot from other suicide loss survivors which was really essential because I could relate to what they were saying and I could learn how they coped and healed. The other group that was really important to read and listen to was, suicide attempt survivors. It helped me to be able to gain a deeper understanding of suicide and mental health struggles. It also gave me insight into how I can help people who are suffering from suicidal ideations.

 I joined a grief support group and a suicide survivor loss support group.  Both of these groups allowed me to connect with other people who were experiencing the same things as me and I did not need to explain myself.  I made friends, I cried, I laughed but most of all I realized that I was not alone and I felt seen, heard and validated. I also attend an adoption group which has been helpful because many adoptees are also dealing with suicide loss. It has been helpful to talk with other adoptees about suicide loss. You can look for a group online and accessibility should be easier now that most groups are being done virtually. 

Attending events such as walks that raise money for suicide prevention or attending International Suicide Survivor Loss Day which is in November have also very helpful.  Again, I was able to realise that I am not not alone and I felt like part of a bigger piece. It is inspiring to see money being raised to help prevent suicide, fund research, and also cathartic. 

Movement such as running, biking, walking, and yoga have also helped me cope because they are an outlet where I can release and channel my emotions. Meditation has been great because it has allowed me to slow down and be present in my body. Journaling and writing have been my creative outlet for processing and coping with suicide loss. Making sure that I am eating a balanced diet and getting sufficient sleep has also been really beneficial. The self care piece is really important and it will look different for everyone. Please do something for yourself that you enjoy doing. 

Social media is also a great way to connect with other survivors of suicide loss. There are many groups and organizations that one can join. There are also many blogs, podcasts and articles on mental health issues that discuss suicide which are great resources. 

It has been almost 7 years since my first suicide loss and just over 2 from the death of my mom so it has been a decent amount of time and not a long period of time. I am at a place where I want to share my story whether it be to one on one, to a group, or through writing. This is not something I could have done early on as it was so painful and I was still processing everything. I find now that sharing my story has really helped me cope and be able to help others.

I have made an effort to  incorporate the people that have been lost into my everyday life. I have purchased ornaments in honour of them for my Christmas tree, framed pictures of them for my house, I purchase flowers regularly in honour of my mom, I light candles, and make their favourite food on holidays or any other time. I am thinking about getting a tattoo in honour of my mom so that she is always symbolically there with me. It has been soothing for me to incorporate them into my daily life. Some other ideas I have thought of are, planting a tree or plant for the person, you can set a place for them at the table, you can buy or create some kind of art that can be in honour of them, you could buy or make a scarf or something to wear that symbolises them. 

I want you to remember that the suicide of your loved one is not your fault. You are not alone in losing someone to suicide.

Please take care of yourself and remember there are resources to help you cope. Be kind and gentle with yourself.

Other Resources on Adoptee Suicide

Dealing with Adoptee Suicide
ICAVs Memorial Page
Adoptee Remembrance Day
It’s a Black Week for Adoptees in Europe

Life Lessons from an Adoptee – Part 3

This is a series written by Tamieka Small, adopted from Ethiopia to Australia.

‘If we look for the light, we can often find it, but if we look for the dark it is all you will ever see.’

Uncle Iroh

This is truly one of the best quotes I stumbled across from, yes, Avatar: Legend of Korra (an Americanised fantasy/spiritual anime based in an alternate reality). It was quoted from Uncle Iroh when Korra stumbled across him in the spirit world in her child form. In her child form she was crying and giving into her negative thoughts and the audience got to see how it impacted the world around her; making the other spirits angry and sad, and turning the sky dark with clouds and anger. Uncle Iroh emphasised to her how powerful her inner thoughts are, how our thoughts can impact our perspectives on reality; and dictate our beliefs about our reality, and ourselves and how it can bring down and uplift up the people and environment around us.

It’s important as a human being, and especially as an adoptee to not give over our power to our negative thoughts, and I know that is easier said than done. This is especially hard when living with trauma or other mental illnesses, sometimes it’s a constant battle we all deal with maybe all of our lives. But it’s important to realise that there is plenty of darkness in the world, and in our personal lives, but if we give in, we give in to our most basic instincts, we give into our egos and all the things that tormented us as children. And these thoughts can taint how we see the world around us, the life we live in. If we let the darkness in by just an inch sometimes it can overwhelm us, and feel like that is all we see in the world; and when you turn on the news it’s easy to give into the belief that we live in a dark world. When we live a difficult life it can make it even harder to not fall into this type of headspace, so it is important for our survival and our sanity as well as our wellbeing to leave a light on for ourselves; to give to ourselves the chance to live a happier life by choosing every-day to choose to see the light in every chance we get and in every challenge life throws at us.

When we start to put in a little effort every day to see the light we do have in our world it makes it just that much easier, and the light will shine back on us. When we build a reserve of light and happiness for ourselves it gives us more to ground ourselves when we face any hardships in our lives. Sometimes light is what we give ourselves in our darkest moments, a gift we give ourselves as a form of self-care; kindness and understanding and self-love.

Self Care and Healing

Last week, I was fortunate and privileged enough to attend a 3-day Adoptee Self Care Retreat funded by the Australian Government for adoptees from the Forced Adoption era and for people who have been in State care.

I want to share my thoughts of what I gained from attending as I found it to be such a positive experience. I have always advocated and requested a retreat like this, but sadly, to date, I have not seen or heard of one specific for adult intercountry adoptees.

I went not knowing the other dozen adoptees who attended and all were domestically adopted in Australia. The retreat focused on self care via yoga and meditation with amazing home cooked and grown food. I was raised in my adoptive family as a vegetarian because of their Seventh-Day Adventist beliefs so I loved being served food that was wholesome and nutritious. At home, I’m so busy with kids, dogs, family and school life with adoption thrown in when I have time, that often I go without barely eating.

The yoga, meditation, massage and facial was just awesome! I had needed to get away from life’s busy chaos and give to myself. I normally spend a lot of time nurturing other people and forget to nurture myself – but this retreat was a great way to remind me to do daily self care and to understand by living it for 3 days, the massive benefits when I do. I came home so much more relaxed, at ease, at peace and most importantly, connected back to my body. Being in this state helps me deal more positively with the daily challenges of life.

I loved meeting fellow adoptees from such a variety of life paths, all with different experiences, but fundamentally to whom I shared so much in common. Attending the “adoptee focused” sessions run jointly by the NSW Post Adoption Resource Centre (PARC) and Relationships Australia, Wattle Place was healing, validating, and connecting. In these sessions, we shared in depth about the impacts of being adopted. We did this in an environment where we were supported and validated for the variety of experiences we have lived throughout our journey so far. It was humbling to receive my fellow adoptees validation and empathy, to hear their journey’s, and as a group, to encourage and support one another.

The power of group healing is so deep! The retreat reminded me of my journey in my early 20s when I first began healing from sexual abuse. I attended group therapy hosted by Wesley Mission and met other women survivors for the first time. I have never forgotten the impact I felt upon hearing their experiences, receiving their validation for the impacts we all suffered, and ultimately, for the sense of connection in being with others who had travelled a similar path, were looking for healing and a way to move forward. It made such an impact on me that I began this network for intercountry adoptees. I wanted to replicate the healing that can come from finding those who have travelled a similar path and struggled with similar issues. Validation, support, and empathy from those who understand, can never be underestimated in it’s power to help us heal.

The retreat also reminded me to honour my path and where I’ve come. Over the decades, I have shifted from being powerless to turning my experiences of adoption into something that can hopefully benefit others. I also now regard my adoptive status as a privilege because without it, I would never have met so many amazing people who carry such deep scars but who display resilience on a daily basis. I hold my hands in that heart place position which we practiced in yoga and thank the powers to be that I was able to find healing. I hope in some small way, the work we do within ICAV will help to empower the healing and connection for many fellow adoptees around the world.

I encourage fellow adoptees to find a way to give to yourself, take the time to do self care even in tiny ways each day, and reach out to connect with others of us who can understand, validate and provide peer support. My utopian wish is to have these types of retreats for us and for future generations of intercountry adoptees around the world.