Empowered To Connect

Healing the Wounds of Relational Trauma

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I remember the first time I heard it said. It came out of nowhere during a conversation with an adult adoptee, and I recoiled as the words made their way to my heart. “There is no adoption without loss,” she declared, “but sometimes adoptive parents tend to forget that.”

Such a categorical statement. So black and white. Surely there had to be an exception. Certainly there was some gray. “All adoption is born of loss?” I remember thinking to myself. All?

As I’ve become immersed in the world of adoption over the years I’ve come to realize and more fully understand how true this truth is.  I’ve seen it first hand in the lives of my four children.  I’ve heard it in the stories of countless adult adopted persons who find the courage and feel the freedom to honestly tell their stories.  I’ve read about it in books and heard about it in conferences from experts who have dedicated their lives to serving kids like mine and families like ours.

At its root trauma speaks of a wound. In the realm of adoption and foster care we often think of trauma in terms of tragic events such as natural disasters, horrific scenes of violence or domestic chaos, or the response to prolonged exposure to emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. Each certainly qualifies as trauma and each is traumatic.  But we sometimes overlook another wound that every adopted (and foster child) has experienced – the wound of relational trauma.  True, not every child experiences the impacts of this relational wound in just the same way or to the same degree.  But parents are never safe to presume that there is no wound.

No child becomes available for adoption or enters foster care unless something has gone wrong, terribly so.  Those who gave life to this child, those who were supposed to take care of him, those who were supposed to be there to protect him, teach him, and support him either couldn’t, wouldn’t, or didn’t.  And so one of the most foundational and important of all earthly relationships – that of parent and child – was broken or severed.

If I’m honest I’ll admit that I don’t want this to be true for my kids, this idea of relational trauma and the loss that inevitably comes with it. I want our adoption story to be one of beauty and gain, not loss and pain. One of happy, not sad.  One of addition, not subtraction. But God is not writing a fairy tale with our lives, no matter how much I wish it so.  Instead, He’s writing a real life story that involves real people living in a broken world.  But it is also a story of hope.

Adoption is an invitation to enter into a child’s world, into the trauma that he or she has experienced, and become an agent of God’s healing power.  Dr. Karyn Purvis, author of The Connected Child, often reminds adoptive and foster parents that “our children were harmed in relationship, and they will come to experience healing in relationship.”

This reality of the healing power of relationships should come as little surprise.  I was reminded of this just the other night as I sang the song I’ve sung to my children literally thousands of times while I tuck them into bed. As the words rolled off of my lips – “I once was lost but now I’m found; was blind but now I see” – I could not help but think of how God’s grace and redemption entered into the relational trauma of humanity.  Into my own life.

The miracle of seeing is only a miracle because I once was blind. I only needed to be found because I was so very lost. And the miracle of adoption is that through loss, and not in spite of it, God chooses in His infinite goodness and kindness to make something beautiful. He is weaving the broken pieces of our lives together into a family where hope lives and wounds heal.

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