A Severe Kind of Mercy

As I contemplated writing tonight’s post, I read that Moammar Gaddafi’s youngest son and three grandchildren were killed in a NATO missile strike. The general survived, the report continued. On the other hand … how does anyone survive a loss of that magnitude?  

Ordinarily the news might not have made such an impression on me. However, I recently took my children to see their birthparents, who had not seen any of their four kids in seven years.  It was supposed to be another seven years before Chris was supposed to see them, but Christopher’s birthdad had been having heart trouble. Craig and I talked about it off and on for months, until he finally — reluctantly — agreed to a single visit.  We didn’t want Christopher to miss seeing him altogether.

As we walked into the home, Christopher became very animated, shouting, “I remember! I remember!” He ran upstairs to his old room, which seemed not to have been touched since he left it. All his toys and toddler-sized clothes were still there, as though he would be home to stay any minute. As though the little boy he once was had been frozen in time.

It was the same with Sarah’s room. The crib, the rocking chair, the baby swing … Everything was still there. Quickly their birthmom began digging through toys, handing them to the kids until their arms were full as the birthdad left the room so the kids didn’t see his tears. On the way home, I contemplated what I had seen and wondered if I’d done the right thing. 

Then, as if in response to my unspoken thoughts, Christopher piped up, “I can’t wait until I turn 18, so I can move back with my real family.”

I swallowed hard, trying not to show how his words had hurt. “You already live with your real family, Christopher.  You will always be part of our family, no matter how old you are. That’s adoption.”

He thought about that for a minute. “Well… maybe I can live in the middle.”

This “living in the middle” feeling was understandable, and I didn’t take it personally. I have read of adoptive families that  successfully integrate birthfamily members into their extended family. Even so, my son’s comment made me wonder: How can a child who has contact with two sets of parents grow up feeling anything but “in the middle”?

A few weeks have passed, and I’m still not sure it was the right choice.  Time will tell.  What I do know is that once again Sarah is sleeping with us every night, and Christopher has been having nightmares in which I disappear and he can’t find me. I agreed to the visit out of love . . . and yet I can’t help but wonder if it wasn’t a severe kind of mercy.

God’s mercy can also seem severe sometimes. This is the side of grace we don’t often consider. When Craig and I were presented to John Paul II in 1999, while in Rome on our honeymoon, I distinctly remember looking into the man’s clear blue eyes and thinking that I’d seen heaven there.  He could barely walk, and was a shell of the vital man he once was. Six more years would pass before he was finally laid to rest. Six more years of walking through that valley of the shadow, one painful step at a time.

However, the man Karol Wojtyla had embraced the job God had given him to do: to take up a particular cross that would uniquely reflect the self-donating love of God to all his children. As Pope John Paul II, he reminded us how utterly we need that hard-won, amazing grace every day of our lives. Even, and perhaps especially, when that way grows difficult, when it would be easier just to give in to despair and bitterness.  It is an uncommon kind of mercy, which drives the nails into the cross we have been called to carry.

As we celebrate the beatification of John Paul the Great tomorrow, let us remember the Divine Mercy that guides each of us all the way to heaven.  Together, as a family, in good times and bad, let us recall the act of grace emblazoned on Faustina’s image:

Jesus, we trust in you!

9 thoughts on “A Severe Kind of Mercy

  1. I think you made the best choice for your family and like you said at the beginning of your story it wasn’t about the parents , birth or adoptive , it was about the children .
    you as mum made the choice you felt best for your children !
    look at the outcome , no matter how you may have had a hurt heart , the expereince sounds as if it was positive for your child . to be open and loving yet also prudent and cautious that is a parents world . it is very difficult at times.
    I can see how the openness and more acceptance now as we have learned more how to deal with the psycological outcomes upon children . There is just far more understanding then all those yrs ago.
    as an adult who discovered now after my 7 yrs formation as a missionary who’s work is mostly in intercession ( yep being in the middle lol ) I now know the great gift of being in the middle it is. I used to veiw it as being stuck. It is not for those of us who are meant to be there ! no, indeed we are well balanced , cenetered , walking a straight path as best we can right down the middle ☺
    imagine your child found that now !
    Yes His mercy (love ) is severe at times , it must be for us to expereince change ( conversion ) it may hurt , it may even appear harsh love is not always a feel good as you know 😉
    I felt really happy for you as I read this . I agree you are a great mum !


    • Thanks for writing. Perhaps I didn’t make it clear, but I’m not sure that the experience was entirely positive for the kids, either — judging from the sleep disruptions, etc. However, I’m hoping this will resolve itself over time.

      It sounds like you understand what it is to make the best of a bad situation. I appreciate what you have said about “being in the middle.” It’s something that — as a convert to Catholicism — I’ve experienced in other areas of my life. In a best-case scenario, it means being able to build bridges. At worst, it means being mistrusted and misunderstood by both sides. Like I said, a severe kind of grace.


  2. I think you did the right thing. If his birthfather had died without the children seeing him one last time, there would have been a lot of regrets and “what ifs”. I’m sorry for the pain that this visit caused, but hope that in the long run it will be beneficial to your kids.

    We have a semi-open adoption. The degree of contact is completely within my control. My son is 3, and so far we’ve had one visit, a few phone calls, and very frequent letters/pictures. Whether or not contact with the birthfamily is beneficial depends on the circumstances (factors such as abuse, etc). If I ever feel that it’s not beneficial to my son, I’m glad that it will be at my discretion to limit contact.

    I have to disagree with the statement that kids who have contact with their birthparents will automatically feel caught in the middle. Adopted kids have two sets of parents. As an adoptive mother whose son looks very much like me and has been with me since he was a newborn, I often forget that he has another mother. I don’t have any illusions that I conceived, carried and gave birth to him, but I still forget. Sometimes it seems like he just fell out of the sky. But the reality is that he does have another mother and father. They haven’t done much in their role of parents, but they exist and they gave him life and all of his biology, which in my book counts for a lot. As long as contact with them isn’t dysfunctional, it will only benefit him to have access to his biological roots. Maybe he will feel conflicted, but if so, that is just part of adoption which is going to have some messiness to it. If they were actually sharing in raising him, then I could see how it could be confusing, overwhelming and how it could make him feel caught in the middle. But their visits are just visit from extended family. He knows that we (his adoptive parents) are the ones who are currently parenting him in the sense of the verb.


  3. I have an adopted son who hasn’t seen his birth mother since he was an infant. He’s 5 now. I live in fear of running into her in a public place. I know someday he’ll want to know about her and seek her out. I just have to trust God’s plan daily, and pray that I will make the best choices for my son. I have 2 foster daughters who are now grieving the permanent loss of their parents from their lives. I am right in the thick of these issues and I appreciate your story.


    • Dear Jane: It is understandable to have concerns about birth parents whose rights have been terminated involuntarily. Keeping a safe distance — unlisted phone number, even getting a restraining order if they make unwanted contact — may give you peace of mind. But I think that what you are currently doing — trusting God’s plan, and asking His protection on your family — is an important part of your calling.

      When children are old enough to remember living with their first parents (as my son does), there are lots of things you can do as a family to help your children grieve their losses . . . and yet, there is no rushing the process. Life books, letters to parents (whether or not they are actually sent, or whether the birth parents choose to respond), lighting candles and praying in church, sending cards on birthdays and at Christmas. Above all, giving our children permission to express their feelings to us, even those feelings we would rather they didn’t have: this is part of the bonding process with adopted and foster children. Especially now that your foster daughters’ parents’ rights have been terminated, they may push away in their grief . . . and yet, what they NEED is your comfort and closeness. May God bless you and give you strength in the days ahead. You are an extraordinary mom!


  4. I have to second the Lifebook suggestion. I’m on volume three of my son’s Lifebook, and it is an amazing tool for helping to connect his two worlds, and for helping him to understand his adoption story. Even for people who don’t have mementos from the bio family, there are lots of techniques to creating a Lifebook which will help the child make sense of his adoption.


  5. a sleepless night…worry about kids…i found your blog based on a comment you posted on another entry and i recognized Truth in it, kind of like what you recognized in Pope JPII’s eyes. thanks for being a reflection of God’s light for me. It’s a hope I cling to desperately.

    A new subscriber


  6. I just read a Dear Abby column which contained a statement that expresses my feelings about contact with birthparents:

    “My children have two mothers and two fathers. My husband and I are the parents who are raising them, but that slip of paper signed by a judge does not erase their family of origin. It shouldn’t. They have an adoptive family and a biological one and should be able to have a relationship with both.”

    (Obviously, there are some situations where it is not in the child’s best interest to have contact with birthparents, and there are some situations where only very limited contact would be beneficial. The parents who are raising the children have to make that judgment call.)


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