in progress: mourning ritual

This is just the beginning of an idea, prompted by an image of a traditional Korean home and courtyard that I encountered in a book about Korean family lineage records. I imagined myself in the center of this walled space and it called to mind: protection, safety, enclosure, solitude. My reaction was immediate and visceral: I want my courtyard.

At the time, I was working on my toddler dresses, the making of which was an attempt to re-create something I no longer had. And so it seemed to follow that if in being sent to the U.S. as a child, I lost my courtyard, perhaps this too was something I could reproduce for myself. I would build the framework for the outer walls – simple, spare. And the interior space would be the site for the placement of certain artifacts – dresses, books, toys, and other household items I would make or procure – to re-create a site of childhood and family that I could not otherwise have.

I envisioned that part of the installation process would include some sort of ritual – some recognition that the child – the Korean child I was – experienced a kind of death in order to be “re-born” in her American life. And so I wanted to incorporate a simple ritual of mourning over the passing of one life transformed into another.

In the weeks since I have been turning this over in my mind, I listened to this interview with Pauline Boss about the idea of “ambiguous loss.” Simply put, ambiguous loss is a loss in which you don’t know where the person is, or what has happened to them. These losses contain paradox: The person may be dead, or may not be dead. They may be coming back, they may not. Or in the case of chronic illness or dementia, they are there, but they are also not there. In ambiguous loss (unlike a more “direct” loss, when a person has died, and you have a funeral or memorial service for them), there is not always an opportunity to formally or ritualistically acknowledge the loss.

In adoption, in fact, loss of the first family or first culture is not generally even recognized as loss. Instead, the focus is on the moment when the adopted child is placed in the new family. That is expected to be experienced as a joyful event all around, and no real acknowledgement is afforded to the profound trauma that the child has experienced, before they have any ability to acknowledge, understand, or verbalize that loss.

And so I started to think about the ritual component as one of mourning not necessarily for the child (although that is always there), but perhaps more for the first mother, first father, first family. Borrowing from traditional and contemporary Korean mourning rituals, and incorporating my own experience with memorializing the dead, I want to hold a formal ritual in which this loss can be recognized and commemorated. And just as with any important milestone, I would expect to do this in the company of the significant people in my life, the people with whom I would celebrate any happy life occasion and mourn any life loss – a formal, “public” ritual of grief.

Although this is still very much in its early stages of development, I would welcome conversation with anyone who has their own experiences of ambiguous loss – in particular other adoptees for whom this notion might resonate.