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. 

this is it

I say yes to the Korean television show and Shinhye sends me another form. This one has fourteen questions. Each of the fourteen is frustrating, baffling in its own way:

Question #4: “Write any information or memory about your birth family and how you got them.”

Question #7: “What’s your opinion of Korea?”

Question #9: “If you had any difficulties that you faced in life, please tell us in details. (& #10: How did you overcome it?)”

And my favorite, I think, is the last: “Write a letter to your birth mother or birth family. (A long letter).”

I am tempted to send back, almost immediately, a box packed with my many diaries from high school – the 5-subject, wire-bound notebooks I filled with my looping script in ballpoint pen, label it “Question #9.” And then as an attachment to my email, a thousand-paged, single-spaced document. But I am not sure that Shinhye would get the joke.

And then, I think: And what is my joke, exactly?

In college, the theatre department held an annual evening of monologues. Student-written, directed, and performed. I auditioned one year and got cast in the role of an over-privileged, middle-aged, second-generation Korean woman (I swear, I am not making this up) who imagines a dinner party of all her former lovers, and one by one, attempts to decimate each with a cruel diatribe about his various shortcomings. It is fair to say that the whole of it – the writing, directing, acting – was flawed. I was given a martini glass to hold and I wore the dress I had bought for my high school winter dance – dark blue velvet with a tafetta skirt. It had an open back that my date, R., slipped his hand into on the ride back from the city, where we had gone dancing. Despite the cold of the evening, his hand was warm and he left it there – unmoving, resting on my back – for the entirety of the trip.

There was another monologue delivered that night that still haunts me. A woman struggling with some undefined mental illness. She would steady herself with the phrase, “This is it,” but spelled it out, so that periodically through the monologue, she would pause and drop her voice to a whisper: “T H I S I S I T.” As she spoke it, she said the letters in pairs, and it was this decision, I think, that made her delivery one that has lodged in my brain ever since. The simple, clipped rhythm: TH. IS. IS. IT.

I don’t remember much of the content of it, only that phrase repeated, its meaning changing, gathering complexity. At first a comfort. Later, a call to action.

Then finally, wearied resignation?



I tell my friend that I am sad, and she tells me that I am not. Sitting at the bar in the restaurant, she lectures me, her voice rising. She waves her arms around. Why call it sad? You are searching. You are in the middle of big things. You are doing fine, she insists. The waiter comes by and hovers near us until she is finished speaking. “Can I get you anything else?” he asks.

We are sitting sideways on the bar stools, facing each other. She puts her arm around my shoulder. “Would you please tell my friend that she is fine,” she says to him.

He plays along. “You are fine.”

I say: “Thank you.” Then, “Now please tell my friend that she is loud.”

“You are loud,” he says. We all laugh.

“I’m loud, but I’m right!” she calls out – to him, to me, to the table across from us near the window. Then back to me: “I’m right.”

I run the shower and stand there, with my hand under the spray, waiting for the hot water to make its slow journey up from the basement heater. The shower faces a stained glass window – a scene of two birds sitting on a branch, with the sun rising in the background. The colors are vivid. It’s a stunning piece – one of the many things we fell in love with when we first saw the house nearly seven years ago. The glass is bowed in places and in need of repair. We had a consult early on and were informed of the rarity of this particular pane. “Probably,” he said, “the most valuable thing in the house.” Its value, as I recall, has something to do with its coloration – the many shades of red and pink and orange - and its depiction of birds. I had thought I might research it, but that project made its way to the list of “someday, to do” along with the dozens of others that seem increasingly likely, as the years pass, to be forgotten.

When the light hits the window, the yellow glass of the sun is brilliant. Standing in the shower, the hot water falling, the colored glass illuminated, it is hard not to feel a glimmer of hope for the day ahead. The heart lifts, lightens.

The bus stop man is not at the bus stop across from my house this morning when my son and I pull out of the driveway. I admit that I have a moment of concern. How much a part of my routine it has become to wave to him as I head down the street. As I am driving down the block, I see a man approaching, a knit hat pulled down low. I think it might be him, but then quickly see that it is not. I think about the summer and the days that I would linger in the house, peeking through the curtains until the bus pulled away, so that I could avoid the little ritual completely. And now, months later, I worry that he is not there.

On the drive to drop off my son at his school, I think about routines. How reliant we become so quickly even on those things that can be most wearying. The dishes, the cooking, the setting up and clearing of the dining table. The laundry – up and down the basement steps. The folding of towels, the hanging of shirts.

Yesterday, I am anxious about my list of tasks and M. asks do I want him to do the grocery shopping by himself so that I can have time alone to work and I find myself saying no, no, I want to go with you, it’s one of the best parts of the weekend. And it is: Driving down to the grocery store, meandering through the aisles with our son sitting in the cart among the apples and the lettuces. How we will separate, wander off and then find ourselves at the check-out line, with multiples of the same item: two bunches of bananas, two wedges of cheddar. How satisfying it is to lay all our purchases out on the conveyor belt – clustering all the dairy and freezer items together, then the produce, then the cans and bottles and jars. Packing it all up in bags, piling them in the trunk. Dragging them into the house, unpacking. What a sense of accomplishment it gives me to see my refrigerator shelves full. Small things, within my control.

Sometimes, just as M. is falling asleep, or in the morning, when he is just waking, I will hover over him, grinning, my eyes wide so that when he senses me there and finally opens his eyes, he will see only my big head, my stupid wide grin and he will laugh. I used to do this all the time – a running joke between us and occasionally, he would push me away, playfully. “When I’m dead,” I would say, feigning injury, “this is one of the things that you will miss most,” and we would laugh.

We used to joke like this all the time – a multipurpose laugh line to head off any number of silly domestic squabbles: “You left your shoes in the middle of the floor!” Or, “You put all my sweaters in the dryer!” Or, “We needed milk and you were at the store, but you only brought back a pie?” Always the same response: “You know you will miss this when I am gone.”

I am melodramatic and sentimental to a fault. A little superstitious, truth be told. I want to read signs into everything, I’ll admit, but I do feel as though we may joke a little less like this these days. Could it be because we already know the truth of this? Know that what we will miss most are the tiniest, most mundane details of a life, shared over years?

Wouldn’t we go without milk for months, and wouldn’t we shrug off the shrunken sweaters, and wouldn’t we pick up each other’s shoes a hundred thousand times if only we would never have to know loss?

Yes. I think I would.