Five Years and Too Much Silence

JMToday I’m thinking about my stepson, who five years ago on this day took his own life. If you were to ask me why he did it, I would want to blurt out, “Because he was adopted.” But I don’t know for sure whether or not he had an underlying mental illness that contributed to his state of mind. I don’t know if he had a genetic predisposition toward depression, or even dangerous behavior. I don’t know at all what he might have endured during his first four years of life in Korea or whether these early years altered his mind irrevocably, regardless of his adoption experience.

I don’t know the answer to why he did it. Still, I suspect adoption played a role in the hopelessness he felt about his life.

I call him my stepson, though the term doesn’t quite fit comfortably. I had no role in raising him. He was in his mid-twenties when we met, and he was only five years younger than me. The word “stepson” is the easiest way to explain that he is the son of my husband. But, it also reflects the position my husband’s son assigned to me in his life. He called and sent me cards on Mother’s Day. He asked me for motherly advice. He questioned me about his father, in the hopes of understanding him better. He wanted me to explain him to his dad.

I became a bridge of sorts, I suppose, because of also being adopted. I understood why he felt like he couldn’t ever fit in anywhere, why he was drifting through his life. At the time though, all I knew and all I had to share with him was my own experience. I was not part of any adoptee community. I did not have a single adoptee friend. During the time he was still alive, I reunited with my birth parents, but I did so in a vacuum of sorts, without much external support. I had no where to direct him for help because I didn’t have anywhere to go myself. I was not good at asking for help. He was worse.

My stepson’s death triggered an urge inside of me to stop the insanity of denying the role adoption has played in my own life, to begin to speak honestly and openly about what it really feels like to live as an adopted person. This silence many of us feel we must maintain needs to end. I know this now.

Some reading this–particularly other adoptees–may wonder, then, why it’s taken me so long to write publicly about my stepson. I don’t think it’s possible for me to explain how much guilt I carry over his death, or how much guilt my husband also carries. It’s too easy to throw blame around when reality is so very complicated. I have done this myself. I know that my husband is not innocent in this, but I can’t throw daggers at him because I love him too much. I need to help him process this reality without being destroyed by it.

I know I am, likewise, not innocent in this. For five years, I’ve rolled around in the mess of all the things I could have done that I didn’t do and all the things I did that were the absolute wrong things. I knew how my stepson felt and I understood at a primal level why he felt that way. Yet, I was abominably ineffective at helping him. The son my husband and I conceived together was just about to turn seven at this time five years ago. Our daughter was only two. Their brother is gone.

The worst thing we could do now is not talk about it.

16 thoughts on “Five Years and Too Much Silence

  1. Karen,

    Yes, talking about it and processing–it’s not only a way to help others who are struggling, but it’s also a way to keep his memory alive. So, thank you for sharing, although I can only imagine how difficult it is for you.

    The sad reality is that suicide is something that many sides in adoption *don’t* want to talk about–adoptees don’t want to acknowledge that we have a higher propensity towards mental health issues, and towards suicide–because we’re resilient, we are not all damaged.

    Adoptive parents don’t want to say their kid is damaged, either. I’m not trying to place blame at all, I’m just saying that sometimes they don’t want to take responsibility for their part, and sometimes they truly are impotent to help–because they simply didn’t have the information … both that adoption is painful for the adoptee, and they may not have had adequetate or any access to their adoptee’s medical history.

    From one adoptee who struggled with post-adoption issues (which were NOT diagnosed as such), who almost accidently killed herself while in a bipolar (manic) state, I want to say, there’s so much more to be done to talk about, to understand the adoptee experience. I’m so sorry for your pain and for your loss, Karen.



  2. I have never admitted this, but this feels like the time to do so: I fear the same outcome for my own son that I relinquished. His adoptive parents have rejected any outside resources, then that rejected me. I fear the combination of his likely bipolar (misdiagnosed as ARND based not on medical records) and being adopted among other issues could cause this. I worry daily about him, and hope that he gets the support he likely needs.

    This must have been so hard to share so thank you for being brave and honest.


  3. Such a tragic story, and thank you for sharing it, I am sure he would appreciate the things you are now doing and it is sad that he didn’t get to that place where he might have been able to help others as well, sometimes that is the only path out of our own misery, recognising the very many others who suffer as much if not more than ourselves and helping them as a way to help ourselves But then, even that might seem impossible in the lowest of moments.

    We are all still children underneath, we all need love and to give it.


  4. Thank you for sharing and not staying silent. It is such a difficult loss to talk about but suicide is much too silent as it is. My son died from suicide just over a year ago. I have refused to be silent and the more time that passes, then less silent I am. It is not easy, but I do think it is necessary.


  5. We say in recovery, “We’re only as sick as our secrets.” I’m so glad you are talking about this. I haven’t found any way to start healing other than to talk about what’s injuring me and others. And if I share it, maybe others will feel free to talking about it as well. I am so sorry for the pain you are experiencing and the loss. I’m glad you are talking about it. Your stepson is not forgotten now that we know about him and the pain he endured. We have a long way to go in seeing things change in the culture of adoption, but his memory is inspiration to keep talking, keep looking for a way to facilitate change. Thank you for sharing this.


  6. Karen, thank you so much for sharing your heart in honest, open, and transparent post. I am so sorry for your loss…we lost a cousin to suicide 5 years ago, it seems like yesterday. I am also a reunited adoptee, and have found great healing and I am now a moderator at the All-Adoptee Growth group at this link: We are working through the book Sherrie Eldridge and I co-authored, “Under His Wings…healing truth for adoptees of all ages.” It can be purchased for $9 at this link: I have share a little of my adoption journey at this link on my blog:


  7. My oldest son was adopted by my mother. I hesitantly agreed that him going to stay with her temporarily was supposed to help us since I was pregnant with my second and going through a divorce from my oldest’s father and going to college in city. Two years later she disappeared with my son. I discovered years later that she sued me for custody and adopted without my consent (but I guess that’s what the court’s allow when one hides from their grandchildren from their adult children). I do talk to my now 25 year old son, who’s been diagnosed bipolar and has been suicidal since his first attempt at age sixteen. I worry everyday that I’ll found out too late that he’s succeeded. My mother apologized to me several months ago for attempting to break the mother-child bond and cutting off my son from me. Too little, too late. He keeps me at arms length, afraid of me now. This didn’t have to happen. He was two when he went to stay with her temporarily; a happy, healthy toddler. What happened? Adoption happened, and all that entails.


  8. Karen,

    Having a suicide in the family … awful doesn’t begin to capture it. Tragic, heart-wrenching, devastating begins to get there. I remember when I first read “Journey of the Adopted Self.” Betty-Jean Lifton had mentioned that there is a higher homicide and suicide rate for adoptees. I remember being both offended (not wanting it to be true) and frightened (recognizing in my gut that is was true).

    My adopted brother, both of us adoptees, committed suicide when he was 30. It was over ten years ago, almost 15 years ago, but I still have a very hard time being open about it. It’s just so painful, so dark…it’s very difficult to go there. So I have a lot of admiration for the strength it took you to write the post and being able to step into that hard place to put it out there.

    There are many ways I think that adoption influenced my brother’s suicide. Not knowing his medical history had a huge effect (I strongly suspect Fetal Alcohol Syndrom). But, I think most primally, not having people similar to him around him was too disorienting. He was so different than the rest of us in the family (I was different too, as an adoptee, but he was even moreso). I wonder what would have happened if he had people around him who were like him who had similar temperament, similar issues, similar ways to deal with it?

    I consider myself emotionally healthy and yet adoption has had a profound effect on me. Especially when I was first in reunion and newly dealing with my feelings of being adopted – the feeling of being disconnected from the world was terrible. I recognized how disconnected I felt from the rest of the world – that where everyone else had lineage, whereas I had popped up from … nowhere. No lineage, nothing connecting me to people, to the earth, to the world. So what is that like for someone who is adopted but also dealing with other possible mental health issues? It gets to be too much stacked up against you.

    My heart is with you today.



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