'I Gave My Son Up For Adoption—23 Years Later My Life Was Turned Upside Down'

I was dressed in a clown costume: brightly colored baby-doll dress, bloomers, big shoes, red nose—the works—preparing to run the annual Fourth of July 5k race in Skagway, Alaska. As I stretched at the starting line, playing up to the crowd, my husband strode up, grabbed my arm, and tried to pull me toward a side street. Distressed at his forcefulness, I yanked away, ready to demand he explain himself, when his face seemed to melt.

"Michael died."

His gray complexion and the way he reached for me slammed the reality home. Like in a movie scene, my body crumbled to the ground, and as if in a lucid dream, I hovered above: my body was slumped in the middle of the city's Third Street, smack in the center of the hoop-bottomed dress like a bullseye. The sound that escaped my lips still echoes down that empty street—and in my skull.

In the days and weeks to follow, people expressed their condolences. They placed gentle hands on my forearm and nodded wordlessly or, more often, uttered the phrase "I'm so sorry for your loss." Emails filled my inbox, and messages popped up on social media feeds with broken hearts and sad face emojis.

These sympathetic offerings were welcome, if painful, reminders that I was a mother who'd lost her child. But their kindness marked a clear delineation from the last time I'd grieved the loss of this same child: after I'd relinquished my parental rights 23 years earlier.

Back then, no one extended a compassionate hand. No one said they were sorry for my loss.

In the hospital, after the birth of my son, there were no congratulatory balloons or sympathy cards. Family and friends simply left me alone, and even the nurses seemed disinclined to linger. Those moments, though, alone with my newborn son, remain some of the most bittersweet of my life. Days spent recovering from a cesarean section provided time for me to hold and kiss and sing to my baby boy while explaining to him—and trying to convince myself—why another family would be better than I.

After I was discharged, at my mother's house, where I'd spent the last few months of pregnancy, there was no mention of a missing baby. Everyday activities returned to normal. I don't blame my family for not acknowledging my child's absence; how could they when I couldn't admit it?

No one had given me the tools to process the grief of his absence, the overwhelming ache in my chest, or the empty feeling in my arms. Instead, I took the blue baby blanket I'd stolen from the hospital, bunched it under my swollen face, and cried in my room with the door closed.

But I didn't cry for long. Since, technically, the adoption was my "choice," I didn't feel I could grieve.

Candace Cahill Felt The Grief Of Adoption
Candace Cahill relinquished her son for adoption 23 years ago but struggled to process the grief of losing her child. Candace Cahill

I was twenty years old, poor, uneducated, and single, not the qualities of a "good mother," which I'd been carefully counseled to acknowledge. So, like many other birth mothers, I dissociated from the trauma of relinquishment.

From the beginning of my "decision-making counseling," the crisis pregnancy worker/adoption advocate, part of a religious organization, had used very specific terminology. First, she used the term "birth mother" even before the delivery of my son rather than "expectant mother," which is both demeaning—relegating me to a baby incubator—and coercive in that it creates the expectation that I would be giving up my baby. Then, she used words like "brave" and "selfless" to describe adoption, conveniently —or purposefully—not mentioning the trauma associated with relinquishment, and she insisted that I wouldn't be "giving away my baby," I would "place" him.

Candace Cahill and Her Biological Son Michael
Candace Cahill with her biological son, Michael, who died at the age of 23. Courtesy of Candace Cahill

Looking back, I see this as gaslighting and understand better the ways it serves to devalue or disenfranchise the grief of relinquishment. And the ambiguous nature of the loss—the fact that my son was alive but not present— contributed to the tendency to brush it under the rug. And in my case, my silence and shame were heightened by disparaging comments from acquaintances such as "I could never do such a thing" or "How much did you sell your baby for?"

In contrast, when my son died at twenty-three, everything was different. We'd only been reunited for five years and had met face-to-face just once, but people automatically offered condolences, no questions asked. There was a funeral, a ritual, to mark the passage of his life and to honor the grief of his loved ones.

Grief that we shared as a group.

At my son's funeral, I was granted the honor of sitting alongside his adoptive family, for which I will always be grateful. Since his passing, they have shared memories, stories, and anecdotes about our son. I cherish our time together. But as I healed, I discovered that I couldn't process my grief in the same way as his family because the memories weren't mine. As an example, the first Christmas after my son's death, I struggled to find ways to acknowledge the loss and process my sorrow. Grief experts I spoke with recommended setting his place at the table and cooking his favorite food, but my son had never sat at my table, and I didn't even know what he liked to eat.

This brought me to the big question I'd been struggling to articulate: How could I honor and grieve for someone I didn't even know?

When asked before my son and I reunited if I had children, I often said "No," remaining dissociated rather than facing any accusatory or pitying stares, or the shame I felt. After he turned eighteen, I shyly, yet joyfully, began to say, "Yes."

I began to admit I'd placed him for adoption as an infant and note that we were navigating the rollercoaster of reunion. After he died, I discovered there was less stigma to having a dead child versus a relinquished one, so I said, "Yes, but he's passed away," which you would think is safe, but I soon discovered it's not.

You see, that question, if engaged, inevitably turns to something along the lines of "what was he like?" And my truthful answer is, "I don't know."

As the intensity of the pain fades over time, grief experts recommend parents say their child's name. And many parents, at least those who've done their grief work, want to because doing so triggers happy memories. But I don't have those, and I desperately wish I did.

When I hear people tell first parents, "You should be happy your child is with a good family" or "You should just move on, you can have other children," I can't help but see the pain this inflicts despite any good intentions.

I want people to realize that the grief of child relinquishment deserves recognition. And that familial and societal acknowledgment could be pivotal to kick-starting the healing process; I know it was for me.

I, therefore, challenge people: if you know someone who has relinquished a child, maybe next time say, "I'm sorry for your loss," because even if that parent willingly surrendered their parental rights, they have still lost a child.

It is grief, and it is mostly unrecognized, but it doesn't need to be.

Candace Cahill is a writer, silversmith and musician. Her upcoming memoir is titled Goodbye Again: A Memoir. You can find out more about her work at candacecahill.com or follow her on Twitter @candace_cahill_.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.