The following is a short essay by Tracy Lyon detailing her experience with adoption and her inspiration for To Absent Family—a service providing Bereavement Boards for people who have lost family members.

The two sides of adoption

When people talk about adoption, they usually talk about how good it is. For adoptees, adoption can be a wonderful thing—but the effect it can have on the family who lost the child to adoption is rarely discussed. Giving a child up for adoption can have a devastating effect and leave a never-ending void in their lives. I have experienced both sides of adoption—the good and the bad.

When adoption makes a family

I was born in Singapore 1962. My birth name is Lim Seow Eng, later changed to Tracy Lynn by my adopted British family. I joined their family at 6-months old, and the slow adoption process began.

The spark that led to my adoption started in my father while he was in the Royal Navy in 1945 (aged 19) when his ship (HMS Redmill) was sent to Hiroshima. He was detailed to go ashore to investigate the extent of damage the bombing had done. He attributes this experience, one that he never managed to forget, as the start of his concern for children. After the end of the war my father left the Navy, joined the Royal Air Force, married, and had 2 children. He finally felt he was able to help a child, with a now established family, and requested an extra tour of Asia so he could adopt.

He was then stationed in Changi, Singapore and started the adoption process upon arrival. He always told me it was easy—I later found out (once he gave me my adoption paperwork), this was not the case. Despite opposition from the authorities my father continued with the adoption process. Six months after the initial enquiry his family was contacted by telephone and asked if they were still interested. When they said yes, they were told to head down to the office. On arrival they were presented with a pale boy, thin and quiet, and a dark-skinned girl, chubby and very vocal. Although my father believed that decision should have never been theirs, that day I became the luckiest girl in the world. To celebrate on the way home in the taxi I christened his knee as the home forgot to put a nappy on me. The bond between my father and I grew from there.

Adoption was meant to provide me with a stable home, which unfortunately did not happen. It came down to my father’s love, strength, and determination to keep us as a family that I am able to remember my childhood as happy. My adopted parents divorced when I was 4. My father continued to serve in the RAF as a single parent to 3 children with the help of additional family and the RAF. Dad remarried, though sadly my stepmother passed away from a heart attack when I was 7. Once again, my father was left looking after 3 young children.

After a live-in housekeeper didn’t work out my sister, now 11, was left in charge when dad was at work. Our kind next door neighbours kept a watchful eye on us as well, but the possibility of social services removing us always weighed heavily on dad's mind, especially after they visited. Thankfully, dad managed to talk his way out of any further involvement from social services.

Finally, Dad met Ena whom he married after a brief courtship. Dad credits Ena for saving us and making us a family. They remained married until they both died in 2017. Despite never having children of her own, Ena is the only one I consider to be my mum.

In 2016, after years of living with dementia, mum had a fall which hospitalized her. As dad (aged 91) had been her sole caregiver, it became clear that it was impossible for him to continue caring for her on his own, so she went into a care home.

With mum in a care home, dad’s heart deteriorating, and showing signs of dementia himself, he still looked out for us, his children, until the end. When dad inevitably decided to join mum in the care home, he became concerned about who would look after his children if he was no longer around. When I asked which children he was referring to, he named us all “Julie, Adrian, and Tracy”. I told him I was the youngest at 54, so we didn’t need to be looked after and he shouldn’t worry.

When things didn’t work out for him with mum in the care home as he prevented the carers from looking after mum, he came to live with me and my family. One day he became confused, with a frown on his face I asked what was wrong. He told me he had lost one of the children. When I asked if it was Julie or Adrian, he said he knew where they were. When I said my name, he replied ‘yes that’s the one’. Again, I informed him I was here, but thanked him for being worried when he thought he had lost me.

Thankfully dad's dementia improved enough to allow our family 4 months of quality time before he passed away. Because of everything we went through as a family, there are only 2 people I refer to and think of as my father and mother. I’ve never felt the need to look for my birth parents.

When adoption damages a family

Sadly, I have also experienced the other side: Losing family to adoption—and the heartache, tears and void it brings.

My grandchildren were removed from my daughter’s home and put up for adoption in 2017. It’s a cruel process for all concerned, especially for the children. Our youngest son, 16, had a very close bond with the eldest grandchild, aged 6. Without going into the specifics behind their adoption, some of the main concerns raised, we challenged. We subsequently proved we were correct that the problems were caused by a medical issue and organic learning difficulties, rather than parental neglect.

Sadly, it took an additional 2 years and the supportive intervention of the adopting parents for authorities to accept this and for the children to receive the necessary help for their issues. My husband and I applied for guardianship of our grandchildren and had to go through a process as a part of this, including spending a lot of time with the grandchildren in supervised visits while the centre assessed our capabilities. This continued up until the court case. When it was decided they would be put up for adoption, all visits ceased immediately, though the adopting parents allowed us a couple more visits.

During the adoption process thoughts and emotions were on a loop, going through my head and heart causing endless sleepless nights. I found that writing these down allowed me to move on from those thoughts, letting me sleep, allowing me to face different emotions the following day.

There is very little support to help a person deal with this sort of loss and very little information is provided on available resources. My daughter was told to basically forget the children and move on with her life, though anyone who has lost children knows you cannot just forget and move on. You feel a void, and you don’t want to talk to family and friends about it. There is a carried guilt of not talking about the children, though it’s easier to not talk than to explain.

Three years down the road I still cannot bring myself to talk about my grandchildren. It was during this time, due to my reluctance to speak to anyone and realizing I was able to deal with my emotions by writing things down, that I decided self help was required; To Absent Family was born.

The decision for our grandchildren to be adopted rather than come live with us was partly due to our age. Which, ultimately, proved to be the right decision as my husband died of cancer two years later which would have caused the children further distress. At 57, I would have been left to bring up three young children on my own while dealing with his death.

We do have biannual letters to and from the grandchildren. They are with a family who loves them and can give them a better life than I would be able to do. Having contact via a setup called Letterbox comes with restrictions. Terms like mum, grandma, I love you, I miss you are not allowed in case it upsets the children. You are unable to send birthday or Christmas cards. I do wonder how children feel when their parents/grandparents write to them and do not call themselves mum/dad/grandma, etc. When they do not send birthday or Christmas cards or tell them they love and miss them—I wonder how much that upsets them. This is a new service in our area of which only time will tell.

Out of heartache, To Absent Family was born

My parents' deaths, and the adoption of the grandchildren at the same time, was extremely difficult for me. Though they were different types of absences, I used the same solution to deal with their loss, healing through writing. I spent many sleepless nights writing things down. Writing helped allow me to move on from one thought, to tackle the next.

I realized that what I was writing about my grandchildren were also the things that as an adoptee I would like to have known from my parents. In Singapore adoptions are closed and all information is sealed for life. With open adoptions, though the records contain information and facts, they do not give a true insight into the person.

One year for Christmas I asked my father to write his life story instead of a present. I gave him two writing journals. It is only through his words that I truly get to know him and understand his life. He was a great storyteller and he included so many untold tales he never wished to discuss. It is my hope that people will use the website to create an emotional private journal that not only captures how they feel, but who they are. Hopefully, one day the absent family member can read it and get to know them through their words and, maybe, even choose to connect with them.

Although it is only myself running the website, it is a family affair—the idea built from losing my parents and grandchildren, built to help my family deal with their loss. My inheritance from my parents was going to be used to fund the creation of the site. The name was inspired by my father. Every evening at 5:30pm my father would pour and raise a glass of wine and toast “To Absent Friends”, as he sat in silence for a while with tears in his eyes remembering the comrades he lost both during and after the war. Each time I write in my journal it is my way of toasting “To Absent Family”, remembering them and keeping them alive for me.

The journey from an idea to a working website has not been an easy one. The cost to build the website jumped from ten thousand pounds to thirty thousand after the initial appointment with a website builder (a figure I was unable to afford). I had a choice to try and build the website myself or give up—giving up was not an option. With only basic computer knowledge, and none about web design, I set about the mammoth task. Thanks to the help of my eldest son, I bought a domain name and hosting site. I also found a free website builder site and purchased a few add-on extensions to make it work the way I had envisioned it to be.

After getting stuck following hours of research and YouTube support videos, I realized I needed help from someone with more computer knowledge than I had. Thankfully, a quick LinkedIn search led me to a university computer student who came to my rescue and did everything necessary to get the website up and running. So instead of thirty thousand plus pounds, it cost me one thousand five hundred, paired with many hours on YouTube and some external help.

When I connected with Adopted.com, they also provided me with a $1000 grant towards further development.

My ambition for this website is greater than wanting to help those who write to deal with their loss of an absent family member. I hope adoptees can read the journals about them, to help them understand their adoption. For adoptees to get to know what happened in their birth family during those lost years away and have some form of closure, even if they do not choose to connect. I would like my grandchildren to read their journal and understand the letters they received were not what I wanted to say. I want them to know that I do love them very much. I miss them every day and to me they are still my grandchildren. I still do consider myself to be their grandma.

For more information about To Absent Family, click here.