My father-in-law found out he was adopted when he was 26, newly married, and weeks away from welcoming the birth of his first child, my husband. They were never going to tell him, but the secret accidentally came out one day in the middle of a family dispute. Since then, it has been a long road of trauma full of a million unanswered questions that have battered and left him bruised with a perpetual aching of abandonment. Not knowing why this happened or where he belongs or even who to trust, it was difficult for him to move forward.
But he had no choice.
By then, he was a grown man and about to become a father to not just one but to three sons. There was no time, really, to heal those deep inner wounds. So rather, the hurt was simply pushed to the side, numbed up, and suppressed.
That is, until he came face to face with a new little boy in our home. My father-in-law was, at first, very opposed to the idea of us having foster kids or adopted kids or any of the like. He was sure we could not treat or love them the same as our own children, just as he has always felt was the case for himself growing up.
I remember his exact words and how he challenged us:
“You’re not going to love him the same! When they all get sick, who are you going to pick up? Who are you going to love?? You already have your own kids!”
My heart broke as I felt the devastating pain of his past come rising up for the first time in years. Still, it wasn’t long before he gave us his blessing to follow our calling to care for these children. He quickly retorted almost as if countering his own opposition, “If we don’t do it, who will?? We’re Christians, right?? We gotta do it.”
I love my father-in-law.
Then when Rell (our very first placement) came a few days after our paperwork went through, my father-in-law was undone. He looked at this poor little boy as if looking at himself and immediately broke into tears, reliving his own pain. I remember the first night we sat down to dinner, he had to excuse himself and then remained in his room for several hours thinking about God knows what.
From then on, it has been a rollercoaster ride. I could tell there were days it was difficult for my father-in-law to love this boy. There were days he only wanted to care for his own grandchildren and no one else. There were days he didn’t want to have him here, not wanting to deal with his own baggage that kept being triggered, let alone the boy’s baggage that was constantly on display in his disruptive behavior.
This behavior that comes with kids with traumatic backgrounds has tried us all, me especially. It was easy to sympathize with him in the beginning and give him all the patience in the world, but after a while, I became tired.
I became tired of allowing what should be 30 second minor ordeals turn into 30 minute counseling sessions. I became tired of seeing his destructive rage over the smallest little incidents that any normal child should be able to easily brush off. I became tired of having to talk him off the ledge of deep remorse 50 times a day. I became tired of noncompliance, tired of petty fits, tired of his pain, tired of extending grace…
Many nights, I had to crawl into my prayer closet and beg on my knees for more love and grace for this boy. God knows he desperately needs it, and the last thing I wanted was to add to his brokenness. Yet in my very human nature, I found it painfully difficult at times to will myself to connect and to understand on a deeper level just what he was going through.
But thank God for my father-in-law. Because he understands.
Without having to exchange a single word, they have an understanding of each other that no one else in our family has. They have a common history of suffering that, although it is certainly tragic, it is also strangely beautiful when shared and understood. It also makes for the perfect formula for healing.
This past week, our family went on a week long beach trip. It was the first time Rell would play in the ocean and he was super excited. Unfortunately, the very first time he stepped foot into the water, a huge wave crashed over him and he came up gasping for air, only to swallow huge gulps of salty ocean water. He was, once again, traumatized, as he tasted the cup of salty water handed to him in this life.
After that, any time I or anyone else tried to convince him to come back into the water, he screamed and shook in fear. Eventually, we all tired of asking him and just let him play in the sand while everyone else enjoyed splashing through the waves.
I could see, however, the longing in his eyes to join us and play. If it weren’t for his great fear, he would rip through the waves himself and be right there with the rest of us. But there was no helping him. He wouldn’t let us.
Then my father-in-law came. He joined us for the last few days of our time on the beach, and wouldn’t you know it that my father-in-law knew just what it took to bring Rell back into the water. He knew the great patience he needed, the exact words to say, the perfect amount of support and encouragement to provide, and even just the right way to hold his hand. Before I even knew what happened, I looked up to see Rell jumping and splashing in the water with a huge smile on his face and letting out uncontrollable laughter.
I was amazed. It was absolutely beautiful.
What we saw take place there–the victory, the bursting and revival of life–was a result of their special relationship, not only because of the shared suffering they both experienced, but more than that, because of the healing they are both individually discovering as well.
Over the days, weeks, and months that have passed with Rell in our home, there has been a miraculous transformation in my father-in-law. Through all the ups and downs, above all, this has been a time for him to be restored from the hurt of carrying that orphan spirit.
At the very same time, it has given him the opportunity to extend that steady grace to this boy who is now going through the very same thing. What better person can do this than one who has had to go through these things before? More than the rest of us, my father-in-law has the ability to empathize, to understand, to feel, and to be there right in the middle of this boy’s valley of pain and to help walk him out.
All the more, I see yet another reason why our good God sent His Son to be with us on this earth. Jesus made himself nothing and subject to all the pain we could ever experience so that He may hand-in-hand be with us in our struggles, our fears, our disappointments, our pain, and then, walk us victoriously into newness of life. His suffering was for us, and through it, we can find strength and life through any circumstance we find ourselves in or whatever waves come crashing our way. Just like Rell and my father-in-law, we can take comfort in knowing our God knows exactly what we go through and will never tire of extending His deepest, most heart-felt, transformative, and healing grace.
He knows, He’s been there before, and He will be our help.
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”