When your body remembers: Adoption and grief

I’m not sure if it’s the smell in the air, the feeling after the holidays or the letdown of post-Christmas that makes it hit me every January.

But every January, without fail, a weight settles in.

I wrestle with it for days, even a week or two, and then it finally dawns on me: Oh. My dad. He died January 25.

Even when my conscious brain isn’t registering the reason, my body remembers. She remembers and she starts preparing for grief, for shock, for pain. It’s been 13 long years, and it still hasn’t faded. Every January, the familiar, bewildering weight. The depression. The fog.

And when I realize what it is at last, there’s nothing to do but to sit with it. I just have to let myself feel the loss again.

* * *

Three years and three days ago, we brought an African baby home to cold, dry, unfamiliar Minnesota. We brought him from Uganda — land of red dirt and stunning beauty; of honesty and pain and wonder and staggering contrasts. Of warmth and light. The only land he had ever known.


In the jubilant homecoming airport scene, he was scream-laughing and making everyone smile so hard it hurt. His body was electric, shaking, excited, overstimulated, overtired. He was just 9 months old. It was a lot to take in.

Now we are three years later and I swear to you: His body remembers.

These last weeks have been full of heightened anxiety, of acting out, of impulsive action, of tantrums and neediness. There have been many more questions about “my ‘nother mommy” and of Uganda, of his beginnings and identity and story. We’ve looked at pictures of our days together there, of kicking in the bath basin, of walking around the guesthouse grounds, of his auntie. He looks at the pictures and tells me he was sad.

He’s only 3. This is the first year there have been enough words to explore the feelings, I think.

And I want to give it all to him, I want to fix it, I want to reach the hurt places and wrap them in love, love, love.

But I can’t touch all of it, because it doesn’t belong to me. I have to let him sit with it. I have to let him feel the ache of loss. It’s only after he feels it, explores it, gives it a name before we can get back to the ordinary business of gradual redemption.

Darkness shot through with light

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It’s Christmas morning. The gifts are open, the drum set assembled, the new riding toys getting broken in, the volume level in our home at a new level. Snow is gently falling on a fresh three inches from last night, and it looks like perfect sledding weather today.

We’re happy. And yet tears keep gathering at the corners of my eyes.

Is it because our family is complete, that Josie is home for her first Christmas?

Is it because I can still see my dad reading the Christmas story in his glasses and sweater, and even after nearly 13 years I miss him desperately?

Is it because I can see something align and click in my son when he’s playing his new drums, so the extra noise is more than worth it?

Is it because my kids all seem secure and content in our home, in our family, and they know they are loved?

Is it because family is beautiful and sacred, but also messy and exhausting?

Is it because of the reality of today, of Word made flesh, that Love had to find a way to get to me, that He gave up everything to come near?


God wrapped himself in flesh, and it was holy and messy.

He broke through time and space and dimension to make a home in me, and that journey had to hurt.

It’s unending darkness and infinite light.

And now we live in the grief and fulfillment, the already/not yet, and it’s so beautiful it hurts and it hurts even though it’s beautiful.

The weary world, indeed. And yet, rejoicing.

Merry Christmas.


I could never


I’m beginning to look more like me. // Coming into focus


It was late at night, and I was sitting in a brand-new friend’s kitchen in her one-bedroom apartment just down the hall from mine. We were in college, some of the only married students in the building, both writers, and we hit it off right away. She’s always been one of those friends. It’s easy to go deep, fast.

“No one close to me has ever died,” I say in a near-whisper, afraid God might hear and get some ideas. “I’m terrified of it happening. I could never handle something like that.”

“I know,” she said.

That winter, my dad died suddenly. He was 50 years old.

I don’t think God heard me and decided to test my theory. I start with that story to remind myself that whenever I think “I could never,” it may be true — but if God is near, I have all the strength I need.

I needed it then, and I have needed it since, and I need it now.

In her sympathy card to me, my friend recalled our conversation in her kitchen that night.

“We both said we couldn’t handle something like this,” she wrote. “But then it happens, and then we do.”

* * *

It happens, and then we do.

I could never have trouble attaching to my own child.

I could never be an at-home mom.

I could never go back to Uganda and adopt again.

And the latest: I could never homeschool.

For many reasons, we pulled our 2nd grader out of our neighborhood public school a few weeks ago. In short: It wasn’t working, and he was struggling. We tried to avoid it — met with the teacher, talked to friends for advice, said, “Well whatever happens, we could never homeschool.” I was at capacity already with work, two toddlers at home, a household to manage. I mean, just the laundry alone.

I thought I could never.

But then it happened, and then I did.

* * *

I’m learning to make space in my nevers.

No matter how I see myself and my limitations, God sees who he created me to be. All my life, I’ll be discovering who that is.

And sometimes, the picture comes more into focus when I say, “I could never,” and God says, “With me, all things.”

Sweet homecoming

I just scrolled back on the blog and I can’t believe I haven’t shared this here yet. My brother made this little video for us after I arrived home with Josie this summer, nearly 4 months ago now. I love seeing our little family complete at last, and I can’t believe how much Josie has changed! Enjoy.

Welcome Josie from Adam and Jamie Sternke on Vimeo.

One Small Change – Guest post for Addie Zierman


When I was first starting out blogging for real, I found Addie Zierman. She was obviously an amazing writer. She had graduated from Northwestern College just down the road from Bethel, where I was at about the same time. She talked about being on fire for God when she was younger, just like I was, and how somehow that flame had left her scarred and jaded, just like it did me.

I knew we had to be best friends immediately.

And then the most amazing thing happened. She actually became one of my best friends. We live just two hours apart but we’re constantly complaining that we aren’t closer. We meet every couple of months for wine and dinner and at a recent get-together, I started crying even before we were seated. It’s THAT kind of friendship, and I’m so thankful for her.

And crazy proud of her like a bragging mama, because my girl has written the most AMAZING memoir, one of my favorites ever and I’m not exaggerating, it released a couple weeks ago and she got a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly and all kinds of praise and I know more is coming.

All this to say how excited and honored I am to be posting over at her blog today for her “One Small Change” series. Each post features a different voice, showing all of us that small can change the world.


I’m writing about expanding our expectations for holidays so they’re more about others than about us. Here’s an excerpt:

I’m not saying you can’t put an iPad or those Frye boots on your Christmas list. I really don’t want to get pious or self-righteous or (God forbid) legalistic about doing good on special days.

I’m just saying: If at the end of every birthday or holiday you feel a little empty and don’t know why, try giving when you’re supposed to get — and then tell me if the cloud doesn’t dissipate a little.

For me, it’s about feeling the connection I was created for, about God asking me to care for his creation and his children. It’s about seeing beyond myself and looking for beauty in ashes. It’s about redemption, life, hope, love, love, love.


Head over to Addie’s blog to read the rest. And then also read everything she’s written. And then for SURE get her book. 

Nothing So Broken: What We Pass Down (For my son) {Guest post}

Mother and son

Today I have the honor of guest posting at Alison McLennan’s place. We’ve been connected for years through adoption, writing and blogging and she’s one of those rare kindred spirits I’ve never met in person. She inspires me from afar with her honesty, fierce love and broken beauty.

She’s featuring a series of posts lately that echo my heart, called “Nothing So Broken.” The idea is that nothing is so broken that God cannot redeem it. Corrie Ten Boom said, “There is no pit so deep that He is not deeper still.” Yes.

Here is an excerpt from my post at Alison’s blog today. Click over to read the rest.


I saw my own fear in your eyes just last night, love.

It was in the middle of one of your tantrums, the fits you’ve been throwing for months now. Just lately, they seem out of even your control. I’ve been trying to reach your heart, to let you know you’re loved, loved, loved.

It’s so easy to forget that’s what you’re asking for, really. That your constant pushing the boundaries, testing the rules and doing the very thing I’ve just forbid — these are just symptoms of something that’s settled deep in you. You don’t even know it’s there, can’t really name it, but I can. I’ve seen it before.

Because it lives in me.


Read the rest here.

Tips for mid-October camping in Minnesota


1. Don’t be afraid of the snow in the forecast. Do pack winter coats, hats and mittens though — it’s about being comfortable outdoors, not thinking you’re a tough Minnesotan and can handle 45 degrees in a fall coat. Along those same lines, there’s no shame in bringing extra blankets.

2. Sing around the campfire while you eat s’mores before bed. When your kids don’t know “kumbaya” or other classic campfire songs, indulge them and sing “The Fox” by Ylvis in its entirety.

3. Just don’t worry about the dirt and mud and sand you’re all tracking into the camper, into the sleeping bags, onto the table. You simply do not have time to think of it for one moment, or it will take all of your moments.

4. Remember that the cold weather is fantastic for snuggling to share warmth.

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5. When your neighboring campsite dwellers seem over-friendly and get in your (introverted) space, leave room for possibility of grace and kindness and them sharing their impressive collection of high-end remote-control cars with your kids.

6. If you’re a guy who isn’t necessarily into wearing lip gloss, verify that your daughter’s “Lipsmackers” really doesn’t have any color before you accept it as a chapstick substitute.

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7. Know that sitting close to the fire late on a cold, clear night with your spouse of 15 years will sometimes look like dreaming about five years from now, and sometimes it’ll just be silence and staring into the embers. Both of these are very good.

8. If you get a chance, take that horseback ride along the trail. If not today, when?

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9. Bring a change of clothes or two, but know you’ll probably be wearing the same outfit every day because why not? You can try alternating your sweatshirts, but on the last day you’ll probably be wearing both of them.

10. Remember that it doesn’t have to be perfect to be beautiful. In fact, it probably won’t be fun all the time, the kids will still whine, the noses will be running all. dang. weekend long, and your anxious one might throw a huge fit about a pancake flipper. But for real: Your kids will remember this weekend. And so will you.


Prayer for a Monday morning

As I start a new week, let me begin with love.


Lord, hear my prayer.


When my children start waking up and stumbling out to my little circle of lamp-light, this quiet writing place, let them see delight on my face.

When they protest and whine and fight the routine, remind me of my own impatience. Let them see grace and compassion on my face.

When they crawl up for snuggles and reassurance, let them feel me soft and welcoming.

When they hurt me, glare or stomp away, let them know deep that my love never changes. Help my love to never change.

Lord, hear my prayer.

All day long, may I move in the awareness of creation. Me as created thing, those around me as loved fiercely, the world around as an expression of your love every moment.

In those moments of touch and connection with my family, help me to be only there, present in mind and body. Help me not to speed ahead, leaving (or never really entering) the moment right now.

When I feel tired, help me find rest. Let me see what kind of rest I need.

When I see need, inspire me to help. Let me see value and worth, love and light, everywhere and always.

Lord, hear my prayer.

When I am overwhelmed by my failures, when what I expect is out of my reach, teach me grace.

When all I can hear is a litany of faults, when all I can see are the ways that I’ve fallen short, teach me mercy.

When I despise myself, remind me that without love inward, I have no love to give. Teach me love.

When it seems like things will never change, when I fall down and can’t see how this will end well, teach me hope.

Lord, hear my prayer.

Love. Light. Grace. Peace. Hope. Mercy. Kindness. Grace.

Help me find them.

Let them lead me.

Always back to you, you, you.

Lord, hear my prayer.



Around here we talk a lot about being broken.

There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.
-Leonard Cohen

Exploring the beauty in brokenness is the theme of my book. I feel like it’s a miracle that God ever uses me as the mess I am. Just a couple days ago I recalled the lyric to a song about asking God to break my heart.

It’s what I see in me. Brokenness in need of redemption. I value honesty and truth and struggle, no matter how messy.

But the mess is where I’ve stayed. I see cracks everywhere, missing how those make me whole. Missing how if I wasn’t broken open, I couldn’t be filled up. Forgetting that brokenness isn’t the whole story.

* * *

It’s all around us:
The seed that breaks open to become what it’s meant to be
The egg that cracks apart just as new life is about to emerge
The cutting away that makes a tree stronger

In brokenness, we can find the beginnings of life.

It’s not a place to arrive or a destination to seek. It’s just the other side of the exploration of brokenness.

* * *

This year, my One Word resolution has been worthy.

This word has both chased me down relentlessly and remained just out of my reach.

Believing I’m worthy of love, worthy of happiness, worthy of a beautiful life — this requires that I explore the other side of broken. Deeply knowing my worth means I must look at how the cracks make me whole. How opening my heart up is not just waiting to be broken, but waiting to be filled.


* * *

So, it’s true that I can’t be whole unless I am broken first. But I’ve been afraid of being whole. I’m not sure I’m worthy of it.

But ultimately, that doesn’t matter. Whether or not I believe I’m worthy or deserving or enough, wholeness is there anyway. Love is there anyway. I’m filled up anyway, and it pours into my broken bits and the healthy parts, too.

All I have to do is open my hands — eyes — heart and receive it.

The gift of a knock-down, drag-out fight with God

I’m gonna take you back to my state of mind back in May, just before we heard of our Ugandan court date and imminent travel to get Josie. At the time this happened, I knew that if we didn’t hear of a court date in the next week or so, we would be waiting until fall. It was now or wait 5 more months.

I was desperate. Broken. Angry. I was deep in the pit of my trust issues with God, scared out of my mind that because I wanted this so much, He wouldn’t give it to me. And then I finally arrived at my breaking point.


There was this situation that I wanted to control. This particular one has to do with adoption, but I’m an equal-opportunity controller, really. I do this in all arenas of my life. Adoption just has a special way of turning me inside out.

That could be a spiritual development advertisement of sorts: “Think you have your control issues all sorted out? Try adoption!” (maniacal laughter)


It was just after I got unwelcome news about our second adoption — information that just confirmed that this one was beyond my reach.

It was my move. Would I acknowledge my disappointment and then let go, trust, surrender? Or, would I tighten my grip, consider the craziest alternatives and use all my spare energy to try influencing that which I have no influence over?

If you don’t know the answer, you don’t know me very well.

I’m so grateful that God does, because he could probably see what was about to happen.


I could see it, too. I’ve lived through this pattern so many times I know the beginning, middle and end. But so far, there is no skipping around. Although I can see it all, I still have to walk through it.

First, I death-grip and crank on a steering wheel that’s not even attached to the vehicle I’m in. This is irrational, and so are my thoughts about how to control the uncontrollable: If I can just use all my mental energy to will reality into existence, it should happen. If I don’t acknowledge that what’s happening will happen, I can somehow prevent it.

These are the mornings I wake up with a jaw-ache because I’ve been clenching my teeth so hard all night.

The mid-point comes when I simply notice how frantic I feel. How out of control, how desperate. How I’m taking deep breaths every 10 minutes because my heart is racing, chasing after the un-gettable.

From here, I can see the end: The acceptance, the surrender. I remember how good it feels to get there. But I’m not ready to go there yet. I still want what I want and I’m not letting it go.

Let go, let go, let go, the Counselor whispers to me.

No, I say. I can’t. I dig in my heels.



And then sometimes it comes down to this: A solo drive, 90 minutes to myself, and I immediately switch off the radio because my head and heart are loud enough, and I have some words to share with God.

I lay into Him.

Not in surrender, not in exhaustion. It’s adrenaline. I come out swinging.

Why do I have to do this? I demand. Why ask me to do this if I’m so terrible at it? What’s the point? And another thing…

For a long time, he just sits there, absorbing the blows. He knew all these questions were inside. When I take a breath in between questions, I feel his compassion — and maybe even his pleasure? — that I was finally coming out with it. That I was saying it all out loud. Loudly. Finally.


When I started wearying from the crying and the questions, He caught me. He held me. And then, He started telling me stories. He asked me to remember. He called to mind where I’ve been and where He’s brought me. And He did it so lovingly and it knocked the fight right out of me.

When I finally asked Why do I have to carry this burden?  He whispered it then.

Because, my sweet girl, you asked me for it.

He brings a long-forgotten song to my memory, and along with it the feeling, the desperate promise I’d made. How I had sung, with tears streaming down my face, before we even started down this road:

Heal my heart and make me clean
Open up my eyes to the things unseen
Show me how to love like you have loved me
Break my heart for what breaks yours
Everything I am for Your kingdom’s cause

As I walk from earth into eternity

And that’s when I finally surrender. When I see that he’s carried me and will carry me.

The promises come flooding into my mind then.

I will give you the strength you need.
I will carry you.
I won’t leave you alone in this.
I love you and I love Josie and no matter what happens, that won’t change.

He stayed with me while I took the same worn road I take every time — all the way to the end of myself. And there, He showers grace, mercy, rest, compassion, love, love, love.

And I can finally rest.