There are many ways to make a family — and many ways to tell the story of a life
By: Jessica Campbell
17 days ago
Who should be named in an obituary? Deciding which family members and friends to list in a loved one’s obit is a difficult choice for many families. For families who’ve come together via adoption, the issue can be particularly fraught.
During Adoption Awareness Month this year, we searched through Legacy’s obituary archive to see how families are discussing adoption in obituaries. Many simply make mention of the deceased either having been adopted or being a parent of adopted children. A handful of obituaries, however, highlight adoption in unique and powerful ways.
Some of these obituaries focus exclusively on the adoptive family, while others list birth parents in addition to the families who raised them. Some obits detail an adopted person’s struggle to find their unknown biological relatives, while others feature adoptions that occurred within a family. A few obituaries mention the agencies that facilitated the adoption, and at least one obituary gives a shout out to the judge who presided over the adoption.
Collectively, the adoption stories shared in these 15 obituaries remind us that there are many ways to make a family — and many ways to tell the story of a life.
Born in Kansas in 1971, Tami Lyons was adopted by Jerry and Mary Laird of Wyoming. According to Tami's obituary, “her mother, Mary, was the center of her world.”
For her sweet 16, Tami received a unique gift: she got to meet her birth mother Barbara Smith and her extended family.
The loved ones listed in Tami’s obituary are a who’s who of her family, whether related by adoption, birth, or marriage:
“Tami was preceded in death by her parents, uncles Jim, Jerry, and Danny, and special ‘dad’ Stan Smith.”
“She is survived by husband Brett, daughter Madison (21) … and sons Michael (18) and Charlie (12) … brother Tom Laird … nephew Christian Laird … several aunts, uncles, and cousins as well as her birth mother Barb Smith … and her family.” Read more
Daniel Grinstead was adopted at birth by his “real parents,” Betsy (a business and math professor at the University of South Carolina) and Loren (a former naval officer who worked as an engineer for Boeing).
But in the obituary he wrote for himself, he also pays tribute to his birth parents (sort of) with this light-hearted recounting of his origins:
“I was born on December 19, 1943, to Bonnie Atkinson, a single mother, in Lexington, Michigan, in a ‘home’ for ‘you know what.’ My father was John LaPonsa of Detroit, a sailor about to be deployed on a troop ship bound for Europe. Although those two parties never met again, they each described their encounter to me, forty years later, as a ‘toot.’ Thanks a lot, folks!” Read more
Sandy Pierson was also a war baby, one of two children adopted by Oliver and Rae Carpenter of Coos Bay, Oregon, who also fostered over 70 children.
But Sandy’s story began in Paso Robles, California, where she was born Nov. 29, 1943, to Staff Sergeant Eugene Miller and Lois Jones. A week after Sandy’s birth, “Lois gave her away to a childless couple headed North on the train to Coos Bay.” When the couple’s marriage dissolved three years later, their neighbors the Carpenters stepped in and petitioned the court to adopt Sandy. Read more
World War II also played a role in the adoption of Kurt Wagner, as noted in his obituary which briefly, but lovingly, pays tribute to both his birth mother and his adoptive parents. After Ilse Walker “perished in the Holocaust,” her “cherished son” Kurt was adopted and “lovingly raised” in Chicago by Belle and Irvin Wagner. Read more
Dianne Tenneson Sams didn’t know her birth family, but as an adult experiencing health problems, she sought them out. After months of searching, she found her birth parents — plus a dozen brothers and sisters she never knew she had.
“To be raised most of her life as an only child and to learn that she has 12 half siblings was an amazing find.”
But her adoption-related work didn’t stop there. Dianne began “practicing adoption law acting as a confidential intermediary” and “was a founding member of WARM (Washington Adoptive Rights Movement),” helping to reunite “thousands of people whose lives have been affected by adoption.”
According to Dianne, "Every child deserves to know … their ethnicity and their medical background." Read more
The obituary for Burning Man founder Larry Harvey pays loving tribute to his adoptive parents and brother.
Larry was adopted as an infant by Shorty and Katherine Harvey (Langford) and raised in Oregon with his adopted older brother Stewart.
“The brothers were inseparable and welcomed by the sprawling Harvey and Langford families.”
“Larry was strongly influenced by the ‘frontier values’ of his devoted parents.” Read more
The obituary for William Taylor Jamaal White warmly includes all of the branches — indeed, all of the trees — in William Taylor’s family.
The “beloved son of William and Cynthia White” was born in 1993 to Sandra Washington and Trossi Williams. William and Cynthia adopted him in 1995.
“God blessed him to have a number of families that knew him and loved him.”
William Taylor lived with a foster family the first year of his life and was called “Pinky’s Baby” for the way his foster sister doted on him. When William and Cynthia adopted him after a mandatory 6-month waiting period, the Honorable Cheryl Lee Shannon presided as judge.
“William Taylor was immediately embraced by this large and loving family.”
In 2013, William Taylor “reunited with his birth family,” including birth grandmother Bobby Jo Washington, her daughter Linda Williams, his Aunt Sharon Jones (with whom he became close), maternal birth grandfather Leo Collins (“who welcomed him with open arms and helped him connect with more of his birth family”).
“For all of these loves and many others besides, the last words anyone heard him speak on this side of glory was, ‘I love you, Mama!’” Read more
The obituary for Richard Torosian also takes an inclusive approach to family.
Richard was born to Christina Nick. When “Christina was unable to care for Richard,” Kathy Torosian adopted him “with open and loving arms” and “he was welcomed by his Torosian Family.”
“Richard moved to Usk a few years ago to get to know his Kalispel Family better, and he was welcomed by so many. Wilma and Francis Cullooyah helped and guided him in so many ways, thank you to them for opening their home and helping Dick Nick and loving him so much.”
Relatives from both his birth family (Nick) and adoptive family (Torosian) are listed among the survivors (his mother Kathy Torosian; uncle Ron Nick; sisters Marisa Torosian, Liz Nick, Barbara Nick, and Tricia Finley) and those who predeceased him (his birth mother Christina Nick, ya-ya Jeanette Conko-Torosian, grandpa Tony Torosian, grandpa Frank Nick, and aunt Geri Nick). Read more
The adoption story of U.S. Army veteran Brian Davis is unique.
Davis became the adopted son of Drs. Ray and Corean Bakke when their son Woody “recruited his favorite classmate to be part of our family.” After going to court in Chicago to make it official, the Bakke family welcomed their third son (and second one named Brian) into the family.
The obituary for Brian, who died July 25, 2018, discusses what the white members of the Bakke family learned from their black brother. The obit also honors his birth family by listing them among the survivors who are missing him most. Read more
The love and devotion of his family is apparent in the obituary for 21-year-old Aviation Boatswain Mate Joseph Naglak, USN, who died suddenly Sept. 17, 2018, “in the service of our country.”
Born in South Korea, Joe was adopted in 1999 by “his loving and devoted parents,” Kenneth and Jeanne Naglak.
Jeanne preceded her son in death. Joe is survived by “his beloved and proud father Ken … his ever-devoted and loving sister, Stephanie Naglak; his dear grandparents … his loving step-mother … and step-sisters … his loving fiancee, Nicole Weber; her parents … and numerous aunts, uncles, cousins, sailors, and friends.” Read more
The obituary for 18-year-old Sergei Neubauer, who died in 2017, tells the story of his adoption from Russia at age 11. In the obit, his parents also talk candidly about Sergei's lifelong struggle with "depression, anxiety, PTSD and survivor's guilt related to his tumultuous childhood."
While living in an orphanage in Russia, Sergei wanted a different life for himself. "He wanted a family and a better future." In the summer of 2009, he had the opportunity to visit Iowa through an organization called Camp Hope, a group that worked to find homes for older children living in Russian orphanages. There Sergei met his future parents Mary Neubauer and Larry Loss. "Sergei agreed to become their son," and the "family arrived home together from Russia on Christmas Day 2009."
Sergei loved dogs and cooking. He quickly learned English but was proud of his Russian heritage and maintained his native language. A "fun-loving teenager who often went out of his way to help others," Sergei was interested in pursuing a career in psychology or social work.
But, Sergei often put the focus on others in order to mask his own pain.
"Several times through the years, Sergei took the brave step of asking for help," write his parents. And it's important "to acknowledge and honor the progress he had made while recognizing the toll that struggle took on his life."
Mary and Larry plead with lawmakers and policymakers to recognize the toll that mental health struggles are taking on our young people. They encourage anyone who is struggling to know that help is available and better times are possible. And they call on all people to be a positive force for change:
1.If you need help, ask for it ... you are not alone.
2.Seek to build others up, not tear them down...
4.Recognize small moments of joy, for they happen all the time. We just have to notice.
Darrian Nordstrom was loved by his parents. That is clear in the poignant obituary they wrote for their 6-year-old son.
Darrian, aka DD, first came into the lives of Daniel and Patricia Nordstrom in 2013, when he was placed in their home as a foster child. Just over three years later, “they officially became his forever family” when the Nordstroms adopted Darrian on June 4, 2016.
DD died of a rare cancer Sept. 21, 2018. He is survived by his father Daniel, mother Patricia, brothers Christian, Anders, Tyson, Jayden, Dillon, and sisters Breanna, Katrina, Olivia, and Gabriella.
“Darrian was an amazing addition to this world and will be missed by so many people.”
The obituary also shares DD’s message to the world:
“Keep fighting no matter how hard the trial”
“A simple smile can change the world”
“Believe in everyone”
“Be a little kinder”
Luke Jethro Heydlauff was just 2 when he died July 16, 2018, with his parents Jeff and Kate Heydlauff at his side. The Heydlauffs not only share their adoption story, they also pay tribute to Luke’s birth mother in the obituary for their son.
“Luke's all too brief time on earth was surrounded by and epitomized by love. Luke was born in Kampala, Uganda, on October 16, 2015. His birth mother, Winnie, not only brought him into this world but loved him enough to place him under the care of the Nafasi Orphanage.”
In June 2016, Jeff and Kate traveled to Uganda to bring baby Luke “home to his forever family.”
“God doesn't give you the people you want. He gives you the people you need. People who will help you, hurt you, leave you, love you and make you the person you were meant to be. Those who knew Luke will forever reflect the difference he made in their lives.” Read more
George William Sharpe always knew his birth family. For him, his birth and adoptive families were one and the same.
After his parents died when he was young, George was adopted by his grandmother and “raised collectively by his large and loving family in both South Carolina and Louisiana.”
“George was a simple, kind, caring, and generous family man who always had time for those close to him.” Read more
Doris Jean Wenzel also didn’t have to seek out her birth family — she was in touch with them throughout her life. The youngest of 12 siblings, Doris was just 2 when she and her nine sisters were taken from their parents (while their brothers were serving in World War II) and made wards of the state of Illinois.
Adopted by Dale and Amanda Replogle, Doris “had a very happy childhood as an only child.” She “also had the benefit of knowing the love of her natural family who would stay in touch with her over the years.”
Later in life, Doris and her sisters wrote two books – “Ten Sisters: A True Story” and “Ten Little Sisters” (published by the company Doris founded) – and were featured in a PBS documentary. Read more
Like many adopted children, Mary Sue Grossman wanted to know about her birth family but waited until her adoptive mother died before seeking them out. She tracked down her birth parents, but didn’t get to meet them. Both were deceased.
Mary’s obituary also includes a special memorial request that highlights the important role organizations play in bringing together adoptive families and supporting children through family separation and adoption.
“In recognition of the assistance provided by the Deaconess Home in bringing Mary into this world,” the family asks for donations to the Deaconess Pregnancy and Adoption Services’ Hope Fund, supporting “counseling services for birth parents, adoptive families, and adoptees who are experiencing the anxieties and emotional issues often associated with separation and adoption.” Read more
Savion Alexander Best was just 18 when he died in the spring of 2018. He never got a chance to reconnect with his birth mother, but did finally get the dad he always wanted.
Known as Ian, he was adopted at age 4 by Kristy Best and “joined his forever family.”
“This brown-eyed boy stole his new mama’s heart from day one and became her world.”
“Although he had only a few memories of his birth mother,” Ebony Hall, “he carried her in his heart always and that he someday wanted to reconnect with her.”
“More than anything” Ian wanted a dad, and in 2010 his wish came true when his mom married Brent Nelson. Brent became a father figure to Ian, who at 17 told his dad that he was ready to be adopted officially. “Brent's heart was over-joyed and his adoption day was one of the most special days as a family.” Read more