His smile is infectious, lighting up his entire face and the room surrounding it. I watch him as I write this, playing, smiling, laughing, perfect. He makes me smile all the time and others smile too. We often get comments about how cute he is or about his fun personality or obvious intelligence. I am proud to call him my son.

But he wasn’t always my son. There was a time when we had never met, a time when he was alive on this earth with no knowledge of my family, and we had no knowledge of him. There were other hands that fed him, held him, clothed him and loved him. He was a part of another family, two in fact, before he came to be a part of us forever.

My son had a birth family. From the evidence, it’s clear that they loved and cared for him. They kept him as a part of their family as long as they could, but for his sake had to let him go.

Then my son was a part of a foster family. The pictures tell the story well. There was love and happiness, and the connection between my son and his foster brother is still there.

Now my boy is a part of our family; he has been for four years now. He’s six, so he has been a part of our family for the majority of his life. From the day he got home he has been one of us, like he has always been there.

Today we are at the pool. He’s playing with his sister and the other kids, splashing, swimming, coloring with chalk on the cement and smiling, infectiously smiling. I love these moments with him, where I can watch him have fun, experiencing the pure joy that only a child can.

As I watch him, I feel a variety of emotions. At the surface is the pure joy a parent feels at seeing the joy of their child. But underneath the surface, there is more. I feel a thankfulness for his biological family for doing what was best for him even though it was unimaginably hard. I feel another level of thankfulness for his foster family that took such great care of him. But I also feel a sadness.

Adopted children have suffered a loss greater than most people can ever know. Our son lost his biological family, foster family, country, culture, and language the day he boarded that plane to the US. He has lost parents, grandparents, siblings, family history, medical history, favorite toys, etc. While he has certainly gained a lot in becoming a part of our family, that gain cannot (and should not) cover up the loss that he has endured. It’s a loss that we will deal with for a lifetime.

But in these moments a the pool, or when I tuck him into bed at night and sing him a song, it’s not his loss that haunts me; it is theirs. The loss of his family that had to give him up to keep him healthy. I feel the loss for his biological parents who can’t see his amazing smile or hear this belly laugh that can make the grimmest day bright. I feel the loss for the moments they can’t see, his first time riding a bike, preschool graduation, or just the simple moments when he throws his arms around my neck and tells me that he loves me.

His biological family is the family we will never know. A ghost family that is a part of us but not. They are present in my thoughts and prayers but can’t be a part of our family photos. I hurt for them and rejoice for them in the success and health of their son. I owe them more than I can ever repay. My meager payment to them is remembering them, their love, their sacrifice, and praying for them with a thankful heart.