Grief and magic

Back (l-r): Shawn (Ken’s partner), Ken, Bruce, Nash, and Bond (Nash’s partner).
Front: Tanis, with Knox.

Tanis Miller’s two oldest children have flown the nest. And she’s conflicted about it.

On the one hand, she’s proud of them and thrilled to see them pursuing education and career, finding fulfilling relationships. Ken (short for Mackenzie, but don’t ever call her that), 22, is studying at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, about an hour’s drive from her family’s rural home. Nash, 21 — he and Ken are best friends and often mistaken for twins — is also in Edmonton, taking a break from university and working full time while he figures out his next steps.

On the other hand, Tanis misses having a full house. With her eldest two gone, she’s left with just one kid at home: the family adopted Knox in early 2009 when he was five years old. He just celebrated his 15th birthday and loves ninth grade.

But there’s another child in the Millers’ hearts. When Skjel (pronounced “Shale”) was born in 2001, Tanis and her husband, Bruce, became parents of a child with special needs — their son had a congenital condition that left him disabled and medically fragile. His parents and family rallied, pouring their love and their energy into developing the community, resources, and the skills to accommodate Skjel’s needs and help him thrive.

“We had Ken and Nash pretty much back-to-back,” says Tanis, now 43. “We called them ‘the bookends.’ And our plan was to adopt another child with special needs when Skjel turned five. We needed to find him his bookend, a like-minded sibling so that he could see himself reflected in his family.”

That plan took a heart-rending turn when Skjel died, unexpectedly, just before his fifth birthday. The morning after his death, reeling from pain and shock, Tanis woke up and turned to her husband with a question: “We’re still going to adopt, right?”

Tanis & Knox.

“We wanted to adopt a special-needs child to honour Skjel’s memory,” explains Tanis, and also because it was important to them that Ken and Nash continued to grow up with a special-needs sibling. “They had gained so much empathy and compassion with Skjel, and we did not want them to lose that.”

In the midst of her family’s grief, Tanis began to blog. “I did it to maintain my sanity,” she says. “Losing a child is very isolating — I didn’t know anyone else who’d been through that experience. And we live smack-dab in the middle of nowhere, without a neighbour in site. But online, I found community.”

Tanis’s blog soon turned into two, one that chronicled her grief process, and one (the now-defunct “Attack of the Redneck Mommy”) devoted to “the lighter side” of her life. The two merged when Tanis realized that her grief wasn’t separate from the rest of her life. The blog — readers can find the archives at — became wildly popular, gaining thousands of readers and pushing Tanis into the role of irreverent social media personality, a mantle she’s taken up to advocate for causes like grief awareness, resources for kids with special needs, and adoption awareness.

She chronicled the lengthy, and often bumpy, journey to adopt Knox on her blog, and the ongoing story of his triumphs and challenges: he is blind and very nearly deaf, and has cerebral palsy. He uses a wheelchair and faces a host of medical issues that often land him in the hospital. Tanis is devoted to his care, writing and taking the occasional freelance or speaking gig when life permits. For years Bruce has worked in the oil industry, in a job that often takes him away from home for weeks at a time. It’s a trade-off that allows Tanis to give Knox the full-time care he often needs.

As much as she jokes about living in the middle of nowhere, Tanis actually loves her home – nestled into 20 acres of forest that she and Bruce have made as wheelchair-friendly as possible, carving out smooth trails they can navigate with Knox in his wheelchair (in good weather, on friendly terrain) or in a modified jogging stroller, bike, or — in winter — a giant sled Tanis pulls as she snowshoes. They live only a few kilometres from Alberta’s Miquelon Lake Provincial Park and Elk Island National Park, taking advantage as often as possible of their trails. “We spend as much time as we can outside,” says Tanis, “in the sun, in the snow, in the fall leaves. We’re a four-season family.”

Knox & Tanis.

And now, Tanis and Bruce are contemplating the adoption process once again — searching for the child or children to be Knox’s “bookend.” And she wishes more people would consider doing the same.

“There are so many kids out there looking for families. And there are so many families who aren’t sure they can do it. It’s the great unknown, and people tend to be frightened of the unknown.”

She remembers looking down at Knox and wondering, Would he be able to love me? When would he start to feel like my own? “It didn’t happen overnight, but it did happen. And one day, he was just mine. He’s very much my child.”

The adoption process, she readily acknowledges, can be “a pain in the ass. It’s difficult. It’s emotional, it’s invasive. It’s as painful as actually giving birth at times. When you’re adopting a child from the foster care system, you are adopting a child who has endured tragedy. That’s unavoidable.

“But, as someone who has had adoptions fall through and succeed, I know it’s worth it. My life would be so much less without Knox — I am forever grateful that he’s just fit so well into our home. The best word for it is really just ‘magic.’ And I just wish that everyone could feel a little bit of that magic that we have found with this little guy.”


SUSAN GOLDBERG is a regular contributor to the Whole Family Happiness Project, where she is thrilled to eco-geek out on composting, reducing plastics, and other low-carbon life hacks. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Ms., Toronto Life, Lilith, Today’s ParentFull Grown People, and Stealing Time magazines, and several anthologies, including Chasing Rainbows: Exploring Gender-Fluid Parenting Practices. She is a regular contributor to several websites, including CBC Parents, and co-editor of the award-winning anthology And Baby Makes More: Known Donors, Queer Parents, and Our Unexpected Families. Susan is based in Thunder Bay, Ontario, where she can often be seen picking up cans to recycle on her neighbourhood walks.

The Whole Family Happiness Project is a group of moms exploring our connection to our individual purpose, our family happiness, and the happiness of the world around us. Join us on Facebook.

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