• My mom died just before I turned 8 and my maternal aunt adopted me years later. 
  • We got off to a rough start, but I accepted her help when I saw she wasn’t trying to replace my mom.
  • I’m so grateful for the life she gave me.
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My mother died unexpectedly 10 days before my 8th birthday. She had been sick for less than a month before eventually succumbing to her illness. She was warm, bright, funny, and smart, and my time with her was unbelievably short.

I lived with my biological father for four years after my mother’s death before I was removed from his care and ended up in the Department of Children and Family Services’ custody.

While living with him, I became withdrawn, distrustful, and completely uncommunicative. Once in the custody of DCFS, I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. After a month in the custody of the state, my maternal aunt, Elizabeth, was granted guardianship when I was 12 years old.

Isabella Ambrosio's adopted mom Elizabeth, left, wearing a wedding dress, and mom, right, wearing a bridesmaid dress.

Isabella Ambrosio’s adopted mom Elizabeth, left, and mom, right.

Courtesy Isabella Ambrosio



I was resistant to her help at first

She tells the story like it was yesterday — she received a call from DCFS asking whether she would be my guardian, and she literally raised her hand while on the phone and said, “I’ll do it.” I moved in with her and her 17-year-old son, John, on August 1, 2013. She was divorced from her ex-husband, Cary, and had another 26-year-old son, Tim, who no longer lived at home.

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At first, it was just the three of us. It wasn’t exactly smooth sailing — I hadn’t really been parented in four years, and though we’d always been close, I think I was subconsciously afraid of her replacing my mother. I was resistant to a lot of her help for a long time.

Elizabeth contacted Cary and asked if he wouldn’t mind spending some time with me so that I would have a paternal figure in my life. He agreed, and I began spending weekends at his house like I was the kid of a divorced marriage. My cousin, John, didn’t go with me, so I had one-on-one time with him. And while I was spending time with Cary, he and Elizabeth eventually started dating again.

They remarried in 2014, and Cary moved back in. He said he never stopped loving Elizabeth, even while they were divorced, and I was as good of a reason as any as to why they got back together. However, I was still struggling with my connection with Elizabeth, even though I enjoyed spending time with Cary — though I’d always wanted a replacement for my biological father, I’d never wanted a replacement for my mother.

Isabella Ambrosio with her mom and dad at a table at dinner.

Isabella Ambrosio was adopted by her maternal aunt, Elizabeth.

Courtesy Isabella Ambrosio



She assured me she wasn’t trying to replace my mom

Elizabeth sat me down one day and asked me if I was afraid of her replacing my mom. I said yes, and I can remember her response as clear as day.

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“I’m not trying to replace your mother. She was my sister. But I promised her I would look after you. Are you in or are you out, kid?” she said.

And I realized then that all I’d needed was for her to acknowledge that my mom was still my mom and that she could never be replaced. I softened to her then, and I was finally all in. Calling Cary and Elizabeth “Mom” and “Dad” felt quite natural afterward.

There was still an adjustment period after the realization, though. I had a hard time believing I was safe and loved and that I had nothing to worry about — that I could be a child. I also had to learn that wasn’t my job to worry about the electricity being on, whether there was enough food for dinner, or if there was gas to heat water for a shower.

But my parents were patient. They took me to therapy, helped me talk through my feelings and break out of bad habits, cared for and loved me, and nurtured me while still pushing me to be capable of the things they knew I could do. It took a lot of work, both on their behalf and mine.

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I’m forever grateful for my mom’s decision to take me in, and even more grateful that she loved me just as my biological mother would have wanted her to. Even though she had two kids already, there was still enough room for me in her heart. She has loved me like her own, and while she hasn’t replaced my mother, she has honored her memory just by being her.

I live in Ireland now, and my parents retired from Illinois to Tennessee, after spending two short years in Ireland with me. Now, I see them once every two years if I’m lucky. But when I am home, it truly feels like home. My parents gave me a life I could have never dreamed of before they took me in. They gave me a chance to be me. I couldn’t have done it without them.