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Understanding Grief and Loss in Adoption

Adoption is generally viewed as happy and joyful – both children and families finally find what they are looking for – a forever family.

Understanding Grief and Loss in Adoption

However, children entering adoptive homes bring a tremendous amount of grief and loss that includes birth parents, extended family, home, pets, neighbourhoods, schools, friends, treasured belongings, and in some cases, culture. Often, children cannot describe their feelings in words, and instead may use behaviours to express themselves. Reactions to grief and loss in children include anger, sadness, hyperactivity, changes in appetite, hoarding food, inappropriate emotional response, headaches, difficulty making decisions, regressive behaviours, and clinginess.

Adoptive families, even the happiest ones, may see their children go through a rough patch when they enter their teens and young adult years. In addition to the regular growing pains of puberty and adolescence, these children face issues that non-adopted kids will never face, such as questions about their origins, their self-worth due to being adopted, their national or ethnic origin (if applicable), and much more.

Adoptive parents need to exercise skill and sensitivity in dealing with their children and provide the necessary support to ensure children emerge from this stage as self-assured and confident adults. They must deal with the natural sense of grief and loss their children may be experiencing, and carefully and gradually shift it into a celebration - of the love they share as a family, and the security that they all have as part of that family.

Managing grief and loss in adoption

Grief is a normal and natural response to loss, and adoption involves a lot of loss. Ignoring that adoption is about loss is to deny the true grief that affects everyone involved.

Grief (and loss) is a very personal experience and each individual will go through it at their own pace, time, and order. The fundamental stages of grief, established by psychologist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross in 1969 are:

  • Shock/Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Despair/Depression
  • Acceptance/Understanding/Resolution
  • An example of what grief and loss may look like in a child who misses her birth family after entering a foster or adoptive situation is as follows:
  • Shock/Denial – belief that their family will be there to pick them up. The child may stand by the door and wait, and keep peering out the window.
  • Anger – the child may resent social workers believing social workers don’t understand their families or that police officers lied about their parents. The child may cry uncontrollably or become angry with the foster/adoptive parents easily.
  • Bargaining – the child may realize that they will be in the foster/adoptive home for some time and may silently pray or believe they can improve the situation once they can go home – such as being a model child at home and school.
  • Despair/Depression – the child may feel alone, experience confusion and feel like giving up.
  • Acceptance/Understanding/Resolution – the child may understand that they are now safe in the new home, it’s not their fault things happened the way they did, they will make the best of the situation, try to trust the new adults in their life, and everything will be fine.

While some children may get stuck in a stage, like ‘Anger’, others may bounce between stages several times before reaching 'Understanding.' And still others will 'Bargain,' before going through 'Denial.' The very personal nature of grief means that it could take an adult 2 years to grieve the death of a loved one, and it could take an 18-month old child who loses his parents up to 6 years to fully grieve and come to a resolution of that loss.

It is believed that healing and growing through grief requires a certain amount of coping skills which may include:

  • Expressing your feelings - through music, journal writing, physical activity, screaming, crying, etc.
  • Laughing and learning to play - even through your hurt and pain.
  • Acknowledging other losses - revisit and resolve earlier losses.
  • Seeking and offering forgiveness – to yourself and others.
  • Memorials – establishing rituals and times of remembrance.

Grief and loss touches all birthparents, adoptive families and children in some ways, as adoption is only made possible through loss. Although grief is sometimes thought of as a negative emotion that should be forgotten as quickly as possible, it is a process that brings us to reconciliation. Our pain and hurting doesn't necessarily disappear, but over time, we can heal, learn, grow and become stronger from it.

Types of grief and losses in adoption

Generally, adopting a child is something to be celebrated. However, some of the issues that may arise before, during and after the adoption process can inspire feelings of guilt, shame, sadness and isolation for birthmothers, adopted children and their adoptive parents.

Understanding the nature of the losses experienced through adoption is crucial to helping everyone in the adoption cycle to cope with the many complex feelings. Here are some common types of grief and loss in adoption.

Losses experienced by adopted children

It is natural for adoptees of any age to grieve the loss of being raised by their birthmother, as well as their life before adoption. These feelings can also include the loss of their relationship with their natural mothers, the loss of kinship being separated from their extended family and community, the loss of identity from not knowing who they are, and possibly losing track of siblings and feeling disconnected from their heritage.

Children who have been adopted from foster care may be grieving many more losses including missing friends, schools, social activities, a favourite toy, and possibly social workers and foster families they have depended on. These losses are all very important to adopted children and need to be resolved in a caring way.

Losses experienced by birthparents and birth families

For a birthmother, loss of being the legal parent of a child she gave birth to can be devastating. With that loss, women may experience isolation from friends and family, often leading to depression. Like adopted children, birthmothers may not have a focus for their intense feelings, and may have unresolved grief which can affect future relationships.

As well, birthfathers and extended birth families experience loss in adoption. The emotional impact of losing biological children or grandchildren to adoption is often underestimated by others. The grief and loss of birthparents, and especially birthmothers, is often not recognized by professionals such as doctors, social workers and psychologists.

Losses experienced by adoptive parents

The addition of an adopted child to a waiting family is usually a cause for celebration, but it can also bring some feelings of grief. Adoptive parents may grieve the loss of a child who is not genetically theirs – the biological child that will not be born, and in some cases, the loss of the ideal child they were hoping to adopt. It is important for people hoping to adopt to work with an adoption professional to address this issue before they adopt.

By understanding the losses associated with adoption, birthfamilies, adoptees, adoptive parents and their support systems will be more able to work through their grief in positive ways.

Special needs of adopted children include:

  • Being assured that they are welcome
  • Being validated for having a dual heritage, both biological and adoptive.
  • Being taught that adoption is wonderful and also painful, and can present lifelong challenges for everyone involved.
  • Being told their adoption story first, then the birth story next, and about the birth family last.
  • Being prepared for some hurtful things that other children may say about adoption.
  • Being validated that adoption involves loss and grief – be assured that the birth parent's decision to let give them was not about the child but about the parents.
  • Having permission from adoptive parents to express all of their feelings around the adoption - dealing with their feelings of rejection and learning that absence doesn't mean abandonment.
  • Parents that are able to meeting their own emotional needs so that adopted the children can grow up with healthy role models.
  • Parents who are able to face the special needs that adopted children and teens have - openly discuss their own feelings around the adoption.

It is crucial for adoptees to be able to grieve their losses so that they can learn to receive and give love to others. This process often begins with their adopted parents.

Adopted adolescents

One third of adolescents referred for psychotherapy are adopted, yet, only an estimated 2% of the population is adopted. Adolescence appears to be the peak period for psychiatric referrals in the life of adoptees. Younger adopted children and adults generally enter psychotherapy at a rate much more similar to the general population.

School problems and runaway behavior are common reasons for adolescent referral and are more common in the adopted population than in any other part of the youth population. However, the emotional health of adopted adolescents have been statistically better than a comparison group of adolescents from single parent and intact families.

3 types of adoptive families

Blind: The adoptive parents communicate that adoption has been simply wonderful for their family, admitting to no difficulties or differences. These families often avoid discussion about adoption or birth parents or may even be angry if the adoptee tries to instigate a discussion on the subject.

Balanced: The adoptive parents acknowledge the differences adoption brings and can openly and honestly discuss the compatibility issues inherent in adoption. These families often engage in open discussion of fantasies about birth parents, wants to search for these parents, and the limitations of the perceived compatibility between adopted child and adoptive parents can be openly explored without any sense of danger to the basic bond between family members.

Blaming: The adoptive parents have a narrow range of perceived compatibility. They may exaggerate the importance of the adoptive status of their child, especially when problems arise or the teen doesn't live up to their wishes and expectations. Any shortcomings are explained on the basis of the adoption, rarely their own mistakes or flaws as parents.

Parenting and grief and loss in adoption

Parents tend to feel hurt when their children are hurting. In order to help children to grieve, parents must first better their understanding of grief and loss.

Since children and adults understand things differently at every developmental stage, grief and loss can continue to be felt by children as they grow into adulthood. The role of an adoptive family is to understand and help the child work through these issues throughout their lives.
At the beginning stages of adoption, grief may be part of pre-adoptive couples if they face issues of infertile. It can be part of a single parent's issues of loss in not finding a spouse, or also an emotional response of birth parents that want to parent their child, but realize they don't have the resources and choose to place their child with adoptive parents. 

As parents go from adoption planning to placement, there are a variety of expectations for the child they plan to adopt But adopted children, like biological children, come with no guarantees. After a child is brought home, parents may discover their child has a special need – physical, emotional, behavioural, psychological or learning disorder - they did not know about. This can mean abandonment of your “dream child.” As parents grieve and grow, they must learn to let go of what you hoped your child would be, and to embrace what your child is.

As adoptive families adjust to their new lives with their adopted children, there can be substantial changes in relationships that include relationships between spouses, siblings, extended family, and friends. These changes may be temporary, or sometimes permanent, requiring a period of grieving for relationships that may be changing significantly, or ending.

Adoptive parents must not overlook our adopted children's grief because it may not be easily noticed. You need to listen, watch, discuss, and comfort your children, even when the grief is not easy to identify. Attending to their children’s grief is a critical element to integrating them into our family.

Prospective adoptive parents should be sure to read about abandonment, separation, grief, loss and mourning for adoptees that are evident throughout the life cycle. Speak to your adoption professional to find available resources in your area or community.

Helpful links or resources for Grief and Loss in Adoption

Vimeo -

The Center for Adoption Support and Education, Inc. (C.A.S.E.) -

O’Connor, W. (2011). Adoption: Moving Through Grief & Loss and Shifting Into Celebration of Love & Security for Teens and Young Adults. Retrieved from -

About -

American Adoption Congress -

Content References

Understanding Your Child. (n.d.). Retrieved July 31, 2014, from -