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.
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 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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 - http://vimeo.com/3765311
The Center for Adoption Support and Education, Inc. (C.A.S.E.) - http://adoptionsupport.org/
O’Connor, W. (2011). Adoption: Moving Through Grief & Loss and Shifting Into Celebration of Love & Security for Teens and Young Adults. Retrieved from - http://www.doctorwendyoconnor.com/adoption-moving-through-grief-loss-and-shifting-into-celebration-of-love-security-for-teens-young-adults/
American Adoption Congress - http://www.americanadoptioncongress.org/grief_silverstein_article.php
Understanding Your Child. (n.d.). Retrieved July 31, 2014, from - http://parenting.adoption.com/parents/understanding-your-child.html