Grief and Loss in Adoption


By Meg Roetta, MSW, LMSW

Grief and loss is an abstract term that we tend to associate with death. Grief makes us uncomfortable; we can’t fix or make it all better.  So our society tries to confine it into steps, into a process and organize it into the perfect box that we can understand and are comfortable with.  The problem is that grief and loss is a chaotic process; it is not a step by step process and many times it cannot be put into words, much less a perfect box.  Grief and loss cannot just be associated with death, but with the loss of many things within life.  Maybe it is the loss of a goal, a dream, a relationship, a job, a career or maybe just maybe it is the loss of someone you never knew.  In adoption, the adoptee whether a child or an adult has lost someone, a part of themselves and a glimpse into who they are and where they come from.  To heal and move through their adoption journey, the grief and loss needs to be accepted, felt and identified. The problem with loss and grief in adoption is that it can be even more chaotic, unidentifiable, and less able to put into a particular process, but that doesn’t make it any less of a reality.

An adoptive parent was recently sharing with me that when discussing their son’s adoption with him, their son told them, “but I didn’t want to leave my mother.”  This little boy has no memories of his birth mother.  He was able, in his 6-year-old words, to express loss and grief.  An adult adoptee shared how it has freed him emotionally to process the sadness of not knowing his birth father as a child.  He stated when he allowed himself to wonder what it would be like, he felt free and that he was able to heal from some of the emotions that surrounded his adoption.  This level of honesty and these types of emotions can feel scary for many adoptive parents, but the reality is these feelings and emotions do not take away from the love and attachment adoptees have with their adoptive parents.  The relationship between adoptive children and their adoptive parents is normally a unique and strong bond that comes with the awareness of pursuing attachment, the absolute feelings of being blessed as a family, and the unique thankfulness of becoming a family in such a beautiful manner.  This does not make the loss in the adoptees life any less real though.  They need the opportunity, support and space to work through this piece of who they are.

Loss and grief with adoption can also be associated with identity. Many times, transracial adoptees have no one who looks like them in their home.  Other times, an adoptee may not physically stand out from their family, but they can still have a sense of being different. This can be heightened if they have a different personality or interest then their adoptive family.  Many adoptees struggle with feeling unloved or unwanted, which can affect their identity. The problem with loss and grief in adoption is that it is even more unidentifiable in reactions, triggers and the process.  Some adoptive parents state that they notice their child acts out at a certain time of the year.  One foster/adopt parent later found out that was when their child was removed from their birth family, this child was too young to have a memory of it though.  I have had many adoptive families tell me that they do not know the exact reason of what has caused their child to struggle with the loss, but they have learned to support their child through whatever they are grieving and processing at the time.  The loss and grief can be harder for certain children than others, because of their personalities.  The loss and grief can come and go as they grow and are able to cognitively process the reality of adoption.

How do you support this process with your child, you ask? First and foremost, realize it will take strength, confidence in your relationship with your child and may not always be easy.  Ultimately, every parent wants their child to grow to be a healthy individual, not only physically, but emotionally, in relationships, with confidence and know who they are in this world.  Being adopted is part of who they are and you can love them with all you heart, but it will not take away that they lost someone, whether by choice or not, but a part of where they came from biologically is gone.  If you are able to give them information, show them pictures or do visits with birth parents, in an age appropriate way as they are emotionally able, it can assist with the process.  For many adoptions, this is not an option.  No answers can be given, no information, no pictures.  As a parent you want to fix things and protect them from the world, but the reality is that is not real life.  Instead, support them to work through this process of loss and grief.

What to do:

  • Give opportunities for them to explore their adoption.
  • Let them explore their feelings and thoughts regarding their birth family.
  • Hold them when they cry and let them know you are always there. Don’t try to fix or make it better.  Just be there and let them be sad or cry or angry.
  • Process your thoughts and feeling regarding their birth parents. Allow yourself to feel as well, you are not a superhuman.  It can be scary, sad and painful for not only your child, but you as a parent.  We never want to see our children suffer.  Take care of yourself.
  • Do not make up information. If you don’t know, you don’t know.  Allow them to grieve the unknown.
  • Do not push your child to work through something if they’re not ready. Just give ample opportunities for them to talk about their adoption.
  • Find a support system. Family and friends are wonderful, but an adoption support group will understand better than anyone else.
  • Find resources regarding adoption. You may even find researching some information about loss and grief is helpful as well.
  • Create a Life Book or Adoption Story with your child’s help. This project can help create special bonds with your child, and allow your child to creatively work through any grief and loss they may feel.