How Adoptees and Foster Kids Can Grieve Loss

This is a photo of hands holding a box, which is symbolic of holding adoption loss and grief. Helping adoptees and foster kids to open it and look inside seems impossible. However, this practical tool will facilitate active grieving.

Loss? My child hasn’t experienced loss.

This is what many adoptive and foster parent want to believe.

However, it is a reality of adoptive family living. Connie Dawson, Ph.D, an adoptee, author and speaker, and attachment specialist says, “Understanding  how grief and loss affects adoptive relationships is an inoculation geared to prevent later problems.”

It’s one thing to understand that your child has experienced loss, but it’s another thing to know how to help him grieve it successfully.

Remember that it is appropriate for children, ages nine and upward. In reality, it can be used by anyone who has suffered great loss.


Constructing the Grief Box

  1. Invite child to do an adoption project with you. (Expect resistance! Hint: Explain that it will involve a treasure hunt.)
  2.  Ask child to make a “sad list.” (Anything from past, present, or future that makes him sad).
  3. Go shopping and buy a box together.  (TJ Maxx has a great and inexpensive selection. It should be big enough to hold several items.)
  4. Select Items at Dollar Store that remind him of each loss. (Example: one teen chose a small piece of rope. She was in an orphanage overseas and was tied to her bed daily because she was one of the “wiggly ones).
  5. Put purchased items in box and puts on lid.
  6. Child takes lid off box. Explain the need to grieve–to feel the sad and talk about it. (Perhaps, go back to the original loss of the first family and validate the profound wound. Tell child that there is nothing wrong with feeling sad…it is your body’s way of feeling really great. Possibly share that it is easier to get mad than sad, and that when we deal with the sad, there won’t be nearly as many meltdowns. Encourage the use of these four words: SAD, MAD, GLAD, SCARED.
  7. Pour out heart. Give permission for saying anything that comes to mind! Naughty, hateful words are okay. Parent validates: “If I were you, I would feel exactly the same way.)
  8. Forgive people who have hurt you. (Tell child that before he forgives, it’s like he’s carrying the person(s) that hurt him on his back. They are roped to him. When he forgives, he sets himself free…credit Beth Moore)
  9. Replace each item with thankfulness. (We can be thankful, not necessarily for the wounds, but because of the facts that God is good and He will bring goodness and growth out of the pain).
  10. Replace lid.
  11. Hold box up and give to God (This is an act of surrendering all of you to Jesus, or your higher power).
  12. Put box on shelf. (Child can learn that whenever a new hurt comes along, you and he can take the box down again and put a new item in it from the Dollar Store). Thus, grief is dealt with in an ongoing way. The child isn’t repressing anymore.

This is a photo of a grief box designed by Sherrie Eldridge to give parents a tool for helping their kids surface and process un-grieved loss.

People often ask me if I get depressed when re-opening my grief box, I say absolutely not! I am reminded of how God can and will change grief into a gift. We only have to open our hearts.

If you’d like to see my grief box presentation, here’s the link:



Does the Bible Validate An Adoptee’s Primal Wound?

This picture shows a crying infant in a basket on the Nile River. It is Moses. Does anyone hear his cry? Learn a surprising answer to his cry.

I’ve heard this story told again and again, but no one ever stopped at the word that stood out like neon to me.

Moses, the Biblical adoptee, cried when his first mom put him in a tar-lined, covered basket in the alligator-infested Nile?

Yes…it says it right here:

Now a man of the tribe of Levi married a Levite woman, 2 and she became pregnant and gave birth to a son. When she saw that he was a fine child, she hid him for three months. 3 But when she could hide him no longer, she got a papyrus basket for him and coated it with tar and pitch. Then she placed the child in it and put it among the reeds along the bank of the Nile. 4 His sister stood at a distance to see what would happen to him. 5 Then Pharaoh’s daughter went down to the Nile to bathe, and her attendants were walking along the riverbank. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her female slave to get it. 6 She opened it and saw the baby. He was crying (emphasis mine), and she felt sorry for him. “This is one of the Hebrew babies,” she said. (Exodus 2)

So, what’s the big deal?

All babies cry, right?

As I studied what the word “cried” meant, it became abundantly clear what I and millions of other fellow adoptees and foster kids experience when separated from our first (second, third, etc). families.

Defining the Cry

The root meaning of crying is: (Thesaurus)

  • to weep
  • bewail
  • sob
  • weep continually
  • weep longer
  • weep bitterly

Even though culture and times were different, Moses experienced the same challenges those who lose families face today. Everything familiar disappeared and for the first time, on a sensory level, he experienced what relinquishment feels like.

Many adoptees today reflect relinquishment’s reality.

How Other Adoptees Describe “Cry”

“I am adopted! Someone didn’t want me. This became my story, my scar and my struggle. When I learned of my adoption, compounded by dynamics in my family life, I ‘heard’ only that someone DIDN’T want me. I was rejected somewhere and somehow, I was now different. All of this became the energy force that kept me, motivated me and often controlled me on a lifetime course of anger, debate, searching and stubborn determination to prove that ‘they,’ whoever the natural parents were, were wrong to give me up.” (Dr. Richard Gilbert, from Jewel among Jewels Adoption News)

Other adoptees say:

  • I wake up at night and cry, but I don’t know why.
  • Something inside doesn’t feel right.
  • I am crying on the inside but the tears won’t come.
  • I need my parents to understand that I have an invisible wound.
  • I need the freedom to cry.
  • I need comfort.
  • If I were a diabetic, they would give me insulin. If I were deaf, they would give me hearing aids. Why don’t they do anything for my wound from adoption

What Experts Say About the Cry

“What I discovered  is what I call the primal wound, a wound which is physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual; a wound which causes pain so profound as to have been described as cellular by those adoptees who allowed themselves to go that deeply into their pain. I began to understand this wound as having been caused by the separation of the child from his biological mother, the connection to whom seems mystical, mysterious, spiritual and everlasting.” The Primal Wound: Understanding the Adopted Child, by Nancy Verrier

“The loss inherent in adoption is unlike other losses we have come to expect in a lifetime, such as death or divorce. Adoption is more pervasive, less socially recognized and more profound.” Being Adopted: The Lifelong Search for Self,  by David M. Brodzinsky, Ph.D. and Marshall D. Schechter, M.D.

“Can a baby under one year ‘remember’ this traumatic separation from his original parents? No, he will probably not remember these events as a series of pictures which can be recalled. What is remembered, or preserved, is anxiety, a primitive kind of terror, which returns in waves in later life. Loss and danger of loss of love become recurrent themes or life patterns. What is preserved may be a profound moodiness or depression later in life, the somatic memory of the first tragic loss, which returns from the unremembered past even, ironically, at moments of pleasure and success. What is preserved is the violation of trust, of the ordered world of infancy in which love, protection and continuity of experience are invested in people. The arbitrary fate that broke the first human bonds may damage or shatter that trust, so that when love is given again it may not be freely returned. And finally, what is preserved is likely to be a wound to the embryonic personality in the first year which may have profound effects upon later development.” Every Child’s Birthright, by Selma Fraiberg

How God Responds to the Cry

He had no awareness of Jehovah–the Being who is absolutely Self-Existent, the One who in himself possesses essential life and permanent existence. Even though his mother wasn’t there with Moses when he was floating on the Nile, Jehovah was. Jehovah’s strong hands were holding him up and keeping him safe.

Psalm 63:7-8 says, “Because you are my help, I sing in the shadow of your wings. I stay close to you; your right hand upholds me.”

How Parents Can Validate the Cry

Parents and counselors may want to consider using these questions and activities:

  • If you could sum up your adoption experience in one word, what would it be?
  • Describe your perception of  being separated from your first family (parents bringing me into their house; baby in a basket, baby in a dumpster, baby on the steps of a church, parents picking baby out, parents so happy when they lay eyes on you, the day you lost your birth mother, etc).
  • Draw a picture illustrating your perception of adoption/foster care/orphanage from using only your left hand (or right if you are left-handed).
  • How do you think your birth mother felt at your birth? Your birth father?
  • Do you ever feel like you are crying on the inside, yet tears won’t come? If so, how long does the feeling last?
  • What do you need most when you are feeling confused and mixed up inside? List specific ways of getting this need met.
  • Write a letter TO your birth mother about how you were traumatized when she disappeared from your life.
  • Write a letter to yourself FROM your birth mother, expressing thoughts and feelings you think she would want you to know about her reasons for placing you for adoption and how she feels about what you have just said in your letter to her.

Verses that Comfort the Cry

  •  Psalm 91:4“He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.”
  • Psalm 139:13“For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.”  
  • Psalm 139:15“My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.”  
  • Psalm 139:16b“all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” Who planned every day of your life?

Feel free to use any of this material.


A Gift Only Adoptees Can Give

This is a picture of a teen adoptee and an older adoptee hugging, showing that the problem of loneliness is healed when adoptees connect with one another.

It’s a gift adoptive parents can’t give, birth parents can’t give, or adoption professionals can’t give. Only other adoptees can give it to one another.

I’ll never forget sitting next to an adoptive mom at an adoption carnival where I was speaking. At the end of the day the time came for the children and teens to come on stage and show the parents an adoption art project they had been working on.

When all the kids were in place one of the therapists yelled, “Who’s adopted here?”

Everyone’s hands flew up and squeals of delight burst forth from the little ones.

“Me!” they yelled in unison.

The mom leaned over and said, “I’ve never seen that expression on my daughter’s face. Look at her! When she said ‘me,’ her face absolutely glowed!”

Something unique happened to her daughter that day. What was it? Was it the excitement of being with kids the same age? Was it a sense of pride about her artwork or love of the spotlight?

I don’t believe so. I believe it was because she had been given a gift that was brand new to her—the gift of fellow adoptee friendships!

The psychological drive that makes this gift so special is that it involves our basic need for connection. Drs. Brodzinsky and Schechter, adoption specialists with 30 years of combined experience, say that connection to an adoptee is like food to a starving man.

But connection to what or whom?

As an adoptee, I would guess it involves something to do with our lost heritage.

For those adopted at infancy or a young age, any connection to our heritage helps satisfy that need. Original birth certificates. A name or photo of our parents. An adoption story that included our birth parents. A reunion with our birth parents.

If we were foster kids and adopted at an older age because of troubled parents, that need for connection may manifest in an unexplainable loyalty based on vestiges of fantasy of what life might have been like had we had nurturing parents and remained in their home.

Many times this connection with our birth families is not an option. International adoptions often make it impossible. Sealed records keep vital information irretrievable.

Nonetheless, our friendships with one another are downright amazing!

The Amazing Gift

By being in the presence of fellow adoptees, we discover:

  • We Are Like Family. Linda says that knowing adoptees has created a wonderful bond because there is a kind of “sisterhood” and “brotherhood” amongst us that has filled some of the void of not knowing her heritage.
  • We Are Drawn to One Another. Gary said that his young daughter seemed to gravitate to other adoptees in her preschool class. Of course she didn’t know they were adoptees, but there was that pull.
  • We Have a Unique Emotional Language.

Sherrie says that adoptees can “read” each other from just a few words or their body language, which she says makes adoptees feel like they belong to each other.

  • We are like Triple-Chocolate Cake. I never had an adoptee friend until I was forty-five. Her name is Jody Moreen. We spent hours in our favorite little tea room sipping spiced tea and “talking adoption.” Life doesn’t get much better than that!

Looking back, I can say that not having a fellow adoptee for a friend was like going through life and having missed triple-chocolate cake!

If your adopted child doesn’t have fellow adoptee friends, start searching!

And, pray that God will bring friends into their life.

Copyright Sherrie Eldridge, 2006. Based on Sherrie’s second book, Twenty Life-Transforming Choices Adoptees Need to Make (JKP, 2013).