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How Adopted Kids Want Their Parents To Handle Their Pre-Adoption Loss

Why Do Adopted and Foster Kids Grieve Loss?

As an adoptive parent, you may feel uncomfortable, protective, or defensive about the reality of your child’s pre-adoption loss of the first family.  What is an adoptive or foster parent to do about it?

I know this is a difficult subject for many of you. You are not alone. Hopefully, you’ll gain some insights here about how you can help rather than hinder his/her grieving process.

Adoption professional and prolific author, Jayne Schooler, says, “The moment the subject of the adoptee’s woundedness and loss comes up, it’s like a shield goes up and they can’t hear a word you say.” 

Adoptive mother, Ellen Dunaway, says that hearing about adoptee loss just breaks her heart. She can’t bear to think about the fact that her child was and is hurting.

It’s painful to enter into your child’s suffering.  It’s so much easier to assume that all is well inside your child, especially if she hasn’t manifested any obvious problems.

I Am A Grieving Child

The first thing your child wants you to know is this: I am a grieving child.  I came to you because of loss—one that was not your fault and that you can’t erase.

When I was twelve years old, my best friend’s mother died of cancer. I can still remember watching her grieving family follow the casket up the aisle of the church. As the congregation stood, my body began to shake uncontrollably as unwelcome sobs burst forth like an erupting volcano. It was embarrassing, to say the least. After all, it wasn’t my mother who died . . . or was it?

My parents did the best they could to comfort me, but they had no knowledge of how present circumstances can trigger unresolved loss for an adopted child. More than likely they attributed my out-of-proportion sadness to emotionalism and adolescence. Little did they know that I was mourning the mother who carried me for nine months, whose face I never saw, and whose heartbeat was my original source of security.

Granted, my loss was different than that of my friend’s. There was no dead body, no funeral service, and no empty place at the dinner table.

But the loss was just as real nonetheless. 

I Hurt When You Romanticize or Deny My Loss

My parents’ response to my grief was to shield me in the future from anything that would prove upsetting. Therefore, when my grandmother died a few months later, they kept me home from the funeral while the rest of the family attended. I’m sure they believed they were doing the best thing, but just the opposite was true.

My adoption wounds were buried even further beneath a layer of overprotectiveness, which would make me even more determined than ever to keep the grieving part of myself hidden from others. 

My story is not unusual. Most adoptive parents, instead of helping their child to grieve the loss and find closure, deny his past losses and romanticize his adoption.

Instead of  bouquets of flowers and accolades of sympathy, there are romantic clichés that feel like salt in a gaping wound:

  • “You are a chosen child!” 
  • “Be thankful you were picked.
  • Think of all the others who weren’t.”

  What a shame, for denying loss and failing to grieve can keep parents and children at arms’ length instead of in a healthy, invested relationship.

Webster’s defines romanticism as “imbued with or dominated by idealism; fanciful; impractical; unrealistic; starry-eyed, dreamy; head-in-the-clouds; out of touch with reality.” 

Could it be that you have unknowingly been an adoption romanticist all these years? If so, it’s time to pull out the pruning shears and seek truth about adoption on every level. 

I Can Tell When You Are Emotionally Absent

Looking back, I believe my parents were frightened by my emotional vulnerability. Perhaps it triggered their own unresolved issues of grief and loss and feelings of extreme helplessness.

The best thing you can do to help your child is to grieve your own losses which may have occurred prior to adoption—losses such as infertility, miscarriage, stillbirth, or death—and to let yourself feel sad for your child’s losses and your inability to protect him from whatever happened to him prior to joining your family. 

Only then can your adopted child’s losses be validated and then grieved together in an atmosphere of openness and honesty. 

You will be able to say, “We’re sorry too, that you didn’t grow in Mommy’s tummy.”  Or, “We feel sad that we couldn’t be with you in the past to make your world safe and secure.”

Grieving your own losses and facing your child’s opens the door for you to be emotionally in tune with your child, to know his unspoken needs, and to partner with him as he works through his own grief issues. It is the open door to parent-child intimacy.

Once you have successfully grieved the losses in your own life, you will be a “safe person” to your child—one to whom she is free to express any emotion without condemnation or judgment.  You will provide a place brimming with welcoming acceptance, one that encourages conversation about your child’s feelings surrounding adoption. It is within this seedbed of acceptance and grace where healing from unresolved adoption loss occurs and bonding begins. 

Adults adopted as children can find such a place through adoption support groups and trusted therapists.

Listen to the words of one adoptive mother in Naomi Ruth Lowinsky’s book, Stories from the Motherline: Reclaiming the Mother-Daughter Bond. The mother remembers how grieving losses together brought intimacy with her daughter:

  I ached for her, for my beautiful youngest who had never been inside me, never been nursed by me, whose face I did not see when she entered this world. I felt grief for the pregnancy I had not experienced with her, grief for her birth and early months. I felt grief for the empty place in her, left by the birth mother who could not keep her. I understood that my daughter and I needed to feel these things together.

During the next few years, I often spoke to her about these feelings of grief and loss. She would climb onto my lap and her wiry little body would relax in my arms. We spent many hours like this, mourning together, creating a bond out of our feelings of loss.

Without a doubt, this mother and daughter successfully bonded to one another. Their close relationship is similar to what happens when a graft takes hold.  When a graft succeeds in nature, it takes with a vengeance, producing a union at least as strong and often stronger than the rest of the tree.

I Need You To Validate My Pain and Purpose

I believe that one reason many parents don’t validate their adopted children’s pain is because of the pain-avoiding society we all live in.  Just the sound of the word “pain” activates our flight-or-flight response.  After all, doesn’t pain imply an injustice or a failure?  A barrier to our guaranteed right to happiness?

Dr. Paul Brand, a world-renowned surgeon and leprosy specialist, says in his book, The Gift Nobody Wants, that there needs to be education about the origins of pain and its purpose.  “In the modern view pain is the enemy, a sinister invader that must be expelled.  And if Product X removes the pain thirty seconds faster, all the better.  This approach has a crucial, dangerous flaw: once regarded as an enemy, not a warning signal, pain loses its power to instruct.  Silencing pain without considering its message is like disconnecting a ringing fire alarm to avoid receiving bad news.” 

What is needed is an honoring attitude toward pain—an attitude that sees pain as a beloved enemy that beautifies rather than destroys.  Just as an irritating grain of sand can be the catalyst for producing a beautiful pearl within an oyster, so the pain of adoption can become the catalyst for producing a pearl of intimacy between adoptive parents and children.  

Highly respected adoption educator, Marcy Wineman Axness quoted Annette Baran and Wendy McCord in her eloquent booklet, What Is Written On the Heart…Primal Issues in Adoption. “Parents whose children express sadness usually feel that they need to reassure them, rather than feel the sadness along with them.  But having lost an original set of parents is something to feel sad about, and the best any parent can do for a child is to allow them to share those feelings of loss with them. 

While it may seem easier—especially in the beginning—to avoid these uncomfortable feelings, glossing over them with cheerful slogans isn’t the loving choice, for ultimately it deprives both parents and children of genuine intimacy.” 

I Need You To Validate the Depth of My Wound

Keep in mind that my knowledge and research is based mainly on adult adoptees who were damaged by the closed adoption system. Nonetheless, I believe that their experiences teach us that what the majority of adopted children need is validation of their wounding loss. 

A parent might whisper to her adopted infant, “You must miss your birth mommy.  We are sad, too, that you had to lose her.”  “It really hurts, doesn’t it?” is a phrase that can be used by parents in every phase of the adoptee’s life, for it demonstrates empathy and compassion.

Adoptees need to learn to accept their wound as part of their life history—an  unchangeable fact over which they have no control, but which need not cripple them in the future. This is one of the challenges of being adopted which, if accepted, can bring tremendous growth and maturity. 

Dr. Connie Dawson, adoptee,  attachment therapist, and adoption educator says, “When someone told me that I have suffered an irreparable wound, a burden lifted from my shoulders. In all my therapy, no one had ever told me that I couldn’t wrap this one up neat and tidy…couldn’t fix it. Oh yes, I could lay gangplanks over the deepest parts so I wouldn’t be swallowed up in its recesses. I could cauterize the edges to heal the rawness. But I couldn’t fix it, if fixing means I take care of it and it goes away. It doesn’t go away, neither does it have to be the ball and chain around my ankle. It doesn’t have to make me feel I should apologize for who I am. It only means I’ll take care of my own. And I will accept that this wound will continue to instruct me the rest of my life.

I Hope You Put Away False Guilt

Another thing adoptees need is for their adoptive parents to put aside their own false guilt.  Parents who feel guilty are incapable of dropping their defenses and entering into their child’s unresolved pain around the losses that neither parent nor child could prevent. 

It is natural for adoptive parents to struggle with guilt when they hear about their child’s wounds.  Parents tend to search for the ways they could have prevented their child’s trauma, often using the phrase, “If only . . .”

  • If only I had been there at the birth of my child.
  • If only I had known the birth mother earlier and been able to nurture her.
  • If only I had known more about adoption issues and how to handle them.

Any explanation, even at the cost of suffering guilt, may help adoptive parents cope with the desperate sense of helplessness they feel over their child’s suffering.

Cynthia Mohanon, in Children and Trauma, says, “If a parent can find some way in which the trauma was her own fault, it becomes possible to believe that further trauma can be avoided. Guilt offers a kind of power, however illusory, over helplessness.”

Erroneous thinking like this is the seedbed of false guilt and will interfere with the parent/child bond if not recognized and dealt with. 

The most important thing adoptees need is the freedom to express their conflicting emotions without fear of judgment. This is the final step toward healing, the one that brings release and freedom. Psychologist and author Dr. Arthur Janov says in The New Primal Scream, “As children, we need to express our real feelings to our parents.  We hurt if our parents are indifferent.  If they force back our resentment and our rage, we hurt.  We can no longer be ourselves and be natural.  Our nature, therefore, is warped, and that causes pain.  If you don’t let an arm move naturally, if you bind it with tape, it is going to hurt.  If you don’t let emotions move naturally, you get the same result.  The need to express feelings is just as physiological as hunger.”

I Need to Feel Safe with You

Adoptees need a safe place to share their feelings about adoption, both positive and negative, and to feel protected and loved unconditionally regardless of what comes out of their mouths.  As a parent, you can learn how to create this safe environment within your home so that your child is free to express grief and conflicting emotions about being adopted.

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Copyright, 1999, Penguin Random House, Chapter 3: Twenty Things Adopted Kids Wish Their Adoptive Parents Knew, by Sherrie Eldridge

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