Your child wants you to know is that if she doesn’t grieve the adoption loss, her ability to receive love or attach emotionally to you and others in meaningful relationships may be seriously hindered.
Dr. Daniel N. Stern, professor of psychiatry at Cornell University, says in his book, The Interpersonal World of the Infant, that there are certain developmental tasks every child, adopted or not, must accomplish in order to grow into a healthy adult. Stern says the first developmental stage (0-3 months) is homeostasis, which occurs when the baby is relaxed, alert and interested in the world. Stage two ( 0-7 months) involves attachment. It is here that the baby becomes interested in the caregiver and is especially responsive to smiles and touch, responding with pleasure and interest. In stage four (9-18 months), the baby shows a wide range of socially meaningful behaviors and is able to go from interaction to separation.
If the child does not complete a task on a certain level, his adaptation is impaired when trying to complete tasks on a higher level. For example, if an infant never learns to relax in stage one, he will likely have difficulty progressing to the next stage (developing attachments).
Thinking back to my own beginnings, I believe I was stuck in the first stage (relaxing and responding), for even on the first day of my adoption I was exhibiting distinct symptoms of grief. I remember my parents telling me when I was a child, “When we got you, you wouldn’t eat, so the doctor gave you medicine to stretch your stomach.” I believe that my refusal to eat was a grief reaction for the mother I lost at birth. I had given up hope that I would ever be close to her again.
It is interesting that animals as well as humans demonstrate this grief-like behavior. Konrad Lorenz, in Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy, described this in the separation of a grelag goose from its mate:
The first response to the disappearance of the partner consists in the anxious attempt to find him again. The goose moves about restlessly by day and night, flying great distances and visiting places where the partner might be found, uttering all the time the penetrating trisyllabic long-distance call… The searching expeditions are extended farther and farther and quite often the searcher itself gets lost, or succumbs to an accident… All the objective observable characteristics of the goose’s behavior on losing its mate are roughly identical with human grief.
Attachment specialist, Dr.Connie Dawson, in a message to The American Adoption Congress, illustrated the grief reactions of newborns when she told of a woman who was a missionary in Southeast Asia shortly after the Korean police action. The missionary and her husband went back to New Zealand during this time for their first child to be born in order to be near families at the birth. At that time, there was so much crowding in the New Zealand hospital that an appointment needed to be secured for the due date so that the room could be guaranteed.
The missionary went two weeks over her due date, so when she went into labor, the only place for her to deliver was a small hospital usually only for unwed mothers. About half of the babies there were going to be put up for adoption. The missionary told Connie, “My room was down the hall from the nursery and I shall never forget their cries.”
When Connie asked for a description of those cries, the woman said, “Well, the cries of the little ones who were leaving were cries that broke my heart.”
When asked what the difference was between the group being put up for adoption and the one going home with mother, the missionary said, “All I can think of is ‘p’ words: pleading, plaintive, like they had already given up.”
Such is the reality of grief after loss, and such is often the reality of adoption grief after relinquishment.
Mary Watkins and Susan Fisher, adoptive mothers and adoption professionals, describe a toddler acting out her grief in Talking with Young Children About Adoption. “For several days in a row child entertains her day-care peers at nap time with her adoption story, saying ‘when I was a baby I took a long, long, long plane ride all the way from El Salvador, and Mom and Jenny and Mimi came to get me at the airport.’ The children ask, ‘Did you eat things on the plane?’ Child replies, ‘Chicken and rice, and I threw my bottle down the aisle.”
Older adoptees may manifest grief in other ways. Marcy Axness, adoptee and adoption educator, says in What Is Written On the Heart: “I think of how, as a young person and to a lesser degree into adulthood, I was continuously losing or forgetting things, or, even more bizarre, throwing away my perfectly useful items just because I felt no immediate need for them. As a young teen, I also began to shoplift. I realize now that this was how I acted out my behavioral memories of feeling lost, forgotten, thrown away, stolen and stolen from.”
Some adoptees, unaware of adoption loss, repress the pain through achieving. Such was the case with former NFL football player Tim Green. In his excellent autobiography, A Man and His Mother, Green reveals the horrific dreams that plagued him from childhood into adulthood. He says, “I had no idea then that the uncertain circumstances of my birth and my driving need to avoid any recurrence of that painful rejection refueled these nightmares. I only hoped that they might magically go away.” It was a only as he faced the pain of unresolved loss that the nightmares subsided.
I include these examples not to frighten you, but to help you become aware of your child’s need from day one. I will keep reemphasizing both the loss and the practical ways of dealing with it in succeeding chapters so that you can balance it with wisdom, compassion, and understanding.
So, in light of this knowledge about adoptee grief, I imagine you saying, “What can adoptive parents do? How can we help our infant mourn the loss at this particular stage and receive our love? How can we assist our toddler, school-aged child, or adolescent?”
We will talk more about that in the next chapter, but first let’s get a clear understanding of what grief really is.
I can’t bear the thought that my child has already experienced all of this, you may be thinking. It makes me feel so helpless as a parent. Let me assure you that you are not alone. Almost every adoptive parent I have talked to expresses the same sentiment when learning about the pain associated with adoption.
Perhaps you are wondering, Is all this mourning stuff really necessary? Yes, it is, for one must enter into freedom through pain. The only way out is through. Once adoption loss is acknowledged, the prison gates of grief will swing open to a new world. How awesome it will be to see your child reframe his losses and discover that adoption was the very thing that taught him some of life’s most precious lessons.
Instead of depression and sadness, there will be joy. Instead of wandering and aimlessness, there will be life with a purpose. Instead of feeling second class, he will know he is loved and accepted just as he is.
Grieving Brings Healing
Grieving is necessary, for grieving is a natural response to loss. It is the heart’s way of trying to heal itself. It is to the soul as a fever is to the body.
Psychiatrist George Engels, in an article for Psychosomatic Medicine, says that the loss of a loved one is psychologically traumatic to the same extent as being severely wounded or burned is physiologically traumatic. He argues that grief represents a departure from the state of health, and just as healing is needed in the physiological realm in order to bring the body back into balance, so a period is needed to bring the mourner back into a state of equilibrium.
Because adoption is a lifelong journey and because sensory memories of the original loss will be triggered throughout life by subsequent losses, the adoptee will need to learn to be comfortable with her own feelings during various seasons of life. In times of sadness, she must let the tears flow. In times of abandonment/rejection/betrayal, she must verbalize her anger and grief. She must not hold back.
Dr. Arthur Janov, in The New Primal Scream, says that the need to express feelings is just as physiological as hunger. If the pain is too much, the adoptee will go numb and feel nothing. Repression will take over.
If you can help your child grieve the original loss from day one, her ability to grieve future losses will be greatly enhanced. What a gift you can give her! In the next chapter, I will share practical ideas on how to help her grieve the losses. But first, let’s make sure we have a proper understanding of the process of mourning.
The Process of Mourning
In researching this book, I could not find any information about grieving adoption loss. There are books that deal with special kinds of grief, like Sudden Infant Death (SIDS), miscarriage, abortion, stillbirth, and suicide, but nothing specifically about adoption. I believe adoption is a special kind of loss and that grief is a natural and necessary response.
Grieving is a process and psychologists differ in their explanations, theories, and terms describing it. Renowned author Elisabeth Kübler-Ross described the mourning process in stages — denial, anger, bargaining, and acceptance. Others, like John Bowlby, a leading researcher and teacher in the field of personality development, defines it in phases. Although both of these approaches may be satisfactory for most forms of loss, there is another approach that seems to me better suited to adoption loss.
J. William Worden, professor of psychology at the Harvard Medical School, teaches the concept of tasks in regard to the grieving process. His approach implies that mourning can be influenced by intervention from the outside and that there is something the mourner can do. In contrast, traditional theories of mourning imply a certain passivity on the mourner’s part.
Therapists Holly Van Gulden and Lisa M. Bartels-Rabb, in Real Parents Real Children, say that distancing is one form of passivity younger children display in response to unresolved grief. “Distancing behaviors include poor personal appearance–clothes and hygiene–a child may ruin brand new clothes or just manage to stay perpetually dirty. He is subconsciously hoping that school bus drivers and teachers will think the adoptive family is poor or neglecting him.”
One male adoptee illustrated his passivity when he said, “I have always believed that I don’t have a right to ask for things other people do. It makes me nervous to be the least bit assertive about even the smallest details of life, and whenever my wife is, I am completely embarrassed.”
A mid-life female adoptee said, “The orphaned child within me is comfortable being alone and unattached.”
Let me add at this point that not all adoptees have attachment problems. According to attachment and bonding specialist, Gregory C. Keck, Ph.D., in an article for Jewel Among Jewels Adoption News: “Attachment disorders and adoption don’t necessarily have a relationship. Most adoptees do not have attachment disorders. Many people who have attachment disorders, however, are adoptees. People often talk about adoption as if it’s a diagnosis, as opposed to a condition or status. That concerns me. Probably all of us have had attachment and separation issues in our lives.”
Dr. Worden’s task-oriented approach seems tailor-made for grieving adoption loss, for it engages parents in early conversations with the child which in turn facilitate mourning. It moves parents closer to the baby’s or child’s reality and minimizes the adoptee’s inclination toward passivity (tendency to give up).
Assuming that Worden’s approach to mourning is a good model for many adoptees, let’s take a closer look at the method.
The Four Tasks of Grieving
The first task Worden describes is acceptance of the reality of the loss, part of which is to believe that a reunion with that person is impossible. In applying this task in the adoption arena, the first thing we must do is define the word “reunion.” Actually, there are three dimensions to the word reunion when it comes to adoption.
The first would happen if the adoptee could return to the prenatal state. The second reunion would occur if the adoptee could return to the unadopted state, where the only parents are the biological parents. Both these reunions are impossible for the adopted child to accomplish. The adoptee will never know the birth mother in the intimate way she did inutero, nor will she know her biological parents as her only parents.
What is interesting to note, however, is that there is another dimension to the word reunion for the adoptee. Lying dormant beneath that seemingly lost relationship is the flickering hope of a post-adoption reunion sometime in the future. Thus, the adoptee’s task is to accept the reality of the first two reunions while looking forward to the reunion that might be. It is a confusing task to say the least.
Confusing, but not impossible to achieve. Many adoptees have risen to the challenge and have learned to embrace the future while letting go of the past.
The best way young adoptees can accept the reality of the first two losses is through parental validation. Dr. Wendy McCord, a psychotherapist and past president of the Los Angeles chapter of the Association or Pre-and Perinatal Psychology and Health (APPAH), said in an interview with Marcy Wineman Axness, “All adopted babies, I think you can pretty much say, are in shock, which is the most severe level of trauma. They need to be held a lot, they need to be given true empathy, and what they do needs to be interpreted in terms of their loss. Parents who are in denial of this add another trauma to what the baby’s already suffered.”
Dr. McCord went on to say that these facts about loss and grief need to be verbalized. “I’m not the mom you expected, I don’t smell like her, I don’t sound like her. I’m a different mom, and I love you and I’m not going to leave you.”
As the child grows older and considers a post-adoption reunion with the birth parents, perhaps the best adoptive parents can do to help facilitate proper passage through this first task is to openly and warmly acknowledge the birth parents’ existence and assure her that someday a reunion might be a possibility. Of course, this would not be necessary in an open adoption. There would already be on-going contact with the birth family.
Task two is to work through the pain of grief. If it is not worked through, it may manifest in other symptoms like acting out, setting fires, cruelty to animals, eating disorders, aggression, depression, suicide, and criminal behaviors, to name a few. Nancy Verrier, author of the ground-breaking book, The Primal Wound, says, “According to 1985 statistics used by Parenting Resources of Santa Ana, California, although adoptees comprised 2-3 percent of the population of the country, they represented 30-40 percent of individuals found in residential treatment centers, juvenile hall, and special schools.
Think for a moment again about pre-adoption loss. To the adoptee, his psychological life is split in two: before adoption and after adoption. In between is a deep chasm (of which he may or may not be conscious)–a place of helplessness, rejection, and loss of control. It is important for adoptive parents to remember that this is the very place where attachment with you as a parent will occur. As you go with your child to that place, an attachment will form in the midst of the loss and grief. Going with your child to this place will require courage as well as doing your own emotional work. We can’t take others where we haven’t first been ourselves; their pain will frighten us away.
Task number three of mourning requires adjustment to a new environment, and for the adoptee, new environments are often a challenge. Keep in mind the original adjustment the adoptee had to make to her adoptive home. All that was familiar was lost. Her emotional reality was the opposite of what was happening around her.
This vulnerability to change in environment also occurs with older kids who have been relinquished. The emotional issues, even though similar in nature to those of an infant, are compounded by the trauma of leaving what was familiar.
Seven-year-old Amanda had to be removed from her home because of her mother’s debilitating mental illness. “Terror was what I felt…absolute terror and fear of the unknown. I feared that no one could be trusted.” On the ride to the new home, she grasped for the familiar–anything that would be a tie to her past and help her feel more relaxed. In her new home, she acted out her emotions by being very possessive of her toys and clothing. “No one will replace a member of my family,” was her predominant memory.
Watkins and Fisher, in Talking with Young Children About Adoption, describe a three-year-old child who had similar problems. They say, “Indian child is hesitant to enter church where a party of Indian adoptees and their parents is being held. After a forty-five-minute wait outside with her father, she asks him if a white woman in a sari is her mother. When he assures her that she is not, the child confides that she is confused about the differences between her mother, her tummy-mother from Indian, her godmother, also from India and expected at the party and her grandmother.”
Adult adoptees in support groups confirm that it is often difficult for them to enter new groups or take on new endeavors. One male adoptee who was out of work confessed, “Every time I went for a job interview, I felt like I was being looked at as a potential for adoption all over again.”
Task number four requires that the mourner relocate the lost person and move on with life. Put in adoption terms, relocating the lost person means allowing oneself to think about the birth family but then choosing to withdraw emotional energy from them and reinvest it in other relationships. In other words, the adoptee is no longer obsessed with the birth family; his thoughts about them wax and wane.
A literal relocation of the lost person may be impossible, aside from an open adoption or a reunion later in life. If the adoption is closed or semi-closed, this step will necessitate the adoptive parents giving new information about the birth mother or birth family to the adoptee at various stages of development. If they don’t have any information, such as is the case in many international adoptions, this too must be grieved as another loss.
One mother said, “When my daughter came to her thirteenth birthday, the whole adoption thing hit her like a ton of bricks. She wept and said, ‘If I could only know her name (the birth mother’s).'”
The mother, not knowing the birth mother’s name, wisely asked, “What would you like her name to be?”
When the girl selected a name, the mother said, “Then that’s what she’ll be.” That was enough to comfort the adoptee as well as help her relocate the lost mother within her consciousness. Prior to that time, the girl may not have considered it permissible to think about her birth mother.
Other ways that an adoptee might emotionally locate the birth mother would be to begin asking questions about her, locate where she went to high school and find a yearbook photo, or visit the hospital where the adoptee was born. Oftentimes a simple connection is all that is needed.
This concludes the four tasks of grief the adoptee must navigate in order for attachment to occur. Now let’s talk about why adoptees sometimes fail to mourn.
Attachment experts say that during the first two years of life, there is a cycle that happens thousands and thousands of times. First there is a need. The unmet need is then expressed in rage or anger, and the expectation is that the child will be satisfied. If satisfaction occurs, trust grows. Gratification includes food, touch, eye contact, movement, or any kind of stimulation by another.
When the cycle is interrupted with something like adoption, some children learn not to trust others to meet their needs. Instead they trust only themselves. Others, on the other hand, are resilient and relax into attachment without problems. The birth mother’s self-care during pregnancy is a large determining factor here.
Marcy Wineman Axness, in her excellent booklet, What Is Written on the Heart: Primal Issues in Adoption, says, “To a fetus, its mother’s emotional state is the state of the universe. Chronic anxiety in a stressed mother communicates to the developing organism that it is going to be born into a dangerous environment, and its nervous system development adapts accordingly.”
How can parents know if the child has failed to grieve and is unable to attach? Dr. Greg Keck says, “Symptoms of lack of attachment will be evident early–sometimes in infancy with eating and feeding problems, babies arching their backs and being stiff, not wanting to be touched and lack of eye contact. Some of the most difficult kids have been those who were picked up at the hospital and had no contact with the birth mother. They cried all the way home from the hospital, and I’m sure that crying developed into rage, the rage developed into terrible behavior, and by the time they’re 15 and come to us, parents are saying ‘yes’, this started at the hospital and has never ended.”
The Attachment Center at Evergreen, Inc., summarizes specific symptoms of attachment difficulties:
Age Birth to One
• Failure to respond with recognition to face of primary caretaker in first six months
• Infrequent vocalizations–babbling, crying
• Resistant to physical contact or appears stressed by it–rigid and unyielding
• Excessive fussiness and irritability
• Passive or withdrawn
• Poor muscle tone–flaccid
Age One to Five
• Excessively clingy and whiny
• Persistent, frequent tantrums, sometimes escalating beyond the child’s control
• High threshold of discomfort–seemingly oblivious to temperature discomfort; picks sores and scabs until bloody without manifesting pain
• Unable to occupy self in a positive way without involving others
• Resistant to being held
• Demands affection in a controlling way on the child’s terms
• Intolerant of separation from primary caretakers except on child’s terms
• Indiscriminate display of affection, sometimes to strangers
• Problems of speech development
• Problems of motor coordination–considered accident prone
• Hyperactivity evident
• Feeding problems
• By five, may be manipulative, devious, destructive, hurtful to pets, frequently dishonest
Age Five to Fourteen
• Superficially engaging and “charming,” uses “cuteness” to get others to do what he or she wants
• Lack of eye contact on parental terms: difficulty making eye contact with others while talking with them
• Indiscriminate affection with strangers: goes up to strangers and becomes overly affectionate with them or asks to go home with them
• Not affectionate on parent’s terms (not cuddly): refuses affection and pushes parents away unless child is in control of how and when affection is received
• Destructive to self, others, and material things; accident prone: seems to enjoy hurting others and deliberately breaks or ruins things
• Cruelty to animals: may include incessant teasing, physical assault, torture, or ritualistic killing
• Stealing: steals from household, parents, and siblings, and in ways that almost guarantees getting caught
• Lying about the obvious: lies for no apparent reason when it would have been just as easy to tell the truth
• No impulse control (frequently acts hyperactive): extremely defiant and angry; needs to be in control of events in his or her life; tends to boss others; responds with prolonged arguing when asked to do something
• Learning lags: often underachieves in school
• Lack of cause and effect thinking: surprised when others are upset by his or her actions
• Hoarding or gorging food: has other unusual eating habits (eats paper, glue, paints, flour, garbage, etc.)
• Poor peer relationships: difficulty in making or keeping friends more than a week; bossy in his play with others
• Preoccupation with fire or gore: fascinated with or preoccupied by fire, blood, or morbid activities
• Persistent questions and chatter: asks repeated nonsensical questions or chatters non-stop
• Inappropriately demanding and clingy: tries to get attention by demanding things instead of asking for them; affectionate only when wanting something
• Abnormal speech patterns along with other more serious symptoms
• Sexual acting out: may act sexually provocative with peers or adults; masturbates in public
Why Adoptees Don’t Mourn
Often with any kind of loss, but adoption loss especially, there is a subtle interplay between society and the mourner, where society gives the message, “You don’t need to grieve.” Such was the case with little Jessica DeBoer.
The July 19, 1993 cover of Time pictured a bewildered Jessica, held between her adoptive parents, with the caption, “Whose Little Girl Is This?” Less than a year later, the March 21, 1994 issue featured a smiling Jessica with the caption, “She’s Not Baby Jessica Anymore.” All vestiges of her past had been removed…even her name.
I, along with many adoptee friends, were enraged. Society denied an innocent child the freedom to grieve.
Another reason the adoptee doesn’t mourn is that she feels no need to mourn. Adoption is just a fact about her life and nothing more. If you were to ask her if she would like to join a support group for adoptees, she would ask “why?” Because every human being responds and adapts to loss differently, some adoptees truly may not need to mourn. For the majority, however, healthy grieving will enable them to be more whole and more intimate with others.
The third reason adoptees don’t grieve and learn to connect is that parents are uneducated about adoption and the child’s unspoken needs. It will be impossible for you to know the core issues your child is trying to express to you and then to validate them unless you educate yourself well about the repercussions of adoption loss. There are many books on the market, but the essentials I suggest are listed in the appendix at the back of this book.
Now that we’ve looked at the nitty-gritty facts about grief, let’s get on to the blessings that follow on the heels of mourning.
The Blessings that Follow Mourning
Bereavement specialist and Founder of Connections: Spiritual Links, Reverend Richard Gilbert gives a clear picture of the blessings your child can experience once he has grieved his adoption losses successfully. Gilbert writes,
I’m adopted! This is part of my story, my “claim to fame,” and it is only through the hard work and life struggle of mourning that it is something I can now claim with fame. Someone didn’t want me. That became my story, my scar, my struggle. When I learned of my adoption, compounded by dynamics in my family life and other struggles, I “heard” only that someone didn’t want me, that I was rejected somewhere, and that, somehow I am now different. All of this albeit based on questionable facts, became the energy force that kept me, and often controlled me (at least until recently), on this lifetime course of anger, debate, searching, and the stubborn determination to prove “they,” whoever were the natural parents, were wrong to give me up. Through faith, searching, a wonderful wife and family, supportive friends, my own bereavement work and writing, therapy and determination to be “free,” I have recognized my right and need to affirm my goodness within myself. It became less (though it never entirely goes away) of, “someone didn’t want me,” to a whole lot of “look who I am and what my life has been.” So what does this mean? It means that I have learned to see adoption not as a mark or scar, but as a gift. It is a gift because I am a gift.
Grief is the process that many adoptees must pass through in order for healing and freedom to occur. But be aware that growing over the wound of grief is a thick layer of anger. Watch out…you may become the target of it!
COPYRIGHT, 1999, Random House Publishing. Chapter 5 of TWENTY THINGS ADOPTED KIDS WISH THEIR ADOPTIVE PARENTS KNEW.