Why Do Adopted and Foster Kids Grieve Loss?

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

Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

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

What Adoptive Parents Need to Know In Order to Hear Their Child's Cry Print

The Unspoken Raw Realities All Adopted Kids Experience

Mothering an adopted/foster child might be the greatest challenge you’ll ever face, or should I say the greatest dance you’ll ever dance? 

Dances are always preceded by dreams. Mom dreams. Big dreams. If your child will be a newborn, you might wrap him in a blanket and glide around the floor, cuddling him to the max. If your child is school-aged upon arriving,  you envision the fun of teaching her the steps of the Charleston. Or if he’s a teen, you may look forward to the grandest of waltzes, with your rhythmic footsteps following one another.

Now, imagine the arena of adoption as a dance floor. You’re already there, ready to dance. You’ve pre-determined what your first dance step will be–love. Fierce love, like that of a mama bear,  that saturates the unloved regions of your child’s heart, no matter the personal cost. 

So, the dance begins the moment you see the face of your soon-to-be child, possibly on a computer screen for an international adoption, through your front door when his  only possession upon arrival is a black garbage bag, or when you are in the delivery room with the first mom.

As a mom, you have everything in order and then your child enters your presence– you are on the dance floor together for the first time. You’re expectations are sky high. This is going to be such a life-defining moment for both.

I’m sure that’s how my adoptive mom (Retha) envisioned my homecoming at ten days of age.  When my grandmother carried me into their home, she got an unexpected response–I arched my back and cried bloody murder. In the only way my newborn angry self could communicate, I said, “I’m hurting so incredibly bad. Don’t touch me, or I’ll die.”

Mom couldn’t hear my cry, for she believed that my arching back and screams meant that I was rejecting her and declaring her an unfit mom.

In addition, she was feeling totally intimidated about mothering a needy five pound infant who already was labeled “failure to thrive.” How could she even give this tiny thing a bath? What if she dropped her? 

Without a doubt, Retha wanted to be the best mom possible, but back in the day, no one knew that parenting an adopted child depends on two variables–the adoptee’s level of pre-adoption trauma and the mom’s ability to be emotionally present for nurturing.

Both variables were sky high for our mom/child dance. I came to her in an extremely traumatized state. My first mother was raped and even though she desired an abortion, she carried me to birth. As an unborn baby, that had an effect on my development. 

And Retha was already weighed down by infertility. Townspeople already knew that she and Mike couldn’t conceive a child, so she hid her badge of shame beneath her heart. 

These variables–trauma and emotional availability– are different than variables for parenting a biological child. The requirement for parenting a bio child also requires a healthy mom, but the child usually has not been traumatized. Of course, there are always exceptions.

When I say that parenting an adopted child is different than parenting a bio child, it may be tempting to think that I’m launching into a negative narrative about adoption. Far from it. What I’m setting the stage for enhancing your ability to truly hear the cry print of your child and to be so emotionally present that nothing throws your confidence while nurturing.

So, reflecting back on my relationship with mom, her dance step was fear and mine was anger. I believe Retha translated my behavior as, “I knew I couldn’t do this. I don’t have what it takes to be her mother.”

Anger is the last thing I would choose today as my part in the dance,  and the last thing Retha wouldn’t have chosen was fearfulness and inadequacy. We both would choose that ultra-loving relationship, where no words are needed, where we can gaze into one another’s eyes and know we’re loved. Where we can savor close hugs and gut-busting laughs.

And, we would work hard to get that intimacy. Truth telling. Healthy boundaries. Individual needs.  This is what all moms, but especially those who parent through adoption, must make as their goal.

Yes, parenting an adopted child may  be the most challenging aspect of your life, but I am confident that you want to apply the truth about these variables to your parenting. 

In order to do this, I’m going to reveal the raw realities of your child’s cry print. I speak as one adopted person and not for all. Please keep this in mind throughout the book. My goal is to make you aware of the possibilities of how your child might react to the dynamics of adoption.

Remember that this isn’t a rant against adoption, but instead an indepth look at what your child is experiencing inwardly, whether or not you witness it outwardly. 

Now, let’s get back to the idea of parenting being like a dance. The first thing that comes to mind is where the dance occurs, and of course, it’s the dance floor. 

When I was a child, one of our neighbors lived in a stately brick house and the third floor was a huge wooden dance floor. As only a child could, I envisioned what it might be like to glide across it with the boy of my dreams.

All Things Familiar Disappear on the New Dance Floor

For an adopted child, the dance floor is the first mother’s womb, for there the unborn child gains a sense of belonging, a sensation of safety in the warm sack of water, and a sense of rhythm from the mother’s beating heart.

These dance floor elements are what every child expects after birth–a continuation and amplification of the same life-defining dynamics she experienced prior to birth.

However, if the dance floor changes through adoption, the child loses everything familiar for there is no heartbeat, no warm sack, no rhythmic heartbeat, no first mother on the dance floor.

The dance floor for foster kids can change in the blink of an eye, with one placement after another. Who can even keep track? Their dance floors pass by quickly, like a movie reel.

When all that’s familiar disappears, the adoptee goes into an extreme state of shock because this is critical trauma. 

Try putting yourself in the child’s shoes for a moment.  Imagine waking up in the middle of the night to the sound of a smoke alarm. You push off the covers and run through the dark to find the stop switch. 

And, even when you do turn it off, your heart is still racing, you’re short of breath, and sweating profusely. 

Now. let’s apply this to your adopted child. When all that’s familiar disappears, a smoke alarm blares into his brain. “Your first mother is gone. You might never see her again. You may die without her.”

The disconcerting part for the adopted child is that no one turned the alarm off, and the child can’t do it for himself when young. In fact, most parents aren’t told about the smoke alarm and how they can teach their child to turn it off through regulation. 

That’s your calling, moms. Because the smoke alarm is still blaring, you must pull the covers of pain back, run through the darkness of the unknown, and turn the shock alarm off with truth, which can set your child free from his painful past. 

Yes, this information is intimidating, but think about how much more alarming it would be for your child and family if you never know about this raw reality of the smoke alarm.

You must not only see this raw reality, but accept it as the dance floor dynamics you’ll have with your child. 

There’s another raw reality that occurs at adoption, which we’ll call “Disappointing Dance Steps.”

The First Mother’s First Step Was Away, not Toward

Now, envision your child fumbling through the darkened dance floor to find her missing first mother. If she could only see her face, all would be well. The pain of relinquishment would disappear. It will be a wonderful dance, like in the movies.

She searches and searches, but can’t find the missing mother and realizes that the first mother’s step wasn’t toward her, but away from her. How disappointing. How debilitating. 

This unexpected and unwanted dance step results in the deeper-than-death loss for the adopted child.  Eventually, the maturing adult adoptee believes that recovery is impossible. 

This disappointing dance step is what author Nancy Verrier addresses in her best-seller, THE PRIMAL WOUND. Many adoptees carry her book, like a Bible, for she validates this profound wound and helps adoptees feel heard and visible.

Verrier made a great contribution to the world of adoption by providing adoptee validation. However, she doesn’t provide the next steps adoptees need to heal. The result is that adoptees are stuck in anger and parents are hurting and discouraged.

The reason Verrier doesn’t offer hope that hurting adoptees and weary moms can overcome a painful past is that there wasn’t any evidence of it when she penned the book. That will change right now as I share my story of healing and hope. 

There Can Be Healing from the Primal Wound

What was going on inside my head and heart? The people in my relationships hadn’t changed, but my attitude and perspective about them definitely had. Where were these warm thoughts coming from? Why was I remembering mom’s best-in-town apple pie, her gentle hands smoothing oil on my asthmatic chest, or for affectionate caring for Dinny Dinwit, my tiger kitty?

Maybe I was experiencing a brain change? After all, you hear in adoption circles about how the brain is damaged by trauma, and yet can heal. So I rummaged through all my books about the brain..in vain. 

Then, I wondered if I was cracking up. Maybe I was hallucinating?  I’ve been known to do that when clinically depressed, but the hubs assured me I was fine.

One day I thought about my late mom’s wedding rings. A rather bizarre thought, right? It was bizarre for two reasons. First, mom died nearly 30 years ago and second, we had a tumultuous relationship during the growing-up years. All I remembered over my seven decades of life was negative and painful.

For 53 years, I’d unintentionally carried them from geographical move to geographical move, from California to Canada. To me, they were worthless pieces of junk that should’ve been tossed decades ago. 

Moments later, I rushed to my jewelry drawer, like a gold digger. And, there they were–one prominent band and a delicate eternity band, all lacking the diamonds that originally graced them. 

Then, my mind flooded with new thoughts. What was it like on the evening Mom and Dad were engaged?  Did Dad get down on his knee to propose? And, was she the blushing, soon-to-be bride, dreaming of a house, children, and happiness forever?  I slipped the tarnished rings onto my finger and ran to husband Bob’s office, like a kid.

Just a month ago, while eating at our favorite restaurant, Bob pulled out a small box with the same rings that had been totally refurbished into glistening silver and diamonds.  

This experience with mom’s rings convinced me that healing my painful past is not something that can only happen in heaven, but it can occur also in everyday life on planet earth. I have never felt happier or more whole than I do today, and I’m so thankful.

I wanted to share my message of healing and hope with you because it is new in the world of adoption. Yes, Nancy Verrier gave us the gift of validation of the seminal wound, but there’s so much more.

Thank you for listening to my story.

Now, I’m going to share one more raw reality with you and I warn you ahead of time that it’s going to be difficult to read. If you can take a break right now, get yourself a cup of tea, or take a hot bath so you can digest the information in a state of strength, that would be good. Remember also that I love you.

The Adoptive Mom Isn’t Who Adoptee Expects, or Wants

Moms, remember what your adopted child is expecting as far as their designated dance partner. They’re expecting the first mother, like any child does. We all tend to believe the old axim, “The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.”

But providentially, guess who shows up. You. And, she didn’t expect you and doesn’t want you. Not that there’s anything wrong with you. That’s not the issue. The issue is that she wants her first mother to dance with her.

In addition, she doesn’t know who you are because you’re a mere stranger in her world. You look strange, smell strange, and speak strange. 

As dance partners, you are at odds with one another. You lead and she pushes you away. You offer ferocious love and she steps on your toes and runs off the dance floor. 

To your child, you are a loving stranger and you don’t have the rhythm she was wired for in the womb. Her mantra often is, “You don’t get it.”  You keep stepping on her toes and she finds you distant and awkward in your dance style.

Loss Is Inherent for Every Adopted Child 

I hope by now you’ll agree with the premise that loss is inherent for every adopted child, even if they seem fine. Every. Child. No exceptions. There is not one adopted child that hasn’t suffered the seminal loss of the first mother.

Some children act out their pain and some bury it in a deep cavern in their hearts, only becoming aware of it when conditions are conducive for healing. 

Here’s something to put this into perspective for you and your child:

When a tree is struck by lightning,

if it survives,

its growth is altered.

A knot may form where the lightning hit.

The growth on one side of the tree may be more vigorous

than on another side,

The shape of the tree may change.

An interesting twist or curious split has replaced what might

have otherwise been a straight line.

The tree flourishes;

it bears fruit,

provides shade,

becomes a home to birds and squirrels.

It is not the same tree it would have been had there not

been a lightning storm,

but some say it is more interesting this way.

Few can even remember the event

that changed its shape forever.

So, let’s discuss the variable that involves you, moms, in the adoption dance.

Moms and Adopted Kids Can See the Impossible As Possible

Does your child’s healing sound impossible? Does it sound impossible that you can be that nurturing mom who can turn off the smoke alarm? 

Trust me. I never had an inkling that healing from my painful past was a possibility, that newly-conscious memories could stand alongside the painful, or that true healing meant seeing both positive and painful memories without being upset. 

What seemed impossible for a lifetime now looms as possible. When I think about this new reality, I’m reminded of my husband, Bob, who was invited by friends to climb a 14ner in Colorado. 

 In case you’re unfamiliar with the term, it means climbing a huge mountain. That would be an awesome goal for any guy, but Bob was 74.

Our two adult daughters and I were freaking out. After all, what if something awful happened? What if he didn’t have enough energy or stamina? What if he had a heart attack half way up? 

The only consolation was that his climbing buddies included a physician, a pastor, and a professional trainer.

Prior to the climb, Bob wasn’t sure if he’d be able to reach the top but he trained like crazy and bought specific gear and shoes for mountain climbing. 

Needless to say, the climb wasn’t easy and the way down the mountain was more difficult than the ascension. That’s where his younger friends come in– they walked behind him in case he lost his balance.  There’s a photo of them at the summit. Their euphoric faces say a thousand words.

Are you ready to decide whether or not you’ll climb a 14ner?  The mountain of impossibilities? The mountain trail that will lead you to hope that your adopted child can not only survive, but thrive?

This mountain that challenges every ounce of energy you can muster? The mountain that totally changes your perspective for the better? 

I would love being your sherpa for the climb, for I’ve found the best paths leading up the mountain. Because I know the way to the summit, I can be the one who helps you stay on the path, encouraging you when overwhelmed. 

Rest assured that as we climb I’ll be sharing powerful principles which aren’t from books or university advanced degrees. Instead, they’ve been pounded out on the anvil of my own adoptee heart. 

I promise you won’t be sorry to come. No, it won’t be an easy climb, but your hard work will surely pay off in the long run. It’s my joy to be on the journey with you.

Action Step for Moms: Put On Your Yellow Rain Slicker 

Even when you see and accept all the truths stated above, this doesn’t stop your child from flinging hurtful, rejecting remarks at you. Remarks like:

  • You’re not my real mom.
  • I hate you.
  • You never “get it.”
  • Go away.

Someone introduced a practical tool to me about how you can cope while rejecting words are flung.

Envision yourself wearing a yellow rain slicker that protects your from the rains of painful words. Just imagine how peaceful you could be if the words fall off you, like raindrops.

In addition, I have opened a new FB page titled “When Your Adopted Child Rejects Your Love.” It is based on the yellow rain slicker concept.

I would love to stay in touch with you and send you weekly notifications of new blog posts. You can sign up for this below.

Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

This post is copyrighted October 20, 2019, By Sherrie Eldridge.