Coping With the Grief of Adoption in a Healthy Way
No matter their personal life story, every adoptee holds a certain degree of loss and grief in their hearts. It may come from different aspects of their adoption story: separation from birth parents, time spent in foster care, well-meaning-but-ignorant family and friends and more.
With so much of the media surrounding adoption focusing on its beauty and positivity, you may be confused at some of the emotions you feel right now. But the fact is, just as adoption journeys contain a great deal of hope, they can also contain loss and sadness — including from the adoptees at the center of the triad.
Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of support out there for adoptees making this emotional journey. That’s why we’ve created this article. Here, you can learn more about coping with grief and loss from the viewpoint of an adoptee. While everyone’s journey will be different, you may find information here to help you safely and positively work through yours.
Please note: While American Adoptions is an experienced adoption professional, we are not mental health experts. The information in this article is not intended to be and should not be taken as mental health advice. Please reach out to a local counselor if you are struggling with your adoption grief.
3 Steps for Healing from Grief, as Told By an Adoptee
First, understand one thing: Every person’s grief journey is unique. While mental health professionals recognize the nine steps of coping with grief, how quickly a person moves through them — and how they cope with them — will vary. There is no “right” way to deal with grief, although there are healthy and unhealthy ways.
Grieving adoption can be complicated, especially when an adoptee was placed with their parents at birth. If you’re an adoptee, you may feel conflicting emotions: loss of your birth parents, even if you have an open adoption; anger at your adoptive parents, even though you love them unconditionally; or a sense of abandonment, even though you know your birth parents made their decision out of love.
Sherrie Eldridge, adoptee and author of “Twenty Things Adopted Kids Wish Their Adoptive Parents Knew,” knew how little information is out there about properly grieving adoption loss. So, she took a task-based approach created by Dr. William J. Wooden, adapting it for adoptees looking for a healthy way to understand and cope with their grief.
It involves four steps, outlined below.
Step 1: Accept the Reality of the Loss.
Whether they recognize it or not, all adoptees deal with a certain degree of trauma and loss upon their adoption. Being separated from birth parents — even with their birth parents’ willingness and support — can be difficult. Sometimes, that feeling of loss doesn’t pop up until later in life.
In order to properly grieve this loss, all adoptees must first recognize it, Eldridge writes. They must accept that they can never return to the “unadopted” state they were in. It can be confusing to grieve this loss while simultaneously maintaining the connection of an open adoption, but many adoptees have learned to do so — “to embrace the future while letting go of the past,” in Eldridge’s words.
Adoptees should not deny the journey they have been through or the impacts it will continue to have on their life.
Step 2: Work Through the Pain of Grief.
If you don’t properly work through the pain, loss and grief you are feeling, it will continue to impact your life — potentially leading to harmful activities like acting out, eating disorders, mental health disorders and more.
This stage looks different for everyone. Some adoptees, as Eldridge writes, may feel no need to mourn. They may just see adoption as a fact about their life and nothing more. Other adoptees need to dedicate more time to the trauma and loss they feel, especially if they were adopted from foster care or internationally.
Whatever camp you’re in, give yourself permission to feel your emotions. It’s okay to be angry, sad and happy about your adoption, all at the same time. There is no one “real” or “right” adoption experience
Adoptees shouldn’t be scared to talk to everyone in their life — their adoptive parents, their birth parents, their spouses, etc. — about what they’re feeling. If you’re having trouble talking to your loved ones about this grief, consider reaching out to a local counselor. They could provide you tips and suggestions for working through this pain in a healthy way.
Step 3: Adjust to the New Environment and New Reality.
This step means something different for every adoptee. For younger adoptees, it may literally mean adapting to the environment of a new home and new parents. For older adoptees, it could be adjusting to new relationships with birth parents and new feelings about adoption.
New environments and new experiences can be difficult for adoptees. But, it’s a crucial step in ultimately accepting their emotions and role as an adopted individual. Fighting against change may seem natural at times, but it can do more damage than good.
If you’re an adoptee at this step, ask yourself: How do I feel about the situation I’m in? What makes me uncomfortable about it? How can I mediate that discomfort and learn to accept where I’m at — especially if that reality is not going to change?
Again, a counselor’s guidance may be helpful.
Step 4: Allow Yourself the Space to Think About Adoption — and Move Forward.
The National Council for Adoption perhaps says it best:
“Loss is inherent in adoption, but it is not the whole of adoption. Feelings of loss or sadness will ebb and flow for all those whose lives are touched by adoption, interspersed with feelings of great joy and celebration.”
You’ll likely feel conflicting emotions about your adoption at different periods in your life. What’s important is that you provide yourself with the tools and supports you need to accept and move forward with these emotions. How?
As Eldridge writes, it’s about “allowing oneself to think about the birth family — but then choosing to withdraw emotional energy from them and reinvest it in other relationships.”
Open adoption plays a large role in this step. If you have a relationship with your birth parents, you can get the answers you need directly from them. Sure, your relationship with them will never be what it could have been if they had parented you, but there will always be “what ifs” in life. Instead of dwelling on them, focus on the relationship you have now.
And, if you don’t have a relationship with your birth parents? Remember that you have the right to learn more about yourself and your history. Don’t hesitate to search for your birth parents or complete DNA tests to find the answers to your questions.
Obsession with adoption will only reinvigorate feelings of pain and loss. To effectively grieve your loss and move forward with your life, you must recognize that adoption is not your whole story. You are more than the pain and loss you experienced upon your placement.
A Word of Caution When Grieving
When some adoptees go through the grieving process, they get stuck on Step 2 of Eldridge’s journey. They acknowledge and accept their loss but, rather than moving forward in a productive manner, they center on it, feeding off their and other adoptees’ negative thoughts — rather than confronting the root of the matter.
Some adoptees feel anger at themselves, their birth parents, their adoptive parents and even the world which necessitated their adoption. These are all valid emotions. But, as birth mother Carol Komissaroff writes, it’s harder for an adoptee to express that anger:
“Adoptees rarely talk openly about their adoption-related anger at home. Why? First, it is bad practice to bite the hand that feeds you. Second, it makes parents uncomfortable. So, they store it up and let it out in other ways, some of them anti-social.”
If you follow adoption professionals and support groups on the internet, you’ve probably seen evidence of this anger. Some adoptees, rather than address the root of their issues with their adoptive/birth parents and their own personal feelings, take out their anger on other unrelated people and organizations. They may rail against adoption as a whole, refusing to see others’ sides of the story. But not every adoptee feels grief and loss to the same extent, and painting a blanket statement about all adoptees, birth and adoptive parents and adoption organizations hurts others.
Every person’s experience with adoption is valid, even if it doesn’t agree with yours.
While we encourage every adoptee (and birth parent and adoptive parent) to express their opinions and share their stories, focusing on anger rather than moving forward in the grief process is often counter-intuitive. It can not only harm the individual itself, it can make others feel bad about their (valid) personal experiences with adoption.
Everyone grieves in their own time and manner, but if you find that you’re stuck in the difficult emotions of adoption without moving forward, please reach out for help. Counselors experienced in adoption may be able to guide you through this healing process and help you accept your personal situation.
Other Suggestions for Coping with Grief
Research on adoption grief and loss is still in its early stages. But, there is plenty of research on grieving loss and trauma of other kinds. You may find some of these tips helpful as you work through your emotions and come to terms with your own feelings toward adoption.
Here are a few healthy ways to cope with grief, whatever its origin:
- Talk to your family and loved ones about what you’re feeling.
- Give yourself permission to sit with your feelings.
- Don’t put a timeline on your grieving process.
- Physically release emotions through exercise.
- Cry it out.
- Journal about your thoughts and feelings.
- Practice deep breathing.
If you are having thoughts about harming yourself or others, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for free and confidential support.
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