Grief and Loss in Adoption

While sticking with the adoption focused blog posts, we will focus on the topic of grief and loss.  You can find a previous post on the subject of grief and loss, but this post will focus primarily on it in adoption.  For a clinician the topics of grief and loss are critical to assessment and treatment in work with adoptees and even other parties involved in the adoption network.

Loss is a core adoption issue, just like mentioned the the blog post focusing on core adoption issues, and it is a part of everyone’s adoption story.  The beauty of the process and event of adoption itself very sadly started with such profound loss.  However, loss has to be recognized and not avoided in order for grieving to take place, which is normal.  When grieving doesn’t happen or when loss is not recognized or allowed, the unresolved grief can wreak havoc in the person’s daily life and functioning.  It can even lead to greater psychological distress, such as depression and other clinical diagnoses.  What we often see in younger children and teenagers who were adopted is the expression of the loss and unresolved grief, which manifest through behaviors, such as anger and aggression.  Sometimes younger children will express fear and sadness as a result of the loss but not fully understand it.

Kubler Ross is pretty well known for the theory of stages of grief, and I often share these with clients who are grieving.  However, these stages look very different for different people. The stages (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) are not usually moved through in a linear fashion, nor do they have a specific amount of time that is allotted  for each stage.  It is also okay to maintain bonds with a lost one versus completely letting them go, and it is essential to make meaning of the loss. For adopted children it is hard to move through these processes and make meaning because usually there are missing parts of information in their story.  Sometimes they may want and benefit from some continued connections with members of their birth family.

Grief and loss are complicated with adoptees, because our society doesn’t often recognize the negative aspects of adoption.  I mean, doesn’t focusing on the positive usually feel better for everyone.  However, that isn’t what your adoptee needs.  Another complicating factor is that parents often don’t realize that what they are seeing is just how children express grief and loss at various ages, and it can take professional help through psycho-education for some parents to be able to break away from preconceived notions about behavior and better understand the complexities of their child’s grief and loss.  Additionally, adopted parents often fear that acknowledging the child’s grief and loss will only further complicate their emotions and behaviors.  But, actually we know that it doesn’t.  These things need to be normalized, so the adoptee isn’t boiling over like a pot with the lid on at high heat on a stove.  It is hard for any parent to see their child experiencing emotional pain, so avoiding it is much easier, but the benefits of doing the dirty work of processing the adoptees loss and grief has much greater benefit in the present and future for all parties involved.  Since this can be so difficult for parents, I encourage them to seek out a counselor to walk beside them on this difficult journey.

To complicate things even further, there are different types of grief.  Ambiguous loss is a type of loss or grief that comes with distress from confusion in the relationship.  If you think about adoptees, their grief is more complex due to it being ambiguous.  Finality of life isn’t usually what starts one’s adoption story, so without death there is confusion about the relationship with birth family or first family members.  For many adoptees, their first parents are alive but just unavailable to them.  For internationally adopted individuals, likely may not even know if their first family members are alive or not.  I know for my son, he will ask me from time to time if his first mom is alive.  I also remember a lot of confusion and challenging emotions (guilt and shame, sadness, longingness, etc.) that my daughter, whom we adopted domestically through foster care, experienced until she was about to turn eighteen and finally reunited with her first family.  Another reason for ambiguous loss is if someone is physically present but not emotionally available, as in cases of child neglect, and so your adoptee may have been experiencing this form of loss even prior to the event of adoption itself.  The clinical implications of ambiguous loss often overlap with those of trauma and attachment problems.  It is complicated and difficult, but the journey to processing and moving forward can be very beautiful in time.

I have heard people say that the child shouldn’t be experiencing loss or grief because they were adopted right at birth or a few days after birth, but I strongly disagree with this.  There has been plenty of research to support my stance as well, but it just makes sense to me that a baby growing inside of its mom for nine (or so) months has a connection, both physically and emotionally, to that host.  To abruptly be birthed and have all that familiarity stripped away must be shocking for a newborn.  Even if you disagree with that, I have worked with many adult adoptees who were adopted at birth or very early, and they do experience ambiguous loss and grief.  They usually begin to have a a big clue to what is happening within their inner experience in early adulthood as they are transitioning and all these emotions and confusions are stirred up for them.  I bring this up to encourage parents to be more aware and begin the process of dealing with  your adopted child’s loss and grief, which they surely have, sooner than later.

If you are not sure if your adopted child (or yourself as an adoptee) is experiencing ambiguous loss, here are a few symptoms: difficulty with changes and transitions, trouble making decisions, feelings of being overwhelmed, problems coping with routine childhood or adolescents losses (school, death of pet, moving, etc.), learned helplessness and hopelessness, depression and feelings of guilt. Other signs that your adopted child is experiencing loss and needs help include the following: frequently asking for help with things, cries a lot, performance declines, seem preoccupied or worried/anxious, develops fears that are unreasonable, cannot concentrate, play centers on family’s breakups and coming together (etc.), loss of interest in doing things children like to do, isolation, shutting down emotionally, exhibits low self-esteem, sleep problems, bedwetting, proactively sexual behavior, or difficulty attaching to others. This can be hard work for adoptees and all those involved in the adoption network, so please reach out to a professional that is trained to hold and support you and your family while using appropriate tools to process the loss and grief.

Information was taken from C.A.S.E. (Center for Adoption Support and Education) TAC (Training in Adoption Competency) Training Manual.  For more information about the loss and grief associated with adoption, please visit their website at


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