Experiences of separation and loss are fundamental to all members of those involved in adoption.

  • The child has lost their bond with their birth parents or other caregivers (e.g., grandparents, foster parents).
  • There is often a loss of self for the child, who wonders “Why did they give me up?”
  • Separation from siblings, extended kin, friends, teachers, and genetic history.
  • The loss a child feels due to being taken from their home or the history of abuse they might carry with them.
  • The grief a foster parent or social worker experiences while watching a child struggle to cope and adapt to new surroundings.
  • Birth parents have the right to change their mind which creates a devastating loss for hopeful adoptive parents.
  • Birth parents have lost a biological child, and may experience feelings of inadequacy, failure, damaged self-esteem, and a sense of loss of control over their lives.
  • Adoptive parents struggle with a variety of losses but many have dealt with the pain of infertility which brings up feelings of inadequacy.  Adoption often does not “fix” the pain of infertility, and feelings of loss may continue for years.
  • Adoptive parents sometimes grieve the difference between the fantasy of the child they planned to adopt and the reality of the child who entered their family.

Failed Adoption Grief

There are multiple routes to take when adopting a child, some include: fostering, out of country adoption, private adoption, or in-family adoption.  Regardless of the route you pursue, the grief of a failed adoption is the same.  Adoptive parents grieve a child that was and wasn’t theirs at the same time.  They were already a part of your family because they were a child that you loved and planned for.  No matter how much time you spent with them, when they are gone their absence is a hole that lingers.

Don’t ignore it.
Allow yourself some time and space to grieve. Sometimes concentrated grieving (eg, giving yourself a specific time and place) can enable you to focus on other things later.

Reach out to others struggling with similar situations.
As humans we feel a little better when people see and accept how we feel. Let them know you understand that this time may be difficult. Some people don’t like being treated differently and may feel like you are pitying them, but some acknowledgement and outpouring of love is acceptable to most people. Be aware of those who want the acknowledgement and those who don’t.

Do not judge and offer a listening ear.
Even if you don’t know what to say or don’t know what to do, just be there. Do not judge the way they are handling the situation or offer advice unless asked.  It’s also okay to say that you don’t know what to say.  They may just need space to breathe without judgement. When they are ready to talk, be there to listen and let them know that you are there for them.

Acknowledge the loss.
Talk about the child instead of pretending like they didn’t exist.  You may think that you are being more sensitive not to talk about the child they lost, but sometimes it is actually more painful when people avoid the subject and act as if the loss didn’t happen.  However some people prefer to stay private so always gauge a situation and never assume.  If the loss is of a child they never knew like in the case of a potential adoption that fell through, they had dreams and plans and a love that was real even if they never held that child in their arms. Allow them to talk about those things. They will never stop loving that child.

Adoptee Grief

One of the most difficult challenges and painful aspects of being adopted is how often adoptees are asked intrusive and hurtful questions. Sometimes the questions are related to the adopter’s personal adoption story. They don’t know what to say. Often the questions are ones that they themselves don’t even know the answers to. Questions like: “Don’t you want to find your real parents?”, “How can that be your mom/dad when their skin doesn’t look like yours?”, “Why were you adopted and where were you adopted from?” These are very personal questions that can be quite painful to answer.

W.I.S.E. UP! is  a program created by Marilyn Schoettle, at C.A.S.E (Center for Adoption Support and Education) that teaches effective techniques for helping kids with the painful and often disturbing encounters with others who are uneducated about adoption. C.A.S.E. has published the W.I.S.E. Up Powerbook and the W.I.S.E. Up Facilitator Kit for Parent Groups to provide children and teens with practical guidelines as to how to handle any question or comment about adoption.

The kids are taught that they have 4 choices:

  • W: Walk away or choose not to pay attention
  • I: It’s private: I can choose not to share information
  • S: Share some information about adoption or my story
  • E: Educate others about adoption in general, by telling them correct information and helping them to understand it

Foster Parent Grief

This article from The Guardian highlights the ups and downs of fostering children.  The article quotes: “How does it feel, not knowing which strangers’ child will come through your door next?

All my partner and I can do as foster carers is to provide a model of a healthily functioning family where our 12-year-old daughter is a child and behaves as such, and the adults, for the most part, behave responsibly. We continue with what we hope is the positive “drip, drip” effect of living with us, but what can you do in four months?”

When considering foster-to-adopt, the wait is part of the process. The wait to get through classes, the wait for “the call.” You parent, and you love, and you wait for the foster system, the powers that be, to establish whether you are a forever family or not.  Meanwhile you are reminded daily that you have no control over the future of the child in your care.

Though fostering does not always end in adoption, there is the hope that it will. Some worry that the emotional toll of adopting from foster care is too high, as they may lose their child to a biological relative months or years into the adoption process.  Some foster parents claim that the system views blood relations as more important than a caring home.

Remember that the goal of foster care is family reunification and most people are not able to adopt the first child that is placed with them. When prospective adoptive parents coming from infertility or child loss are encouraged to adopt from foster care, they have already experienced so much loss that they are particularly vulnerable to being devastated by losing yet another dream. Many social workers have seen prospective adoptive parents give up on the idea of adoption completely in order to protect themselves.

Read about the Realities of Foster Care that you may face when choosing this route for Adoption.

The author of the article says, “Usually when children are first removed from their parents they come into the foster care program. Their parents are given a compliance plan “to get their act” together. (Go to rehab, attend 12-Step meetings, find a place to live, take parenting classes, show up at regularly scheduled visitations with the child, etc.) The child will live with extended family or foster parents or while social workers work with the parents.  The goal during this period is family reunification. Foster parents, even those that want to adopt, assume the risk during this period that the child will be returned to their family of birth.”

Here is a list of resources to help you find groups to connect with on your journey of adoption or adoption separation and loss:

Check out The Adoption Magazine
A great link for Adoptive Family Support Groups
A support site for Birth Mothers and Adoptees

Adoption is first and foremost a very personal and emotional process for adoptive families and birth parents. Here at The American Academy of Bereavement we know the importance of support while healing from separation and loss.  Join us today to find more resources on grief and grief counseling.