I have been helping birth parents process the grief associated with the loss of a child due to adoption since 1989. I remain in awe of the brave mothers and fathers who have the strength to make this loving, life altering decision for their children and themselves. Although each birth family’s adoption journey is unique, we know that the grief process has predictable stages.
Denial / Shock / Sadness / Depression / Anger / Fear / Bargaining / Resistance / Acceptance
After doing this work for nearly 25 years, I have had the opportunity to make some observations. Grieving the loss of a child due to an adoption is much different than a loss due to death. Although the stages are the same, the parent who places a child for adoption does this “on purpose”. They likely have some contact with the child or his adoptive parents throughout the child’s life. They may also reunite at some point; an impossibility for a family separated by death. The fact that the birth parent decided to make the plan can enhance the feelings of guilt found in the sadness stage.
Some birth parents report that although they would never choose to not receive updates or visits from their child, after these visits, they experience parts of the grieving process all over again.
I have been blessed to be able to remain connected to several birth families. They have shared that it took them about two years to reach the acceptance stage. Before getting there, many of them said they “bounced around a lot”. One minute they were so angry, they couldn’t see straight and the next minute they would cry for no reason. “I felt like I was going crazy; my emotions were all over the place. My boyfriend and I made this decision together, but after we went home from the hospital, all we did was fight”.
The bouncing around they described was perfectly normal, although certainly challenging in every way while it is happening. As I “walk beside” those birth families during this time, I hope to help explain this process so they can recognize it as the hard work necessary to achieving peace. Like anything else worth having, it takes work.
Birth parents have also described “getting stuck” in a stage. Depression is one of the worst stages to get “stuck” in. When someone gets stuck in depression, their sleeping and eating patterns can change. Their desire to hang out with friends and socialize may go away. Some of the birth families I have worked with shared that they did not want to leave the house or even get out of bed and take a shower. When they discussed this with their doctor at their six week post-partum check-up, they were praised for doing so. The doctor told them that they may be experiencing post-partum depression and, although counseling and support groups are the best treatments for grief, if one has post-partum depression, your doctor may, after an evaluation, prescribe medication especially made for depression.
Anger is also a difficult stage to get “stuck” in. Some of my birth parents have shared that they noticed that they took their anger out on the people that they loved the most; weird, huh? Birth parents blamed each other even though they both made the decision together. Younger birth parents fought with their parents, blaming them because they did not agree to raise the child. Some birth parents were just mad at everyone who tried to be nice to them at that time because they did not feel like they deserved to be treated kindly. The good news is that all of these feelings are NORMAL. You will feel what you are supposed to feel, and in your own time, reach acceptance.
Some additional tips that birth families have shared is that the grieving process can start as early as when you miss your first period. You can feel all of these stages as you work through your decision to make an adoption plan. After the child goes home with her adoptive parents, you are still likely to grieve that loss as well.
Families also shared that holidays can sneak up on you! Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and your child’s birthday may be obvious days that might be tough. But birth families also share that family holidays, such as Halloween, Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas, are challenging, as well. They found themselves wondering what costume their child is wearing that year or did they receive the toy they wanted under the tree. Knowing that these times might be difficult and surrounding yourself with supportive, caring people can go a long way in helping you get through these times. These thoughts are NORMAL. You will always love your child. It is perfectly okay to feel sad and miss them. The goal of acceptance is to find the place in your heart where your child can live while you experience peace.
Let’s talk a bit about denial. Unfortunately, this is the emotion I see the most. As woman, we are taught to be strong and stoic, and to take care of everyone else first. Many of the women I have the privilege of working with wear their denial like a suit of armor. They try not to be vulnerable in an effort to avoid getting hurt, but denial does not make grief and loss go away, it just buries it. Even worse, loss stacks. This means that if you have not been able to work through the stages of grief from a former loss, it has a way of “sneaking” into the next loss, and so on and so on. So, if you are not careful, the death of your grandparents and the divorce of your parents could get mixed up in the emotions you feel about placing your child for adoption. This is another reason to work through your feelings about this adoption. This allows you to sort of clear out your “grief file”. The next time you experience loss, you won’t bring this “baggage” into the mix and you will have learned valuable coping skills as well as how it feels to achieve acceptance and peace after loss.
Some birth families describe an overwhelming feeling of fear that they made the wrong decision and engage in “let’s make a deal” prayers with God. The fear/bargaining stage can take up a lot of energy while folks second guess their decision. Birth families have shared concerns regarding picking the right family and worry over the adoptive parents following through with their promises. Many birth parents gain a sense of trust and renewed faith in their adoption decision and family selection as the adoptive parents prove that they will follow through with their agreements for updates and contact.
I am always pleased to hear from birth families that are in the resistance stage. Although they may not know it, this tends to be the last stage before acceptance. Some folks tell me that they have become comfortable with the sadness they now associate with their child and they just don’t see how they can let go of the sadness without losing all connection with their son or daughter. What they have not yet come to understand about acceptance is that it is possible to keep the connection and replace the sadness with peace. Once that shift is made, a burden is lifted, a wholeness of spirit returned.
The Acceptance Stage is a time for celebration! My families have shared so many amazing moments of peace and acceptance with me. One of the best parts of our support group “get togethers” is the wonderful stories, pictures and letters individuals bring to share. The family Jennifer chose for her son has him “sign” the update letters. The pride in her eyes as she shares this story lets me know that she has found peace. The photo album that Patty brings to all of our meetings is filled with her son’s “firsts”. As we all take turns holding Patty’s four month old daughter and discuss her big brother, I can tell Patty has come to accept her decision. Emily and Larry placed their first son for adoption and allowed me to be a part of their first visit with him and the family they chose. This was one of the most incredible and emotional meetings I have ever attended. The families were able to spend a long weekend together allowing Emily and Larry to feed, bath and even put their son down for a nap. Although these birth parents felt every emotion under the sun, this visit brought them peace. They made the decision that was right for them. Their son was loved and happy and the adoptive parents honored all of their promises.
I would be honored if you would allow me to be a part of your journey….making an adoption plan for your child is one of the most unselfish things you will ever consider. As an agency, your needs come first. That is why we created Placement from the Heart Birth Parent Support Group. PFTH allows us to stay connected as long as you need us. You may also want to help other birth parents through your experiences. All are welcome.