Special Needs Adoptive Parents Newsletter, Fall 2000
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Loss is an inherent part of adoption. In adoption, adoptees lose their birth families, birth parents lose their children, and adoptive parents lose their dream of the child they originally wanted to have. The structure of adoption is such that to create an adoptive family a birth family must be separated.
Special needs adoption adds another layer of loss to adoption. The loss of health, siblings, cultural familiarity and caretakers will affect the adoptee. The adoptee's losses are then passed on to the adoptive parents and birth parents via tentative and precarious relationships.
Unless loss is recognized, grieving cannot take place. Oftentimes when an adoption is finalized, triad members are focusing on the next phase of their lives - the adoptive parents are busy raising their child, the birth parents are attempting to move on in their lives, and the adoptee is getting used to new caretakers.
Recognizing the stages of grief can reassure triad members that they are experiencing appropriate feelings. Adults, children, and even infants can show the signs and symptoms of loss and grief. When the losses of adoption are addressed, the gains of adoption can be more fully appreciated.
Kubler-Ross Stages of Grief
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross has been a pioneer in the field of death and dying research. In her work with dying people and those close to them, she has identified five stages of the normal grieving process. These five stages can be worked through in any order. Some stages may be revisited, but typically people pass through all five stages in their processing of grief issues.
The first stage of grieving is denial. Feeling shock, disbelief, numb, and detached is common. The incident or feelings are kept out of one's awareness. Denial is protective in that it helps people to function when the truth or clarity would be too much to handle. Staying in denial, however, has negative consequences. To ignore important issues and feelings is like having a pink elephant in the living room that no one talks about. Everyone walks around it and pretends it isn't there even though it's in the way of everything.
The second stage of grieving is anger. Anger is the feeling that a situation is unfair and should not have happened. It is common in the anger stage to look for someone to blame. Anger can also be very motivating and inspire one to take action. The anger stage can help a person make changes in their life. Many worthwhile organizations have grown out of the energy that anger can produce.
The third stage of grieving is bargaining. Bargaining involves trying to find ways to undo the situation by searching for trade-offs. Being in the stage of bargaining means that the person is no longer in denial. There is a real awareness of the loss, and the bargaining is an attempt to control a situation that feels out of control.
The fourth stage of grieving is depression. Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness can be present as well as a lack of energy, changes in eating or sleeping patterns, irritability, lack of interest in usual activities, sadness, and an inability to concentrate.
The fifth and final stage of grieving is acceptance. The loss is no longer the main focus and there is room for other activities and interests. The goal of acceptance in adoption is not to forget the person or that an adoption has taken place. That would bring one back to the stage of denial. The goal of acceptance is to honor and integrate the people and experience of adoption.
Grieving in Adoption
Grieving in adoption is different in some distinct ways from mourning the death of someone who has died. When someone dies, there is a definite ending that allows grieving to begin. In adoption, there is no death, no ending. In adoption, a state of limbo exists that is similar to the dynamics of mourning someone who is missing in action. It is difficult to mourn someone who is alive but unavailable.
It is important to acknowledge and address the phases of grieving as they appear. Events and situations in each triad member's life will trigger feelings of adoption loss. Acknowledging and expressing these feelings appropriately allows the grieving process to proceed and healing to take place.
Feelings of loss and the need to grieve can occur despite the level of contact and communication between triad members. Adoptees can miss their birth parents or former care takers even if there was abuse. Birth parents can miss their children regardless of the circumstances of the separation. Adoptive parents can miss the simpler life they had before the adoption.
Adoption triad members need to be aware of the issues of adoption and be around people who understand the complexities of adoption. Conferences, books, and the Internet are a great source of information on all aspects of the adoption experience. Adoption support groups offer camaraderie, validation, and practical information.
The losses of adoption cannot be avoided. However, the process of grieving and reaching out to others for support can provide emotional relief and the knowledge that you are not alone on your journey of adoption.