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Marlou Russell on Adoption Grief

Posted by on Mar. 28, 2008 at 9:38 AM
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Grief and Loss in Adoption

Special Needs Adoptive Parents Newsletter, Fall 2000
For more information, email
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.
Owner of Adoption Reunion group.
by on Mar. 28, 2008 at 9:38 AM
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Replies (1-5):
by on Mar. 28, 2008 at 1:04 PM
Very interesting, thanks for posting this!  I had forgotten about the "bargaining" section to the grieving process.
by Group Owner on Mar. 28, 2008 at 5:59 PM


I know why im overwhelmed.  But why do others wonder why?  Dont they know about loss and grief?  You cant tell someone to get over it and get lost.  I think for the first time I'm really understanding that this process could take my entire lifetime?  Do you agree?

Yes I do whole heartedly agree. I'm right there with you. I'll never get over this.

I think most of the people here on cafemom who are unsympathetic to you are aparents. And I think they dismiss you because they don't want to know that adoption can hurt people who are adopted. They want to think that they were given a child to give it a better life and that the kid is better off with them.  It's easier for them to dismiss you as refusing to heal.
Owner of Adoption Reunion group.
by on Mar. 29, 2008 at 8:23 AM
Okay, so I've been thinking about this bargaining section.  It is bugging me because I am having trouble applying it to the adoption situation.

If someone is dying/died I can see the bargaining "Why wasn't I the one killed?" etc.  But this doesn't work within the adoption framework.

The only way I see bargaining apply is within the search.  You search for your birth relative to try to undo what was done.

Is there any other way this applies and I'm just not seeing it?  Please note, I'm only thinking in terms of the birth people, not the adoption parents.

Thanks for your thoughts on this.
by on Mar. 30, 2008 at 7:43 AM
Yes, Cathy,

It does make sense.  The way you describe your behavior in this regard is very much how an "enabler" behaves with an addict of some kind. 

Enablers constantly make excuses and cover-up for the addict.

Anyway, I had never thought of that in terms of bargaining.  Interesting.  I'll have to think on this some more.

Thanks for sharing!
by Member on Aug. 21, 2008 at 10:27 PM

Quoting AdriaD:

Okay, so I've been thinking about this bargaining section.  It is bugging me because I am having trouble applying it to the adoption situation.

I think the bargaining part comes in when the bmom thinks that everything will be better when she has another baby (a so called replacement baby) but as a bmom I know that one baby can't replace another baby.

I met this one woman she had a baby girl and dhs got involved and took her first daughter away  do to parental neglect and dependency. I am not sure how this came about but the first baby was 2 months old at the time and very healthy and clean and well taken care of. However the mother lost it, when she was forced to sign over her parental rights to the child and got pregnant again right away. She had it in her head that if she had another baby and really good care of it they would give her her 1st daughter back. When her 2nd daughter was born she went in to a deep depression state thinking that the 2nd daughter looked identical to the first daughter and that was not true I mean everyone else could see that but her. Any she didn't feel that she could take care of that baby and so she didn't and dhs steped in again and now that baby has been placed with a loveing amom and doing well. As for the woman I really feel sorry for her because she can't seem to make heads or tails of what happened and she is not taking care of herself either.


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