Acknowledging Immeasurable Adoptee Grief, The Real Mother
While loss in life is inevitable, we are seldom equipped to navigate such losses. This reality is highly relevant in the adoption arena, especially for adoptees.
I have noticed there is a lack of adequate information on the realities of complex grief that adoptees experience, which has left the adoptee population, young and older, unable to process and navigate dealing with such loss.
When adoptees experience one of the most significant losses of their lives when they lose their biological mothers, they are immensely consumed with grief in every fiber of their being due to such a profound loss from the moment of separation.
Grieving adoptees want and need to be heard and validated, not fixed.
But why is no one talking about this? Have adult adoptees made this connection between complex grief and loss? Do they know how they feel is normal for a non-normal situation? Are adoptive parents unaware of this loss? And even when they acknowledge it, do they know what to do with it?
Have you noticed that we are often taught how to gain things in life but not what to do when we lose them? While loss in life is inevitable, we are seldom equipped to navigate such losses. This reality is highly relevant in the adoption arena, especially for adoptees. We're the ones who didn't sign any paperwork, who had no control over this big, gigantic piece of our lives: adoption.
However, I was raised with a narcissistic adoptive mom who never grieved her loss from not being able to conceive a biological child due to infertility. Every day, I was expected to replace that dream child she could never have. I was a disappointment to her, and she disappointed me. We did not mesh well or bond, but forced bonding was pushed upon me from the beginning. I know many other adoptive moms who have never grieved their losses yet adopted instead. And then, birth mothers are also at a life-altering loss that needs to be grieved. Sadly, they are told to move on and are rarely allowed to grieve their loss publicly.
We live in a society that pushes positive culture everywhere we look. We're constantly told to "get over it and move on," yet we have little to no tools to navigate this process. Spiritual bypassing is also a significant hindrance in grieving our losses. We're told to pray more and fast, and we must not be doing something right because God hasn't healed us yet. (this was my experience anyway!)
The truth is, most of the time, as adoptees and those in the adoption constellation, we are not prepared to deal with complex grief and loss. Adoption creates a paradox and a misconception that once the child is adopted, there is no looking back. The child is looked at as a blank slate, and love is enough to mask the wounds of separation trauma that every adoptee experiences before they are ever adopted.
This is farther from the truth.
We must recognize that these are two separate events. Relinquishment trauma is not the same as adoption trauma. Once everyone in the adoption constellation can grasp this, a plethora of understanding can follow.
I am writing a series of articles about adoptee grief, complex grief, what it is, how it feels, and how it can impact adult adoptees. I have learned the hard way that most of the time in adoption, the adoptee isn't allowed to grieve, let alone know how to process complex grief.
It's also true that many adoptees haven't connected the dots on their own grief, let alone know how to heal it. I was one of those adoptees for 45+ years.
Now that I have made this connection and learned how to grieve in healthy ways, I plan to support my fellow adoptees in identifying that grief likely plays a pivotal role in their lives and healing journeys. Then, I encourage them to learn to process that grief healthily.
Most of the time, non-adoptees have no clue of the depths of the grief many of us carry. They also have little to no understanding that we have anything to grieve at all. If they knew, I want to think they would genuinely care and try to understand why we feel the way we are. Many times, they want to take our pain away. However, that isn't possible. The only way out of the sadness and grief adoption creates is to go through it and feel the feelings.
Adoptees often experience complex grief due to the unique set of circumstances surrounding their adoption. The emotional journey of an adoptee can be complex for several reasons. I think people genuinely believe that because we didn’t have relationships with our biological families, our loss isn’t a loss. This is absolutely not true. We have zero memories to hang onto, and our hearts are broken, and no one feels like we lost anything when many of us feel like we lost everything.
Firstly, adoptees may experience a sense of loss or abandonment from being separated from their birth parents or biological family. This loss can create a deep longing to understand one's roots, identity, and genetic heritage. The lack of information about their biological background can lead to questions about their origins, creating a void that may be challenging to fill.
Secondly, adoptees may struggle with feelings of rejection, wondering why they were given up for adoption. Even if they logically understand that their birth parents may have had valid reasons for placing them for adoption, the emotional impact of feeling unwanted or unloved can be profound. This can lead to a persistent sense of insecurity and self-doubt. It can create a war within each adoptee, and we are left to try to put the pieces together.
Thirdly, adoptees may grapple with issues of identity and belonging. Growing up in a different family, culture, or community can create a sense of disconnection and confusion. Adoptees may struggle to reconcile their adoptive identity with their genetic heritage, often feeling caught between two worlds. This can result in feelings of being "different" or a sense of not fully fitting in.
Additionally, adoptees may experience complex grief when they encounter societal misconceptions or stigmatization surrounding adoption. Ignorance or insensitivity from others can further exacerbate feelings of loss, isolation, or misunderstanding.
Let's also understand that when adoption is rooted in secrecy, lies, and half-truths, it only complicates things even more. Many of us spend our entire lives searching for clues, people, and information on who we are and where we come from. It's exhausting, but most will never know the depths of this. Do people understand that every clue we find can shift the trajectory of who we are, and it can alter the essence of who we are?
After all, we learn early on to internalize our real feelings because we are often silenced, shut down, and invalidated when we share them. We certainly are never encouraged to talk about our feelings and are often labeled ungrateful if we do.
When we are gaslit to be grateful, it creates an internal mental mind fu*k. We likely feel a million ways, but we are told to be grateful and thankful and that our loss was our adoptive parent's biggest dream come true. Our feelings are never brought to the table, and we certainly are never given the space to feel sad about being adopted. Please understand that just because we aren't verbalizing it doesn't mean we aren't feeling it.
What is complex grief, and how does it differ from grief?
Grief and complex grief are two distinct experiences, albeit interconnected. Understanding the differences between the two can provide valuable insights into the nature of grieving as an adoptee and its impact on individuals who know and love said adoptee.
Grief, in its simplest form, is a normal response to loss. It is a natural emotional and psychological reaction that occurs when someone experiences a significant loss, such as the death of a loved one, the end of a relationship, the loss in adoption, or the loss of a job.
Grief involves a range of emotions, including sadness, anger, guilt, and even relief. It can also manifest physically, affecting sleep patterns, appetite, and overall well-being. While grief is a universal experience, it is unique to each individual, with no set timeline or predictable trajectory of completion.
On the other hand, complex grief, also known as complicated grief or prolonged grief disorder, refers to an intensified and prolonged grieving process that significantly impairs an individual's ability to adapt to the loss.
Complex grief in adoption tends to be more severe and enduring, lasting beyond what is typically expected. It is characterized by an intense longing and yearning for the loss, accompanied by a sense of disbelief or difficulty accepting the reality of the loss.
Complex grief often involves persistent thoughts or preoccupation with the loss, a profound sense of emptiness, difficulty engaging in daily activities, and an inability to envision a future without the memory, person, or relationship that was lost. Every clue an adoptee finds to their truth could lead to a new loss that must be grieved.
Keep in mind many adoptees are grieving continuously from the moment we enter the world and are separated from our biological mothers.
I remember seeing my birth mother for the first time and being so incredibly disappointed that she was not the woman I had pictured in my mind my entire life. I dreamed she was this beautiful woman with gorgeous features, tall like me, and someone who glowed brightly, with love bursting from her. I pictured her exploding with lovely emotions, overly enthusiastic and delighted to see me.
Sadly, she was frail, wrinkled, and ridden with a life of alcohol, cigarettes, and COPD. She didn't want to be found, but she agreed to meet one time, not for her but for me. She wasn't pretty to me, and I didn't look like her. I was deeply heartbroken, and I consider this to be one of the biggest disappointments of my life. This is an example of one of the many reasons adoptees have to grieve.
Anytime secrecy, lies, and half-truths are at the root like they are in adoption, pain, heartbreak, and disappointment will follow. Usually, the adoptee pays the price for other's secrets and lies.
Additionally, complex adoptee grief may be accompanied by feelings of bitterness, anger, or guilt that are more intense and persistent than what is typically experienced in normal grief. The distinction between grief and complex grief lies in the level of impairment and the prolonged duration of symptoms. While grief can be intense and disruptive, it tends to gradually lessen over time as individuals adjust to their new reality.
There is no doubt that most adoptees who are separated from their biological mother begin to grieve from that moment, and it likely never stops.
How complex grief can take a toll on someone:
Impact on Self-Identity
Increased Risk of Mental Health Disorders
In contrast, complex grief from adoption persists and can lead to significant emotional distress and functional impairment, affecting various aspects of an individual's life, including relationships, work, and overall well-being. It is important to note that complex grief is not a universal experience.
I have learned that many adoptees have yet to distinguish the connection between how they are feeling and it being part of the grief process. However, for those who do experience it, seeking support from mental health professionals and someone specializing in adoptee grief and bereavement can be beneficial in navigating the complexities of this unique experience as an adopted person.
Some reasons an adoptee might be experiencing complex grief & loss:
The loss of our birth mothers, or birth story, the loss of knowing what she looks like, who and where is she? Wondering about our birth fathers, siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and extended family.
The loss of our culture, ethnicity, homelands, etc.
The loss of our medical history.
The loss of relationships with all of our relatives.
The loss of connection.
The loss of identity.
The loss of self-love.
The loss of love.
The loss of a safe adoptive home.
The loss of genetic mirroring.
The loss of having a childhood that is free of the mental paradox adoption creates.
There is a loss of peace within because many of us are constantly at war with ourselves.
The loss of tools, resources, and therapists who understand the depths of the adoptee experience, abandonment, rejection, separation trauma, adoption trauma, etc. We are left to figure it out solo.
The loss of our feelings being valid and acknowledged. Adoption is celebrated, and the world doesn't leave room for our grief and loss.
The loss of trusting relationships with our adoptive families. We're raised to tell the truth, but many times, they are a lot of times the gatekeepers of secrets.
The loss of being left out of wills and kicked to the curb by non-adopted family.
The loss of looking like our family yet not knowing who our family is.
The loss of not being entirely accepted by our biological families because we have no shared history.
The loss of searching for biological families and finding out the truth when it's been hidden from us our entire lives. Most of the time, adoption isn't rooted in a pretty story! Yet they keep dressing it up like it is, and adoptees have to navigate the reality of the truth once they fight like hell to uncover it.
The loss of our original birth certificates.
Some of our birth parents are deceased, and we find graves before we can make contact. This is a significant loss.
I could go on and on, but essentially, I hope you get that adoptees have mountains of loss to grieve throughout their lifetimes. Now, you can see why grieving can be a lifelong process.
It is essential to recognize that the experience of complex grief can vary significantly among adoptees. While some adoptees navigate these emotions successfully, for others, the complicated grief may persist throughout their entire lives.
Supportive resources, such as therapy, support groups, or connecting with fellow adoptees, can be valuable in addressing and processing these complex emotions. Supporting organizations like Adoptees Connect, Inc. can help the adoptee community by providing more resources and tools to navigate the adoptee experience.
Adoptive parents becoming professionals in navigating the grief process for their children could be lifesaving for the adoptees in their lives.
We must recognize and acknowledge that children who are adopted do not have the language to tap into the sadness they might internally feel. They need the adults in their lives to help facilitate these difficult conversations. They must realize that just because their adoptee "looks fine" doesn't mean they are.
Instead of pretending it doesn't exist, talking about an adoptee's loss from childhood could change the trajectory of the adoptee's life. I always say that if I had been allowed to grieve at a much younger age, in my childhood, and taught how to process big adoptee feelings, I wouldn't have begun this process in my mid-40s. It would have changed everything for me.
I am in the process of becoming a certified grief specialist via The Grief Recovery Institute to help those in the adoption constellation navigate the grief process, and one thing they highlight is the many areas of misinformation that we have learned in dealing with loss.
Don't feel bad.
Replace the loss.
Just give it time.
Be strong for others.
Several of my future articles will highlight these points and add my views on each of them, how they relate to the adoptee experience, and how adoptees have been treated by society when it comes to grieving our losses from being adopted.
It's no wonder adoptees are over-populated in prisons, jails, treatment, and mental health facilities, and they are 4x more likely to attempt suicide. We can't afford to not talk about grief and loss in adoption. Adoptees are dying, and many of our adoptive parents are ill-equipped to navigate how to help us.
Bringing these topics to light will spark more conversations that highlight grief & loss in adoption. Yesterday, I had a wonderful conversation with Simon Benn about healing, grief, and loss that will be live this coming week. Please visit the Thriving Adoptees podcast to check it out.
Q & A
For my fellow adoptees, have you been able to connect the dots on your personal journey and how it impacts the grief process? If so, how are you processing grief? How has society positively or negatively influenced the grief process? What tools have been the most valuable to you? Drop your comments below.
For any adoptive parents, have you considered addressing the grief and loss of your adopted child so they can start grieving as early as possible?
I see you; I feel your pain for all the adoptees who feel forgotten, lost, and alone. Please don’t give up, and know you aren’t alone in feeling like you do.
I have compiled a list of recommended resources for adoptees and advocates. You can find it here: Recommended Resources for Adult Adoptees and Adoption Advocates.
Thank you for reading and for supporting me and my work.
Understanding is Love,
Pamela A. Karanova
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Join us for Giving Tuesday on November 28th, 2023!
This year, Adoptees Connect, Inc. is participating in Giving Tuesday again! You can be a beacon of change for Adoptees around the world!
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Here are a few articles I recommend reading:
100 Heartfelt Transracial Adoptee Quotes that Honor the Truth of Adoption by Pamela A. Karanova & 100 Transracial Adoptees Worldwide
What Are the Mental Health Effects of Being Adopted? By Therodora Blanchfield, AMFT
10 Things Adoptive Parents Should Know – An Adoptee’s Perspective by Cristina Romo
Understanding Why Adoptees Are At A Higher Risk for Suicide by Maureen McCauley | Light of Day Stories
Toward Preventing Adoption- Related Suicide by Mirah Riben
Relationship Between Adoption and Suicide Attempts: A Meta-Analysis
Reckoning with The Primal Wound Documentary with a 10% off coupon code (25 available) “adopteesconnect”