23 May The 6 stages of grief & being adopted: Back and forth and back again
The 3rd Friday of each month, I meet with 3 amazing EMDR therapists for the purpose of case consultation. This Friday, the talk turned to adopted people and grief.
One of my peers was reviewing a case about an adopted client. She said, “The child wasn’t acting out, they were grieving. Adoption is big ‘T’ trauma!”
The other therapist agreed. It was obvious to both of them. Neither therapist is adopted or trained in adoption-competence. My adopted and clinical heart was soothed. It is common for adoption loss to be missed in the therapy room with children and adults. Often by very skilled therapists.
Why is adoption loss missed/ignored?
This happens because the “happy-happy” or “savior” adoption narrative in our society is deeply ingrained. At it’s core, relinquishment – at birth or later – is loss. It is loss that is commonly denied or minimized throughout the lifespan of a person who was adopted.
Relinquishment at birth or later by your biological mother and father is trauma. Now, not all grief is traumatic, but all trauma involves grief. Understanding adoption grief is crucial to both supporting a loved one or processing your own loss.
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross identified 5 stages of grieving that are well-known today. The stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
David Kessler worked with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and recently added a sixth important stage to grieving. The sixth stage is finding meaning.
Kessler identified this stage as he was grieving the loss of his adopted son. Tragically, his son died by suicide which is all too common amongst our adoptee population.
Understanding your own experience and behavior through the lens of grieving can be helpful. It is grounding to gain clarity around your experience instead of overwhelm.
The stages are not linear. You may experience the stages at different phases of your life, this includes acceptance and meaning. During search and reunion, you may experience the stages multiple times throughout one day! It is all normal and hard.
“For in grief nothing ‘stays put.’ One keeps on emerging from a phase, but it always recurs. Round and round. Everything repeats. Am I going in circles, or dare I hope I am on a spiral?
But if a spiral, am I going up or down it?
How often — will it be for always? — how often will the vast emptiness astonish me like a complete novelty and make me say, ‘I never realized my loss till this moment?’ The same leg is cut off time after time.”
The 6 Stages of Grieving
- Denial: Disbelief that the loss has occurred. Shock in this stage is normal too.
- Anger: Awareness that someone we love is no longer present.
- Bargaining: This is the home of all the regrets and “what ifs”.
- Depression: Sadness and fatigue
- Acceptance: The reality of loss is acknowledged.
- Meaning: An acknowledgment that grief will not end, but can be transformed into something rich and fulfilling.
Examples of Adoption Grief by Stage
- Denial might sound like:
- Adoption didn’t have an impact on me.
- Why do you need to search for your biological family when you had a great childhood?
- I am searching for biological family because I just want medical information.
- I never think about my “real” family. My adopted parents were great.
- Anger could be seen in temper, irritability, or rage that arises from an awareness that:
- you were relinquished because your mother chose to not raise you.
- biological parents went on to parent other children, or had children when you were relinquished.
- your parents had their rights terminated because they physically hurt or neglected you.
- your adoptive parents – knowingly or unknowingly – participated in a corrupt adoption system.
- Bargaining might sound like this kind of thinking:
- If I reunite with my biological mother, relinquishment trauma will be healed.
- When I discover my roots, I will understand my “real” self.
- My first/biological family will fill the void that my adoptive family couldn’t fill.
- What if I wasn’t adopted? What would my life have been like?
- Depression feels like fatigue, loneliness, and heavy sadness that may arise from:
- the anger passing and draining your energy.
- the loss of a first parent due to death.
- awareness that the fantasy of who your biological parents are is over.
- secondary rejection from your first mother and/or father.
- Acceptance may happen when:
- your adoption story is realistic; a blend of happy, sad, and tragic.
- you can reconcile what your adoptive parents are capable of understanding about you.
- the loss of secondary rejection has settled and does not feel as raw.
- protesting and struggling with the truth of your adopted identity has subsided.
- Meaning might look like:
- writing your story as a way to claim your identity and experience.
- starting a support group to help other grieving adopted people.
- advocating for adoptee rights like gaining access to an original birth certificate.
- speaking up to tell your adoption truth when you hear the “happy-happy” or “savior” adoption narrative.
Understanding the reality of adoption’s impact on your life happens to people at all different ages and stages. A lot has to do with your adoptive family’s willingness to discuss adoption, temperament, ethnic identity compared to adoptive family, and many other factors. All normal, some more unique, but all normal.
Being able to identify what you are experiencing and having a safe person to process the experience with is an important part of healing. If you would like to talk about therapy with me, how to find an adoption-competent therapist or support group in your area, feel free to call or email.
Kate Murphy, LCSW
Kate Murphy, a therapist in Chamblee, GA, specializes in helping you decrease stress and anxiety. You can live a more balanced, connected, and meaningful life. Kate works with individuals and couples over the age of 18 to support healing, communicating, and experiencing joy more often. Personally and professionally she is part of the adoptee and LGBTQ community. Licensed in GA & FL.