Adoption grief: The unacknowledged loss : Kate Murphy Therapy
Kate Murphy, LCSW specializes in working with people suffering from anxiety and depression, and provides couples therapy including premarital counseling in the Atlanta metro area of Norcross, GA at the Pathway Center for Psychotherapy.
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Adoption grief: The unacknowledged loss

Adoption grief: The unacknowledged loss

I’ve been thinking about adoption loss and grief. Specifically – ambiguous loss, disenfranchised grief, and uncertainty. Whew – quite a mouthful!

In my mind’s eye, I keep seeing stages of grief as clothing hangers that adoption loss hangs on like a shirt.  Ambiguous loss and disenfranchised grief intensify the colors. They disrupt the normal process of grieving.

Knowing what grief looks like, understanding what happened to you, and identifying feelings can help decrease confusion and overwhelm. An aid to healing which, by the way, is a lifelong process.

Stages of Grief 

SadnessThere are lots of models for grief. The stages of grief  pioneered by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and later David Kessler are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance, and meaning. Personally, I find these stages straightforward and easy to remember.

  • Denial:  Disbelief and shock over loss
  • Anger:  Awareness that someone we love is no longer present
  • Bargaining:  The regrets and “what ifs”
  • Depression:  Sadness and fatigue
  • Acceptance:  Acknowledgment and incorporation of loss into identity
  • Meaning:  Acknowledgment of grief’s timelessness and transformation


While grieving, we oscillate. Meaning we go in and out of the stages. This could be daily. For example, you may feel acceptance of your adoption loss in the morning and be pissed off by dinnertime. Normal. Then at times, we may linger in one stage for years.

“We can have mood swings that are hard for anyone around us to comprehend, because even we don’t understand them. One minute we are ok. The next we are in tears. This is how grief works.”

-from Grief and Grieving

For me, the stage I lingered in was denial. The denial that adoption meant anything other than I was “chosen.” I can also look back and see that I was a sad person. Sadness was a program that was running in the background of my mind all the time. In hindsight, I believe that denial and depression were grief responses related to adoption loss.

Ambiguous Loss & Disenfranchised Grief

Ambiguous loss, coined by Pauline Boss in the 1970’s, is the grief of losing someone or something not dead. Originally, she was studying the impact of having a father who was physically present, but psychologically absent.

In adoption, the family is both lost and presumably alive. Often whereabouts are unknown. This is applicable for people who were adopted regarding ethnicity, country, culture, and/or religion depending on your history.

Boss believes that ambiguous loss is the most stressful form of grief. For people who were adopted this begins at birth or in childhood before identity has a chance to develop.

Boss said that a woman, after she explained ambiguous loss, told her “Oh…you mean the situation is crazy not me.”

The lack of recognition from others of adoption loss leads to what is called disenfranchised grief. Big word for big grief. “Disenfranchised grief refers to a loss that’s not openly acknowledged, socially mourned or publicly supported,” said Kenneth Dotka, who coined the term.

The adoption constellation (adoptees, birth parents, adoptive parents) are often suffering from disenfranchised grief to varying degrees. It is helpful to bring this out of the closet. Talk about it for a start.

Uncertainty – Avoid or Decrease

The word ambiguous means doubtful or uncertain. Uncertainty – as we’ve experienced in 2020 – is a stressful situation. During times of uncertainty, the brain searches for an answer to predict an outcome. This is our brain’s way of protecting us from danger.

In dealing with uncertainty, searching for information about first family or relinquished children is one way to decrease ambiguity. To feel better. However, with adoption finding answers might alleviate uncertainty in one area and increase uncertainty in another. Such as, finding out that a relinquished child grew up in an abusive family – did I do the right thing? Anger, bargaining, and depression stages abound with discovered answers.

Gaining claritySo while more information is usually helpful when dealing with uncertainty, with adoption more information might equal more pain and fear. Avoidance is often a better form of self-protection. Denial stage of grief shows up here.

It’s complicated. The complication and anticipation of pain leads to avoidance at times. More digging for answers or trying to build relationships to alleviate uncertainty works at other times. Listen to your gut. Both are normal responses to adoption loss.

Clarity Helps Healing

Understanding the loss and grief of adoption is challenging. Ambiguous loss and disenfranchised grief are not easy to deal with and are almost always a part of the adoption experience.

Acknowledgement of the loss you have experienced is important. You can do that for yourself as a start.

It is also helpful to understand what you’re feeling and why. It brings clarity. Especially when things are overwhelming.

For example, are you avoiding a search for a relinquished child or original family? Get curious. What do you fear? Maybe it’s that you aren’t ready to let go of the fantasy. The fantasy of a better life for your child gained through adoption. The fantasy of birth parents that are like you and want you. An issue that is from the hanger of denial or bargaining.

The shirt, so to speak, I frequently found myself wearing at the beginning of reunion was from the hanger of anger with a capital A. I was in pain about so many things. Most of all, I was grieving the connections that I had missed out on for most of my life.

healingUnderstanding what we are feeling and why makes it easier to explain to a loved one. Hopefully in the process, gaining support and deepening connection. Some people will not get it. Some people change over time.

When another person validates your feelings, it is grounding and soothing. While it doesn’t alleviate all the grief, connection with others who understand, like a support group or an adoption-competent therapist, can be very helpful and healing.

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