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Where there is adoption, there is grief.

July 15, 2016

Grief.  We are just terrified of grief.  “It’s not grief that’s the problem,” a wise colleague noticed.  “It’s everything that gets in the way of the grief getting expressed.”  I see this truth everywhere.

There is so much grief in adoption and we seem obsessed as a culture to avoid spending any time being with grief.  We ignore it, stuff it inside, refuse to speak about it.  It festers and grows, and we stuff it even further.

Why?  What is so scary about grief?

The losses in adoption are overwhelming.

Suffering is the distance between expectation and reality.  Nobody expects adoption.  Adopted children don’t expect adoption.  Birthfamilies don’t expect adoption.  Adoptive families may expect adoption- but there is almost inevitable a huge difference between their expectations for adoptive parenting and their realities.

When there is distance between expectation and reality, there is suffering.  There is grief.


Grief isn’t well tolerated in our culture even after tragedies where we expect people to grieve, such as death.  But grief with an ambiguous loss like adoption?  No one brings casseroles, sends cards or flowers.  There are no rituals.  In fact, we often try to paint adoption as a win/win/win.  We’ve spent a lot of effort over the past century insisting that adoptive families are the same as biological families.  That the mothers who lose children to adoption move on and forget.  There are still many many adoptive families who never disclose (or attempt to never disclose) to their child that the child is adopted!  Really!  It’s hard to express grief when it’s been made so clear that adoption related grief isn’t acceptable.  It’s not acceptable because there is no problem with adoption.

Except there is.  There are big problems.  Don’t get me wrong- there are lots of great things that happen in adoption as well.  But we cannot take out of the equation the truth that adoption begins with a tragic loss.  And for many adoptive families, the losses just keep growing.  The grief that accompanies raising a child with a special need is profound.  This was not their expectation.

Maybe the grief is so big that you just cannot bear to go there.  That’s ok.  Tell your heart that truth.  That you know the grief is there.  You aren’t ignoring it.  You just can’t do it right now.  Your grief wants to be acknowledge, but it just might understand that you’re doing the best you can.

Maybe you have finally reached a place where you are ready to look at the grief.  I’m holding space for you tonight.  May you find a compassionate person- a therapist, a spouse, a friend- who can hold space for your grief.  Who can offer their presence without judgment.  Please don’t grieve alone.  Allow yourself the experience of feeling that your grief is OK.  It’s OK to express.  That someone is willing to walk with you.  There is someone who isn’t afraid.





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Robyn Gobbel, LCSW is a child and family therapist in Austin, Texas specializing in adoption, trauma, and attachment counseling. She is the founder of the Central Texas Attachment & Trauma Center.

Catch me in November as I experience the amazing honor of providing the Friday Keynote at the Adoption Knowledge Affiliates conference in Austin, TX!

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Robert Hafetz permalink
    July 15, 2016 2:26 pm

    Grief in adoption is disenfranchised grief. Its also based on an implicit memory that is disconnected from the conscious mind. Adoptees cannot identify in words the feelings that are experienced as if they were happening in the present. This prevents a resolution, consequently, adoptees become stuck in the initial phases of the grief process. These memories often begin to surface at age 5-7. Thats the time many adoptive families report behavior problems. What they are seeing is a child struggling with painful emotions that cant be understood. With no words they cant ask for help. What often happens is the behaviors are labeled as a disorder such as RAD, CD, ODD, ADHD, even Bi polar disorder. None of these is valid. What the adoptee is responding to is a prevebral trauma, an implicit memory representation. Grief is only one aspect, anger shame isolation and disconnection from society are also common. Interventions that are effective must be experiential. Words dont work.

    • Lara/Trace permalink
      July 16, 2016 11:51 am

      exactly! Thank you Robert!

  2. Lara/Trace permalink
    July 16, 2016 11:50 am

    It’s like my brain just exploded! BOOM! I didn’t grieve this enough.

  3. July 16, 2016 7:30 pm

    Feeling it is bad. Not feeling it is worse.

    Grief comes and goes, It can exist alongside joy. We can handle both.

    • Robert Hafetz permalink
      July 17, 2016 6:46 am

      Grief is a process that must be completed. It can be interrupted but will continue in the unconscious influencing life choices and responses until its restarted and resolved. In adoption the intensity of the emotion will not fade with time. If its not resolved you dont handle it, it handles you.

  4. September 1, 2016 7:45 pm

    Adoption is not always a win win for a birthmother.

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