Good Grief!

Recognizing the Loss and Grief Issues in Foster Children AND Foster Parents

June Bond, B.A. M. Ed

     Invariably, when people find out that I am an adoption counselor, the resounding comment is “That must be the best and most rewarding job in the world.  I bet you can’t wait to see what happens each day.”  While I admit that I love my job and every day brings some new turn of events, the Pollyanna outlook that I hand out cherubs everyday says mountains about the general lack of knowledge about the issues of loss and grief that accompany adoption.  Loss and grief in the adoption triangle is a core issue that families deal with over a long period of time.

      While these issues seem more anticipated in adopting an older child, there are significant loss and grief issues associated with an infant adoption.  Adoptive parents spend a great deal of time, effort, and money conveying the message to their new baby that they are a “chosen child, born not out of their flesh but into the hearts.”  This message can be found on birth announcements, placards in the nursery, and in countless books that attempt to help a child understand and appreciate their adoption as an infant.  While making their child feel wanted and loved, there can be a noted lack of understanding that an adopted child can suffer form the primal wound of being placed for adoption.  I asked my own son, when he and his wife were expecting their daughter, if he wanted me to search for his birth mother for a meeting to obtain health information for the soon-to-be-born baby girl.  His comment was “why would I want to meet her if she did not want to keep me. I am not a part of her life and she will not be a part of my life after all of these years.” It was clear to me that his primal wound of rejection was still not healed after twenty-seven years.

     On the other side, many adopted children lash out at their adopted parents trying to find the right balance between their need to reach out and be connected to their birth parents, and the need to be secure in their adoptive setting. “You are not my real parents,” is a common way of trying to be in both worlds.  Likewise, conjuring up the perfect birth parents that are out there some where just waiting to come and take their child back to their lavish castle in which they live is another way of reconciling the primal wound.  What is hard for the adoptive parent is to recognize that these thoughts are not uncommon and do not reflect that they are not loved and needed by their adopted child. The adoptive parent has to acknowledge in a mature and unemotional fashion the child’s feeling and help them to express these feelings of loss and grief.  This can be very difficult for an adoptive parent since their own feelings about infertility can be an unhealed wound.   

      Adopting an older child can bring added layers of loss and grief.  It is easy to think that adopting an older child that has been living in foster care or an orphanage over seas will bring immediate joy and security to the child, not issues of loss and grief. This is not always true. When an older child is moved away from their current setting to their new home, the child experiences the loss of former caregivers and friends, the loss of familiar objects, and the loss of  familiar routines and habits.  For international adoptees, they suffer the loss of their native foods, language, and familiar sights, sounds and smells.  Needless to say, the loss and grief can be compounded by the deprivation, abuse and neglect that the child suffered prior to their placement into a “forever home.” Adoptive parents and foster parents must acknowledge the trauma of this new placement and the grief that can accompany these losses.  It is easy for the outside world to gloss over the loss of a former life, as they bask in the sunlight of the new life that the child can anticipate.  It is also easy for the new parents to not recognize their child’s losses as they bask in the warmth of the recent placement and their own feelings of love and pride in their new child. One client recently confided that she felt angry that her newly placed six year old child had loss and grief issues, while she was so thrilled at finally getting to be a mother, after years of infertility.

      The adoptive parents of a newborn have some time on the ground before the child can show signs of loss and grief. But… the adoptive parents of a toddler or older child may have to deal with these issues on an immediate time schedule. Children are not always able to talk about their feelings, thus using their actions to speak louder than their words.  Younger children may exhibit physical symptoms such as a marked change in sleep patterns, night terrors, and a change in eating patterns.  Regression is also a common reaction to loss and grief. Children may revert to thumb sucking, rocking, tantruming, or enuresis.  A loss of concentration and mood swings may occur in older children. In addition, some children fluctuate between withdrawal and aggression. Others may exhibit guilt about getting a new family, resembling survivor guilt.  This is most common when a sibling group is separated and some of the children are not adopted.  It is also important to note that as children go through certain developmental states, the feelings of loss and grief may be more prevalent.  As Piaget noted, children’s level of thinking and reasoning go through progressive stages, culminating in the ability to process complex material.  As a child’s ability to reason progresses, higher order questions evolve about the reasons behind their placement and their birth family.  This may cause the child to “circle back” to some previous issues of loss and grief that the parents thought had been resolved years earlier. Consequently, the issues of loss and grief can be linear, curricular and developmental.

      As parents, social workers, and caregivers, what can we do to help children resolve their feelings of loss and grief regarding adoption?

Be honest, but age appropriate, with the child about the facts of their placement. This will have to be done knowing the level of the child’s comprehension and the circumstances surrounding the adoption plan.  It is also important to help the child understand that the adoption plan was not the result of any fault or issue that the child had.  This is very important when the adoption plan was made due to abuse of the child.

Acknowledge and be supportive of the child’s need to grieve his losses.  This takes a mature parent who can see beyond sometimes hurtful words and actions by their adoptive child.

Acknowledge times that you have felt loss and grief and how you dealt with it.

Suggest for older children to keep a journal to write about their feelings that they may not want to share with anyone else.

Read books to your child about others who have experienced loss and grief and have lived through their losses. Use gentle questioning about how their situations may be alike or different.

Be prepared to discuss some issues about the placement plan over and over again as the child matures and has a deeper level of comprehension of the initial facts. Remember that loss and grief issues can be circular as the child’s development progress.

Seek out other resources such as an adoption support group for adoptees and counseling for the adoptee and for the entire family unit. Be aware of how the child’s loss and grief issues may be affecting the bonding between you and your child.

     Loss and grief is a normal part of all life.  Each of us will suffer loss and grief at some time in our life. The ability to deal with the loss and grief with a supportive caring family can help a child move forward to know that his losses and grief can be replaced with a loving forever family on whom he can depend! Good grief leads to healthy relationships and moving beyond past hurts.