Loss

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loss

A feeling of emotional deprivation that is, at some point in time, experienced by each member of the ADOPTION TRIAD.

No matter how certain a birthparent is that adoption is the right decision for a child, there will be times when the loss of the child is keenly felt. The initial loss will usually be felt at or subsequently to placement of the child. Caring social workers realize that when a birthmother goes home from the hospital, she must contend with feelings of loss and separation in addition to any hormonal imbalance she may also suffer. Birthmothers also report that they think about the child on the child's birthday.

If the birthmother was not pressured into her decision to place the child for adoption and believes it was primarily her own decision, she is more able to cope with the feelings of loss she will experience. She will also realize that whatever the resolution of a pregnancy, particularly if it is unintended, some feeling of loss is inevitable.

Adoptive parents who are infertile feel a loss as well, and their loss is the ability to bear a genetic child. Individuals who are actively seeking to achieve a pregnancy have reported feeling anger or despair when they see pregnant women in public and a terrible sense of a lack of control over their own destinies. Hopefully, they will have resolved most of their own anxiety over infertility prior to adopting a child so they can fully accept a child who does not share their genes. (See INFERTILITY.)

An adopted child may feel a sense of loss at various points in time; for example, if a child is adopted at infancy, the first time the child realizes he is adopted, perhaps at age five or six, and this means his adoptive mother was not pregnant with him can be painful because the child loves the mother and wants to be as close as possible to her. Another possibly difficult time for an adoptive child is adolescence, when questions of identity and questions about life become important to the average teenager, adopted or nonadopted. Although most adopted children who were adopted as infants are as well-adjusted as the average nonadopted person, if there will be an identity crisis, it will probably be during adolescence. (See ADOLESCENT ADOPTED PERSONS; IDENTITY.)

Katherine Gordy Levine, M.S.W., director of group homes, SCAN, in New York and also adjunct professor at the Columbia University School of Social Work, points out that it should not be presumed that children adopted as adolescents who are ACTING OUT are unhappy with their parents or feel their parents are inadequate. Instead, she says, "The adjustment of children to a foster home before becoming adolescents is a good barometer of whether the problem originates in parental problems or the adolescents' shifting thoughts."

In some cases, Levine says, the adolescent may blame adoptive parents for problems stemming from treatment received by birthparents. "The tendency to blame the current parents and to focus on their limitations is often simultaneously used by placed adolescents to negate biological parents' failings. If all parents are bad, biological parents are not so bad."

Levine says adolescents "need to mourn and make sense of the experiences of their lives .?.?. when the wounds created by placement can be closed, peace can be made with the past, and life can move forward once again."

Adopted adults may again experience a sense of loss when they marry and have children themselves, wondering about their genetic links to their birthparents. If the adopted adult is infertile, the infertility may be even more painful than for the nonadopted infertile person; however, presuming the adopted person felt positively about his or her own adoption, he or she may perceive adoption as a very good way to create his or her own family.

Older adopted children may experience feelings of loss, not only from their birthparents, if they were old enough to remember when they separated, but also from foster parents, if they are adopted by another family. Adoptive parents are advised to recognize these feelings and help the child resolve them. If possible, adopting parents should initially meet the child at the foster parents' home.

Many experts recommend the use of a LIFEBOOK, which is a special scrapbook for adopted older children, chronicling the child's life. It is also helpful to allow the child to talk about the past and reflect upon it. Talking about previous experiences need not mean the child is unhappy with the adoptive parents but is more likely to mean the child feels comfortable and safe about talking about important events in his or her life. (See also BIRTHMOTHER.)


Vera Fahlberg, M.D., Attachment and Separation: Putting the Pieces Together (Chelsea, Mich.: National Resource Center for Special Needs Adoption, 1979.)

Claudia Jewett, Helping Children Cope with Separation and Loss (Boston: Harvard Common Press, 1982).

Katherine Gordy Levine, "The Placed Child Examines the Quality of Parental Care," Child Welfare 67 (July-August 1988): 301-310.

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