How Can I Cope When the Adoption Fails?

June 14, 2020
How Can I Cope When the Adoption Fails?

To cope when adoption fails is part of grief that we all experience. I texted a dear friend one day. He had broken off an engagement, and it tore through the fabric of who he was. Nothing would change how deeply he was mourning her absence. The conversation forever changed my approach to grieving and coping with loss. Although our wounds were not the same, we were both in the middle of mourning a girl’s absence–one we saw ourselves growing old alongside. For him, it was his ex-fiancee. For myself, it was the sister I lost to a failed adoption.

You see, a hurricane of emotions flooded my life for many years following her loss. I would reach out to tell friends of the storm and there was always a solution. One told me to write a list of things I was thankful for, another said to stop thinking about it, step out of my grief. 

 “It’s raining.” I’d say. 

“Come inside!” or “You have an umbrella!” would be the response.


It was not my friends’ job to stop my grief short of its fullness. No umbrella of gratefulness or shelter would change how deep the puddles were and how strong the winds are. I was not complaining about the tear-drenched–I mean, rain-drenched, clothing. The cry was about the weather itself. The grieving and aching were in my soul, and nobody could change it. I didn’t want anyone to change it. 

In the season of loneliness for that man and for myself, neither of us needed to be “saved” from our grief. We had umbrellas of gratefulness, we had homes, but the grief still hung like dark clouds overhead. All we needed was a friend to sit beside us with no solution other than togetherness. 

“It’s raining,” I would say.

“Yeah. Yeah, it is,” is all someone would need to say.

The friend would come in close and wait until the storm lightened. 

How do you cope when an adoption fails? How do you deal with the grief? So many things could have gone better. I kept thinking that it could have worked out. I told myself that I could have been a better support system, could have tried harder, could have used a different agency. You might feel responsible, awful, or just sad as well. Lies creep into our feelings easily as we grieve. Friend, your feelings in this season of coping and grief are valid, but those feelings are not necessarily the truth. Dealing with grief largely involves calling it by name and holding hands with the tiny monster, so to speak, for as long as it needs. 

A year ago, I wrote an article about grief after losing my foster sister to a corrupt system. Mapping out the number of days I had before the article was due gave me a sense of security; I only had to touch the grief when I wanted to. However, I eloquently forgot about the article until the day of its’ submission. My fingers flying to meet a deadline, appearances of perfection jumped out the window. Grief and honesty penned the article, rather than words on all the soft and sweet ways adoption shapes you. My calendar mishap created one option–write honestly and clearly about the raw grief I still mourn.

Although today the mourning is not as sharp, sadness demands my full attention rather than the cleaned-up version of grief. So dear friends, the article you get today is the raw and uncut mess of an article about grief that comes from one hurting soul reaching to another. 

The day one adoption fell through, my heart stopped and my world fell apart. Even worse was the day. Things seemed to get better because one of my foster siblings left the home–cue unimaginable guilt for enjoying life without the child. 

When an adoption fails, you grieve. The failure may have saved your marriage or put it on the rocks, it may cause peace or turmoil, rejoicing or tears, or a bizarre combination. All the same, we grieve what does not come as expected. 

Adoption is the merging of histories into one timeline. Sometimes, adoption does not last forever and we grieve the lost dreams and unmet expectations. Whether you’re grieving a dissolved adoption or a birth parent changing their mind or an adoption falling through before completion, the nights are long and the days are rough. 

This Is for the Parent Who Chose to Disrupt an Adoption.

Before an adoption is finalized, you can disrupt the process. It is different from dissolving the adoption. My family walked through a disrupted adoption more than ten years ago at the hands of a corrupt agency rather than our own decision. Disruption is fairly common and incredibly painful. Many feel like he or she does not have permission to learn how to deal with grief when an adoption fails because it was not yet a completed adoption. An adoption falling through is a reason to grieve, your feelings are valid. 

This Is for the Hopeful Adoptive Parent Who Came Home to an Empty Crib.

Expectant parents are allowed to change their minds. Choosing to parent is a beautiful and difficult decision. Although the situation is one we can rejoice, the quiet stillness where a baby “should be” breathing or crying is deafening enough to pierce to the deepest hurt. Grieving someone else’s joy is complicated. 

Mourning the loss of a child is complicated. Your hope in this situation was not the enemy here. Your heart and the time you spent dreaming was not either. The birth parent(s) is not, his or her’s decision is not. The real enemy is apathy. Embracing the heartache leads to a deeper understanding of love as we knew it. Closing off the heart leads to desolation. Whether metaphorically or physically, weep deeply for the life you wanted to know. 

This Is for the Parent Who Chose to Dissolve an Adoption.

Dissolving an adoption is the heartbreaking and difficult choice to formally relinquish your rights and connection with a child who was adopted. The child either goes into foster care or can be adopted by another family. 

The New York Post published article came from a young woman named Ana Shurmer. She was adopted twice, once by a family who relinquished rights and was subsequently adopted by a new family. In short, she believes dissolving the original adoption was the best possible option. Her first adoptive family was not evil by any means. The family was loving and kind, fighting for five long years to love her as a daughter well. 

Ana Shurmer briefly explained the abuse she endured at the hands of her birth mother. Consequently, she could not bond with her first adoptive mother. One of the problems associated with the behaviors Ana presented is called RAD, or, Reactive Attachment Disorder, which is a social relationship disorder. In adoptive situations, it generally aims towards mothers. The prior trauma leaves a blockage. Reactive attachment disorder is one of the reasons people choose to dissolve adoptions. Psychotherapy, counseling, structure, and connection can help children with RAD. However, when RAD is particularly severe, children can be a danger personally and parents. A second adoption can repair the symptoms and build trust, although we truly do not yet understand why. 

My heart grieves with you in this season of questioning. Cruel and unsympathetic questions flood through people’s mouths far too often, not having walked through it personally. Your grief is legitimate, even when you made the decision yourself. Your grief is legitimate, even if relief coursed through your home that day. 

You did not fail. Your grief is valid regardless of its flight pattern into your atmosphere. 

This Is for the Parent Who Lost an Adoption Through Circumstances Beyond Personal Control.

Embryo adoptions do not always take place, countries sometimes close borders, foster situations take unexpected turns, the list goes on. Your grief is valid, even if it is non-traditional. You may or may not see support groups for your situation, and you may feel uncertain of your belonging during this season. It may be hard to anticipate the feelings and results to follow. 

How Can I Cope When the Adoption Fails?

I cannot stress enough how individualized grieving patterns look. Allow yourself to grieve however you need to. Lock the door to the bedroom you prepared, or sleep in it. There is no correct ‘how to deal with grief when an adoption fails’. 

Forgive Yourself and Others Involved in the Situation.

It has been 1,708 days since the custody battle for my sister began. It has been 1,685 days since it ended. Although the days can be measured, the number of ways I blamed a broken system, an irresponsible family member, and many others for the loss cannot surmount in numbers. Forgiveness is acknowledging error, not minimizing the pain. Subsequently, understanding my feelings rather than holding resentment leads to forgiveness. 

Go to Therapy.

The first appointment for me was awful. The second one was too. Finding a counselor can be discouraging and messy, but I encourage you to find the right fit. Therapy and counseling are some of the most helpful tools for processing grief. Your life will never be the same as before adopting. Normal life resumes, of course. You change by learning how to cope and deal with grief when an adoption fails. What a beautiful scene, your life can become a deeper and richer place even if the grief does not fully pass. Counselors can be found by word of mouth, through a church, through the adoption agency, online, and via community outreach services. Many accept insurance and others offer affordable introductory visits. 

If you cannot afford therapy or do not want to join yet, start keeping a journal of your feelings and memories. Leaving someone on paper gives permanence. It also alleviates the strain of trying to constantly respect the memories. 

Surround Yourself with Friends.

This is a messy season. The only people who understand might be those within the adoption community but your story also represents others’ fear, possibly making you feel disconnected. Embrace the uncomfortable to connect with your people.


I am serious about this one. Sleeping will do wonders for your emotional processing and health. Undergoing trauma largely impacts the body. Sometimes you don’t know how to deal with grief when an adoption fails. Sleep does an enormous amount of healing. No, eight hours of sleep will not wash your pain completely away. Instead, sleep will give you the tools to manage grief and move through this season. 


Education has two sides to it, the people side and yourself side. 

People: Some are slamming YouTubers for placing their son in a new home. The couple dissolved the son’s adoption after realizing the couple was not prepared to care for him. The family was advised by medical professionals to find a new home for the son after he abused his siblings. The number of people who have posted insensitive content about the decision is disturbing. Inform people of the impact of hurtful words. 

Children also likely have profound questions. Answering what you can is important, educating in how to speak of the failed adoption and answer questions. Innocent questions can either sting or uncover new places to heal. 

Yourself: Grieving is messy and complicated in several ways. We want to avoid it at all costs, yet we sometimes feel guilt over “not grieving enough.” We may think that this season took too long or not long enough. We may think that the list of reasons we label our grief as insufficient is longer than the insurmountable list of reasons you might be grieving today. Your grief is your grief, plain and simple as that. You will not grieve the same way anyone else does. Educate yourself on the lasting effects of grief, trauma’s impact on the body, forgiveness, and grieving with hope. 

Last Thoughts

I do not want normal back. How to cope when an adoption fails is no science, it does not revere the deadlines we set for it. Oftentimes, mourning is an unwanted guest as pain, and it is something we are biologically hardwired to avoid. Reaching out in this season may look different than you believed it would, holding hands with grief rather than the child you held so many dreams alongside. Normal was life without an understanding of human value left me comfortable. Grief is the largest storm I’ve ever sat in with any friend, eroding at plans with torrents of anxiety and numbness. Over the years, I have come to know this one thing–sitting in the rain will wash you if you let it. It is cold and unforgiving, but the rain, the grief–is healing. Grieve knowing the rain will end but it hasn’t yet. You are free to heal and mourn simultaneously. Nobody said it can’t be both. 


Katala Peterson is pursuing a career as a psychologist and has a passion for family of all kinds. She comes from a large adoptive family and has years of foster care experience. In her spare time, Katala enjoys hiking with her dog and experimenting with new recipes.


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