Have you ever owned something that was important to you but you lost it? Perhaps a piece of jewelry, a treasured photo, or simply a key? How did that make you feel? Frustrated, scared, or angry? Now transfer those feelings into the death of the family pet. Those feelings just increased exponentially. Finally, multiply those feelings into the loss of a loved one, like a grandma or grandpa. There is no comparison.
The worst thing you can tell an adopted child is, “don’t cry.” Sometimes a crying child unnerves us, disrupts our calm environment, and shifts our focus. Crying is a way for adopted children to express their emotions and process the loss they have undergone. Adopted children have lost a lot: they lost their previous home, their culture, possibly their language, food, and customs, but most importantly, they lost their family. Even if their birth family abused them or abandoned them, it was the only family they ever knew! An adopted child has endured immense grief and loss. They don’t just “get over it,” and they will not be immediately grateful. They need their new parents to help them navigate through the turbulent emotions.
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross developed a model to help us understand the cycle of grief that people go through when losing a loved one. This same model applies to help a grieving adopted child:
Remember the shock and confusion of entering a new school as a child? Everything seemed big and unfamiliar! The first day of Kindergarten is one of the scariest days of a child’s life. The first day of High School is no less, especially if you went to a large school. The shock of moving to a new country or moving to a new family is similar. The newness is a shock to all children: the new people, the new food, and the new smells can be overwhelming. They may also be in denial, thinking, I’ll go back to my “real” parents one day, or they may have fantasies about their birth family that are not realistic. New adoptive parents can help by showing to the child where everything is: the bathroom, the bedroom, your bedroom, and most importantly, telling when the next meal is; I guarantee it will be remembered. The adopted child will want to please you, so he will be compliant for the most part. It is called the “honeymoon” stage because we all want to put on our best faces during this period.
We see most often in children and adopted youth this stage, and may last the longest, even until adulthood and possibly in infancy. The child knows there are enormous changes and has no control over them. She may be angry at her birth mom, but because birth mom is not present, her anger is aimed at the next mom: the adoptive mom. Sometimes, attachment issues may ensue. It is important for adoptive moms to not take it personally, but to continually meet the child’s needs, to be present, to be patient, and to meet the child where she is. Again, the child may be stuck in this stage for a long time. It’s important to encourage the child to express her emotions verbally, artistically, and physically as long as it is appropriate.
When you can’t find your car keys, you think, “if only I had put them in the same spot I always do, this never would have happened!” When a person loses a loved one, they may think “If only we spent more time together.” Adopted children can think the same way, “if I’m good, I may get to go back home,” or if adopted through the foster care system they may think, “maybe I can help my folks get better.” It’s up to the adopted parents to actively listen, to be present, and to be there for the child.
Though depression is common amongst teenagers in any circumstance, it is common amongst adopted teens. It is even possible for adopted infants to be depressed. It is important to determine if the depression is physiological or circumstantial. Either way, long-term depression is serious and should not be ignored. Depression may not be immediately noticeable but may manifest itself in defiant or self-injurious behaviors. The child may need professional interventions.
Finally, a child reaches acceptance when she comes to terms with her situation. It’s up to the adopted parents to help their child realize it was not that her parents didn’t want her, but that they were unable to care for her. Children are not unwanted; they are loved. They were not abandoned; they were chosen. They are not orphans; they are adopted. Help them understand that adoption is a good thing. Help them to talk through their feelings. Let them know that it’s not their fault.
Bottom line, the stages of loss and grief are not linear and not always circular. In other words, a child may be stuck in a stage for an extended period of time or may bounce around back and forth from one stage to another. It is important to help the child to be flexible and to recover as best as possible. An educated, informed, and patient adoptive parent works wonders for kids experiencing grief and loss.
Derek Williams is an adoption social worker and has been in the field of child welfare and behavioral health since 2006, where he has assisted families in their adoption journey. He and his wife started their adoption journey in 1993 and have 8 children: 6 of which are adopted. His adoption children are all different ethnicities including East Indian, Jamaican, and Native American. He loves traveling with his family, especially to the East Coast and to the West Coast and is an avid NY Mets fan! Foster care and adoption is a passion and calling for Derek, and he is pleased to share his experiences with others who are like-minded.