No one likes to admit failure, and I have yet to meet a person who enjoys being defeated. Something about not succeeding goes against human nature. I believe that God instilled the desire in us to grow, thrive, change, and be victorious. However, in life, it is impossible to succeed in every endeavor. Unfortunately, the same is true with adoptions. The very concept of adoption is born of a very hard place. Not every match is a match made in heaven, and there are many reasons that an adoption plan may not be carried through to placement or finalization. Whatever the reason for the revocation of the adoption plan, it can have a devastating effect on the hopeful adoptive parents.
We never expected that our adoption journey would lead us through a disrupted adoption. It was definitely the most painful experience that we have ever gone through. The cutting pain that tore through our hearts also took our breath away and left us reeling. We first learned of Savannah when her mother was in her first trimester. Over the months following our introduction to her family, we had phone conversations with her parents, met her siblings, listened to her beautiful heartbeat over a monitor, and were introduced to everyone as her parents. I even had the privilege to be in the delivery room when she made her grand entrance. She was perfect. Savannah left the hospital in the care of our agency’s interim care workers, but for four glorious days, it was assumed by everyone that I was her mommy. And then came the phone call from our social worker who said that Savannah’s parents were thinking about changing their minds and revoking the adoption plan, something that was entirely their right to do. See, in the state of Virginia, biological parents have ten days after they sign the adoption plan to change their minds. Those days seemed incredibly long—like an eternity, but, indeed, there are other states with much longer wait times.
To make a long story short, on day seven of ten, Savannah’s parents decided to parent her. We were crushed. It took several months to regain our footing and to learn to breathe again. The author of this article aptly summarizes the feeling: “When you wait months, maybe years, to become parents, and then it finally looks like it may actually happen, you get pretty excited. An expectant mom is planning to place a baby with you! You continue to remind yourself that this is still her baby up until the day she signs the papers and places the baby in your arms, but that doesn’t stop you from having a dream of that child in your heart and home. It can be a traumatic and emotional experience for the hopeful adoptive family when a mother decides, for whatever reason, to parent her child—or place with a different family. How do you overcome the pain and move forward?” There is no magic cure for healing a broken heart, but there are some things that can be done to help you overcome the pain and move on.
Allow yourself time to grieve
It has been said that there are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. An individual may not experience each of those stages in that order or even at all. There is no shame in allowing yourself to mourn. One individual who experienced a failed adoption says, “You may think you have no right to mourn the loss of a child that wasn’t yours to begin with. You may struggle with the emotions that come with a failed placement and not quite know how to process them. Give yourself time to be angry, be sad, be ugly, be happy, be proud, be supportive…be whatever you need to be. I spend [sic] many days sobbing. Nights I clenched a onesie I tie-dyed for the baby-to-be and cried myself to sleep. My husband looked like a lost zombie, filled with grief and the need to comfort me. It’s OK to feel.” Another individual says, “I grieved hard over a baby girl we were matched with for nearly a year but were never able to bring home. We named her, watched her grow from afar, decorated the nursery for her….It was our second adoption loss, after years of trying to have a second child. My biggest struggle was never feeling justified in my grief over ‘my’ baby girl. I’d never even met her. Nobody around me understood. I had a hard time allowing myself to grieve and share my feelings, even with my husband. Just having ‘permission’ to grieve—confirmation from someone that my feelings were normal—would have been so helpful. That’s one of the first times I realized how lonely adoption, and the process of getting there, can be. I still wonder about and pray for the little girls I never brought home, even sixteen years later.”
It is also important to realize that people handle grief in different ways. My husband tends to push his emotions down inside and throws himself back into his work, silently working through his own pain. I am a more visibly emotional person. When we lost Savannah, I was plunged into three months of deep “functional” depression. I did everything I was supposed to do as a pastor’s wife, but inside I was drowning in grief. It has been said that there is no time limit on grief. That is so very true. For months following the disrupted adoption, even after we brought home our first son, I would wake during the night hearing a baby crying or dream the baby was falling but not be able to catch her. It was several years after losing Savannah before my mind would accept reality, and the dreams would stop. Every person processes grief in his or her own way.
Trying to figure it out will drive you crazy
When something goes wrong, the natural tendency is to try to figure out what happened and why. Sometimes the answer is evident, but more often than not, the answer eludes us. An article from Adoptive Families reasons that “no one can know what is going on inside someone else’s mind, so there isn’t much point in trying to analyze why an adoption fell through. It can happen for many reasons.” I believe that every child has a family that he or she is predestined to join. You will find your child when the time is right. Even in the pain, you can cling to that thought.
Find comfort in the familiar
Right after a failed adoption is probably not the time to jump into something new. Picking up a favorite hobby, going to a funny movie, or taking serene walks in nature can be very beneficial. Often when people have been so engrossed in the adoption process, things they normally enjoy are understandably put on the back burner. Find that book you have been meaning to read. Rent that movie that you have dying to watch. Make that quilt or puzzle that you have been thinking about. Maybe you are naturally an “on the go person” and don’t know what to do with yourself in a house in which you are surrounded by reminders of baby preparations. When a person is depressed, it is very hard to want to be around other people, but getting out of the house for graduated lengths of time can be helpful. For me, I went to the gym for long periods of time. I had already been going, but I just spent longer on the treadmills watching television while I pounded away my anger. Some people like to window shop or sit in a coffee shop or visit the theaters, operas, or concerts. You do you. Just like there is no definite length to the grieving period, there is no one size fits all method of healing.
Express your feelings
Keeping a person’s feelings all bottled up is like shaking a soda bottle. Eventually, the pressure has to go somewhere, resulting in a disastrous mess. Everyone needs a safe place to vent. Consider writing how you feel in a journal. I have a complete written record of the events that led up to and following losing Savannah. I also have an audio commentary of my emotions in the months following. After she did not come home, I wrote my thoughts on paper, showed my husband, and then burned the papers. My thoughts were so ugly and dark that I never wanted anyone to ever find them and read them. I know now what I did not know then: I’m not alone in the despair I felt as I grieved the loss of a child who did not die. Standing Still Magazine posted an article that so accurately states how I felt and still feel about our failed adoption. The author wrote, “It never occurred to me that announcing my experience…would not be necessary, practical or particularly wanted. But even if it had—if everyone had asked, ‘Why so down?’—I know that the words from my mouth could never match the feelings in my heart. Because I was grieving the child who didn’t die. My relationship with my child might not have been typical. Nor was the end of that relationship. But our love and our loss could never be more real…It wasn’t a death—and yet it felt like a death. I reminded myself of the beauty that he was still alive as often as I could. I can still have hopes and dreams for his future, even if I am not a part of those dreams….He still had a future, and in that, is hope and joy. And yet. It was the death of a relationship. The child I raised through infancy, this child I loved fiercely with a mother’s heart, was out of my life. I would never be his mom again. Maybe I was not what you typically think of as a bereaved mom, weeping over the body or headstone of her precious child, all hopes, all dreams, all potential lost forever. But I was bereaved.” Almost seven years later, I still feel the loss of Savannah. I don’t grieve the same way, but I still vividly remember that time, and I still love her.
However, not everyone understands this form of loss. Some don’t even see it as a loss. I was recently told by someone that they “wished we would stop saying we lost her. She was never ours to begin with.” While it may be true that God never intended for her to be our daughter, the pain that we felt when Savannah did not come home to us was definitely akin to mourning the loss of a child who never died. She is alive, and I think of her often. Most importantly, I pray for her. Maybe one day I will get to see her, but I know that my sole purpose of being matched with her and meeting her (and her family) is to be a constant prayer warrior for her (their) entire lives.
Use your experience to teach others
I noticed that people were afraid to speak about our failed adoption or even speak of Savannah. I realize that they were being cautious about our feelings, but I do not mind talking about her. The beauty of her life and the pain of not being able to raise her brought me to the joys of the children I was supposed to mother. People also wanted to speak badly about her birth family, and though I don’t think they were in a good place, I know that God is in ultimate control of Savannah’s life. An article on Adoption.com encourages those who have experienced a failed adoption to not “be afraid to tell people about your failed placement experience. People may think they are comforting you by bashing the mother who chose to parent by saying things like “she shouldn’t have gotten your hopes up if she wasn’t sure.” That’s when you can teach others about how adoption works; in doing this, you will be gently reminding yourself not to be angry with her as well. In education, you can also find support.”
Get back “in the Saddle,” eventually
The pain of a failed adoption is intense, no doubt about it; but the thought of having so much love to give to a child and never being able to offer it is just as excruciating. Over time, your heart will mend. The longing for that absent child may never go away, but it should not hold you back from reaching out and loving a child again. Though in the moment it seems like you are drowning under the grief, I promise that you will survive. You will become a better person. The love for the child you are supposed to have will be stronger and sweeter. In the Bible there are two Bible verses that bring much encouragement. Proverbs 13:12 tells us that “hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.” Also, Proverbs 30:5 reminds that “weeping endures for a night, but joy comes in the morning.” For two months after our failed adoption, I grieved deeply. On June 7, I wrote down and then burned my ugly feelings…and I picked myself up by God’s grace and went on with life. I did not know it then, but on June 8, the child who was to be my son was born in a town 30 minutes away. For three weeks I walked in joy and trust in God’s goodness, believing that one day, I would indeed be a mother. When the call came in on June 28, my heart soared. When my son was finally placed in my arms on July 3, my soul sang. My mourning was turned into dancing. My sorrow was traded for joy. God knew from before time began that Joshua was to be my firstborn. Savannah would always be my butterfly girl. Every April 1st, I commemorate her life and pray God’s blessings on that sweet little baby who rocked my world, drew me closer to God, and through her absence, brought me my son.
Virginia Spence and her husband Eric are the proud parents of two awesome boys who joined their family via domestic infant adoption. Their journey through infertility and into the world of adoption awoke in her a passion for life at all ages/stages, especially the tiniest lives in the womb and the women who carry them, and a desire to champion the cause of those who choose to adopt. Virginia desires to be a voice for adoption through advocacy and education as well as an encouragement to those suffering through infertility. Virginia loves to read and considers herself a coffee connoisseur. When she isn’t writing or drinking giant mugs of coffee, Virginia can be found watching Paw Patrol and racing hot wheel cars with her boys.