Placing your child for adoption is an emotional experience. Many studies have shown that adoption is traumatic for birth parents and adoptees alike. Grief is one of the main components that unfortunately ride along with you during your adoption journey. Even if your adoption plan is something you feel content and satisfied with, the pain of giving birth to your child and then placing them with another family will undoubtedly trigger grief. If you are an expectant parent wondering how long you will have to deal with that grief, the true answer is that it is different for everyone. There are different stages of grief and how you work through them, and at what pace, are as unique as your adoption story. Let’s break down the stages of grief and how they might apply to your post-placement journey.
The first stage of grief is denial. Denial is not wanting to accept that something is happening and continuing to live your life like it is not. For an expectant mother, it is extremely hard to deny that you are pregnant as your child grows inside of you and you begin to feel the physical effects of pregnancy. It can be easy to live in a state of denial when it comes to considering that adoption might be the right path for you to walk down, however. For a lot of women, after they find out they are pregnant the first thing they immediately consider is parenting. Some societies believe this is the only option, even if it means the child’s life would suffer or be lacking in the resources necessary to fully excel in life.
There has been so much unwarranted shame associated with saying that you are unable to provide for your child when it actually takes an enormous amount of courage and bravery to admit that. Still, a woman might be in so much denial that she may not realize that her situation is inadequate to raise a child. After placement, you might attempt to return to the life you were living before your pregnancy but you may find that this is a lot more difficult than you thought possible. It could seem much easier to omit the painful details of placing your child for adoption but denying yourself of that fact can prove even more detrimental in the long run. Living in a state of denial will only delay the inevitable processing of your emotions that must happen for you to truly begin to heal.
The second stage of grief is anger. Anger can be felt in many different situations. You could feel angry at yourself for becoming pregnant in the first place, or at the fact that you were not able to parent your child the way you desired to. You might feel angry at the situation itself, that there were not more resources available to you to allow you to parent if that is what you wanted to do. You could also feel angry at those around you such as family, friends, or even the birth father. You might even feel angry at the adoptive parents because they are getting to experience being with your child daily, while you do not. Although all feelings in the process are completely valid, anger is one of those things that can consume you and may lead to accidental isolation. Letting anger take over you and the words you say to people can have lasting consequences, so it is important to cope with your anger without lashing out at those around you. Unfortunately, you can not take back what you say when you are vulnerable. After you have moved through this stage you might end up regretting some of your harsh actions and words. Seeking help with your anger via a therapist can be extremely helpful because it allows you to vent in a healthy environment without damaging your relationships. Writing letters and then burning them, screaming into pillows, whatever you need to do to be able to manage the feelings of anger that can easily take over your life.
The third stage of grief is bargaining. Bargaining often takes form as the dark thoughts that run through your head late at night when you are trying to figure out what you could have done differently. The big what if that ultimately leads to a dead-end because with adoption, it does not matter what you might have been able to do differently. Playing out different scenarios in your mind of how you could have prevented this from happening can easily become all-consuming. It can make you feel like you have more control in the situation as you think that you could have parented if only you had the right job, a proper home, or support. The cold hard truth is that a birth parent signs their rights away before placement and legally, there is no going back from that. That of course, does not stop the thoughts from coming.
The next stage is depression. Depression is often what you think about most when you think about grief. Depression is something that most people have experienced at least once in their life, yet it is something people still feel shameful to admit they struggle with. After placement, it is totally acceptable to feel depressed about the loss associated with placing your child for adoption. The act of placing your child is like trying to live your life without a vital organ. Depression can easily take over your entire life like a dark cloud and it can feel heavy like you are walking through life with weights around your shoulders at all times. Although it can be hard to show vulnerability, the most important thing you can do to manage it is to not be afraid to ask for help. Seeking solace from birth parents can be immensely powerful because they know exactly how it feels to experience that same pain. Depression can flow and you can find it popping up when you least expect it. If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of self-harm, please call 911 immediately.
Acceptance is the last stage of grief but it does not automatically bring happiness. Acceptance means coming to terms with the fact that you have placed a child for adoption. Despite your loss, you understand that it was something you did because it felt like the best choice. Accepting your journey does not mean you do not still feel all the other stages of grief at certain times, it just means you know you cannot change it. Knowing that you will be okay at the end of the day is part of acceptance. It does not take away from the loss you feel by placing your child for adoption, but it can help you be able to embrace the fact that you were able to put the needs of your child before the wants of your heart, no matter at what cost it came with.
There are additional stages of grief that have been added over the years to the original five stages. Shock, which can go hand in hand with denial, is similar in terms of wrapping your head around the fact you even had to place your child for adoption in the first place. Reconstruction is another commonly experienced stage. This usually represents that you are on the path to healing. You may feel that you are scared post-placement, but scars make us unique and only enhance our authentic selves. The only emotion that I have found that made me feel uncomfortable is regret. Regret is something you might feel at some point in your post-adoption journey. I am hesitant to mention it because I believe that regret is only a symptom of the grief you are feeling. Most people who make the decision to place their child for adoption do so because they want the best life possible for their child and put a great deal of thought and effort into making that decision. In the depths of your pain, you might feel regretful, but working through the emotions that lead you to that feeling can prove that you don’t really regret your choice, you are just experiencing the pain as a result of the choice. Of course, every person is different and some may truly feel that way even after processing their emotions.
There really is not anything you can do to prepare for the grief you will feel post-placement. The only thing you can do to make it easier for yourself to cope with is to be real about what you are feeling. Reach out to someone you are close to or find new connections with other birth parents. Counseling can transform the way you look at certain situations and can help teach you new ways to deal with the emotions as they come and go throughout your life. The journey is lifelong and can surprise you in the ways it continues to affect you. Something as small as seeing the baby clothes at Target or stumbling across a movie you last watched while pregnant can take you right back into a feeling you previously thought you conquered. These tiny details are understood only by other birth parents. I keep going back to finding support from the adoption community because for me personally after I connected with those in that community I was finally able to understand my feelings. Unloading all the weight of all the emotions I had suppressed for years was like breathing for the first time. Only after that did I start healing and the more I continue to put into connecting with others who have walked a similar path to mine, the more I get out of it.
These stages of grief are merely a guideline of information. Post-placement emotions can take on any form in no particular order. Grief is not linear and the stages of grief can present as a circle, square, or anything in between. You can come back to a stage that you thought you had already worked through or you can skip a stage entirely. Everyone experiences grief differently and there is no right or wrong way to work through it. Post-placement grief will never become easier, it will just become easier to manage. If you allow yourself the opportunity to feel and not attempt to stuff or avoid things, you can get to a place in life where you can be comfortable with who you are as a person and understand that the past makes us who we are today. Placing your child for adoption can most certainly cause pain, but as a birth mother, I am so grateful for all the parts of my journey, even the messy ones.
Lacy Davis is a birth mom who enjoys educating and speaking about how adoption has shaped her life. She has spent time connecting with other birth moms at local support groups and has spoken on panels educating prospective adoptive parents. She grew up in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and placed her child for adoption in 2006. In her free time, she is an avid reader and enjoys watching Law and Order episodes on repeat as well as spending time outdoors with her husband and two children.