Loss, Trauma, and Resilience: Living Well in Spite of Adoption Grief

During my little vacation last month, I read  “Loss, Trauma, and Resilience: Therapeutic Work with Ambiguous Loss” by Pauline Boss. It changed the way I think and feel about myself and this adoption “stuff” that just won’t go away.

Last night, I started re-reading it and taking notes, trying to come up with ideas on how this model applies with natural mothers and the unique situation we face within our culture and society at large. The book is directed towards therapists, but since I can’t seem to find a therapist who knows much about grief and even less about ambiguous loss, I figured I should read it and see what I can learn that might help me in my journey. I am going to be a bit bold here, but I believe this book and this model of loss with its attendant therapeutic approaches is the key for a natural mother to learn how to live with the grief brought on by the loss of a child to adoption.

The premise of ambiguous loss and its unresolvable grief is there are two types of loss within a family system that do not fit the traditional definition of “loss (i.e. death).” Family members may be gone physically but are present psychologically (as in adoption loss, kidnapping, soldiers who are MIA, divorce, etc.) or family members may be present physically, but gone psychologically (mental illness, dementia, drug and alcohol abuse).

“Absence and presence are not absolutes. Even without death, the people we care about disappear physically or fade away psychologically….This ambiguity between absence and presence creates a unique kind of loss that has both psychological and physical qualities” (Boss, 2006, p. 1).

In ambiguous loss, family members are left to cope with the enigmatic nature of what this loss-that-is-not-recognized-as-a-loss means for their family. These coping mechanisms end up looking A LOT like those who suffer from PTSD. A lot, to the point that sometimes people struggling with ambiguous loss are treated for PTSD, when in fact that isn’t what ails them. With PTSD, the loss/trauma is contained within a short time period or experience. With ambiguous loss, the loss/trauma is persistent and unresolvable. There are no solutions to fix what is hurting in ambiguous loss. There is only learning healthy ways to live with it.

Unfortunately, society (especially in the U.S.) does not tolerate ambiguity well at all, especially when it comes to the grief brought on by ambiguous loss.  As a society, we expect people to do their grief work the “right” way (Kulber-Ross, anyone?), get over their grief, and do it quickly, too. According to that model, healthy people are the ones who find closure. How many natural mothers were told we could expect to “grieve for about a year” and then we would feel better? And how many of us, when that year passed and we were still suffering, were made to feel like it was somehow our fault, that we didn’t do something “right”, that there was something maladaptive and pathological about our continued grief?

“Many people never achieve the complete detachment described by Western psychotherapists as necessary for normal grieving. A lack of closure after loss, however, is not always an indication of weakness in the individual or family. The force that causes loss to remain fresh decades later and thus be labeled pathological often lies in the context outside of the person rather than in their ego, psyche, or family.…From this more contextual perspective, pathology is attributed to a client’s situational context and environment rather than to the psyche” (Boss, 2006, p. 2).

The history and systems of psychology have long focused on the symptoms of loss and how to treat them.  When a person’s grieving didn’t fit within the prescribed model, (ahem, Kubler-Ross), it has been labeled as “complicated” and “pathological.”  Traditionally, the focus has been on the “maladaptive” coping mechanisms people develop to deal with ambiguous loss. Boss reminds us that when the focus is on the “symptoms of ambiguous loss, we fail to see the healthy adaptations and unique ways people have come to live well in spite of the chronic trauma and stress inherent to ambiguous loss. (Boss, 2006, p. 2).”

This is what the letter to my daughter titled, “Samba de Uma Nota Só or a Symphony?” attempts to explain. In spite of the chronic trauma and stress brought about through her loss to adoption, I actually have learned to live quite well. Unfortunately, most people just see the symptoms of ambiguous loss (the unresolvable grief, the sadness, the guilt, the difficulty handle other smaller losses) and fail to recognize the incredible accomplishment that I am not curled up in the corner eating Twinkies and drooling.

I dare say there are plenty of other natural mother bloggers who have encountered the same treatment from society at large and even their own family. When we speak out about the pain of the loss of our child, we are told (a) something is wrong with us- i.e., our coping mechanisms are maladaptive and (b) the healthy (and UNIQUE) adaptations we have learned are completely discounted. We are told we need to get therapy, get a life, etc.

Another point of the theory of ambiguous loss is that society at large does not usually even recognize it as being a loss. Consequently, it is impossible to find “closure.”

“Ambiguous loss is inherently traumatic because the inability to resolve the situation causes pain, confusion, shock, distress, and often immobilization….In our culture [there] is a tendency to deny loss. Grieving is acceptable, but we should get over it and get back to work. Whereas finding closure is difficult with ordinary losses, it is impossible with ambiguous loss because there is no official recognition of there even being a real loss.” (Boss, 2006, p. 4).

As natural mothers, we are told we are heroes who redeem ourselves when we give a more “deserving” couple the “gift” of our child. We are told it is a miracle and a blessing, that it is an act of love to sacrifice our “wants” for our child’s “needs.” We are patted on the head by social workers, therapists, and the broader culture and told, “There, there. Stop fussing – don’t you see how happy you should be? You are like a God – a family maker!!! a bringer of fertility!!! a giver of children!!!! Plus, it’s not like this baby is really ‘yours’ – God is just using you to get it to the right family and you’ll get over it when you have children of your own.”

(Side note = That last sentence is ONE OF THE THREE BIGGEST ADOPTION LIES EVAH’. Having more children only serves to remind a natural mother of what she has lost. It doesn’t make it any easier, folks. Not. by. a. long. shot.)

When an ambiguous loss occurs, families freeze and boundaries become unclear. A natural mother may become “stuck” at the age she was when she relinquished her child, unable to move past the loss and resulting trauma. As her families grows, defining the boundaries of who is family and who is not family grows more difficult.

This is particularly evident in reunion situations. A natural mother may have spent a lot of time convincing herself (and others) that her relinquished child was not “really” her child, that her child “belonged” to another family. When she is confronted with a person who says, “Actually, I am your child” all. hell. breaks. loose. People and families become preoccupied with the lost person and may think of little else. Other relationships are neglected. Behaviors revert to the time period the ambiguous loss occurred.  Boss says, “The premise is that ambiguity coupled with loss creates a powerful barrier to coping and grieving and leads to symptoms such as depression and relationship conflict that erode human relationships” (Boss, 2006, p. 1).

Wow. Just wow.

Think of that in context of an adoption reunion and how many of them go south eventually. A family system endures the ambiguous loss of a family member, usually the firstborn child. Then natural mom finds adoptee or the other way around. All of the sudden, the natural family has to redefine roles and boundaries and the adoptee does, too.

The more I think about it, the more I understand why reunion is so difficult, particularly for adoptees. Not only do they have to deal with the ambiguous loss of their natural family and those redefined roles, but also the shifting definitions of “family” with their adoptive family, too! And if they end up with a set of adoptive parents who are not supportive or flexible in their relational roles once the adoptee enters into reunion with their natural family? Wow. I can’t even begin to imagine that burden.  As if those kinds of pressures aren’t enough, add in a shame-based, guilt-driven religious culture that has created a golden calf of the two-parent family with a stay-at-home-mother and frankly, it’s a recipe for a reunion disaster of epic proportions.

So how do we – meaning those of us who have endured an ambiguous loss –  deal with the unresolvable grief? How do we survive this loss? We try to make sense of it in any way we can (that is what these letters are about, me trying to make sense of this loss-that-my-culture-does-not-call-al-loss*) and we focus on shoring up our resiliency.

“…not knowing if a loved one is absent or present, dead or alive, can create so much ambiguity that the stress is traumatizing and immobilizing. This new view of loss, trauma, and resiliency centers on this psychological family and making sense of ambiguous absence and presence” (Boss, 2006, p. 2).

In short, we adapt and find unique ways to learn to live well in spite of adoption loss, we find ways to learn to live well in spite of the grief that never goes away.

Boss’s theory of ambiguous loss is it is less pathology-based than most models of loss and grieving. It recognizes, “The intellectual and relational uncertainty of living with someone both here and not here produces a terrible anxiety of bizarre human experience.” (Boss, 2006, p. 5). Unlike traditional grief models, getting rid of ambiguity is not the goal. Learning to live well with it is. I also appreciate it focuses on the family system, because the truth of the matter is, I didn’t just loose my daughter, but my entire family lost her. She lost me and her siblings, and countless uncle and aunties and cousins. Our whole family system is affected by adoption loss.

I think most natural mothers are very familiar with the symptoms of unresolvable grief and ambiguous loss. What has been lacking is a clear model to treat this loss within their family system.  Boss offers up a model that is compassionate and realistic and perhaps most importantly, doesn’t blame natural mothers for the symptoms that endure across the decades.

Watch for more letters about this topic in the future as I digest this book and its teachings. Right now, I am off to see if I can locate any journal articles about studies applying this model to natural/first/birth families. I don’t have high hopes of finding any, but I have to start somewhere.


*P.S.* The other day, someone left a comment asking why I keep writing these letters. She implied there was something maladaptive or pathological about them (her exact words were “strange” and “disrespectful“).  I didn’t feel the need to explain myself to her then, and I still don’t. However, I had to smile a bit when I read in Boss’s book about one of the unique and normal ways some (though not all) people learn to live well with the ambiguous loss of a family member: They talk to the missing person. And not in the crazy-tin-foil-hat-wearing way, but in the you-are-still-in-my-heart-even-though-you-aren’t-here-with-me kind of way (Boss uses more technical language than that in her explanation, but that’s my quick distillation). Since I am not a big talker but I am a writer, writing letters is my way of talking to my daughter, my missing family member.

So there it is. My unique method of learning to live well with her loss is not strange, disrespectful, maladaptive, or pathological. It is normal. It is healthy. What is strange, disrespectful, maladaptive and pathological is a culture that seems to think a woman should “get over” losing a child to adoption, that her grief and coping mechanisms should fit within a little tidy box, and that she should just “move on already” because it wasn’t really a loss, after all. She “chose” it, didn’t she? Now that is strange indeed.

77 thoughts on “Loss, Trauma, and Resilience: Living Well in Spite of Adoption Grief

    • Thanks – there is so much more to learn and read about it, too!!! The researcher in me is salivating over this fertile and unexplored line of inquiry.


      • well its time for everyone to open their eyes to what adoption really is….its taking babies from their mothers which is an illegal act under the common law its kidnapping no different to anyone taking a baby from any mother in the street…..its no good calling it adoption any longer cause its kidnapping….thats what adoption is…..bout time the world woke up to what has gone on for far too long without mothers speaking out…..no mother can consent to anyone taking her baby its an illegal act to take a baby from their mother …..totally illegal…..adoption was not meant to provide babies to the childless it was put there for a man to adopt the children of a partner who is deceased or vice versa thats how adoption came into the equation of things……it was there for a family member of the child to adopt…..it was never meant to be used for the purpose to procure babies for women unable to fall pregnant and have their own…..babies are always better of with their mothers well they wouldnt be here without them thats for sure……no good adopters hiding from this anylonger they are guilty of a criminal offence they are accomplices to a criminal offence which is the removal of babies from their mothers…..their time is fast approaching these adoption agency thieves who prey on first time pregnant women for their babies…..oh yeh dont let them know their rights to keep their babies hey…..all mothers want their babies…..all of them….and we are not talking about children that are abused we are talking about newborn babies who were never given to their mothers after they were born and also mthers who were approached to adopt their babies out before they were even born….thats illegal too its called coercion…..thats the law….they broke the law and used the courts and the legal profession to do it…..bout time someone exposed this criminal activity for what it really is…….EYES WIDE OPEN

      • While I agree with you Julie on some points, I don’t agree that EVERY adoption is a criminal activity, nor will I ever agree that ALL adoptive parents are engaging in a crime by adopting a baby. That is just as offensive as adoptive parents characterizing ALL relinquishing parents as “crack whore baby abandoners.” Neither false stereotype does anything to further adoptee rights or the humane treatment of expectant mothers and the mother-infant dyad.

        Yes, there ARE some adoptive parents who engage in criminal behavior, or even morally reprehensible behavior, but fortunately, not all of them do. I do believe a large majority of them were just as blind to the realities of adoption as relinquishing mothers were. I cannot fault some of them for falling prey to the same tactics that were used to convince me to relinquish my daughter, because after all, I am a fairly smart girl, and if the adoption industry could snooker me, then it can snooker anyone on either side of the adoption transaction. That being said, I DO take umbrage when an adoptive parent or potential adoptive parent WILLFULLY disregards to growing body of evidence supporting the humane and morally sound treatment of mothers and their newborns. If a person KNOWS what they are doing is morally and ethically wrong -not simply illegal, but goes through with it anyway because of their baby-lust and selfish wants, then yes, they deserve to be called out for their craptastic behavior. And those who do engage in criminal activity, even if they didn’t know it at the time? Yes, they are criminals (hello, folks in Missouri, I am talking about you!!!!)

        But not every adoption is morally or ethically wrong (foster care adoptions when all family placement situations have been exhausted or shown to be unsafe is a good example). However, the United States system of infant adoption in its current state does favor the immoral, unethical, and frequently illegal behavior on the parts of adoption agencies, the real culprits in this debacle.

        I have been fortunate to be friends with some wonderful and amazing adoption mothers. I am grateful for their insights, which help me understand what it is like to wake up from the adoption anesthesia as an adoptive mother. They are NOT criminals and anyone who calls them that needs to check their own perceptions. Adoption IS broken, and it DOES need fixing, but calling all adoptive parents criminals and all adoption illegal isn’t the way to go.


    • Great information and perfect timing. I am researching birthmother grief 20+ years post relinquishment. I have discovered many ways to assist new birthmothers in this huge life transition but I have yet to figure out what to do with those of us who never got the help; never got the answers about what to do with our grief and loss. I am trying to process this in my own life right now. I have an open adoption and see my son every few years but still find it impossibe to move forward with my life and be happy. Any ideas? Any research you have found? Any books? Please respond via email. Thank you in advance. Jan

      • Jan –

        Be watching for an email from me – I have some ideas that have been percolating around in my head over the past couple of months and perhaps we can work together on something. In the mean time, Boss’s theory of ambiguous loss is perhaps the best place to start. There is limited research about the long term effect of adoption loss on relinquishing families and even LESS on how to help them manage the life-long grief of the ambiguous loss, this is an area of therapeutic care waiting for some intrepid individuals willing to blaze a path.

        I look forward to talking with you more –


      • well they have known since the fifties about the trauma of separation to babies from their mothers they have known for a long time the damage done to infants by removing and taking them from their living mothers…..its in the social work manuals if you care to look

  1. I also am looking forward to reading more from you on this book!
    And not only is your letter writing helping you, it helps me too. So write on Melynda!!

  2. What a very excellent post!!!!!!! Isn’t it interesting how we often find out own ways to deal with our grief which then get the ‘professionals’ tick of approval! Also interesting how others feel they have a right to tell us how to do it and somehow they know better.I am so very happy to know that this book has helped you and will go on helping and hopefully help others you tell about it.Do you have any future plans Mel to assist others in this area? I’m also beyond words (not like me hey?) to know you ‘get it’ and understand part of how it is for adoptees.Reposting if I may.x

    • Von –

      Exactly! And then the professionals act as if they knew this all along. *sigh* I don’t care who gets the credit, as long as we get the help we need! I don’t have any current plans to go in to the “helping” profession at this point, though my last therapist urged me in that direction. I just can’t stomach the thought of more school right now!


  3. Reblogged this on The Life Of Von and commented:
    Please read this excellent post by Melynda on ambiguous grief and the losses of adoption.As I noted in my comment it is interesting how others like to tell us how we should be ‘doing grief’ and want to lay down set patterns and time limits. Like the know how it is!!

    • Exactly, Von. I, like many other natural mothers and adoptees, have intuitively know the traditional model of grief does not apply in our situations. All we need to do is look at our lived experience to know this. When our grief work doesn’t look like the acceptable model or fit within that time frame, why then, WE are the ones that are broken, wrong, pathologically ill. *eye roll.* I am so grateful Boss has turned that notion on its ear. I cannot tell you of the profound relief that came to me I read her work because FINALLY, it all made sense. FINALLY, I wasn’t being blamed for not grieving the “right” way or within some “correct” time frame.

  4. Thank you for this post. I will have to come back to it. For me the timing is great as it is my son’s bday. Always a tough one…..Roxanne

    • Oh Roxanne, I am so sorry! Sending lots of love and healing your way. Birthdays are always so hard, aren’t they? This weeks marks the 19th anniversary of when I relinquished my daughter. It has been a tough one for me, too.


      • Thank you so much, Melynda. I know that the surrender date is so difficult to get by on the calendar, too. Good thoughts of love and healing back to you.
        Roxanne in MN

      • I would have thought it would get easier as the years go by, like the anniversary of my sister’s death. But it doesn’t, as you are painfully aware. Each year that it rolls around just as fresh as the first year, I am always shocked by its raw character.

        Thank you for your kindness and healing thoughts. They are much appreciated today.

  5. Fabulous post Melynda! Thank you for introducing this book – am off to find it!!! You are spot on – this is the closest I have ever seen anything relate to adoption loss and grief and I love the way you have tied what Pauline calls ambiguous loss to the adoption situation. Looking forward to more posts on this.

    And as for the letter writing… Huh?? Love the format you have for your blog – sad the commenter is not able to think outside her own persepective about how life should be. Nothing worng with letter writing to someone who is absent – if anything, I would say it is a healthy way to release some of the longing for said person. Since I was 12, my diary was written in a letter format – makes it more personal. I wouldn’t worry about that commenter – they obviously don’t know much! Besides, why is it their business what you do with your blog?

    • It was interesting, in her earlier work Boss talks about ambiguous loss in adoption as being related to the ADOPTIVE mother dealing with the loss of the child’s natural family. I was all like, “HUUuuuuuh?” There was hardly any mention of the loss a natural mother has to navigate!!!! I was pretty mad about it at first and was about to dismiss the whole theory, kit and kaboodle, but something urged me to keep reading, to keep thinking. I am glad I did – this model has been one of the most important gems I have uncovered in this process of learning to live with the ambiguity of adoption.


      • That is interesting Boss relayed it to the adoptive mother – talk about misplacement! But in a way it shows how invisible our loss is to society. It is an issue that deserves further exploration and honestly, this concept is really amazing when you put it into the real light of adoption loss. It fits like a glove!

        I am glad you kept going with this book – I really think you have come across something very, very important. And thanks again for sharing it on! I can’t wait to read this book.

      • Myst – I am actually going to email P. Boss and ask her about that particular thing. It is obvious from her later work her viewpoint broadened to include first mothers. Plus, I am intensely curious to find out what she has to say about how ambiguous loss might affect a reunion situation, what her professional experience has been and what her theoretical stance is on the issue. I will let you know what she has to say!

        But yes, it did make me feel quite invisible when I read that in her early works.


  6. Wow! What an amazing post.

    “Whereas finding closure is difficult with ordinary losses, it is impossible with ambiguous loss because there is no official recognition of there even being a real loss.” (Boss, 2006, p. 4).”

    This spoke volumes with me. With ordinary loss, people encourage you to talk about it. In our cases, no one wants to know the reality of the pain of this loss. Buck-up buttercup, move on, get over it, are not things someone would say when a loved one passes away. They certainly don’t have a problem saying that to us though, do they?

    Can’t wait to hear more. Love your letters, Melynda.

    • Yes, that is what got me to thinking about how this model applies to adoption loss – there is no official recognition of it even being “real.” If you compare how gentle we are as a culture with a woman who has suffered an the loss of a new baby to death, we are absolutely barbaric to women who lose a child to adoption, even if it was their “choice.”

  7. What an excellent post, Melynda. I must purchase this book. I know we talked about it a bit, but wow…spot on!

  8. Excellent post, Melynda. I look forward to reading future posts from you on this topic, and will direct my first mother here as well. We have been in reunion for over 2 years now, and are fortunate to have a wonderful relationship, but it has been HARD. It continues to be hard. Even together, the loss of so many years is painful, and we struggle. I know your letters are meant for your daughter, but as an adult adoptee, I also find them so helpful.

    • Nikki – I am glad to hear that you and your first mom are working through the tough times. And please, do direct her here. Hopefully she can find something of use, something that will help her know that the craziness and hard parts of all reunion aren’t her (or your!!!) fault. They are just the nature of the beast and all we can do is learn to manage and live with it as best as we can.

  9. M-
    Thanks for writing about and recommending this book – I just ordered it. I had already read her Ambiguous Loss book and had really found it applicable. I appreciate your insights on it and look forward to hearing more!

    • Sara – Read it and then come back and discuss with me!!! I am actually thinking of starting an online book discussion group and going through it chapter by chapter. The collective insight we could gather up about how to apply this model to adoption loss would be truly amazing.


  10. Thank you so much for this post M! Talk about ambiguous loss. Everything about adoption involves ambiguous loss. My mother knows where I am and has shared only impersonal holiday cards with me for the past 13 years. We do not speak. We met in person once but it was over 10 years ago. I have not been welcomed back into my family. How do you “get over” or “get closure from” the loss of someone who is still very much alive and sends you holiday cards?!? The answer is that you don’t. You learn to deal with it and live with the feelings of grief and sadness that arise. Ambiguous loss. It’s the perfect term for what we all experience. Must get this book. Off to Amazon. 🙂

      • Sweet! Like I mentioned, it is geared to towards therapists, but since none of us seem to have found therapists who even know about this stuff, we can help each other figure this out, right?


    • How do you “get over” or “get closure from” the loss of someone who is still very much alive and sends you holiday cards?!? The answer is that you don’t. You learn to deal with it and live with the feelings of grief and sadness that arise.

      As I like to tell people, “There is no ‘getting over’, there is only living with it.”

      (((Hugs))) to you, J. I still can’t wrap my head around mothers that don’t want to have anything to do with their relinquished children, but this book is helping me understand it a bit more. Still doesn’t make it right, but it helps if that makes sense.


  11. “What is strange, disrespectful, maladaptive and pathological is a culture that seems to think a woman should “get over” losing a child to adoption, that her grief and coping mechanisms should fit within a little tidy box, and that she should just “move on already” because it wasn’t really a loss, after all. She “chose” it, didn’t she? Now that is strange indeed.”

    What is also strange, disrespectful, maladaptive and pathological are those so hell bent on keeping a child from his/ her natural family and identity due to possessiveness, jealousy and pure greed for a child that is not really theirs.

    Great post!

      • At the risk of exposing myself as the total book-whore I have become, may I recommend my own little fable? ORFAN is the story of a bi-racial adoptee who imagines a friendship with James Dean as a coping strategy to survive the loss of two sets of parents. It was selected last month by the prestigious Hugh C. Hyde Living Writers Series at San Diego State University and was also accepted as a nominee for the 2012-2013 Freshman Common Reading Selection at Cal State U., Northridge in Los Angeles. I wrote it as a response to a story from a “birthmom” who gave her daughter up as an infant and then found that she had been abused, placed in foster care and abused/neglected again. My childhood was spent in the south side Chicago neighborhood that Dr. King called “the most racist place he’d ever been…including Mississippi”. I badly wanted to write something that addressed the intersection of “unwanted” bi-racial children and the kind of racism that leaves a disproportionate number (almost a half million kids in the U.S. alone) in foster care while the “unwanted baby BUSINESS” thrives. So, check out ORFAN on most on-line retail sites. Amazon has the first few chapters up as a sneak peek and you can listen to a sample chapter of the audio book by following the links on my website: http://www.corieskolnick.com. And, let me know what you think…good or bad. I’ll come to your book club (and bring wine or cupcakes 🙂 to answer any questions!

      • I saw that book and it looks interesting. I am always game for a new book, especially if I can get it on my kindle! I’ll read it and let you know what I think.

  12. Over the last year, my husband has located and reunited with his first mother and two half- sisters. My sister-in-law has reunited with the son that she relinquished to adoption 18 years ago, and I have located and made contact with the first family of my 9 year old son. To say it has been a whirlwind of emotions is an understatement. But, what you are saying about ambiguous loss rings so true to even myself as an adoptive mother watching these birth mothers reunite. This is where I have found your blog to be so incredibly helpful… I can not fathom the loss, but when I read your story, your truth, I can better understand how to be sympathetic to the ambiguous loss of these women who are already a part of my life or are becoming a part of my life.
    I just want you to know that I hear you. I am not trying to speak for the whole adoption community. I am just speaking for myself. I am not even trying to justify adoptions. I am not sure if I even can. I can’t heal you of your loss, nor can I do that for these new women who have come into my life and re- entered the lives of those whom I love this last year. But, I HEAR you. Thank you for allowing me to listen.

    • Wow – you guys have been on quite the roller coaster!!!! Your family is also the perfect example as to why we (collectively speaking as people who are affected by adoption – natural mothers, adoptees, and adoptive mothers) need to get this figured out. Clearly, the old models of grief and loss are not working for a lot of people who are dealing with adoption loss (from any angle). Perhaps we can learn together how to make things better for the the people this was supposed to help in the first place, the adoptee.

      Thank you for reading this blog. I have a fair number of adoptive mothers who read here, for the very reasons you state. Most of them aren’t brave enough to admit it publicly, so thank you for having the courage to do so. (And to all of you who aren’t ready to come out of the closet yet, I LOVE YOU and appreciate your emails and support!)


      • The old models of grief and loss never worked for adoption which is why we’re in the mess we are and why most therapists/counsellors aren’t working effectively with adoptees and mothers. Hope for the future now it seems and new modules can be added to training!

      • Never heard of anyone yet amongst adoptees unless it’s Joe Soll and Sherrie and even they would probably concede they’re not ‘cured’!! Happy w/e! x

  13. Dear Melynda et al,

    Some of these comments, and indeed the thread of this conversation, make me cringe. I am one of the “therapists (and counselors) who haven’t been helping”. So, for what it’s worth, let me just say that most of us (professional therapists) have been utterly brain washed by the culture at large when it comes to adoption. (Well, at least I was.) I recently confessed to a woman I don’t know (a “first mother” who responded with a little hostility) that I had taught a course in the late ’80s at a large state university in the psychology department called “The Psychological Aspects of Parenthood” and never once in the course so much as mentioned the word “adoption”. (I know, I know. Huh?!!! I guess her snippiness was justified.)
    At least when I was asked in 2000 to teach that course again I had figured out what an unbelievable (unforgivable?) oversight that was and I started inviting a panel of (self identified) “birth mothers” and adoptees to the class. They came every semester after that first invite. It was a large class, (100-120 students) so you can imagine the number of students whose lives had been “touched by adoption” in some way, (many who ultimately “outed themselves” publicly for the very first time because of my guest panelists’ great candor and empathy). I still lose sleep when I remember with shame all those students back in 1989 who enrolled in an upper division psychology course called the TPA of Parenthood, who then had to sit through a whole course that basically dissed their experiences so totally. What can I say but, mea culpa?
    So, I’m adding my two cents here just to encourage you all to keep on keepin’ on. (Your messages to each other are worth ten times any polemic written by a professional researcher/psychologist/therapist. I don’t care how brilliant the research is or how knowledgable the shrink is, nothing heals like being really “known” by another.)
    But, also, this is not to say that formal therapy cannot BE helpful, I know better. I do want to commend you all for reaching out to each other and doing so with such grand love and acceptance. “Peer counseling” at its best. But, don’t underestimate the power of your communications to each other here (and elsewhere). Your writings here are hugely instructive, and I want to encourage you to reach out beyond your inner circles and share this knowledge with the professions. Instruct the professions that you identify as “unhelpful”. They will stay that way unless they hear this from you. Unfortunately, (I think) this is one of those therapeutic instances whereupon the client will have to take up the mantle of instruction and be willing to teach the therapist(s) what they need to know about ambiguous grief. Sorry about that. But, the good news is, I do believe that there are well meaning therapists and counselors who are willing to learn. Plus, isn’t every human being unique? And, therefore their response to the same experiences will be unique. In essence, every therapeutic encounter requires that the client “teach” the therapist about their unique self. No? Please don’t see our failure as a burden.
    So, I guess, in short, I’m advocating for patience, here. If you encounter a basically good therapist, be honest about what you’re not getting from treatment. Invite them into your world and experience totally. Recommend the books you like. Remember, our ignorance and bias is a product of the greater culture we are all influenced by and the pressure to accept the many “myths of adoption” is considerable. (It’s taken me more than twenty years to begin to know what I don’t know about adoption and I’m still learning all the time!) If your therapist is unwilling to learn…move on…but, if they are eager to learn from you, and in other ways you “click”…maybe be willing to stick it out and teach them a thing or two about you. I believe that you will both be the better for it.

    • Corie –

      Thank you so much for taking the time to read and comment on this letter. I truly appreciate it and find your insights incredibly valuable. Like you, I agree that formal therapy can be helpful, but it has fallen short in so many ways to help natural mothers and their relinquished children navigate the unusual human relationships wrought by modern adoption practice.

      I love what you said and find it so applicable in so many ways, “our ignorance and bias is a product of the greater culture we are all influenced by and the pressure to accept the many “myths of adoption” is considerable.” I don’t think social workers or church leaders are inherently bad people trying to do bad things to single expectant mothers, but they simply don’t know better. It’s kind of like blood letting back a couple hundred years ago. Doctors thought it was the way to “cure” people. We now recognize it as an unsound, barbaric, and ineffective treatment. It doesn’t mean those doctors were barbaric – they thought they were doing something to help. Eventually they figured out it wasn’t helping, in fact in many cases it was harming the patient! Perhaps someday it will be the same here in the U.S. – those in the helping professions will come to see the way the U.S. practices adoption is unsound and barbaric and changes will happen.

      At at least that’s my hope.

      Thanks again for stopping by – I look forward to learning more from you, especially your thoughts on how this information could be spread throughout the therapeutic community.

      • Oh, Melynda! I just realized what yesterday was! (I read some more.) Please forgive me for yammering on about this and pimping my book to you. Yikes. I am so embarrassed! I have no words that will convey to you how sorry I am for rough riding over your grief on this day of all days! Ugh. You are probably in a state of mild shock (no exaggeration). Be good to yourself. I am hoping that one of the ways you’ve come to deal with your grief is to write and write and write. And, I am extremely grateful that you were so gracious in not pointing out my lack of awareness and empathy. I thought I might just let you know about James Pennebaker at the University of Texas and his body of research on that subject.(http://www.utexas.edu/features/2005/writing/)
        It’s good stuff.

      • No worries at all Corie. I love love LOVE James Pennebaker’s work. My mom introduced his stuff to me a number of years ago and it has been quite helpful in finding a way to live with this adoption stuff. In fact, it was his research that motivated me, in part, to take up writing these letters. Anyhow, I recently read his book, “The Secret Life of Pronouns” and I found so interesting.

        And don’t worry about “pimping” your book. Like you, I am a book whore (books are a line item on our family budget). I am a voracious reader and am always eager for new stuff. According to my Kindle reader, I am actually 78% of the way through “Orfan”. 🙂 That’s what happens when a girl goes to bed early and stays up late reading.

  14. Thank you for this. It means a lot to me. I am a first mother who went on to be a happy, healthy, productive member of society. I have a career I like, I am a mom to grown children who are also happy, healthy, productive members of society, wife, soon to be grandmother. I am told I need help, therapy, “inner child work” and I say “why?” Am I angry about losing my child (and future grandchildren)? You bet I am. Am I sad about it? Also yes. Do I let any of that get in the way of living my life? Hell no. Why is it not okay for me to just be? Grief never goes away, I have just learned to live well with it being always present in my life. Is that strange? Is that not possible without professional help? Am I kidding myself? I don’t think so.

    • Ah…inner child work. I *hate* that phrase because I am like, HELLO people, it isn’t my “inner child” that is hurting here! It’s me, in the here and now. The mother I was and the mother I am. My inner child is just fine, thankyouverymuch.

      Grief never goes away, I have just learned to live well with it being always present in my life. Is that strange?… Am I kidding myself? I don’t think so.

      Nope, not strange. Quite remarkable considering the catastrophic loss you endured (Boss classifies adoption as a “normal” loss like divorce, or changing jobs. Obviously she has never lost her original family, nor has she lost a child to adoption. I am pretty sure 97% of us would classify it as a catastrophic loss. (I know there are some mothers who are THRILLED to the capital T to be birth mothers and think *every* woman should have this great “honor and blessing.” Most aren’t though.)

  15. Pingback: Link for the week « International Adoption Reader

  16. Melynda–I just recently came across your blog. I am a birth mother. My daugther will be 20 years old in July. I am married and have 6 other children. For all appearances, it seems as if I have “moved on” quite well. I have a successful career and a good marriage with a beautiful family. Until I found this site, I felt that nobody, NOBODY, understood the pain, guilt, anguish that I felt but kept inside. I never talked about my daughter, not to my husband or family. You have put into words the things that I haven’t let myself acknowledge all these years. I have finally felt “brave” enough to admit the wrongs in the system. I was a sacrificial cow to Catholic Social Services, and once they got what they wanted, I was not important anymore. I have seen a picture of my daughter since she was 9 months old, and I was promised a yearly update. However, after the 9 month update, the family didn’t want to send any more updates, so there it was. No one was there to fight for my rights as a mother. My own mother told me it was better that way, so I could “move on” easier.
    I cannot start a search until she is 21 years old. I had no idea I was able to send her letters that would be kept in her file until just recently. I have a letter that I wrote that sits in my pocketbook. I still havent’ mailed it.
    Sorry for the mini-rant….you helped me to open the floodgates. I will continue to read your blog. I’m interested to know more about your experience if you’re willing to share it. Thanks again.

    • Jennifer –

      I am sitting here with tears streaming down my face. My own daughter will be 20 in June and your story sounds so much like mine. So much like so many others. We have all be so alone for so long, haven’t we? It is simply heart breaking. And as you know, there is no “moving on” from the loss of a child to adoption. There is only learning to live with the loss.

      For me, part of the process of learning to live “well” with the loss was reading of other women’s journey. I started with Cassi’s story at Adoption Truth and Claude’s at Musings of the Lame. If you haven’t found your way there yet, please do. Both of those mothers are so compassionate and so very aware of what it takes to live well with adoption loss, even though they may not realize it. And when you are up to it, start reading Lost Daughters, a blog written by a number of women who were relinquished for adoption. It’s been a very (emotional) education for me, as a woman who lost a daughter.

      My heart goes out to you Jennifer – I am so sad there is another mother out there who knows this pain, but I am also grateful you are reaching out to others. You are not alone and there are many who will help you through the painful process of awakening from the adoption anesthesia.


  17. Adoption anesthesia….how very appropriate. I’ve been in a cloud for almost 20 years. This week was the first time I’ve even spoken to my husband about her….”MK”. I haven’t allowed myself to feel about this at all. But, like I said, this week has brought some kind of awakening, acknowledgement. I’ve ordered books, searched for blogs, tried to find her…only to find that I can’t. How ridiculous is it that I have to ask permission to contact my daughter? Just to hear her voice, to see a picture? But, in the eyes of the law, she’s not “my” daughter. I’m nobody to her now. Or am I? I just don’t know. What if she doesn’t care about me? What if she feels there’s nothing I can offer her? I’m so scared by it all.
    Thank you for the links….and I’ll be keeping in touch with you if you don’t mind. It’s so good to have contact with someone who finally understands me.

    • It has been three years since I came out of the fog. It is so very scary, but at the same time so very freeing. No matter what the law says, it can’t change biology ~ you ARE your daughter’s mother!

      There is no law that says you have to wait till your daughter is 21. She is an adult now, able to make adult decisions. Have you signed up on any mutual consent registries? The first ones I think of are ISSR and registry.adoption dot com. Don’t pay for a search, there are many search angels out there who charge nothing (like the one who reunited my son and I) or only charge what expenses they might occur while searching.

      I had not started coming out of the fog before being reunited with my son. You are going to be so far ahead of the game by dealing with the effects of adoption on your life before reunion happens. The day I found the other moms of adoption loss on-line changed my life ~ it was the day I realized that I wasn’t losing my mind! It was the day that I was able to start coming out of the adoption closet, the day I was no longer alone in this mess.

      Good luck to you in this journey of finding yourself again!

      • Yes! Thank you, Susie, for mentioning the part about NOT WAITING TO START THE SEARCH until that “magical” 21-years of age thing. I meant to do that, but forgot. Start searching now, Jennifer. You are entitled to know your daughter, and she is entitled to know you, regardless of what Catholic Charities says (((((Hugs))))) ~ M.

      • Thank you, Susie and Melynda, for that info! I was wondering how I could wait another year to begin to look for her. I feel that this website was put in my path for a reason….thanks again!

  18. what a wonderful post so honest and informative…..i myself am going to write a book of a different slant to adoption……i am going to title it babies dont come without mothers……we choose our mother from spirit before we incarnate into the flesh we choose our parents…..we are born to our parents…..what they have done worldwide was criminal …..not giving babies to their mothers and calling it adoption was the perfect crime…..people cannot have their own babies so they adopt…..babies are not adoptable they are born to mothers and already have the mother of their choice……these people have to get their hands off of babies taking babies from their mothers is damaging babies psychic trauma is immense in these children….all because some woman wanted a baby……there is no such thing as a baby…..they dont come without mothers……i am moving around the globe at present to abolish adoption……i came here and lost my first baby because of it and i do not want any other mothers and newborn babies to suffer the way i did…..it would be irresponsible of me to not do something positive about banning adoption…….people say to me what about mothers who neglect their children my reply to them is thats not what this is about this is about people who cant have their own children and apply to take a baby from the mother……thats what this is about…..taking newborns from their mothers and leaving the mother childless in order for a childless couple to have their family……time they got over their infertility and learnt to live with it ……how many years have we been told its time for us to get over our loss of our first newborn children……how dare they tell us to get over this…..time the infertile women got over their situation what have they lost certainly not a baby……if they cannot have a baby of their own they were not meant to…….taking babies from their mothers changing their names and birth certificates is criminal…….and its against the spiritual laws of nature……buying babies is absolutely insane……people cannot buy their babies……we didnt have to buy our own children they were born to us……money is more important to these people than keeping babies with their mothers……keeping babies with their mothers is more important to me…….wonderful post

    • time they got over their infertility and learnt to live with it ……how many years have we been told its time for us to get over our loss of our first newborn children

      Excellent point. I can understand and extend compassion to women who struggle with infertility. But taking children from other women simply to assuage their needs is not a morally defensible position. Unless the child was abused, neglected, or in harms way, then the baby and natural mother should be together. Period. As I keep saying, if family preservation was good enough for the Son of God, it’s good enough for the rest of us.

  19. Something I wrote on the subject some years ago. (Note: I don’t favor the term “adopter.”) At the time this piece was first published, it was posted everywhere in adoption-land, cut and pasted, to the point where words were altered, sometiems without my permission, This version came in the wake of some of that and I’d finally let go of it and let it be.. The other version used to be on about.com.


  20. I’m trying to make sense of my situation and it’s really hard. I stumbled on your letters as I am trying to understand my birth-father’s position a little better, and why I am grieving/what my grief is about. The model of ambiguous loss, its connection to unresolvable grief and the interplay between those factors and present/past relationships and coping that you outline has really affected me. The realisation that not only have family members been physically absent but that others have been psychologically absent as well knocked me sideways. What’s worse is that the two have somehow fed off each other.

    I am struggling to make sense my history and my present, and I am trying to find the courage to exist. So I’m really glad I read this – it has had a profound effect on me – like someone else understood or could explain things a little. Take good care.

    • Richard –

      I am glad you have found something of use in these letters. Thank you for reading with an open heart, one that is willing to learn. You are not alone in your struggles – there are many of us out here in the blog-o-sphere that live with this kind of ambiguous loss every day and are courageously, valiantly, trying to learn to live well in spite of it.

      I cannot speak for your first father, but I do know my brother, who lost a child to adoption, is deeply sorrowful he was not given the opportunity to be a part of his child’s life. I don’t know if you have contact with your first father or not and would be interested in hearing more. We so rarely hear from male adoptees in the adoption blogosphere, and even more infrequent do we hear a male adoptee’s perspective on their first father. Your experience and voice would be an invaluable addition to the emerging conversation and so I (selfishly) hope you blog about it.

      (On a different note, I see you are in the education technology field. I just finished up my PhD in Instructional Technology and Learning Sciences in 2011 – it’s so nice to run across someone who would understand what I do without having to explain!!!)


      • i dont get the birth family crap i mean we are all born here is the adopters saying that their children are not born here…..just the birth term infuriates me with the adoption industry as if to imply we are not all born here that in itself is enough to show adoption up for how dumb it is i mean there is only birth families…..its the family we all of us are born into…..trust someone to come in and stuff up the natural order of things……couples in need of babies expecting someone else to give them one…..well me i only wanted my own baby i didnt want anyone elses….no way no oneelses baby would do for me…..i only wanted my own

      • I hear you, Julie. The term “birth” family infuriates many of us, for a variety of reasons. You aren’t alone.


  21. LOVED THIS!!!I so want to print it out and send it to the “professionals” that counseled me during my pregnancy and after my adoption! I wish I would of been given something like this after I placed instead of a piece of paper with the 5 stages of grief!

    • actually god placed the baby naturally no one has the right to place a baby with anyone else as god places the baby…….no one is above god……..no one but god has the right to place the child…we are all formed in our mothers womb by god……..never take what god puts asunder or look out…….we were not born here to pro create for other people…….its criminal to take babies from where they chose ……we give birthfor our children there is no other way to have ababy………women have to give birth for their children that is what gets them their children nothing else…….children are born to their mothers have chosen their mother……..taking a baby from their mother is child abuse thats what it is……abuse of the childs right to be with their mother of choice………no one can choose their mothers and no one can choose their children it happens naturally never tamper with mother nature…….taking babies from their mothers is not an act of love at all………its the worst thing anyone can do to a newborn baby…….deprive them of their mothers……..adoption was never to deprive babies of their mothers……..it is there for children in need like orphans whose parents have died and eventhey get to keep their names and photos of their families……..totake a baby and create that babies rreaality was the worst human rights abuse on planet earth……..i am very disturbed i find it very disturbing to remove children from their families they were born into………we arrive here to a ready made family……its always been children having children and it will remain that way ………age is nothing we are all children of god…….all formed in our mothers wombs……..we are all in the same body we are born in and there is only one way onto the earth and that is through our mother……..

  22. Pingback: Depressive Episode | Hello, Hernandez

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