Grief and Loss in Open Adoption

Open adoption is often presented as a way to lessen the grief and loss experienced by the birthparents when placing your child for adoption. With open adoption, you are able to see your child and eventually develop a relationship with him or her; however, nothing can change the fact that you are no longer the child’s parent.

Placing your baby for adoption is one of the most significant losses that birthparents will ever have to face. In some cases, it is our first experience with grief and loss.

Some predictable reactions to grief and loss include:

Denial and Shock

You may feel numb, as though you are just going through the motions. Intellectually you may understand and acknowledge the loss, but emotionally it has not hit you yet. During this stage you will experience feelings of calm and then burst into tears with the conflicting emotions of the miracle of the birth of your child and the acknowledged reality that you are placing the child for adoption. For many birth parents this may be the first time the baby has seemed real for them. The feelings of pride and joy associated with giving birth are mixed with the sadness that comes from the decision to let go.

As the shock wears off, you may experience intense sadness and pain. Birth parents sometimes try to minimize these feelings by denying the sadness altogether. Some deny any loss at all. Thinking about the pictures and letters you will be receiving from the adoptive family and their happiness helps you stay in this stage of denial for a while.

Each person experiences denial differently, but each person will sustain some degree of loss and sadness. Some birth parents avoid the issue altogether by denying there is a loss at all. They ‘keep themselves too busy’ to be able to feel the pain and sadness. They often avoid contact with the agency or the adoptive family and deliberately avoid places and people who remind them of the pregnancy. Occasionally, a birth parent may turn to alcohol or drugs to continue the denial of the pain and avoid acknowledging the loss.

Denial and avoidance are perfectly normal reactions to grief and loss. They function as a buffer to allow you time to absorb the reality of the loss, rather than be completely overwhelmed by it. This is a protective mechanism and serves a vital purpose unless it goes on too long. There is no easy way around the grieving process. The pain and sadness associated with healthy grieving may be difficult but denying these emotions will not make them go away.

Depression and Anger

After the shock and denial subsides you will begin to emotionally comprehend the extent of the loss and you may begin to feel a sense of depression and overriding sadness. It seems that everywhere you turn, you see pregnant women or hear babies crying. These encounters can begin to trigger crying and confusion about your feelings toward your placement. Depression can set is and it can have other side effects which are physical. Grieving is hard to do and it can cause fatigue, sleep disturbances, changes in appetite, muscular aches and pains. You may experience a generalized anxiety.

Anger is part of the grieving process and usually follows closely behind denial. It may be a shock to you to feel this anger. You may express anger at the agency, the attorney, the adoptive family and God himself. You blame your parents, your partner, your friends, yourself. When you see pictures of happy families in magazines or on television, you get angry all over again. You try to repress your anger and it only festers and bubbles up unexpectedly. You may experience panic attacks which are a direct result of trying to repress your anger. Some people deal with this stage better than others. Some work out, power walk or run. Others do some private screaming and yelling. The key is to not repress it, but to deal with it head on by identifying and acknowledging the losses and allowing yourself to feel and react to your feelings.

Guilt and Negotiation

Guilt is always a negative feeling. As you begin to heal, you may have pangs of guilt and the ‘if onlys’ begin to form in your mind and get mixed up in your grieving. If only I hadn’t gotten pregnant, if only I hadn’t lost my job, if only I had listened to my mother, if only….. You may second guess your decision at this point and that is perfectly normal and OK. If the decision was made in haste or under pressure, you may question your judgment. Some birth parents avoid contact with the agency, attorney or adoptive parents because they feel this generalized guilt about relinquishing their role as their child’s mother. You may fantasize that you don’t have a right to have a place in your child’s life. Unfortunately, some in our society reinforce these negative feelings that birth parents have about themselves. Don’t buy into that. Remember, we are only human and we can only do the best that we can. It is easy to blame ourselves because of circumstances. Whether your guilt is legitimate or not, there will come a point where you will need to forgive yourself.

Acceptance and Resolution

When you are able to integrate the loss of your child into your life, you are experiencing acceptance. You feel comfortable with your decision, what it means to be a birth parent and your place in your child’s life. For some, it means accepting a situation that is less than perfect or different from what they expected. Acceptance means a renewed energy and strength; concentration returns and you are functionally normally and excelling in your activities. You may feel that you have grown from this experience and you know yourself better than you did before. You may find out who is really your friend who truly supports you and who is not. You may become closer to your family because of the experiences you have shared because of your decision to relinquish your child and allow others to parent him. Acceptance does not mean the pain of the loss is gone, it means you have found a way to make it part of your life. This means letting go of the parental role in your child’s life and defining for yourself what it means to be a birthparent to your child. Resolution is not only about understanding and accepting what we have lost, it is also about integrating that loss into our lives. Remember, the relationship with your child has been dramatically altered by giving up your parenting role, but a relationship still exists between you and your child. You are his birth parent and that is something to be proud of. You loved him. You brought him to term and gave him life itself. You searched and found a wonderful loving family to be his parents. Because of your decisions he will have a wonderful life and eventually he will understand your sacrifice and love for him.

Maxine L. Seiler, LCSW

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