The Unspoken Loss of Adoption’s Happy Endings
Recently, I was asked to write a blog article for the Cherry Hill Counseling website. The topic? Adoption. Makes sense. That’s my area of expertise. The families and individuals touched by adoption have been the centerpiece of my whole social work career, in many ways.
Whether it was finding services for birth parents in my role as a foster care case manager, responding to pages (yes, we used pagers back before smart phones) and picking up newborn babies from hospitals as a foster care intake coordinator, or interviewing and writing home studies for prospective adoptive parents as a foster care licensing worker, I had the privilege of seeing all vantage points of the adoption triad (birth parents, adoptees, and adoptive parents).
After obtaining my Master’s degree in Social Work, I went right back into the mix and soon began working as an Adoption Preservation Therapist, providing in-home counseling to post-adoptive families and children. This area has remained my passion long after I burned out of that rather intense job and moved into private practice at Cherry Hill.
And yet, I found myself at a loss for where to start and what to say when asked to write on this topic. I started asking myself why? What is the hesitation? Isn’t this my heart? Don’t I have a lot to share? Then the answer came to me. It is because of what mainstream culture, and even many adoptive parents, believe about adoption. It is often seen through the lens of adoptive parents and the journey they took and how blessed they feel to be able to adopt their children. A quick children’s book search on Amazon will reveal what I’m talking about. You will find titles like I’ve Wished for You, I’ve Loved You Since Forever, and God Found Us You.
Has anyone, other than those close to this issue, ever stopped to think about the adopted child? The birth parents? The amount of grief and loss that exists within the adoptee and birth parents in order for that child to be available for adoption is indescribable. And maybe that is exactly why we skip past it. We jump ahead to the “happy ending” of the story. It makes us feel better to see that an abandoned or abused child will be loved and nurtured as he or she so desperately needs and deserves. And, of course, I agree! I have been in the court rooms countless times with families as the judge signs the final adoption decree paperwork. There is so much joy, and for many foster children or internationally adopted children who have been in multiple homes or orphanages, they finally get some permanency in their lives. So much to rejoice on that special day. But does that joy mean that we erase, ignore, or never talk about the sadness and loss that is also present?
What I have discovered is that, sooner or later, these feelings of grief absolutely surface for adoptees. It might not take the form you would expect with lots of tears and anguish. It can look like anger, defiance, ambivalence or outright refusal to attach with adoptive parents. Or it comes in the form of people-pleasing and wearing a “false” mask (because being my true self left me rejected or abused by my birth parents. So I can’t show that ever again for fear of a second rejection). Nancy Verrier (2019), author of The Primal Wound and Coming Home to Self, describes it this way to adoptees:
You as adoptees have no reference point. For most of you, your trauma occurred right after birth, so there is no “before trauma” self. You suffered a loss that you can’t consciously remember and which no one else is acknowledging, but which has a tremendous impact on your sense of Self and others, your emotional responses, your behavior, and your world view. Your brain synapses connected according to your perception of your environment which seemed unsafe, unfamiliar, and in need of constant vigilance. This need for vigilance may have filled you with anxiety. Some of you became compliant and tried to be perfect, while others of you acted out and tested everyone who was important to you.
Some adoptees explain a phenomenon termed as “coming out of the fog” when they, in essence, stop believing the “happy ending” story they have been told all these years. Instead, they realize that they have lost a tremendous amount by being forever separated from their family (and sometimes culture and race) of origin. Without intervention, this delayed grief can develop into more serious forms of mental illness and/or addictions as well. Sadly, adoptees are often over-represented in mental health treatment centers, substance abuse treatment centers, and jails. In a research study, Keyes, Sharma, Elkins, Iacono, and McGue (2008) discovered that adopted adolescents were twice as likely to have Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder or Oppositional Defiance Disorder as their non-adopted peers. They were also more likely to have had contact with mental health professionals.
While my experience with birth parents is more limited, I know how they have also suffered loss. Whether by choice or not, these parents have lost the opportunity to care for their children, be in their lives and watch them grow up. It is a loss they often cannot talk about with many people for fear of being judged for the part they played in the process. Maybe they did not even tell their loved ones about having a child they are not parenting, due to shame or fear of rejection. Maybe they are experiencing a bit of “survivor’s guilt” in a way, if they found stability in their lives over time and/or went on to have and parent additional children.
Many adoptive parents have also experienced loss before making the choice to adopt, including infertility, miscarriages, and/or physical health problems. They have brought these burdens with them into the adoption process.
It is high time we start looking, listening, and validating these losses with everyone we know who has been impacted by adoption. Just having someone acknowledge what they have lost can have a life-changing effect. For the first time, their grief is identified instead of ignored! Therapy can also be a tremendous help for all members of the adoption triad. For adoptees, they can connect with and find comfort for that inner child who is grieving the separation from their first family, race, and/or culture. Adoptive parents can be heard and validated about their experiences, while also being given the tools to provide a safe, emotional space for their adopted child to express the feelings of loss. And birth parents are given the opportunity for their story to be heard and to make peace with the choices or circumstances that led to the adoption.
References and Recommendations
Keyes, M. A., Sharma, A., Elkins, I. J., Iacono, W. G., & McGue, M. (2008). The mental health of US
adolescents adopted in infancy. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 162(5), 419–425.
Verrier, N. (1993). The primal wound: Understanding the adopted child. Lafayette, CA: Gateway Press.
Verrier, N. (2010). Coming home to self: Healing the primal wound. (UK ed.). British Association for
Adoption and Fostering.
Verrier, N. (2019). Information for adoptees. Retrieved from
For more reading and listening (via podcasts) about the adoptee experience, I’d highly recommend the resources at www.adopteeson.com
Amy Tanner is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and has been working in the field in various capacities since 1998. She holds a Master’s degree in Social Work from the Jane Addams College of Social Work at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Before joining Cherry Hill in 2008, Amy worked exclusively with abused and neglected children in various settings, particularly in the foster care and adoption arenas.
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