As wonderful as adoption reunions can be, reunion doesn’t cure all that’s been broken in every lost relationship. It just can’t. (It’s easy to think otherwise, though, when you’re caught up in the excitement of reuniting with someone who’s been lost to you.) Many adoption reunions nowadays follow a closed adoption in which lifelong mysteries are solved by genetic testing, but sometimes, open adoptions in which contact was lost also get opened again by reconnections months or years later,
Reunions can occasionally be more important than we even know at the time that they’re happening. (One Abrazo family who return annually for visits with their children’s birthmothers are especially grateful for the time they had with their son’s birthmom this summer, having just learned that she has passed away unexpectedly.) As nerve-wracking as it can feel, preparing for a reunion in which contact has been lost for awhile, these reconnections are nearly always an opportunity for growth, on some level.
Most reunions offer a chance to recover a missing piece of a puzzle, yet these can evoke a bittersweet realization of (and sense of regret over) how much previously had been lost. So be prepared, because reunion doesn’t cure all problems– and it might just unearth some new issues. These, too, present opportunities for new growth, but that may take some work or require some changes.
‘Twas lost, but now, am found
In Texas, more than half a century ago, a separated Fort Worth couple unexpectedly lost their 22-month-old daughter to a mysterious babysitter. The young mom, working as a waitress to support herself and her child, placed a newspaper ad desperately seeking childcare. The sitter she hired picked up the toddler from the mom’s roommate on August 23, 1971– then seemingly disappeared. Police and the FBI were notified but found no evidence to solve the abduction. The missing child’s parents eventually reunited and had 4 more children together before divorcing, yet neither ever forgot Melissa Highsmith, the child they’d lost. They never gave up hope of finding her one day.
Unbeknownst to them, that lost child was growing up nearby as Melanie Miyoko, with a nurse she’d thought was her bio-mother, and with a stepfather. The little girl was told that she had a long-lost birthfather somewhere in Japan but she never knew him. Melanie grew up with two brothers in that home; one older and white, and one younger and black But hers was not a happy childhood, Melanie says. At age 15, she moved out on her own and “worked the streets” to get by. By age 19, she had three children, and at age 20, she’d lost custody of them. A few marriages followed, but it wasn’t until a recent phone call from a stranger and 23 & Me genetic testing that she first learned the apparent truth of who she really was?
Melanie says only then, she asked the still-living woman she’d called Mom if she had anything she needed to tell her? Only then did her fictive parent confirm she was the missing Highsmith toddler from all those years ago. (The statute of limitations in Texas, however, has already expired.) Melanie Walden life changed forever at the age of fifty-three, when genetic tests confirmed she was Melissa Highsmith, the long-missing daughter of Alta Apantenco, age 73, and Jeffrie Highsmith, age 72. They met just after Thanksgiving 2022, in an emotional family reunion accented by their mutual religious beliefs. Melanie is now considering reclaiming her birth name, Melissa, and remarrying her latest husband with her newfound father there to give away the bride this time.
Reunion doesn’t; cure-alls aren’t
Like all closed adoption-era adoptees who find their missing birthrelatives, Mel is likely to find an intense rollercoaster of emotions ahead, and that’s to be expected. She’s excited to be joyously welcomed by an eager family who has hoped and waited and prayed for this reunion for fifty-one years. She will undoubtedly grapple with knowing the sad truth that was withheld from her, and with that will likely come no small amount of denial. regret, and yes, anger. There may be unanswered questions and family secrets, and perhaps some unexpected adjustments as existing siblings must make room for her in the family order. There will be expectations to adjust, boundaries to negotiate and family systems to learn and a continuing tsunami of grief over all that’s been lost in all this time.
Clinicians who work with those in reunion typically caution people to go slow, to postpone meeting right away, and to get plenty of counseling before and during and after reunion. Just as adoptions should always (and only) be child-centered, reunion visits should also be tailored to the desire and comfort of the adult who was the adoptee (or the embryo, or abductee, or for lack of a better term, the lost/found individual.) Various relatives may want differing levels of connection, but ultimately, it’s the grown child’s needs that should take precedence. (For those in need of more advice, check out The Adoption Triad: Complexities of Search & Reunion, and find Search & Reunion Etiquette here.)
After reunion, then what?
Some reunions do serve as launching-off points for new lifelong relationships, while others are merely one-and-done opportunities to get answers and/or closure. Sometimes, the scope of the connection to come may not become evident until familiarity and trust are built first. (That’s normal. Healthy, in fact.) It’s important for all participants to communicate their feelings, wishes, needs and expectations as honestly as possible, but to also have independent means of emotional support, so that the parties who are reuniting need not saddle a new connection with old baggage.
Reunions aren’t always easy, a truth that isn’t always evident in the emotionally-charged video clips the public loves to post online, But whatever way the reunion experience goes, it’s almost never a wasted effort. (Yes, it is worth it. So go for it.)
Because even though reunion doesn’t cure all hurts and cannot right old wrongs, it can offer much-needed clarity, and a bright new path towards personal healing, (And that just might be the best outcome of all.)