How to Support a Grieving Birthparent
It’s not easy to know how to support a grieving birthparent. It’s essential to know, however, that every parent who places a child for adoption is going to go through some sort of grieving process, some time or another. And whenever they do, they’re going to need your ongoing support, so please don’t let them down.
The grief experience is different for everyone, of course. We grieve all sorts of losses in this lifetime, and we all grieve differently. Do not make the mistake, however, of thinking that just because you can’t see a birthparent’s grief that it’s not there. Adoption grief is not well understood, but it’s a Very Really Thing, and we all need to do a better job of addressing it.
“But why would there be grief at all, if adoption is a good thing?” some readers may be asking. “What if she didn’t want the baby in the first place?”
That’s a fair question, assuming it comes from someone who doesn’t realize how deeply most birthparents love the child/ren they place for adoption. Birthfathers and birthmothers may grieve differently, of course. And yes, there are birthmoms who became pregnant as a result of sexual assaults, or who never intended to parent a child, or who used drugs all through pregnancy in hopes of miscarrying, or who only chose adoption because they were too far along to abort; do they still go through grief when they choose not to parent, and do they deserve support, too? Here’s the short answer: yes, and yes.
Anytime a girl or woman spends 9 months with a future child floating around inside of her, whether or not either of them “signed up” for that ride, there’s going to be a relationship– an interdependency, or a bond– growing between them. Some mothers feel that bond very intensely, right away; others experience it differently, over time. Some deny it for fear that acknowledging it will make parting more painful; others embrace it yet find doing so earns them cautions from others who fear it may change their minds about placing.
Watch for the strong & silent types.
Many birthparents (male and female) feel they have to hide their grief from the adoptive family or even their own friends and relatives, since their loss was self-imposed, in that it results from a choice they made voluntarily. Sadly, these are the kinds of birthparents erroneously most people think are healthiest, since they don’t show outward signs of depression after placing. They go out of their way to look like they’re bouncing back from their experience; they seem fiercely upbeat and at peace with their decision, and they rarely (if ever) even talk about the baby or their emotions. (That might be the first sign that something is seriously amiss.)
Missy remembers feeling like the only safe place she had to cry was in the shower, after placing her firstborn child for adoption. “I didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for me. I knew the baby was in good hands, so I thought I had no right to miss him. But I did, terribly. And it seemed like nobody in the world would understand why.”
Darin says he struggled with guilt after placement. He and his wife were not in a position to parent the child he’d fathered as a result of an affair, and since he didn’t have any alternatives to offer the birthmom when she opted for adoption, he felt he had no right to the regrets he felt afterwards.
For Chanelle, showing her true emotions after placement would invite an onslaught of “we told you so”s from family members who opposed her adoption plans. “I bottled it all up inside,” she said. “I fell back into drugs, to not feel the pain. I told everyone I was fine. I really wasn’t, though.”
Empower them to talk about it… or not.
Another birthmom, Sandra, dealt with her grief differently. “I went to counseling. I kept my baby’s pictures up around my apartment. I told strangers on the bus about my adoption, because I wasn’t going to hide it. I thought I was all okay with it, because I did talk about it any time I felt like it. Yet it wasn’t until years later, when I got married and had a baby I did keep that I realized how much I lost when I put my first child up for adoption. That’s when it hit me, and by then, nobody understood why I wasn’t over it already.”
It’s important to assure parents who have placed that they don’t have to suffer in silence, whether their placement was one month back– or a decade or more ago. This doesn’t mean they will necessarily be ready to talk about it, but it means that “being present” for them in their grief and assuring them someone is there to listen if they need to talk about it can go a long ways in supporting them.
It often feels uncomfortable for adoptive parents, adoption professionals and family members when birthparents experience adoption grief in a very public manner, because we all care deeply for the grieving parent/s and feel incapable of “making it all better” for them. (And truth be told, nobody can do that for them, nor should we, because going through that grief is the only route to recovery.)
What else you can do (and not do.)
If you are serving as a sounding board for someone who is grieving, rest assured that you don’t have to have “all the right answers.” If you don’t know what to say, it’s okay; don’t just offer empty platitudes about time healing all wounds or recount your own troubles. Your most important task is to listen, to repeat what you’ve heard so they know they’ve been heard, and then to ask gentle questions that help them to keep talking, if they’re able to do so, about what they’re feeling and how it impacts them and how they think they’ll know when it’s starting to get better.
What else can you do to help support a birthparent’s grief? Give newly-delivered birthmoms plenty of quality time with the baby in the days and weeks after placement; this is hugely important for both the birthparents as well as the baby. Don’t wait to hear from birthparents after relinquishment has occurred; reach out to check in as frequently after placement as you did prior to it (isolation is incredibly painful for those who are grieving.) Keep in mind that “family holidays” can be painful for those with missing family members, and reach out to them to say “just thinking of you today, what are you doing?” Ask open ended questions (those that cannot be just answered with “yes” or “no”) for maximum relief. Offer to Skype or Facetime if seeing for themselves how the baby/child is doing lends them peace. Find gentle, caring ways to honor their place child’s birthday or placement anniversary, just to say “we remember.” Lift them in your prayers during too-long silences. Make the extra effort to visit regularly– don’t just rely on texts or social media messages or emails. Help connect them with other birthparents and with resources especially for birthparents who have placed.
And then: use what you learn about supporting birthparents in their grief to recognize and address signs of adoptee grief, as well, because adopted persons also tend to have unresolved feelings about their own ambiguous loss, much as birthparents do. If you find other’s adoption grief is triggering some long-hidden losses of your own, find a counselor you can talk to, because you might just find that setting that long-carried burden down may be incredibly freeing for you, too.
Finally, know that adoption grief can be cyclical, meaning it may resurface in different forms and for different reasons in the months and years following placement. Be diligent in your efforts to learn how to support a grieving birthparent in every season, and strive to do so with the same love and consistency we want extended to us, in our own moments of need.