A hidden secret of adoption that few want to admit is that some adoptive parents still grieve the child they never had…the child that had always hoped to give birth to. These feelings of grief often catch parents by surprise. And just as often fill them with guilt.
They are happy. They love their adopted child. They are grateful and thankful and all the other “__fuls” that they should feel. But still, amongst all this fullness, there is a whole in their heart for the child that never was, but was very much in their hearts and mind.
Many adoptive parents feel shame and guilt in the face of this grief… a sense of being disloyal to their much loved adopted child. What a confusing place to be.
Grief is a Process, Not a Switch
You may always feel the loss of experiencing pregnancy or having a genetic connection to your child, but it need not be overwhelming. You also need not feel guilty. Carole LieberWilkins, a therapist specializing in adoption and family building options, summed it up well:
“The hardest thing about reproductive loss is saying goodbye to someone we never said hello to. Our sadness and depression over the loss of our genetic offspring is grief. But unlike the grief we feel when a real person dies, infertility grief means saying goodbye to someone who was never really here. When there is an actual death, we have ritual around it. We have funerals and wakes, or we sit Shiva, and make social calls. We go to church or temple, and often light candles. People bring casseroles to our homes and say, “I’m so sorry for your loss.
But when we are told that we need genetics from someone else in order to conceive, when we need to confront that our child may not look like us, be like us, laugh like our grandparent, or have our partner’s intelligence, no one brings us a casserole and no one says they are sorry for our loss. There is no name to give to a person who died, even though we feel exactly like a real person has passed. That’s because the person has been so real to us for so long, even if we didn’t realize it.” – Carole LieberWilkins
We talked about all this on the Creating a Family show (Grieving Infertility Loss after Adopting) with our guest Carole LieberWilkins. Not only has adoption and infertility therapy been her profession since 1986, she also lived the experience personally by having a child through adoption and then a child through egg donation just 10 months later. We covered how to know when you are ready to stop infertility treatment and move to adoption, and how to decide if you should go back into fertility treatment for your next child.
Are you still grieving the loss of your biological child even after adopting?
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This blog was first published in 2013 and updated in 2015.
Image credit: Lee Morley
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I completely agree!!
I think this is something that is SO important but so often overlooked. My husband and I are in the process of becoming foster parents and the person who wrote our home study specifically asked us about this and we talked about it for some time. Without a doubt, I went through a period of grief and mourning. But I think that because I allowed myself to do that, I am able to fully embrace the path that we have chosen. Thank you for bringing this up.
Ive actually had a few telephone conversations with the woman that wrote that and I think what she says is true but is massively ironic and a fat slap in the face to any donor offspring that they might be raising because they certainly are not bringing any caseroles to help the child grieve the loss of their very real biological parents and relatives who are not even dead they are just being sequestered from them in service to the people raising them who want the luxury of having a child all to themselves for 18 years so that they can prevent any deep bonding with their relatives in early childhood and thin their emotional connection to them as if they were not actually their family and their absense was not really a loss. The whole statement is in fact so horribly insensitive to the experience that some people force children into when they mate with donors that it is really hard to read. Olivia posted the same passage on her blog a while back and she said to me that the children won’t miss their biological families the way that people grieve the loss of their biological children and I said why not? They have the much more unfortunate hell of fan experience of being kept away from real living breathing relatives and you guys are talking about lighting candles and having loss rituals for children that were never even born never existed anywhere but your minds? All she had to offer is that she felt the children would never have known them to miss them and so it was not a loss. Quite a lot to expect a that a child would react in that manner when we are talking about real relatives that they are hoping they’ll just not mind being hidden from. This is the kind of stuff that makes people told early with really open households blog behind the families back and talk with everyone but the people who told them they were donor offspring.. I know I’m a decending voice but don’t have a ritual for the loss of a non-existent genetic child within earshot of a person whose been sequestered from their bio family for any reason adoption donor conception, its just really poor form. Cause like if biological families were that important to you how could you go out of your way to cut someone else off from theirs? How would that even start to make sense? Wouldn’t you never want anyone to feel that anguish you had? Or feel it amplified a million times over for having been separated from living family? I have said it a couple of times in reaction to that same passage on other blogs and people have commented that it never occurred to them, that they were actually putting someone else in that position and cranking up the volume.
Pcos– what more do I say, uterine septum.endometrsis need I go on
Anyway, sorry to write a big long novella about it–also wanted to say thank you to Dawn and Carole. 🙂
You are so welcome.
Sorry I’m a latecomer to this blogpost (I’m a latecomer to this SITE, having just been introduced to it recently). I listened to this Podcast episode yesterday and don’t think I fully processed it till I was in my car fetching yogurt for my two adopted sons. I thought about writing a letter to say goodbye to the son or daughter to whom I would never give birth and just LOST IT. (What is it with me and crying in the car lately??) :p Susanna from July 22, you’re not alone! ((((hugs))))
After years of trying to conceive unsuccessfully, my husband and I first started fostering our (wonderful!) sons and then moved on to adopting the boys with whom we fell in love; and for the first several years, I felt too overwhelmed as a new parent to two older kids to really process my grief fully. Someone told me recently about the Kubler-Ross five stages of grief, and I think in the back of my mind, I was still in that “Bargaining” stage. I kept thinking, when we get enough money, pay off our student loans, get into the rhythms of being a family of four and settle down, we can try again to have a baby brother or sister for our sons, the two older brothers.
Gradually, I’ve come to realize that this is not realistic, nor would it be kind or fair to introduce a baby with his/her own 24/7 needs into the lives of our now-adolescent sons. I’m confronting the reality–and finality–of never experiencing the joy/wonder/awe that is pregnancy and childbirth, and frankly, it sucks. 🙁 I think I’m moving into the proverbial Stage 4 of the Kubler-Ross model, and am in the process of getting a support system in place to deal with the resultant depression.
This will most likely be via outside counseling, as I honestly don’t know many people who have been through permanent infertility–or at least who’ve been as bummed about it as I have been. My friends with birth children who’ve “been there, done that” have given me well-meaning, but still not 100% helpful, words of comfort that, oh, I’m not really missing anything, because pregnancy and childbirth were no picnic, but…sigh. I digress. :-/
I really need to take Carole’s suggestion to write a letter to that never-to-be son or daughter (yes, we even had a name for her), but dread writing it. I think I’ll lose it when I put the pen to paper, but perhaps it will be healing in a way…
Hugs to you Michelle. Infertility sucks and I wish it weren’t happening to you.
grief is def a process
One supremely helpful side effect that comes from dealing with our own ambiguous grief is that we are then in a better position to help our children deal with THEIR ambiguous grief as they grow up.
Like we parents must mourn that we’ve come to the end of our genetic line, sometimes our children via adoption and donor gametes will mourn not having the beginning of their genetic line. Same coin, different sides.
Profound: “The hardest thing about reproductive loss is saying goodbye to someone we never said hello to.
That’s a great comparison Lori between the beginning and end of a genetic line.
I am still working through the latter (my wife is as well). Although we are unusual in that we won’t be moving from fertility treatments to whatever our next step is. Not that we will ever fully grieve our loss that never existed but we want to get to a point where we are able to have better control of our emotions.
I definitely still feel the loss, though we utterly and completely love our son whom we adopted.
I kind of liken it to the confusing grief I imagine he will someday feel – that he loves us dearly (at least I hope!) but at the same time feels grief over the loss of his first family. but the catch is that he can’t be raised by us without having had lost them, and he couldn’t have been raised by them without not having us.
Just like I would not have had him if my treatments had worked. I still feel sad about those losses, but at the same time, couldn’t imagine my life with out my son – my pride and joy.
Adoption is not the only realm for this – my grandmother lost her mother when she was only a toddler, and I know for a fact that had she not died, the family would have moved and my mom and I wouldn’t have been born. So how does she, and do we, reconcile our feelings about that?
Some loss situations are confusing, because you couldn’t have what you have without the loss. The loss itself has nothing to do with the love you have for the current people in your life. The way I reconcile it is that I consider thee loss and subsequent good fortune to be separate events, and I let myself have the feelings for each that I have.
anon, I couldn’t have said it better. In fact, I didn’t!
Susannah, and the best thing you did was recognize it and allow yourself to grieve. So often, people hear “just get over it” or “you can always adopt”. The lack of recognition of the full force of losses makes it harder to address.
Here from ICLW… What first caught my eye here was Carole LieberWilkins name jumping off the screen. My husband and I went to her for counseling when we stopped infertility treatments and were trying to figure out what was next. We also attended a pre-adoption support group that she led. Because of her, we are now parents through adoption. She is THE BEST!!
I think Lori nailed it and I couldn’t agree more. It is the meaning behind the name of my blog. 😉
I listened to the podcast and wept when Carol described the ritual that she suggests to her client. I was in the car and had to stop to gather myself before going in to the store. I can’t remember the last time I felt such an emotional response – it was extremely powerful. We are going to carry out a ritual for ourselves. Thank you Dawn, and Carol.
Here from ICLW…
Grief is not a switch. How true!