Article

The importance of recognizing loss for adopted children

Making our homes safe places for grief

May 29, 2019

Adoption is a beautiful thing.

As a Christian, I can attest to that as I consider my own adoption into the family of God through the blood of Christ. As an adoptive mom, I can attest to that as I’ve watched our son thrive and bring joy to our family. As a member of a church with a thriving orphan care ministry, I can attest to that as I see the beauty of James 1:27 walked out before my eyes every day.

But adoption isn’t only beautiful; it is also painful. We know that many families face hardships through adoption. These hardships are worth it, of course. Those of us who have adopted would do it again in a heartbeat. But I’m not talking about the pain an adoptive or foster parent faces. I’m talking about the pain an adopted child faces.

The gain and loss of adoption

I recently came across a video by adoptee Shareen Pine and read an article she wrote for the Washington Post from 2015 titled “Please Don’t Tell Me I was Lucky to be Adopted.” I found both to be incredibly helpful in putting words to the loss that adopted and foster children experience. Yes, it is true that children adopted into loving families are very fortunate. But it is just as true that the very reason adoption was necessary was because these children experienced something tragic: the loss of or separation from their biological family.

It is the longing of every child to grow up with their biological mom and dad. To know from whom they got their long legs or eye color. To enjoy the biological elements that unite them to their family. To be able to trace their lineage back to great-great grandparents. Children who have experienced the miracle of adoption have also experienced the loss of biological family ties. That is a real and profound loss, one we need to recognize, value, and grieve alongside adopted children.

My son carries the DNA of another set of parents, a man and a woman with a lineage as deep as my own. But that lineage has been severed due to a combination of circumstances of life in a fallen world. And though he’s too young to care, I can already feel the weight of what has been lost. And one day, he’ll feel it too.

The loss an orphaned child faces is most apparent when I consider how I prayed for my children before they were in my arms. When I was pregnant with my first two children, my contemplation of them was free of angst. As I prayed for them, they were safe in my womb, right where they were supposed to be. But as I prayed for my son before he was home, I grieved. He was not where he should be. He was not being caressed and nursed in the arms of his mother in those first weeks and years of life. Instead, he laid in hospitals and orphanages, without a parent to fight for his rights and health. All was not well. Stepping into adoption meant stepping into that loss.

As I do paperwork for our next child, I often pray for him or her. But my prayers are full of mixed emotions. I’m excited for all God has for us and for them, but I know the reason they will be available for adoption is because they have suffered greatly due to no fault of their own. As I grow in my excitement to welcome him or her into our arms, I also grieve the circumstances of his or her entrance into this world.

In her article, Shaaren Pine shares:

“I sometimes imagine what my life would have been like if I had had [my daughter’s] confidence. If I had felt safe enough to claim my story and the pain of being an adoptee. If I had felt secure that I could share it openly. And if I had believed people would support me when I did. I probably wouldn’t have wished to die so often starting when I was 11. And I probably wouldn’t have started cutting myself when I was 12.”

Not every adopted child will grieve the loss of their biological family the same way, but every adopted child will feel this loss. And it doesn’t serve them well for us to ignore that reality. Instead, we need to be prepared to give them safe places to process, to talk, to lament and grieve. Yes, they have gained something great, but part of that greatness is the safety and security of a home where both sorrows and joys can be shared.

Helping our kids work through loss

So, how can we do this as adoptive parents?

First, we can acknowledge the loss. We can recognize that something very painful has happened to our children. In age-appropriate ways, we can find ways to speak of birth moms and birth dads. To give our kids language to talk about them, to pray for them, to wonder about them, and to grieve their absence.

Secondly, we can grieve with our kids. A grief born alone can be overwhelming and debilitating. But a shared grief can be endured. The grief might not hit them until they are in junior high or high school but, when it does, we can be ready to stop and sit in the sadness with them so they aren’t alone. Grieving with someone simply means recognizing something valuable has been lost forever. A good comforter doesn’t try to fix the pain or paint over it with something else (“But look at how God has turned it all for good.”) It may be true that God has brought good from the pain, but grieving means acknowledging the irreparable loss and being sad about it. A good comforter embraces the tension of the moment and doesn’t shy away from it.  

Lastly, we can ask questions. Questions such as, “Do you ever think about your birth mom or dad?” or “What do you wish you could tell your birth parents?” Most children will hesitate to speak of biological family because of fear of disrupting the loyalty, security, and unity they enjoy in their present situation. So asking questions about their biological family or country of origin can let them know, “This is a safe place to bring your fears, hurts, questions, doubts, and sadness.” We are serving them by setting the table for a difficult conversation so that when they are ready to share, they have confidence that we won’t run away but will lean in and listen.

Remember, the miracle of adoption was first birthed in the heart of our God who “predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ” (Eph. 1:5). How did he adopt us? Through Jesus Christ. To secure our adoption, God put on flesh, bore our burdens, carried our griefs, and made them his own. As we seek to imitate our eternal Father in earthly adoption, let’s be sure to do the same. Our children need burden bearers and grief sharers. We can be that to them because Jesus has been that to us.

Kelly Needham

Kelly Needham writes a blog at kellyneedham.com. Kelly met her husband, Jimmy, at Texas A&M University in 2005. At the time, he wanted to be history teacher, and she was getting her finance degree. Within a year and a half,... Read More