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We Need To Talk About the ‘Complicated Grief’ of Losing a Child To Adoption

Women face many different adversities in life, including serious illness, injury, abuse, heartbreak, loss and other challenges that can keep them from being the women they are meant to be. But every day with courage, hope and perseverance, women overcome these struggles … and so can you.

As a single mom, I gave birth to my daughter in December 2005. We lived a very content life together until everything changed in the summer of 2008, when she was 2 and a half. I became desperately ill with my mental health condition which was the result of past trauma. I did my best to keep it together for the both of us, but I was drowning fast. It took two years of me trying to heal, and my daughter living apart from me, before I was in over my head and could see no way out. The flashbacks, panic attacks, depression and nightmares were debilitating. I kept being hospitalized in a psychiatric hospital; there was no way I could provide stability for my daughter. In 2010, when my daughter was 5, I was given an ultimatum by my daughter’s therapist that either I needed to bring my child home or place her for adoption. In the moment, there was no way I could provide for her the stability she required. I was talked into placing her for adoption.

I was subsequently told that I did a Godly thing and only a good mother would make such a sacrifice, along with many other accolades. I did not know at the time this was all in an effort (consciously or unconsciously) to silence my grief. I just suppressed my grief and bought into the lie that I was this amazing woman, and that I was giving her the life she could never have with me, and that she was better off. I suffered in silence for five long years, thinking I had done this amazing thing and I should feel good about it, until I found groups like Birthmom Buds and local support groups.

Support Acknowledging My Grief Turned Everything Around

I learned in support groups that this feeling I was having deep down in my soul was real and true. I was grieving and it was not selfish of me to feel this way. I had lost my child and I was grieving. I was finally around people who understood and really take my pain seriously, people who would stop congratulating me. This made me relieved and angry all in the same. All those years I suffered in silence when there were people out here who could relate and help me process my grief. No one told me my feelings were valid or that it was OK to grieve my daughter.

I had been in trauma therapy all this time and we had never meaningfully worked on this grief because the therapist was ill-equipped to help me. I learned through my exposure to the adoptive world that my adoption process was corrupt and unethical. I had no protections to make sure my wishes were followed and that my daughter was able to have as much contact as possible post-adoption. Promises were not kept and lies were told all around. I was never prepared to be a birth mom and all that entailed. I was just stripped of my child and basically told to get over it. It was all for the best.

In December 2012, I asked my daughter’s moms if I could see her. They asked her and she said she wanted to see me. She walked into my arms for the first time in two and a half years and we both just hung on for dear life. She still loved me. She was not mad. She was glad to see me.

I have seen her seven times since then. Each time was a life-changing experience. I am only allowed, according to her adoptive parents, to see her once a year. I still get triggered by seeing her, but I am bouncing back faster each time.

It is clear to me that she is in a good home and very well taken care of. I am so sad to be missing all the little moments of her life and the big ones, too. The grief is immense and is debilitating at times, but I carry on so that someday, we will be reunited, and I will be the mother she needs me to be then. I still struggle with my decision, but I know it was the best for the both of us at the time.

Every day, my heart aches for her.

Clinically, What Was I Experiencing?

I did not know, at the time, I was living with complicated grief disorder (CGD), which is considered for those who are significantly and functionally impaired by grief symptoms for at least one month after six months after the initial loss. Let us look at the quick rundown of signs and symptoms of complicated grief as described by the Mayo Clinic. I took the liberty of changing the words “deceased” and “bereavement” to fit into the experience of adoption losses, most specifically in relation to a birth mother post-relinquishment.

Signs and symptoms of complicated grief can include:

  • Extreme focus on the loss and reminders of the loved one.
  • Intense longing or pining for the child.
  • Problems accepting the adoption.
  • Numbness or detachment.
  • Preoccupation with your sorrow.
  • Bitterness about your loss.
  • Inability to enjoy life.
  • Depression or deep sadness.
  • Trouble carrying out normal routines.
  • Withdrawing from social activities.
  • Feeling that life holds no meaning or purpose.
  • Irritability or agitation.
  • Lack of trust in others.

Grief Reactions of Birth Parents

The grief I am experiencing is poorly understood or studied. Our reactions are psychological, physical, and social or interpersonal reactions. The negative reactions are persistent and life-lasting and impact every relationship and interaction the birth parent has. These reactions are never truly legitimized, as in my case in which everyone just wanted to me to move on and not see this as a trauma that is long-lasting.

You Have Permission To Grieve

I just want you to know you have permission to grieve. No one has the right to silence your grief. Your grief is real and should be honored. There is no finite time in which you should grieve. You may very well grieve the rest of your life and you have permission to do that. The reality, however, is that in our grief, we must also find a way to still live a full life. We owe it to us and our children to heal as much as we can, so our hearts can be available to them and the others in our lives. We must go on despite our pain and learn how to cope or we will get lost in despair. Taking action in your life may help you cope better. Taking action can mean doing therapy, becoming an activist, writing a book, starting a blog, attending retreats or support groups or just journaling. Getting active has worked for me and has given me a sense of purpose and meaning to all this trauma. You can find this as well.

You have permission to go on with your life and grow. No one should stand in your way. No matter if you have an open adoption and see your child frequently or if you may never see your child, you are worthy of love and peace of mind.

I have shed my share of tears until I am not sure if I can cry anymore. My heart is so broken that I cannot comprehend any more suffering and pain. I must turn my tears into action. I must make myself whole again so that I can be in my daughter’s life when she is ready. I owe this much to her. 

Maya Lorde

Photo by Claudia Wolff on Unsplash