The loss of a long term foster child…the loss of a foster-to-adopt baby that the family had dreams and plans and expectations of adopting…the loss of a potential child when an adoption falls through…having to make the agonizing decision not to complete an adoption…coming home from the hospital to an empty crib when a potential birth mom has decided to parent the baby you thought would be yours…there are no Hallmark cards for these occasions. These losses are profound. They are like a death, yet there is very little acknowledgement of the loss or opportunity for closure which can make it even more difficult.
For the sake of clarity, I will refer to these types of losses as adoption loss with an understanding that it encompasses similar losses such as that of a long-term or beloved foster child.
For family and friends of a family experiencing adoption loss, it can be difficult to know what to say or do and can even be difficult to understand the extent of the grieving.
Many years ago, we lost our daughter (of our hearts) Amera when she was 20 months old. We had had her since she was just three days old and had expected that she would be our daughter forever. We loved her as a daughter, had dreams for her, envisioned our lives and future and family with her in them.
Technically, we were missing only one thing for her to be our daughter in the eyes of the law…an adoption order. Technically, she was still our foster daughter the day she left without us getting a chance to say good-bye, never to return. Technically did not matter one bit to my heart.
From that experience and from watching some of those close to us suffer similar losses, I write this in the hopes that it will help future friends, family members, even churches and organizations to come alongside these mourning families and hold them up when they most need it.
How others can support someone through adoption loss:
- Have No Expectations – From day to day, hour to hour, minute to minute, they will be dealing with fresh and unexpected emotions. They may be fine in the morning and fall apart in the afternoon because they found a sock from the child they lost in the laundry pile or because they ran into someone at the supermarket who asked them how their kids were. Even someone asking how many kids they have can trigger an outpouring of anguish. Give them grace. Do not expect that they should get over this in a set amount of time. Do not expect that they should grieve this less than they would a death. Do not expect that they should be getting “back to normal” or able to function the way they could before. Grace. Love.
- Offer No Judgement – Do not judge the way they are handling the situation, how or when they are choosing to tell their other kids, when it is the appropriate (in your opinion) time for them to get back on the waiting list or to take another placement. Do not offer advice unless asked. Do not judge. Grace. Love.
- Give Practical Help – Note that I did not say to offer practical help. Often people in such an intense state of grieving won’t know how to ask for help or even take it if offered. So just do it. You could say “I am going to stop by around 11 if you will be home. Would you rather I did a load of laundry or stopped on the way to pick up your groceries?” Obviously, being that direct will depend on the level of the friendship, but dropping off muffins or cookies or a few casseroles for their freezer is appropriate even for acquaintances to do. You could also organize a meal schedule with a group of friends to ensure that the family is getting meals at least a few times a week. If they have other children, offer to have them over to play for an afternoon to give the mom a break and time to cry without worrying about her kids being upset by it. Or offer to babysit at night so that the couple can go out on a date. Adoption loss can be very hard on a marriage. Love in action.
- A Listening Ear – When they are ready to talk, be there to listen. Let them know that though you may not understand what they are going through, you do know that they are in pain and you want to be there for them. It’s okay to say that you don’t know what to say. Listen without offering advice or judgement and above all, never say that they put themselves in the situation of potentially being hurt by trying to adopt or signing up to foster in the first place. Just love.
- Help Them Keep Busy – After our daughter left, one of the things that saved my sanity was keeping busy. I had friends who would call me up and invite the kids and I to go to the park or the beach or come over for a playdate. In the beginning when I was just numb, one friend would call me up and tell me what we were going to do that day. She would cheerily say “pack a lunch for your kids and some sunscreen and we’re going to go berry picking” and I would go along. Staying busy helped so much and was also great for my other kids and for the guilt I wrestled with about what they may have otherwise missed out on that summer with their mom such a wreck. Even just inviting them out to a movie (a comedy or action, not drama) or out for tea in the evening gives a few moments of welcome distraction. Love in action.
- Offer to Pray for them – Ask what they would like prayer for. They may find comfort in knowing that there are others praying for the child they lost and praying for their family. Love.
- Acknowledge the Loss – Probably because people don’t know what the correct etiquette in this situation is or because they don’t quite know what to say, often they say nothing. This can hurt the family further as they feel isolated and feel as if their loss has been discounted. Acknowledge the loss the family has experienced. On our daughter’s second birthday, it was heart-wrenching not to be able to celebrate with her or even know if she was ok. Some of our friends came over and had cake with us and we talked about her and acknowledged the day of her birth. They brought their kids who were her little friends and seeing them play on her special day was bittersweet, but it was healing too. It meant so much not to have to get through that day alone or pretend like she didn’t exist. Cry with them. Love.
- Talk about the child – You may think that you are being more sensitive not to talk about the child they lost, but it is actually more painful when people avoid the subject and act as if the loss didn’t happen. Reminisce about memories that you have of the child they lost, give them copies of any pictures you may have, ask them questions about the child (when it seems appropriate to do so). If the loss is of a child they never knew like in the case of the loss of a potential adoption, they had dreams and plans and a love that was real even if they never held that child in their arms. Allow them to talk about those things. They will never stop loving that child. Love them by loving that child also.
- Just be there – Even if you don’t know what to say or don’t know what to do, just be there. Love.
Since the loss of our oldest daughter, we have gone on to adopt five more children. One of them is actually her biological brother. People may think that the other adoptions lessen our loss, but for me, in some ways, they only served as a reminder.
When people make comments about the big age gap between our oldest two and our youngest five, I know that there was not supposed to be an age gap. She should be there.
When our son cries because everyone else in our home has a biological sibling living with them except him, I know that it shouldn’t have been that way. She (his biological sister) should be there.
When I see our three girls struggle because of that “third wheel” syndrome, I imagine that if she were here, everyone would have someone to play with. There will always be an Amera-shaped hole in my heart that only she can fill. It gets easier in some ways over the years, but in some ways, it gets more difficult.
I can get through her birthdays now, where in the early years, I couldn’t face that day. I can look through her scrapbook albums and think about the privilege I had in being her mom if only for too short a time.
But I think about all the years I have lost that can never be made up, years that she has not gotten to have a family, years that we have missed out on firsts and lasts and the big events that we will never get to be present for.
So even all these years later, I appreciate when friends ask how old she is now or share a memory they have of her. I want to know that my baby girl touched their lives too. In my heart, I’ll always be her mom, so when others acknowledge my “momhood”, it takes some of the sting out of my loss.
By supporting someone through their adoption loss, you allow them to know that they are not alone.
You might also be interested in reading:
Self-Care for Foster and Adoptive Families
If the Friends Answered Common Adoption Questions
Oh! Yes!! We’ve experienced this kind of loss, and it is devastating. I still grieve at random moments even over a decade later . . . and even though I’m glad mom and daughter were reunited. Your descriptions and advice are spot on.