Birthparent Grief By Brenda Romanchik
My nights were broken
Split by the wail
of my phantom baby's cries
Half asleep I would stumble
to the crib that wasn't there
I would return
to my bed
With empty, aching, arms
as I hugged my pillow close
and rocked myself to sleep
If you were out there
If your cries had somehow traveled to me
If you were now being rocked and comforted by another
Or if those tears
were welling up
from a place deep within me
and spilling into my dreams.
Losing a child to adoption is one of the most significant losses that birthparents will ever have to face. For most of us it is also our first experience with the intensity of grief. While grieving is the normal reaction to loss, it hardly feels that way. Sleeplessness, nightmares, depression, anxiety and anger are all ways that grief may manifest itself. The road to healing is as individual as the person experiencing it. .
Today, open adoption is often presented to birthparents as a way to lessen the grief of losing a child to adoption. Ongoing contact with the child and the adoptive family is often portrayed only in ideal terms. However, being able to see your child and even eventually develop a relationship with him or her, does not change the fact that you are no longer the child's parent. In fact, the loss of being Mom or Dad is often painfully obvious to us with each visit, from the infant who will only stop crying when the adoptive mother picks him up, to the toddler who has become Daddy's little girl. The grief we feel for our children includes not only missing the times we had with them as their mother or father, but mourning for the times we will not have with them as their parents.
One of the first steps in dealing with any loss is in knowing how grief may manifest itself. While I will be discussing various phases of the grieving process, it is important to remember that everyone goes through it in their own way, and in their own time. Your emotions may run the gamut, from sadness, to anger, guilt, relief and anxiety, all in one day! There is no set time table for processing your loss.
Phases of Grief
1. Shock and Denial
For birthparents, shock is often confounded by the miracle of birth. They are dealing with the rush of conflicting feelings (and hormones for birthmothers) that undoubtedly come as they gaze upon this new life they have created. For many birthfathers, and some birthmothers, it may be the first time the baby is an actual reality, instead of an abstract concept. The pride and joy of the new baby are often mixed with the sadness that comes from the decision to let go. It is in the aftermath of this experience that shock usually sets in.
Shock is usually our first reaction to the impact of loss. You may feel numb, as though you are just going through the motions. Intellectually you may be acknowledging the loss, but emotionally "it" has not hit you yet. In this stage you may move between a dull feeling of calm and being teary.
As the shock wears off and more intense feelings of sadness and pain begin, many will enter a period of denial. For some birthparents in open adoptions, minimizing the loss is a form of denial. These birthparents console themselves with the idea that the loss in an open adoption is really quite small, after all, they will be able to maintain contact and eventually have a relationship with their child. Some even go as far to think about the adoption in positive terms only, denying that there has been any loss at all. One birthmother I talked to said that she would "not allow any negative feelings" to interfere with her son's adoption. This woman told me she had "never shed a tear and that thinking about her one year old son only brought smiles" to her face.
Other birthparents may deny the loss by directly avoiding it. They may fill their days with so much activity that they find they "don't have the time" to grieve. They may also deliberately avoid places and people that remind them of their pregnancy, including the adoptive parents and their child. Occasionally a birthparent may start abusing drugs or alcohol as a way of trying to avoid the loss.
Shock and denial are two very normal coping mechanisms. According to Theresa Rando PhD, the author of five books on grieving, "it functions as a buffer by allowing you to absorb the reality of the loss a little at a time, rather than being completely overwhelmed by it. It is an emotional anesthesia that serves as a protective mechanism."
Denial that goes on for too long, however, can be a form of repressing your emotions. Oftentimes repressed grief will manifest itself in seemingly unrelated ways such as phobias, anxiety, psychosomatic illnesses, and irritability. There is no easy way around the grieving process. While the pain and sadness associated with healthy grieving may be difficult, denying these emotions indefinitely will not make them go away.
2. Sorrow and Depression
As the shock wears off and you begin to comprehend the extent of your loss, feelings of sorrow and depression will begin to emerge. Your feelings of loss and sadness will color the way you look at the world. Everything seems to be a reminder of the child that is no longer with you. Ten days after my son was born I was in a store when an infant started crying. As soon as that baby began to cry, I felt as if someone had knocked the wind right out of me. It was all I could do to find a place to sit and sob. It seems that everywhere you turn there is a pregnant woman or a new baby. You may spend hours looking at the baby's pictures or reading the letters from the adoptive parents.
For some birthparents, sorrow over the actual physical separation may be expressed in tangible sensations of loss. Your arms may ache to hold your baby, or you may think you hear the baby crying. For birthmothers especially, the absence of the baby, after months of carrying and caring for the child, may seem like amputation. You may have a gnawing, empty feeling in the pit of your stomach that seems like it will never go away.
Depression is often accompanied by physical symptoms as well. In her book, "Living Through Personal Crisis", Ann Kaiser Sterns says, " Not only through tears do we cry out pangs of grief. Under the stress of what has been unrecoverably lost, our bodies have a dozen ways of weeping with us.". Fatigue, sleep disturbances, changes in appetite, anxiety, and aches and pains can all be a part of the grieving process. They are also our body's way of responding to the surge of emotions we are feeling. The hard work of grieving takes energy that often takes it's toll on our physical selves as well as our emotional selves.
Some of the emotional aspects of depression can be as debilitating as the physical symptoms. You may feel unable to concentrate, apathy or despair. You may feel isolated and alone in your grief, vulnerable and even worthless. You may wonder why you "just can't get it together". These feelings are often complicated by the expectations either you or others may have of your grieving process. It is important to remember that depression is also a normal part of the grieving process and must be experienced like everything else.
Although anger is a natural part of the grieving experience, it often takes us by surprise. We may find that our anger is directed at God, your parents, the birthfather, the adoptive parents or even strangers. Most of my ranting and raving was directed at God, who "allowed" me to get pregnant. It didn't seem fair that I should be the one to have an unplanned pregnancy when so many of my friends were also sexually active. I also found myself looking in anger at happy families with new babies.
Unexpressed or repressed anger only festers. Unfortunately, it is an emotion that few of us have been taught to deal with in a healthy way. For some, the biggest step is acknowledging that it exists and finding a way of expressing it that is not harmful to you or others. Anger often creates energy. I had a few panic attacks before I realized that it was anger I was trying to avoid. Talking helps, some people like to work off their anger by doing intense physical activity, while others like to do some private screaming and yelling. I spent a number of nights out by the beach with a close friend of mine screaming into the wind.
"If only's" are a big part of the grieving experience. If only we had done things differently we would not be feeling the pain we are in. If only I had been a better person I would have been able to raise my child. As you begin to heal and learn how to live again, you may feel pangs of guilt over your ability to move on. Some birthparents experience guilt in the form of regretting their decision to choose adoption.
There are essentially two types of guilt. Legitimate guilt occurs when there is a direct relationship between your actions and the loss. Illegitimate guilt is where you exaggerate the importance of our actions in the resulting loss. Losing a child to adoption is a decision that most birthparents in open adoptions have deliberately made. Second guessing your decision at this point is perfectly normal. You may wonder why you made the decisions you did and you may experience some regret in having made them. If the decision was made in haste or under pressure, you may question your judgment.
Both types of guilt can effect how we see ourselves and our situation. For a few years I did not feel worthy of having contact with my son. I felt so much guilt in relinquishing my role as his mother that I did not feel as if I had a place in his life. Unfortunately society often reinforces the negative views that birthparents have about themselves. It took me awhile to realize that while I relinquished my role as his mother there was still a lot I had to offer him.
It is important to remember that we, as human beings try to do the best that we can with what we have. It is easy, in retrospect, to blame ourselves for not doing things differently. Whether the guilt you are feeling is legitimate or not, there will a come a point where you will need to forgive yourself.
While things may never be the same again, you have come out on the other side. You have been able to integrate the loss of your child into your life For most birthparents in open adoptions, this means having a clear definition of what it means to be a birthmother or birthfather to their child. They feel comfortable with their place in their child's life. For others it may mean coming to accept a situation that may be less than perfect or different from what they expected.
Acceptance also brings with it renewed energy and strength. Concentration returns, and you find you are able to function normally and even excel. You may also feel that you have learned a great deal about yourself and others from going through your experience . This does not mean that the pain of the loss is completely gone. Rather it means that you have found a way to make it a part of your life. For birthparents in open adoptions, this means fully letting go of the parental role and defining for ourselves what it means to be a birthparent to our child. It also means you have made some decisions as to who you feel comfortable with in talking about your child's adoption.
When To Get Professional Help
One of the most important factors that will effect the way you grieve the loss of your child through adoption will depend on the support and assistance you get from those around you. For years birthparents were told to forget the child they placed for adoption and get on with their life. While most adoption professionals now realize how damaging that view has been, it is a view that many in the general public still hold. You may find that some friends and family members will not want to acknowledge your pain or will try to minimize it.
Fully experiencing grief is hard work. No one is able to fully go through it alone. There may be times when seeing a professional counselor is necessary to help you through the grieving process. There are a number of different situations that may indicate the need for professional assistance. Active suicidal thoughts and substance abuse are two warning signals that you may not be grieving in a healthy way. Another indication you may need to talk to a professional is if your relationships are severely affected by your grieving process. Marked changes in how you deal with co-workers or friends, entering unhealthy relationships, or cutting yourself off from those who love and care about you are all examples of the need for help. Another sign is if you find yourself getting into situations that are not good for you or those dependant on you.
Sometimes people get "stuck" in one phase of grieving. If you are feeling like you are not making any progress after a period of time, or are feeling as if your responses are extreme, it may be time to talk to a professional. Counselors that specialize in bereavement will be able to tell you whether yours is a normal reaction or not. Often it is helpful just to have a professional's reassurance that you are grieving normally.
Occasionally it is a matter of finding the support in a professional that your family and friends are unable or unwilling to give. Many birthparents feel isolated, as if nobody can understand their loss. In this case especially, support groups can be particularly helpful. Being able to talk to other birthparents about their experiences may help you not feel so alone.
There are a number of steps you can take to find the right counselor for you. The first is by personal referal. You may ask the agency or lawyer you placed with, or friends. The American Adoption Congress also has a list of professionals that specialize in adoption issues. You may also find looking in the phone directory helpful. Many counselors who specialize in bereavement advertise that fact.
Once you have found the name of a counselor do a telephone interview. Ask if they have any experience in adoption issues and, if they do not, what their feelings are regarding adoption. Find out what their credentials are to be a practicing therapist, and how much experience they have had in bereavement counseling. Also ask them how they treat grieving clients. If they sound like someone who you would like to see, make sure that they take your health insurance or ask what kind of financial arrangements can be made. Some agencies have sliding scale fees, or other financial assistance available.
Another important consideration is that birthfathers often grieve their loss differently than birthmothers. Men are often taught that the traditional expressions of grieving, such as crying and talking out what they are feelings, are considered unmanly. Generally speaking, men in our culture are also taught to take action in crisis situations. "To do something." Unfortunately, most birthfathers are not involved in the decision making process concerning their chiildren. While the reasons for non-involvement vary, this often increases their feelings of helplessness and can result in them further distancing themselves from the situation. Additionally, birthfathers often experience guilt for "not being able to provide" for their children
Remember that grieving is often a process of two steps forward, one step back. There will be days that are better than others, and also days where it takes all that you have just to cope. Be patient with yourself. Talk to others who love and support you when you need to and take time alone when you have to. Give yourself permission to not be 100% at all times.
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