Grieving as an Adoptee

“Grief is not a disorder, a disease or a sign of weakness. It is an emotional, physical and spiritual necessity, the price you pay for love. The only cure for grief is to grieve.” – Earl Grollman

I think that the adopted person starts grieving at the moment they are removed from their biological mother.

I was removed immediately at birth. I was never held or seen by my birth mother, nor did I see her. I did not realize the depth of my grief for her until I met her, and then had to leave her again. And then, a new grieving when she passed away. She was 80 and her passing was expected. The grief over the initial relinquishment is deep….I can still feel it living in my my bones. I miss her. The idea of her. When we met, the memory moment of her touching me still lives in my skin.

I had experienced grief prior to finding my biological family. My adopted brother died on July 4, 2000. I lost my beloved grandmothers. I attended A LOT of funerals during my tenure as Relief Society President for my Church. I have been to a lot of funerals. I am person who can cry at a funeral of a stranger. I find them deeply moving and deeply emotional. To remember a human life is sacred.

I have lost pets. Which is a whole different kind of grief. I still get weepy over past dogs lost. I am an animal person. They get me and I get them.

my current dog, Lilly

To illustrate my deep connection with animals, let me share an example. I ask the front desk staff at my office to “Please turn off the movie” every time I come into the lobby and Incredible Journey is playing. I just can’t see it. And, I think adoption has a great deal to do with this ” I can’t” with that particular movie. The dogs and cat are trying to find their way home, to their people. There is an older dog..who struggles. When the little boy does not see his dog right away as the other dog and cat come over the hill, I lose my grip on my emotions and I cry. (I am teary eyed typing this out…) THEN a miracle happens and there is his dog. They are REUNITED. Waterworks.

It is the having, then losing, and not knowing if you will ever have again that gets to me.

As I have written here before, my biological sister Sarah passed away 38 days after I found her. We did not know about each other and when we finally were reunited, we immediately fell in love with the feeling of finally having a sister, and with each other.

When I found out she died, the news literally took the air out of my lungs and I fell into a kitchen chair. I began to hyperventilate. My younger son was home, thankfully, and was able to help me. I was broken. I just could not believe what I read. Also, I found out on Facebook that she had died. (and this is the only way I would have known as our relationship was so new that we had not had a chance to share phone numbers with others in our families)

My husband and I travelled to Austin, TX to attend her graveside service. I was able to share my thoughts about her and my feelings there with her family, and friends. I felt welcomed, but somewhat awkward, too. The awkward was my own reaction as I just did not know what to do or say. It was one of the most painful days of my entire life.

My sister is near that great big, beautiful tree.

When you are an adoptee, loss feels like you are never going to be OK again. It feels like you may never breathe normally again. It feels like your heart is beating differently. I truly think it comes from our primal wounding, our removal from our biology and our innate need to be accepted.

I feel one of the biggest factors in grieving as an adoptee is the feelings of loss and rejection are often accompanied by a damaged sense of self. Who are we, really? There is an understandable tendency to think that, “something must be wrong with me for my birth mother to have given me away.” It must be understood that these feelings and thoughts are unrelated to the amount of love and support received from the adoptive parents and family. It is part of the grief we as adoptees carry around in our invisible adoptee backpack full of emotions we can not explain. When the adoptee experiences natural loss, such as a death, all those emotions get tangled up in the damage of relinquishment and it is like a big tangled ball of yarn that takes a long time to untangle, untie and straighten out. Maybe even a lifetime of untangling.

So, what can we do when we are in the depths of grief and grieving seems to never end?

Here are a few things that have helped, and continue to help me:
1) Writing. Obviously.

2) I attended “grief yoga” here in Las Vegas that was sponsored by Solace Club I had never done yoga before, but somehow, the idea of doing yoga with a group of people who were also grieving and who understood the somatic (body sensations) of grief made me want to go. It was helpful. So helpful to feel my body in a different way. I need to find yoga again.

3) Talking about how I feel. I spent a long time with a therapist just processing my grief from the sudden and shocking loss of my sister. My therapist was kind, empathetic and really understood that grief is not linear, and that this particular longing for my sister and this grief could last a lifetime. I also talked to trusted friends who were good listeners.

4) Allowing. I still have moments where tears will suddenly come and I will feel the ache of loss. Loss from relinquishment. Loss of my sister. Loss of my birth mother. Loss of my beloved Beagles. Loss. Sadness. Grief. It just hits me and I allow the emotions. I have grief spurts. It is ok. It is normal. No shame in crying.

grief attacks

5) Self Care, which for me is….. Sleep. Massage. Prayer. Spiritual Practice. Trees. Pets. Mindlessness. Mindfulness. Work. Water. Laughter. Tattoos. Pedi/Mani day. Pen and paper writing. Talking. Being quiet. Crying. Music. Pictures. Creating memorials.

6) Refusing to forget. Living life for both of us (thoughts of, “wow, Sarah would have loved this…”)


Just this month, I travelled back to Austin Texas to meet up with my adoptee friends and community. It was a sacred, meaning filled and fun weekend. I was nervous going back to my sister’s hometown, as I wondered if I would feel her and if I would be able to handle all my emotions. (I knew I had support if it got hard, so that made it doable)

I cried on the plane when it landed. I knew I would. So I chose a seat where I would be alone. No need to worry or scare a seat mate with my emotions. I met a friend and we took a Lyft into Austin. We ate at my sister’s favorite Fried Chicken spot and walked in the heat of downtown Austin. I was reminded all weekend of my sister. It was heartbreakingly beautiful. There was an empty chair next to me at our conference, and I silently wished she were sitting in it next to me. And, in a way, she was. She is constantly in my heart. She lives on with me.

If you are grieving the loss of a loved one. Find support. If you are an adoptee and grieving, find support and find other adoptees who will understand the complexities of all we feel. Find a competent grief informed, adoption informed therapist. They do exist. Grief is a natural part of life, and it sure does suck sometimes.

For me, this is the beauty of grieving: Feeling grief and grieving means there was a great love between me and another person.

And, love is all I (we, you, all of us) need.

2 thoughts on “Grieving as an Adoptee

Add yours

  1. The movie you describe is Disney’s ‘The Incredible Journey’ which has two versions. the first in 1963 (The Incredible Journey) and the 2nd in 1993 (Homeward Bound: the Incredible Journey). It is curious that you did not mention the title … for me, as an adoptee older than you, I always cheered when the animals find their way back to their families-with a few tears of joy when all were reunited, knowing full well that I cannot be reunited-at least not in this world. The first vision I saw as a HS graduate; the second, 30 years later. Each produces the same sets of emotions… emotions many would or will have, adoptee or not. My own I know are directly attributable to being abandoned by parents and separated from my siblings at a little over 2 years of age in 1947.
    There is an other classic Disney movie which tears at my heart each time I see it, and that is Bambi, a movie I first saw at about five years of age-having been recently adopted. Although the circumstances of loosing our mothers were different between the small Bambi and I, the loss was and is the same-just as the loss of my sibs is, as is the death of my daughter in 1969.
    Although the scenarios of the Disney movies -and others-allowed me to release my emotions in tears that were ‘acceptable ‘ (because little and big girls kids cry at sad movie’s), it was the death of my daughter that was the trigger which released all of the tears, anguish, longing, anger and so forth I had kept carefully damned up inside for so many years. It was catharsis of a different kind-the larger than life grief and mourning for the whole of the tragedy which was my life. (My daughter as a week shy of being four months old when she died, another gut wrenching separation for me to absorb… )
    Fortunately for me, I am of an era where we understood that death is a part of life. What is not supposed to be a child’s life is the trauma of being rent asunder from your genetic roots-mother, father, siblings, etc. At five I understood that no man or woman was allowed to take from me my identity or my family, and screamed at a county judge in 1950 that he could not take my name. I was ushered out of the courtroom by a burly bailiff for my audacity, and punished severely by my adopters. I was exactly 5 years and 4 months old.
    In that era it was not known that separation of child from mother (and sibs and fathers and other family) produces not only great trauma, but also great harm. I knew PTSD long before it had any other name than combat fatigue, and have learned by trial and error its many triggers. The system of adoption is probably the cruelest act done against a child, a child who is never included in decisions affecting his or her life, the conscripted inmates too often denied their rights to know who they are and from whence they came and thier rights to know where their siblings and family are.
    I have fought the system for over six decades, and have documents that the State was so certain I would never have. Not everyone accepts the status quo, some of us fight back-for ourselves and for the rest of the 2% of the global population who are adoptees. The one thing I have yet to accomplish is to find my sister who just celebrated her 71 st birthday on the 8th of this month, and who may not even know that she is an adoptee. But I soldier on as they say in hope that a miracle will happen and someone will decide to share with me the information locked in a vault denied not only to her, but to me which contains her changed court-appointed name. Or that she has her DNA analyzed by at least one of the labs in which my own resides. Inch’Allah!
    Thank you for sharing you perspective. We each have our own individual experiences along the journey from birth to adoption to the roads of our individual lives.


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