This is the third of four posts that began as a paper given at the New Jersey Let’s Talk Adoption Conference on April 1, 2017 (to read the whole series start here). I spoke to adoptive parents, adoptees and social workers interested in adoption who gathered at a day-long conference. The organizers wanted a presentation on loss and how it figures into the experience of adoptees. This post outlines the results of an adoptee survey I gave to a number of adult adoptees for the presentation.
I am a psychotherapist working adult adoptees. I had noticed in my practice that a loss connected to early adoption-related losses and wounds was among the most pressing issues bringing adoptees into therapy.
Survey of Adult Adoptees About Loss
I wanted to hear the voices of adult adoptees on this subject. I had two major questions.
First, I wanted to know if adult adoptees resonated with the experience I saw in my practice where a major loss or the threat of a loss in their adult life seemed to open up old wounds of adoption. This could bring challenges that seemed out of proportion to the event, or more extreme than non-adopted people. How had adoptees had coped with that experience?
My second question was to know if they thought they experienced grief differently that non-adopted people, a question that I knew would be difficult to answer but I wanted to ask about people’s subjective experience of their grief and what they knew about their own process.
I asked on social media (facebook) for people who wanted to respond, both on my personal Facebook page and in a search and reunion closed group of which I am a member.
In essence I gave the same survey to two different or groups of people:
- 6 adults I know in real life who were adopted as children. 4 men and 2 women, similar in age and in type of adoption.
- 25 adults from closed, domestic adoptions who ranged more widely in age. These people responded to a request for participants on a closed Facebook group for adoptees who are searching or in reunion. They were predominantly female.
One problem with these samples already is that they are all closed domestic adoptions, although in part that reflects the age of the participants, and that I did not get specific about gathering data about transracial adoption, which is already a limitation in my survey. The second group was also unified in that they had all chosen to search or were in reunion and had chosen to be in a group about it, so they may have been more likely to connect a contemporary loss with their adoption.
Results of Adoptee Survey: Significant Losses
On the first question, that of whether the respondent had experienced an important loss that opened up adoption wounds, the answer was a resounding yes. 87% said yes, and 13% said no. It is important to note that there is a big difference between the search and reunion cohort and the personally known cohort, 1/2 of whom had searched, and 1/2 of whom had not. In any case, it is fair to say that in both samples a majority of respondents felt that they had experienced a loss in adulthood that opened up adoption wounds or early feelings of loss.
Then I analyzed the results about type of loss. The main types of loss mentioned were
- death of a family member (39%)
- losses related to intimate relationships in adulthood (16%)
- losses related to fertility (either infertility issues as adults or having a child out of wedlock) (13%)
- losses related to finding birth family, lost of time, new experiences of adoption-related pain, etc. (10%)
- other (10%) (anyone’s death; moving as a teenager; finding out what actually happened in their adoption story)
- did not experience such a loss (13%)
Loss of adoptive father
One segment that seemed significant within my 31 respondents was the answer that the major loss they had experienced was the death of their adoptive father. 7 respondents out of 31 mentioned the death of their adoptive father; 2 their parents; 1 each mother, grandmother and siblings.
What does this mean? Perhaps more respondents had experienced the death of a father vs. the death of a mother. One hypothesis I have is that fathers can be less complicated for adoptees under the closed system. There is a perception that they were not as involved in the adoption decision. I wondered if this had something to do with the identity formation and differentiation by female adoptees and if that process is different, maybe more difficult, for women. But, of my 7 respondents who cited the loss of their adoptive father as their major adoption related loss, they were almost equal in terms of gender, 4 females and 3 males.
Results of Adoptee Survey: Is your grief different?
The second question that I analyzed was attempting to probe for the subjective experience of grief. I wanted to see if adoptees felt their grieving was different in degree or in kind from non-adopted people. If I was to do this again, I would take the time to devise a more accurate measure that might have adopted and non-adopted people rank their agreement with certain statements and then follow up with qualitative interviewing to get a sense of the experience in their own words. For this rough draft, I simply asked “When you compare yourself to other non-adopted people do you think you grieve differently? If so, how?”. Answers in the two segments were slightly different, but fell into three categories:
- I compartmentalize/intellectualize/suppress/withdraw more than others
- my grief is deeper, more primal and harder to move on from compared to others
- and no/I don’t know
The first category is the social default, I do what other people do, but more so; the second category is my experience is somehow different on a primal, non-verbal level that I cannot explain.
I came out of this experience with lots of questions. I am excited by the power of social media to connect us and make research easier. It was moving to see how willing people were to share their stories. It would take a lot of work and thought to find ways to reach a representative sample of our community. This was a limitation of my survey, given where I was drawing my samples.
In my next and last post in this series, I will provide a short summary of my clinical recommendations for adopted adults who are dealing with feelings of loss contemporary or related to their adoption, and having difficulty mourning or moving forward in the grieving process.