Dear adoptee: are you, or is someone you know, struggling with a loss that you don’t think you can get over? Have you had the experience of having your life grind to a halt because someone left, or died, or something you were counting on fell through?
This is such a common and painful part of our human experience. Adoptees are exquisitely attuned to these pains of losing a loved one, a home, an opportunity. Even the loss of change, when life changes in a positive way, can bring mixed blessings.
It makes sense. One of our earliest formative experiences was the loss of our mother, father, family, and sometimes country, culture and language, among other losses. Although in the adoption community we often prefer to focus on the gains of adoption, that loss of the first family comes first. Every story is different and complicated in its own way.
I had the opportunity to give a talk at the New Jersey “Let’s Talk Adoption” conference sponsored by Concerned Persons for Adoption on April 1 of this year focused on adult adoptees. One of the topics the organizers were interested in was loss. More and more in my practice, I was seeing people coming therapy to deal with losses in adulthood that seemed to sit squarely on top of early losses, and I got interested in this phenomenon. I’ve also seen in my work as a therapist for adult adoptees how the invitation to deal with the larger issues raised by grief and loss that a recent or painful loss in one’s adult life brings up can open up such a vast field for a new, creative possibility of healing and aliveness to emerge.
In my preparation, I looked at the literature on adoption, with a special focus on adopted adults and on adult development. I looked into theory on grief and grieving. I also did a survey of adopted adults on their experiences of grief and loss. I’ll be dividing up the material into a few blog posts starting with adoption literature and development to answer the following big question:
Why are adoptees so susceptible to the experience of loss?
Loss is a major theme of adoption.
Many of the older writers, in response to the closed adoption system, have made loss a focal point of their theories. Starting with the initial loss, Nancy Verrier posits the primal wound in the loss of the birth mother for the child. She conceives of adoption as trauma. More and more early research supports the likelihood that the infant is aware of the loss of the birth mother, knows her mother in movement, in rhythm, in sound, lives in fluid contact with her in the womb and can recognize her mothers milk by scent within hours of birth. Verrier argues that adoptees need to have their early experience of loss validated, and to understand that it had two parts, first abandonment, then being handed over to strangers.
Other writers also make loss a pivotal part of their idea of what it is to be adopted, in particular unresolved loss, because it is ambiguous, can be buried or unrecognized, and also unresolved because in our culture we often do not do grief very well. Sherrie Eldridge, in her lovely book Twenty Things Adopted Kids Wish Their Adoptive Parents Knew, makes unresolved adoption loss central to her theme and argues that the act of grieving brings healing. Betty Jean Lifton, in Journey of the Adopted Self, although her focus is on how the adopted person creates a sense of identity within the closed adoption system, speaks of the high cost of unresolved grief and loss, and the terrible knowledge as a child that children can be lost to their parents, a knowledge shared with children whose parents have died. Joyce McGuire Pavao in the Family of Adoption likens being adopted to going into an FBI witness protection program—at the time of their adoption, everything they know has been changed, lost, and it has all been done to them.
Adult Adoptees and Loss: A Developmental Perspective
Our loss history is lived through our development. Development theory traditionally is based on Erik Erikson’s 8 stages of development, where each stage requires the resolution of a conflict.
Erickson was actually an adoptee himself, raised by his biological mother, who was Danish, in Germany, and adopted by his German, Jewish stepfather, he was teased for not fitting in with his neighbors and for his different looks. He was a half-international and inter-faith adoptee, and he developed the concept of the identity crisis. “My identity confusion,” was at times on “the borderline between neurosis and adolescent psychosis.” Erikson’s daughter stated that her father’s real identity was not established until he “replaced his stepfather’s surname [Homberger] with a name of his own invention [Erikson].” Not knowing his father, he declared himself to be his own son.
Many writers using Erikson’s stages focus on child development but one of the exciting ideas Erickson brought was the idea that development continues in adulthood, and that crisis points in adult life and in adult development bring up earlier conflicts and point out where they have not been fully finished, or may be opening up again.
I have always been interested in adult development, having been a late bloomer in some ways myself. Joyce McGuire Pavao talks about parents who come for a consultation because their 20-something child is “burrowed into a room with every item he or she has ever owned packed in around them. Are they ever going to leave?” —a good example of one stage not resolved slipping into the other, as the task of differentiating (again) in adolescence was not undertaken enough that the child can actually leave the house and start their own life.
Then I found myself working at a mental health clinic for “older people” — 55-as old as they come, and had the chance to work with some older adoptees, and to see how they were sometimes stuck in painful ways in unresolved earlier developmental crisis. Treating older people who had moved through all the stages, at least outwardly, but showed inventive adaptations in their current life relating to their early histories got me curious about what was written about adult adoptees and how we move the stages of development.
There is an excellent study, although now 25 years old, Being Adopted: The Lifelong Search for Self by David M. Brodzinsky, Marshall D. Schechter, and Robin Marantz Henig. They align the adoptee experience with Erikson’s developmental stages, outline the tasks of each adult stage, and some of the ways in which adoptees face extra challenges.
In young adulthood, Erikson’s focus on intimacy vs. isolation, brings up issues of relationship as well as what it is to move on into your own life, which Joyce Macguire Pavao calls a “normative crisis”. Brodzinsky et al focus on how the idea of creating an intimate relationship and family can create a crisis the authors connect with loss:
The adoptee has accumulated many losses over a lifetime – the loss of his birth family, the loss of a personal history, loss of status, the loss of stability within his adoptive family, the loss of self. Because he has already lost the first intimate relationship, the one with the birth mother, he may hesitate to embark on another. If that first relationship ended in grief and pain, who is to say the next one will be any different? This estranged feeling may continue even in adoptees whose adoptive parents embody the very meaning of commitment. Despite his adoptive parents steadfast support, he may still, at some irrational and inarticulate level, feel abandoned.
Parenthood can brings difficult choices, including dealing with lack of genetic knowledge of birth family. Some young adults decide to search, some deal with late discovery of being adopted, and many become more attuned to the loss that their birthparents might have felt, either by passing into young adulthood through the ages their birth parents were when they gave them up, or through becoming parents and identifying with birth parents that way.
In midlife, the developmental task is constructing a legacy (generativity vs. stagnation), self reflection and a chance to change your life towards more meaning.
For many, this is the last time to search for birth parents, in the hopes that they may not yet have passed; also to struggle further with acceptance of being adopted as people make a move from forward looking to looking towards the past, and of the facts of their adoption becomes more important. If secrets were kept, then in midlife adoptees can face the loss of opportunity to know about themselves in important ways or grieve the lost time of not knowing.
In late adulthood or maturity (ego integrity vs. despair), adults deal with the transition to retirement, physical decline, mortality and how they want to spend they remaining time.
Many review their life, and this can be particularly poignant for adoptees, maybe due to new understandings, or regret. Older adults may also become grandparents, which may again bring forth memories of early loss and thoughts and feelings about birth and adoptive parents and grandparents.
A Somatic Approach
Besides the classical developmental approach, which sees development as a series of stages, each of which has an associated conflict to resolve, I also use a developmental somatic psychotherapy model that takes infant movement patterns that come in sequentially in the first year of life as a model of development and as a way to diagnose issues in relationship.
Rather than a linear or scaffolding approach, these movements cycle through our self-other interactions and an interruption or difficulty with any one movement can affect the whole. These movements are yielding with, pushing against, reaching for, grasping onto, pulling towards, and releasing from, and all of them can be seen in the baby lying in the mother or father’s arms. Everyone, adopted or not, deals with difficulties in different parts of the cycle, and adoptees are particularly prone, as is anyone with early trauma, to difficulties in balancing the underlying base of support from which we move, which we might see as our relationship to the ground and gravity. What is the loss of the mother, for a pre-verbal being, than a feeling of falling forever?
We also deal with questions around our ability to take hold of and grasp onto what we appear to have. Questions of how much can I truly make you mine, how much can I have you, how much am I yours, are questions at the heart of adoption and that adoptees can struggle with later in life in other relationships. Loss calls for the ultimate letting go, through grieving, and the more fully you are able to grasp, have and make something yours the more fully you can release and move on. On the other hand, if you haven’t really had something, it is hard to let it go. I think many of us, adoptees and non-adoptees, get stuck in not quite having, so we are not able to release, or in fear of not being able to have, so we don’t reach for and move towards what we want.
In the next installment, we will look at some of the psychological theories on grief and grieving and how they might relate to adoptees, and a path for doing the work of grieving when necessary.