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Understanding & Dealing With Adoption And Grief

The Loss Of A Parent You Never Knew

No matter your relationship with your biological parents, you may face a number of difficult emotions to navigate when they pass away. Coping with death is already an undoubtedly excruciating journey. Furthermore, when adopted children face the death of a biological parent, several layers of complex feelings occur. 

This is why we have put together a comprehensive look into the grief you may be experiencing in the circumstance that a birth parent dies. Read on to further understand grief and find support in healing.

The Inherent Nature Of Grieving In Adoption

Before diving into the components of grieving when a biological parent dies, it's important to acknowledge that adoption and grief inherently go hand in hand. No matter the circumstances of someone's adoption, each story is unique.

Perhaps someone was separated from their biological parents immediately after birth. Maybe an adoptee's childhood was spent growing up in the foster care system.

Or maybe someone grew up with a loving family with good intentions but did not necessarily understand the full extent of what an adopted child goes through.

Losing your birth parents as your guardians is a loss in itself. Despite open adoptions, there are still complicated emotions intertwined with the grief of losing what life could have been with a biological parent or parents. Abandonment, frustration, love, or rejection are all valid emotions for adopted children and adults to feel. These emotions will likely grow when a birth parent dies.

How Do You Grieve A Parent You Never Knew?

There is an expectation that for many adoptees, since you never knew your birth parents or that you barely knew them, your grief should be less significant than others who lose a loved one. But this is far from the truth.

Just because you experience a death of a birth parent doesn't mean that you must fit within a particular category of grief. Grief is unique to each individual, and all your emotions are valid, even if they vary from others in the same situation. 

So how do you navigate such a unique aspect of grief? Remember to be gentle with yourself. Don't set any expectations for what you should feel, how you should react, and what to do next. 

You're grieving not only the person, but the loss of potential life experiences, answers to questions, family moments, stories, and history. No matter how you are grieving, your feelings are valid. 

Here are some steps to help guide you through this time: acceptance, working through the pain, a new normal and moving on.

ACCEPTANCE

The first step in grieving the death of a biological parent is acceptance. It may take some time for the grief to hit, but this stage of grief may feel familiar for adoptees when it does. When a biological parent dies, grief could mimic similar emotions of acceptance you felt upon the realization of adoption or another time throughout your life.

If you're taken away from your birth parents, it may stir up tremendous difficulties regardless of the circumstances. Adding the reality of a birth parent's death can be an even more emotional process, even if you never maintained a relationship with them.

Remember that though one may be afraid of accepting the reality of their situation, facing the truth does not mean a complete end to one's connection or journey with a birth parent. Whether you were close or not, you may choose to honor their memory in a variety of ways. 

If you have grief for someone you didn't know, part of this stage of acceptance is to recognize that you're allowed to feel pain over this loss. You do have the right to feel however you're feeling, no matter what anyone says or does. If you cannot allow yourself to feel entitled to mourn over the loss, it will be harder to move on. 

WORKING THROUGH THE PAIN

After acceptance comes working through the pain. Grief can be exceedingly hurtful, and the feeling of loss will never go away. But life can become more normal if you put in the time and effort to heal.

The idea here is to lessen the long term effects that grief places upon your life. If the pain of grief is not handled, it could lead to long term mental health issues, severely impacting your future and the future of those in your life. 

The essential component to working through your grief is to allow yourself to experience whatever you're feeling.

Remember that there is no right or wrong way to grieve and heal, even when mourning someone you weren't close to. There are many ways to cope with your emotions. Some healthy ways to do so include:

Communication With Your Loved Ones

No matter how well you believe you are communicating your feelings to your loved ones, take a step back to consider the following:

  • Are you finding the right time to communicate? Think about distractions and timing. It is best to be intentional with when and where you approach your friends and family on what you need. 
  • Did you plan ahead on what you would like to say? To best communicate what you need, think about how to clearly states those needs in advance. 
  • Did you actively listen to your loved ones’ responses? There is a chance your close friends or family are trying to help you in ways you cannot see fully. Understanding their perspective can increase your communication and ultimately help you cope. Communication is a two-way street.

It's Okay To Ask For Help

There is no shame in asking someone for help. Help can come in many forms. If you are more comfortable speaking with family or friends who know you well, do not be afraid to sit them down and explain what you need. If you’d rather console in people who you don’t know, but have a similar experience, support groups are very helpful. Here are some ways to find them:

  • Universities and community colleges for students
  • Health insurance and health systems for those with private health insurance
  • Government programs depending on your region for anyone without insurance that covers mental health sufficiently
  • Websites like Meetup.com for online or in person events
  • Targeted websites like the American Adoption Congress that lays out numerous support groups

Speak To An Expert

Grief counselors and therapist specialize in handling grief of many forms. There is also no shame in seeking help from a medical doctor. Psychiatrists might be a better fit for you and your needs. Be sure to talk with an expert to find out who would be best for you. 


Light A Candle

Lighting a candle in remembrance of your birth parent is a simple and meaningful way to find peace.


Meet With A Religious Leader

If you’re a member of a church, temple, mosque, or other religious community, consider turning to your faith to cope with your grief. Sitting down with a pastor or other religious leader is a useful tool to do this. 


Create Rituals And Habits

Adding structure to your daily routine can help ground grieving individuals. Consider using a mourning ritual that reminds you of your loss and that will become a go-to practice for you to turn to. Take your time to find out what works best for you.


Keep A Journal

Writing down your thoughts and feelings every day can be quite therapeutic for many. If you choose this way to help cope with your emotions, remember that there is no right or wrong on what you should write about. It’s a way to be alone with your mind and explore your emotions in a healthy way. 


Wear Remembrance Jewelry

Keeping your birth parent’s memory alive through wearing memorial jewelry is a way to handle your grief. There are many kinds of remembrance gifts such as photo engraved pendants, ashes to jewelry, and even other accessories like wallets and keychains. 

A NEW NORMAL

When you're able to work through your pain in a healthy manner, including understanding how to continue to cope as time passes, it's time to adapt to life after a biological parent's death. For people who experienced open adoptions, this adjustment may look different than those who never met their birth parents.

Either way, if you experience pain, know that it's valid and that adjusting to a new standard may take time. This step is all about putting your last step's work into action. Adapting to the new normal takes the methods you used to work through grief and applies them to your everyday life.

Remember that you must continue to support your valid feelings throughout the entire process. As you move on to your life after a birth mother or father dies, give yourself the grace you deserve. Take time to think hard and process emotions as they develop.

MOVING ON

This step is not about forgetting your birth parent. It is also not about relinquishing your feelings of grief. But instead, it is about ensuring you can continue on to live a happy and healthy life. It may take a long time to get to this point, but the important thing is that you can move on using the previous techniques as your foundation.

It's always a great idea to speak with a counselor about your grief. If you find that you're obsessing over the death of your birth parents, this is especially important.

Long term obsession can lead to the recurrence of pain in ways that prevent you from moving on. Even if you've never spoken with a counselor or therapist, or if you don't believe it would help, there is no harm in giving it a try.

You may be surprised at the tools you will learn to cope with and move forward. And remember back to the first step: If you cannot allow yourself to feel entitled to mourn over the loss, then it will be so much harder to move on. 

Is It Wrong To Not To Feel Grief?

First and foremost, everyone reacts to death differently. Remember that there is no one best way to deal with the pain of loss, just as there is no right or wrong answer to how much pain you may feel. As long as you're coping in a healthy way, that's all the matters.

If you do not feel grief after losing a parent you weren't close to, that's okay. This mostly happens with international adoptions and those who grew up in the foster care system, but anyone may have their own reasons not to mourn.

Some adopted individuals may not feel any need to grieve. Mourning isn't a requirement. Assess how you feel, be sure not to bottle up emotions, and if you're not grieving, you can be okay with that. 

Though you may not feel sad about the loss of a biological parent, it's important to remember that grief presents itself in various ways. You may simply feel numb or relieved instead of upset. If this is the case, be sure to take care of yourself just as someone who displays more known signs of grief, such as crying. 

If you truly don't feel the need to mourn, remember that you're not a cold person or an outlier. Many people simply do not show their grief in the same way as others, and that's perfectly okay. There is not something wrong with you if you do not display the conventional patterns of grief. 

Grieving For Someone You Hardly Knew

Grieving for someone you barely know can be a complex journey of emotions and healing. Many individuals who are mourning face societal stigmas. For instance, when someone is grieving, many question their mourning patterns and can be judgmental. There are endless questions, many without clear answers that may complicate one’s coping mechanism. 

So what is the difference between grief for someone you hardly knew compared with someone close? The answer is that it all depends on you. People experience grief in many forms. But when it comes to mourning the death of a biological parent, there will likely be some differences.

NEVER-ENDING QUESTIONS

Perhaps a fractured relationship with a birth parent may have never repaired. This could lead to endless "what if" types of questions that maybe wouldn't reveal themselves if you had been very close to the deceased. 

More examples include:

  • What would have happened if we'd met?
  • What would have occurred if I had forgiven them?
  • How would my life have played out if there was an open adoption?
  • What would my birth parents think about my family, life, or career? 
  • Could we have developed a healthy and happy relationship over time?

GRIEF WITHOUT ANSWERS

The feeling that there will never be closure within a relationship can spread far beyond an adoptee's perception of a biological parent's death. But for children who grew up without their birth parent or parents, these questions can become unbearable, severely affecting how they handle grief. 

For people whom you know well, there are definite features of your shared experience to remember as you grieve. There may be characteristics, locations, or situations that remind you of them. This is one of the key ways to maintain someone's living memory.

But it's a challenge when individuals are caught up in the endless unanswerable questions as to what a life with their biological parent would be. Because of this, it's even more critical to find acceptance, work through the pain in a healthy way, and move on. 

Breaking Down The Types Of Grief

There are many distinctions of grief that shape the mourning period and the rest of your life. It helps to understand these categories while navigating your own grief. Here we will discuss chronic grief, standard grief and disenfranchised grief.

CHRONIC GRIEF

Intense depression lasting several years and that becomes worse with time is considered chronic grief. This type of grief may encompass suicidal thoughts, feeling hopelessness, the continued unacceptance of the loss, and substance abuse.

This type of grief consumes someone for a long period of time. If you suspect you fall within this category, it's especially recommended to speak with a counselor as soon as possible to help you work on healing.


STANDARD GRIEF

Standard grief shows itself through expected patterns. Also known as common grief, this type of grief also encompasses depression. But unlike chronic grief, it may last only a couple of years or less. It also presents itself through difficulty navigating within daily routines at work and regarding personal relationships.

Note that just because the name of this category implies a generalized version of grief, the truth is that it's far from normal. Each individual will experience it differently. One person may have physical symptoms of stress. Another's could mainly be psychological sufferings.


DISENFRANCHISED GRIEF

When patterns of grief are outside of the expected symptoms, it may be disenfranchised grief. Disenfranchised grief is also commonly known as hidden or silent grief. Adoptees who lose their biological parents are especially vulnerable to this category of pain.

Some reasons include:

  • The person had an unconventional relationship with the deceased. 
  • The person was subject to stigma about grieving someone who others believe shouldn't have been grieved.
  • The person's relationship was a secret with the deceased. 
  • The person may be concerned that others would deem them unentitled to feel such a loss.
  • The person is fearful of other types of judgment, leading to embarrassment, guilt, or shame. 

Why Is Disenfranchised Grief So Difficult?

These reasons and more lead to hidden grief, which can be particularly difficult to overcome. It can lead to long term depression, as it is a challenge to navigate outside of the traditional scope of grief. For instance, if your birth parent dies, you may feel the need to take time off of work or school to process emotions. But instead, you might continue to attend to these responsibilities and feel ashamed or embarrassed by the grief that's in question. 

But just because it's hidden doesn't mean it's invalid or not there. It exists, but due to constructed social norms, one feels the urge to play down their emotions or grieve alone only.

What Exactly Am I Mourning?

If you didn't know your birth parents, how can you mourn them? Many adoptees come to the conclusion that they are not entitled to feel such a sense of loss after a birth parent dies. This question has a lot to do with it. But the truth is, you still mourn what surrounds someone and what could have been. 

MOURNING THE MEMORIES THAT COULD HAVE BEEN

Grief, when a birth parent dies, could produce feelings of regret. When they were alive, there may have been a chance to create memories together. But now that they are gone, that aspiration has been revoked, and you must be forced to hold onto existing memories or sometimes none at all. 


ROBBED OF OPPORTUNITIES

Maybe you thought that one day you might be able to have a relationship with your birth mother or father. Now, not only could you feel robbed of that opportunity, but also you could have been robbed of the chance to introduce your birth parent to your loved ones like a partner or child. 

Emotions From Grieving The Loss Of Birth Parents

The way in which one mourns their loss comes in all shapes and sizes. The emotions range from regret and shame to feeling angry and cheated.

REGRET

After a birth parent passes away, you might regret many things. Suppose you were considering reaching out to form a relationship but decided against it. If this is the case, you may regret not doing so. Alternatively, perhaps you did reach out with high expectations, and your biological parents let you down. You might feel like you may have been better off without knowing them at all. 

SHAME

You may feel ashamed that you were chosen to be put up for adoption. Internalized abandonment issues can generate enormous insecurity, self doubt, or self hatred. Individuals who were secretly adopted are particularly vulnerable to these emotions and repercussions. 

BLAME

Perhaps this feeling of abandonment will instead generate guilt. It is not your fault that you were adopted, though it may feel this way. You may think that you've done something horrible that would lead your birth parents to put you up for adoption. 

ANGER

Frustration with your situation can be very common. Not only do you feel angry at your birth parents for giving you away, but now that a biological parent has passed away, more emotions may resurface. First, you may feel upset that they intentionally forced you into a family situation that was worse than what could have been. Or perhaps you're mad that you never had a chance to grow up like other kids. 

REJECTION

Adoptees who struggle to find their ground both before and after the passing of a birth parent can experience immense abandonment. Even if there are perfectly rational reasons for someone to have given you to another family or to a government system, one cannot help but feel rejected. You may be upset that your birth family didn't try hard enough as others would have.

CHEATED

You may be feeling like life has cheated you. You've already been given up for adoption, but now you have lost your chance to consult your options further regarding your birth parents. It's not fair that others will never have to experience this sense of loss and regret, but you will. What did you do to deserve this?

ABSTRACT LOSS

Ultimately, the loss of what could have been, should have been, or would have been if you had decided to reach out, respond to, or reconnect with your birth family can become insufferable. If you find yourself obsessed with these seemingly never ending questions, consult with a counselor to support you in finding helpful tools. 

Lack Of Support From Your Adoptive Family & Friends

When a loved one dies, it's common for your support system to gear up and get ready to help get you back on your feet. Friends and family are meant to hold your hand, make you food, give you bereavement gifts, and overall check in on you throughout your grieving. 

But what do you do if your adoptive family or friends do not support you in your grief? This can feel nearly impossible to maneuver without a support system. This section will discuss common reasons why adoptive parents or friends may not support you in your grief and how to handle it.

WHY MIGHT MY ADOPTIVE FAMILY NOT SUPPORT ME?

There is no true way to know exactly what your adoptive family is thinking about your grief over the death of a birth parent. Even if you have a wonderful relationship with them, it may be difficult to articulate why they feel how they do.

However, understand that if your adoptive family or friends do not support you in your grief, it does not mean they do not love and care for you. The situation is nuanced, with many variables at play.

Your loved ones may be feeling upset that your attention is placed on someone who chose to put you up for adoption and feel resentful that there will always be someone else who is your "true" mother or father. 

Your loved ones might be confused why you would put yourself through so much pain when you didn't even know your biological family.

Perhaps your loved ones don't know how to support you, so they are choosing to leave you alone. Or maybe they believe that you do not want their support because you haven't asked or because they would prefer to be alone if it were them. 


WHAT CAN I DO ABOUT IT?

If your family does not support your grief, there are other ways to seek help. But first, be sure that you've communicated with your family and friends what you're going through. It's possible that they don't know how to support you because they don't know what you need.

Even though it may be obvious to you, it may not be for them. Here are some ideas on how to ask for help:

  • I actually would like to talk about it. Are you okay with listening?
  • Would you mind keeping me company right now?
  • I would prefer not to be alone. 
  • Do you have ideas on something that will distract me? Will you join me?

Although these phrases may seem fairly obvious, people will often skip over these basic communications. 

Ways To Cope & Move Forward

If your family and friends still do not support you in your grief, that's okay. Confiding in them is not your only option. There are plenty of other ways to go about coping with the loss of a biological parent.

WEAR CREMATION JEWELRY

A way to find peace and comfort while grieving is through cremation jewelry. Wearing jewelry made from ashes can represent someone and their memory even though they're no longer physically here.

When a birth mother dies, you may like to wear this Gold Plated Wings Of Grace Keepsake. You may enjoy using it as a symbol of motherly guidance as you move onward with your life. Or perhaps when a birth father dies, this Urn Black Plated Soulful Cylinder Necklace will help you find peace and move on without leaving your birth parent behind.

Want to learn more? Know how to fill your cremation jewelry.

SPEAK WITH A COUNSELOR

These are the experts who specialize in helping people cope with grief. They are well-versed in adoption, grief, and breaking down complex emotions. 

Not only can a specialist talk with you about what you're going through, but they can also hand you the tools you need to succeed in moving on. When you're struggling, you will have access to a healthy coping mechanism and avoid unhealthy ones like substance abuse.

CALL A HOTLINE

If you can't wait for an appointment with a counselor, there are free public services that you can use for more immediate help. Click here for a list of various hotlines to call depending on what you're struggling with.

CONSIDER JOINING A SUPPORT GROUP

Another helpful way to cope with your grief is through emotional support groups. Even though you may have friends or family who has gone through a great deal of loss, they might not know what it's like to grieve a biological parent as you are.

Support groups help you meet others who are going through a similar experience. Some members may have just suffered a loss, and others may have already overcome obstacles that can teach you how to cope better. 

You can find groups on this list from the American Adoption Congress or search elsewhere online. For more information, check out Coping With Grief And Loss In A Virtual World.

DISCOVER PHOTO ENGRAVED JEWELRY

Personalized photo engraved jewelry is a heartfelt gift to yourself or to others that will help you navigate loss. Birthstone photo engraved pieces are wonderful symbols of birth and life. Find jewelry to showcase a photo of your birth mother or father.

You can find styles to match your birth month here. If you want a high quality colored photo engraved item, take a look at this Photo Engraved Small Heart Full Color Stainless Steel Pendant or this Full Color Tall Rectangle Photo Engraved Pendant.

If you're looking for guidance to help you decide, review this buyers' guide here. 

CONFIDE IN A PRIEST, PASTOR OR OTHER RELIGIOUS FIGURE

For many people, turning to their faith can bring immense comfort while enduring any type of loss. Speak with your current religious leader, or find one who will speak with you. This can help you heal and find peace in turning to God or whichever higher power you believe in. 

EXPLORE RITUALS

Adding structure into your life may help with grief. Consider using a mourning ritual that reminds you of your loss and that will become a go-to practice for you to turn to. Take your time to find out what works best for you.

Here are some ideas:

Light a candle every week in remembrance of your birth parent you've lost. If you’re spiritual, this action can help you connect your birth parent to your faith. This also is a good idea for non religious individuals looking for  way to symbolize that there is light in darkness and to honor their biological parent. 

Put on your remembrance jewelry every morning before leaving your home. This is something to look forward to as you will be bringing your birth parent with you everywhere you go. 

Create words of affirmation that will get you through the day and help you honor your loss. Ideas can include what lessons you’ve learned from the deceased or what your adoptive parents have told you as words of encouragement. 

Write a letter to your birth parent on days that you consider milestones in your life. One may feel immense grief particularly during important life events. Give yourself time to write a letter to the deceased that will serve to share the experience with your biological parent even when they are gone. 

Take a short trip to get out of town and help you clear your head when you're feeling extra frustrated. Contrary to popular belief, behavior prompts changes in emotions. If you’re waiting to feel better, instead consider driving alone to clear your head. 

MAINTAIN HEALTHY HABITS WITH EXERCISE, DIET & SLEEP

 cannot be said enough that when you eat well, you feel better. The same also goes for exercise. Taking care of your body is one of the few things that can provide your body with a physician coping mechanism to get you through such a tough time.

Similarly, getting enough sleep is essential to maintain a healthy body and mind. Lack of sleep encourages mood swings and increases your emotional reactivity. This is not conducive to coping with grief and will likely heighten sadness.

You should do your best to get the right amount of sleep for your body. But if you're experiencing insomnia, please remember not to blame yourself. This is about being kind to your body and mind, not holding yourself to an impossible standard. 

Adoption & Grief Frequently Asked Questions

Can you mourn for someone you never met?

Absolutely. If you've never met someone, that doesn't mean you won't mourn their loss. Think about when certain celebrities die and fans everywhere deal with grief. Similarly, if someone's presence or absence has influenced you in a certain way, it's entirely valid to mourn over their death. You may not be mourning the person, but the memories that could have been.

What do you say when someone dies who you didn't know?

Here are appropriate ways to share your most profound condolences to someone about the deceased of whom you didn't know:

  • You loved him/her very much, and he/she must have known that.
  • They were so loved. You have my deepest condolences. 
  • I remember when you would tell me about him/her. He/she sounded incredible. 
  • I'm sorry I never had the chance to meet him/her. I only hear the sweetest things about them. 
  • If you're up for it, I would be grateful to hear more about him/her. 

Why am I still grieving over someone I have never met?

Children who grew up without their birth parent or parents face tough questions of what maybe could have or would have been should they have not been adopted or had built a relationship with their biological family. For people whom you know well, there are definite features of your shared experience to remember as you grieve.

There may be characteristics, locations, or situations that remind you of them. This is one of the key ways to maintain someone's living memory. But it's a challenge when individuals are caught up in the endless unanswerable questions as to what a life with their biological parent would be. Because of this, it's even more important to find acceptance, work through the pain in a healthy way, and move on. 

How long does it take to get over grief?

There truly is not a way to "get over" grief. But time does heal the pain. If you're still experiencing high level depression after two years, you may fall within the category of chronic grief. Speaking to a mental health professional is encouraged.

How am I supposed to feel when I am adopted and my biological parent dies?

You are not "supposed" to feel any one way or another. If you feel immense suffering and sadness, that is valid. If you're angry and frustrated, that is valid. If you don't feel any need to mourn at all, that is also valid. It doesn't mean you're less of a human being. Be kind to yourself as you navigate these emotions. 

Do I tell my adoptive parents that my biological parent died?

Consider telling your adoptive parents that your biological parent has died if you think it will help you cope with the loss. If you don't think they will lend you any support, you may reconsider. There is no right or wrong answer to this question. Just be sure that you're doing what's best for you, which means setting yourself up to have healthy coping mechanisms (which includes a solid support system). 

Why am I sad that my biological parent died and I never knew them?

People experience grief in many forms. But when it comes to mourning the death of a biological parent you never knew, there is an added layer of complex emotions. There are numerous "what if" questions that may consume you. Perhaps a fractured relationship with a birth parent may have never repaired. What if you had reached out to have closure? Since you don't know these answers, you may be upset by the ideas that might have been should they have continued to live. 

How can death affect adopted children in particular?

Since the process of adoption is inherently linked with grief and loss, when a birth parent dies, children may experience even more discomfort. There are already stressors placed upon them to share their family history at school for a project or talk with their friends about their family. Especially if they grew up in foster care, children would feel loss each time they move to another family or become officially adopted.

Children dealing with the death of a birth parent on top of it all are encouraged to speak with a child psychologist to help them grow up with healthy coping mechanisms.

What is silent grief?

When patterns of grief are outside of the expected symptoms, it may be disenfranchised grief. Disenfranchised grief is also commonly known as hidden or silent grief. This type of grief is complicated to subdue. It can lead to long term depression, as it's a challenge to navigate outside of the traditional scope of grief.

For instance, if your birth parent dies, you may feel the need to take time off of work or school to process emotions. But instead, you continue to serve these responsibilities, ashamed or embarrassed by the grief that's in question. But just because it's hidden doesn't mean it's invalid or not there. It exists, but due to constructed social norms, one feels the urge to play down their emotions or grieve alone only. 

Moving Forward After Grieving The Loss Of A Birth Parent

Navigating the death of your birth parent will affect each individual differently. Remember that grief comes in all shapes. If you take anything from this guide, be sure to be kind to yourself and allow yourself space to heal.