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Adoptees & Ambiguous Loss

Updated: Oct 5, 2023



Adoptees & Ambiguous Loss

Ambiguous loss is a type of loss that occurs when there is no clear resolution or closure to a situation, and it can lead to feelings of grief, confusion, and ambivalence. Childhood relinquishment can be ambiguous because the child may have lost their birth family and may not know why or may have limited information about their past. Additionally, the child may have lost their sense of identity and belonging, which can create ongoing feelings of loss and confusion.


Some adoptive families may not recognize the concept of ambiguous loss in their adopted children because they may not be aware of the emotional impact of adoption on the child. Adoption can be a complex and emotional experience that involves both loss and gain. Adoptive parents may focus on the positive aspects of adoption, such as providing a loving home for the child, and may not fully understand the depth of loss that the child may experience.


Additionally, the adoptive family may not recognize ambiguous loss because it is not always visible. Ambiguous loss can be difficult to understand and may not manifest in obvious ways, such as physical symptoms or behavioural issues. Adoptive parents may not be aware of the child’s internal struggles and may not realize the importance of addressing these issues.



Adoptees & Ambiguous Loss

Adopted children often attempt to cope with this loss by seeking information about, or even reunion with, their birth families and adoptive parents often feel threatened by this for a variety of reasons. Some adoptive parents may feel that their role as a parent is being challenges or that their child’s interest in their birth family reflects dissatisfaction with their adoptive family. They may also feel that interest in the birth family will lead to a disruption of the family dynamic or the child’s emotional attachment to them.


Additionally, some adoptive parents may feel that the search for the birth family reflects a failure to provide a nurturing and loving environment for their child. This can lead to feelings of guilt or inadequacy and may make the adoptive parents defensive or resistant to the child’s requests for information about their birth family and origin story.

Adoptees & Ambiguous Loss

It is important to note that adoptive parents may also have valid concerns about the potential emotional impact of a search for the birth family on the child and the family as a whole. They may worry about the child’s safety or the potential for re-traumatization if the birth family is not receptive to a reunion, or if sealed adoption records do not provide sufficient information.


Ultimately it is important for adoptive parents to recognize and validate their child’s feelings of loss and grief, and to provide support and resources to help the child cope with these emotions while also addressing their own fears and concerns. This can involve seeking out therapy or support groups for the child and family, educating themselves about the emotional impact of adoption, and creating a safe and open environment where the child feels comfortable expressing their feelings. Communication, support, and education can help adoptive parents navigate this complex and emotional process and provide the child with the love and support they need to explore their identity and history. Adoptive parents are key to supporting adoptees & ambiguous loss.


For adult adoptees who still struggle with feelings of loss related to childhood relinquishment, there are some strategies that may provide relief:


1. Acknowledge the loss: it is important for adoptees to acknowledge the loss they have experienced and to allow themselves to feel the emotions that come with it. Often this was not something they were able to do within their adopted families and these emotions may have been stored in the body for decades. The release of these feelings of loss may be surprisingly intense, and adult adoptees may want to consider talking to an adoption-competent therapist, journaling, or joining a support group.


2. Connect with birth family: for some adoptees, connecting with birth family can help provide a sense of closure and understanding. This can involve searching for birth family members or reaching out to known family members. Remember that every relinquishment story is unique, birth family members may or may not have been aware of the adoption, and reactions can range from warm welcomes to complete rejection, to the discovery that their birth parents have died. Adoptees should be prepared for all possibilities and should consider talking to a therapist who specializes in adoption loss and reunion or joining a support group.


3. Create a sense of belonging: Adoptees can create a sense of belonging by embracing and building relationships with adoptive family members, friends, and community. It can involve exploring cultural or ethnic heritage to help create a sense of identity. Often building strong relationships is challenging for adoptees, and it is important to understand that relinquishment is a form of complex trauma and the resulting coping strategies are protective mechanisms that can impact relationship building in adulthood. Adult adoptees should consider seeking out a therapist who specializes in complex trauma.


4. Practice self-care: Adoptees can practice self-care by engaging in activities that bring them joy and fulfillment, such as exercise, hobbies, or creative pursuits.


5. Seek professional help: Adoptees who are struggling with ambiguous loss nay benefit from working with a therapist who specializes in adoption-related issues. Therapy can provide support, guidance, and coping strategies for managing difficult emotions.


Resolving ambiguous loss can have significant benefits for adoptees, including:


Adoptees & Ambiguous Loss

1. Improved emotional well-being: by resolving their sense of loss, adoptees can experience feelings of closure and relief, which can improve their emotional well-being. They can gain a better understanding and acceptance of their adoption story, reducing feelings of confusion, uncertainty, and grief.

2. Increased self-awareness: by exploring their birth family history, adoptees can gain a better understanding of their identity and cultural background. This can help them develop a stronger sense of self, which can improve self-esteem and confidence.

3. Improved relationships: Resolving ambiguous loss can help adoptees better understand their adopted and birth families, leading to improved relationships with both. Adoptees can gain a better appreciation for their adoptive parents’ role in their life and the love and support they have provided. Additionally, adoptees can develop a better understanding and connection with their birth family if they choose to pursue a reunion.

4. Closure: resolving ambiguous loss can provide adoptees with a sense of closure and completion, which can be incredibly healing. It allows them to acknowledge their losses, grieve appropriately, and move forward with a greater sense of peace and acceptance.

5. Increased resilience: by confronting and resolving ambiguous loss, adoptees can develop greater resilience and coping skills. They can learn to manage complex emotions and navigate difficult situations, which can serve them well in other areas of life.


Adoptees & Ambiguous Loss

Ambiguous loss is a unique type of grief experienced by adoptees who may feel a sense of loss or absence related to their birth family or cultural heritage. This type of loss is often complex and difficult to resolve, as it can be challenging for adoptees to fully understand and come to terms with their unique situation. However, by exploring their adoption story and birth family history, adoptees can begin to resolve their ambiguous loss. This can lead to improved emotional well-being, increased self-awareness, stronger relationships with both adoptive and birth families, closures, and increased resilience. Resolving ambiguous loss is a critical step in the healing process for adoptees.


If you are an adult adoptee, check out our adoptee specific site here: Adoptee Alliance

Counselling and psychotherapy for adult adoptees

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