When we were going through our first adoption process, our social worker gave us a brief talk about grief. Every child goes through it when being placed in a new home, and it can be more intense for children who are also adjusting to new cultural environments and time zones. Even babies placed in adoptive homes at birth will grieve. Many children will feel and express grief as they grow up, at key moments in their lives. If you are wise, you will accept that this will happen and do whatever is necessary to accommodate your child during these times and help them move through their grief. Because each child has a different story and a different personality, there is no prescribed method of working through grief. It will look different for every child in every family. What, then, can we do to help our children? Plenty.
It starts with simply understanding where our children are coming from, how strange and new the adoption experience is. You are new people that your child has never met. All of the sights, sounds, smells, and even tastes that your child is accustomed to are gone, and there are new ones to adjust to and process. It is overwhelming. Understand that, and be a safe place, even if the way your child expresses grief seems to be a rejection of you.
Accept however your child is expressing grief, and do your best to be loving and supportive as they work through it. Our social worker told us that the general rule is that anything that happens in your first three days of transition can be chalked up to grief, so reserve judgments about your child or their future needs at this time. Reinforce appropriate ways to handle emotions if your child lashes out physically, but don’t judge them. In our experience, we had a transition when Zinashi was first placed in our arms, then one when we moved to a different guest house, another when we came back to the agency guest house, and yet another when we flew home. Certain behaviors tend to resurface any time there is a transition or it is the anniversary of a big transition. Expect it, accept it, and be ready for your child’s needs.
If grief lasts longer than a week, get help from a professional for next steps, even if it’s just a quick call. Call your social worker or a therapist and explain what is going on, and ask if what you’re doing is appropriate and if they have any pointers. Some children do beautifully with in-home adjustments while others will need to see a professional. Whether or not your child needs therapy to aid in grief processing, being the sponge for what they’re expressing can take a toll on you, so get the support you need at this time as well.
Make connections with other parents who have walked through adoption grief with their children. It will help to know what you might expect and to have a long list of what worked or didn’t work for other families. Because of the wide range of reactions to grief, having more than one person’s experience to draw on will help you know if what your child is experiencing is normal or if you need extra help.
Embrace the difference that doing practical things for your child can make in the grieving process. Make sure they are eating and drinking every two to three hours to help keep blood sugar stable, and if you are able to give them the food that is familiar, do it. Give them opportunities to get good rest. Avoid activities that will be overstimulating and leave your child with little emotional energy to process their feelings. Make life as stable and gentle as possible.
If you are co-parenting, work out a plan with your spouse or partner so that each of you gets a breather every day. Do something that lowers your stress level. You may only have fifteen minutes or half an hour; use it for something awesome. Take a bath, take a walk, have a glass of your favorite beverage alone outdoors. Recharge and get back to it refreshed.
Finally, remember that the intensity will abate. It is hard to watch your child grieve and feel like you can do little about it, but if you are the soft place to fall, the person who makes sure that they have everything they need so they can attend to the work of grieving, then you have indeed done a lot. It will get better. Even if you can’t see it in the moment, there is light at the end of the tunnel.