Exploring Adoption and Grief: Untangling the Emotional Journeys of Adoptees
Coping with grief as an adoptee
They change our name, our identity is erased. They don’t change it, we feel like outsiders. As adoptees, we don’t belong to any family…neither our adoptive family or biological family really gets us. In this episode, we talk about the many ways grief shows up for adoptees and talk about tools of coping with adoption including finding a trauma therapist who understands adoption, joining support groups, and writing dark poetry.
“I don’t want this adoption stigma to carry me forever”
What we discussed
(00:00) Changing names after adoption
(04:13) Ways adoptees experience grief
(09:35) TW: Adoptees and suicide OR Why adoption is trauma OR Finding adoption-competent therapists (the struggle is real)
(16:08) Secrecy and adoption
(21:03) “He chose not to raise me”
(24:08) Coping with adoption trauma (besides therapy) OR Other ways to cope with adoption trauma (besides therapy)
(28:52) It’s ok not be ok, adoptees.
Lia 00:00:05 Hey everybody. Welcome to Adoptees Crossing Lines, the not so feel good podcast. If you're looking for something that's grateful adoptees, this isn't the one for you, go ahead and keep scrolling and looking for another podcast that's not where we're about over here. We really appreciate all the love and support that you guys gave to us on social media and just for listening to the episode, I think we're up to about 200 downloads at this point and we've got listeners in other countries we can say we're a global podcast. Yay. That's kind of crazy. So thank y'all for coming on this journey with us as we continue on. We're excited to see what becomes of it for today's episode. We're gonna kind of talk a little bit about adoption and grief and kind of how the two of those intertwine and affect a lot of adoptees. One of the things that comes to mind when I think about adoption and grief is there are a number of adoptees whose adoptive parents change their name and that in and of itself is a loss or an erasure of your identity. And I don't think that people think about that or I don't think that it's talked about enough. I think there are other components to grief as well, but I think that's one of the ways we get sort of separated from our first family or a biological family.
Dr. Noelle 00:01:29 When you're talking about the loss of name and identity, I think about in my own circumstance, the way in which I don't share my name with my biological family and the name that my adoptive family gave me just doesn't serve me anymore. And so I actually brought it up to my biological family and asked them if I could take their name and they didn't understand why I would wanna change my name and I just carry a lot of sadness and grief around that.
Tosha 00:02:00 That's almost crazy. They couldn't understand why you wouldn't want to carry the same name. That's how that's supposed to work. But I can also piggyback off of that. I understand how changing the name can definitely alter things and it can even cause more grief and heartache all the way around. Like for example, my biological family was actually looking for me under the original name that I had previously, which sometimes I feel it fits me more than the name I was given. So changing of the name, it wipes away and I know they're trying to bring you into their family and have their own spin on things, if you will. I hate to say it, but it's almost like getting a pet who belonged to someone else and then changing their name, like to fit your needs even though this child was already given a name. So yes, it definitely adds to all of the grief that has to do with adoption.
Dr. Noelle 00:02:58 I will also say in my case, I know Lia, your name was changed. In my case, I went four or five months without a name at all. They called me honey and that is what my adoptive family was told that I had been referred to up until that point was honey. And you know our birth certificates say baby girl on them. I think the name and identity is really important and the amount of grief we carry, it's like losing of self and each iteration of what we go through from adoption, from knowing that, finding out that we're adopted to reunion, I'm experiencing a whole second set of losses around Reunion.
Lia 00:03:39 Yeah, I think you both bring up really good points and similar to Tosha, my name was changed and whenever my bio family was trying to look for me, they had a really hard time finding me and they probably were never gonna find me unless I reached out to them. I think that's something that a lot of adoptees experience. I know we had a lot of engagement and conversation about this on Twitter with folks who were talking about how their name were changed and their experiences Also, Noel, what you mentioned about it's like going through loss twice. I just wonder what are some of the other ways that grief shows up or has shown up for you in your experience with adoption or being an adoptee?
Dr. Noelle 00:04:23 I would have to say that one of the big ways that grief shows up for me is just a physical malaise, right? My body carries the burden of that grief since I was a little girl. I can remember having this feeling, this deep need and want for my biological mother. I just wanted her, I wanted her in the worst way and feeling depressed actually even as a child around not being able to have access to her for the longest time. Of course, not knowing who she was, where she was, whether she wanted me, whether she thought about me and carrying that around was really heavy, especially when I was younger. Once I had my own kids, it was a little bit more manageable, but it would actually cause me to have periods of depression.
Tosha 00:05:14 I can completely understand the depression and the longing and the wanting. I also wanted to meet her and then it became siblings as I remembered more of what I was told. So my grief was in the form of relationships. I grieve not knowing my brother ahead of me. I grieve not knowing her. I grieved not knowing my sisters. I grieved not having that relationship because I ended up being raised as an only child with bios, siblings. So that in itself I grieve just having siblings in that relationship. I grieve not knowing where I come from. I grieve not knowing my full history, whether it's medical history, family history, mental health history like you said, like you physically carry that. Sometimes I can be like, what's wrong? Oh, I am my adoption trauma <laugh>. And you kind of forget that this stuff really weighs on you sometimes. So I feel like grief is heavy in adoption trauma.
Lia 00:06:11 I know for me, I had a lot of grief specifically both of my bio parents have passed and I always knew that my mom died. But when I got older and wanted to get connected to my bio family and started to look for them, that was when I found out that my bio dad had passed. And not only did I find out that he passed, but I found out that he raised two other kids and did not raise me. And so that added a whole nother set of grief and loss to the equation. And also just the grief of what both of you had mentioned, just not being able to grow up with siblings, not to know them. Just that whole experience that you lose out on. And I don't know about y'all, but for me I always felt like the black sheep or the other or different, I never really felt connected to my adoptive family. And it was like they had all of this to share. They had stories to share or even like baby pictures, just things like that that I just wasn't able to participate in or comment on. So I always just felt like an outsider looking in. I never really felt like I was a part of the family
Dr. Noelle 00:07:25 And I totally feel that. I feel like I am not part of either family. I'm an outsider in both places. I had the pleasure of having a meal with my bio family in the last couple of weeks and listening to how they talk to each other and the sweetness and the kindness and the joking. None of that applies to me because I haven't been there and I'm grieving the loss of my adoptive family as well, coming out of the fog, absolutely no contact with them. So I've lost what family I was supposed to have or what I believed was family for a very long time. And I grieve the loss of my grandmother who really was the one who raised me and my adoptive family. And she passed away two years ago and I did not go to her bedside to say goodbye. And I did not go to her funeral because I'm no contact. And so I grieve alone. I think that's what I would say is that for me, adoption is about grieving alone because finding people who understand the grief is really difficult.
Tosha 00:08:35 I feel like the whole grieving alone part of adoption trauma to me is a lot of suffering in silence. Twitter, definitely in all the social media apps where I've talked to other adoptees has definitely helped. But it's just that overall sense of like, you know how you can be in a crowded room but still feel all alone. That's how it would pretty much feel when I would be around my family and I'm grieving just I wonder what it must feel like to actually be a part of the family. I wonder who actually accepts me here, who's being genuine And I remember I got some of the greatest love and support from my grandmother. May she rest. But it's just sadness sometimes. And some of the gloominess, it's hard to function sometimes cuz all you wanna do. For me, I just wanna feel normal half the time. Like what does that feel like? So I gotta grief being normal as well. There's grief everywhere.
Lia 00:09:27 I definitely feel that just not wanting to have to carry this burden all the time that the kept don't really have to worry about. There are some statistics out there that say that adoptees are four times more likely to attempt suicide. I guess I should put a trigger warning out there for suicide and suicidal ideation. Feel free to take some space if you need that. I think that's really interesting and I think it speaks to the larger point of the fact that adoption is trauma. I know personally I've struggled with my own mental health because it's just really lonely to be out here trying to navigate and not have that connection. I think about Maslow's hierarchy of needs, just not having that belonging, like not having that sense of safety is so critical and so important. And I think it often gets looked over or missed.
Lia 00:10:23 And when you don't have people to talk to, like you said Noel, like you're just out here, you don't have people who understand what you're going through and the thoughts start to run rampant in your mind. It can get really challenging. I know something that has really helped me with that grief has really been finding a good therapist, finding a therapist who is one trauma informed, two adoption competent. I didn't even know that was a thing until recently, but they're a therapist who are adoption competent. It's a training that they can take. And also there are therapists who are adoptees themselves, which I feel like would be even more meaningful. Those are some of the things that I feel like have helped to kind of counteract that. And you know every year on October 30th we have adoptee remembrance day where we remember those who have died by suicide.
Dr. Noelle 00:11:17 I also believe in therapy and I have a very good therapist. She is adoption competent. I've had therapists in the past who were not only not adoption competent, but I had to explain to them what the trauma was with adoption. I had to explain to them what transracial adoption was. I had one therapist say to me, oh that's a new term. What does that mean? And I'm sitting in the seat thinking, I am paying you to take care of me. I don't know why I'm teaching you this right now. So the disconnections can generate in just a moment, right? I grieve community that I don't have to explain myself to, especially around anger. I have found that a lot of folks in my community do not understand why I'm so angry. Do not understand why there are biological family members that I no longer speak to because of their role in whether or not I did or did not find my biological family. Well they helped you a little bit so you should be grateful, right <laugh>, I'm like, no, I'm actually pretty pissed off and probably will stay that way. I also grieve the space where I can make mistakes. I know some of my biological family have started listening to the podcast and I worry that we're gonna say something that makes them suddenly just leave and give up on me or decide that I'm telling too much of our family business on the podcast. Those are constant thoughts for me. And so I grieve the space of just being human.
Tosha 00:12:53 I am actually in the same boat. I'm actually a tad fearful that this could get to some people. But then that's kind of also the point. I was a little hesitant and a little nervous, but it's stuff that I'm tired of caring on my own. And I feel like being on this podcast with you wonderful ladies, like experiences like minded. This is therapeutic. So yes, I believe in therapy as well. And I guess at some point I will have to reconcile with it all. And maybe it comes from this, maybe they find the podcast and they listen and they figure out who I am because I'm tired of living in the shadows. That's also some grief there. It's like I wanna live like everyone else and I know everyone else is is different based on whatever you go through. But I don't want this adoption stigma to carry me forever.
Tosha 00:13:40 And in my therapy, it was the same thing when I was first in therapy, I didn't correlate adoption as trauma at first. So I wasn't in the right place. I wasn't with someone that could handle traumas. And once I was talking to more and doing my own research where I literally saw adoption is trauma, one of my favorite monikers, I was like, oh, I need a trauma specialist who knows about adoption. So I back up you ladies as well with that. That is very, very, very important. And being in therapy, they can help you with the grief process because just like when you lose a loved one, when you're dealing with something that causes grief, there's stages and layers to that as well. And sometimes need a little assistance with that. Today I was struggling. I actually didn't wanna do this tonight. I was letting those thoughts get into my head. I just wanted to ignore it. I do really good ignoring it and I just wanted to feel normal. And coming on here and doing this, it actually is empowering. I would've felt a lot worse if I would've made up some silly excuse to get out of this tonight. It just shows how heavy it is and how I can have a normal conversation that it end up half tears. So I'm gonna take a quick moment.
Dr. Noelle 00:14:48 Take care of yourself for sure. We're
Lia 00:14:51 Glad you're here, Tosha. We love you. We care about you, we value you. You're important to this show.
Dr. Noelle 00:14:57 And your pain in your grief is valid and we see it and we're not afraid of
Lia 00:15:02 It. We're here with you. Ugh,
Tosha 00:15:04 Thank you. That's what my therapist said too. She's like, I can't make you perfect. You're gonna have moments and that's normal. Now if you cry every single time you talk about adoption, then we might have a problem. But if you're in a deep conversation about it, it's okay to cry cuz you're just letting go and releasing. And I guess it's perfect on the podcast about grief, right? It fits
Lia 00:15:23 <laugh>.
Dr. Noelle 00:15:24 I wish that I could cry. I have spent so many years and I'm a good dual older than both of you. I've spent so many years burying my grief and burying my pain that I know I don't cry at anything. Nothing makes me cry. I've kind of put that part of myself away in ways that are particularly unhealthy. My therapist is the one who told me that I was grieving. I did not know on my own that there was a name for how I was feeling and that the anger and the malaise and the upset were all part of grief. And that's what grief looks like. I would love to have a grief support group for adoptees. I would join that in a heartbeat.
Lia 00:16:08 Something else that comes to mind. Tosha talked a little bit about living in the shadows. I think something that contributes to grief as it relates to adoption is like the secrecy of it. There's so much that's unknown, so much that's kept away. I think about my own experience and I think about how there are people in my adoptive family who did not know I was adopted. And when I told them, they were like, Lia, stop playing with me. And I was like, no, I'm being serious. <laugh>. I think that contributes to it as well. And I just remember these moments where I would talk about it and it would just kind of be like hush hush. But it's like no, this is a thing. This is part of my identity, this is part of my experience and it isn't something that needs to be kept. And I think a lot of times adoptive families and parents want to treat you as their own and well this is my daughter, this is my son. But the fact of the matter is I don't think that they can ever be treated the same personally as their biological children. If that was part of your experience, it was for me and I just felt like it was never going to be the same.
Dr. Noelle 00:17:21 I can remember looking at every black woman I saw and wondering if she was my mother. You know, I was raised in a white community. I'm a transracial adopt, as I've said. And black women had this appeal for me, right? I was looking for her in every face that I could find. And they were few and far between. But the loss, I would imagine her calling me, I would dream about her showing up and and rescuing me. I was so focused on my mother and the loss of my mother and it always felt like loss. There was never a time where my adoption felt like anything other than having lost something very important.
Tosha 00:18:05 I can definitely relate to looking around and wondering if that's anyone you're blood related to. When I was first told, I just knew about bio mom, bio dad and brother. I know his name. I knew it all the time. And so I'm like, if I saw someone with that name, is that him? Is that him? Is that him? It's amazing how being an adoptee is constant in your mind. Like it's always, whether it's the forefront, the back, the middle, wherever it's always in there. And then never seeing anyone with my same face. And people would tell me, oh this person looks like you. And at first it was cute and then I got offended cause I'm like, no <laugh> pretty sure no one here is really related to me. Cause I was in one state and then we moved all around. So I was like, well maybe they moved to, who knows. But that longing and that wanting to meet them, to see them, it's pretty powerful and it can be pretty consuming cuz I know in my twenties before we got to where all the Twitters and all of that, I would be on message boards just putting in basic information, just hoping and praying Someone will respond. I think it was adoption.org or.com that had the blogs and everything. Just never any hits. And you get that surge of energy just searching and then just to let yourself write back down when no responses whatsoever. So adoption's tough.
Dr. Noelle 00:19:25 I was on all of those boards. I mean I started putting myself out there as soon as I had the internet. One of the first things I did was Google adoption boards or how to find your biological mother. And what's interesting for me is it was always my biological mother. It was never my biological father. I don't know what that means exactly, but that was where the loss was. And one of the things I also wanted to say is people don't treat your grief as grief. And I think that that is traumatic as well. If somebody in your family dies, there's a process. People show up, they support you, they bring you food, they offer you condolences for a very long time. I know when I tell people that my husband died in 2014, people still say to me, oh I am so sorry for your loss, but I lost my mother the day I was born. And to date, I don't think anyone has apologized or not apologized. That's not the word I want. I do want an apology, but that's not what I meant to say. <laugh> to this day, people do not offer condolences about the biggest loss in my life. And I think that that's interesting.
Tosha 00:20:36 Well I think that's also the point of us wanting to do this. I tell people I'm adopted. Oh that must be so awesome, so great. They never ever, ever take even us millisecond to think, oh well that might not actually be so great. You know, I like some apologies as well cuz we're dealing with something that we had zero control over. But I wanted to speak to what you said Noelle, about wanting to find your birth mother. I was fixated on her. I do not know why I had made a whole storyline in my head because you guys gave me up. Oh you must be living the perfect life. Everything has to be fine. I mean it has to be right white picking fence in all. And so my kind of grief was realizing that she is not mentally capable to be available to me.
Tosha 00:21:24 And in all this my bio dad stepped up and I'm processing that cuz he was nowhere in my picture. Nowhere. And now he's the most active out of the whole bunch. So I'm still trying to deal with that and we had this little happy Friday thing going on, but I'm just like, you were not who I thought I'd be talking with. That must be some maternal thing going on. That has to be the primal wound. It has to be that early separation where we're just longing for the mother for some reason. And I'm gonna look more into that.
Dr. Noelle 00:21:54 And I do know adoptees who long for their father. I know folks who are raised by their mother and don't know their father and they long for their father. So I don't want people thinking that fathers are not important.
Tosha 00:22:06 Oh gosh, no.
Dr. Noelle 00:22:07 But for me it was my mother for
Lia 00:22:10 Sure. I think that's the case for a lot of us. I think for me it was a little bit different cuz as I mentioned my mom died and I knew that. So for me, I kind of pivoted by default to my father. And like you Tosha, I just knew this man was living the dream. I say and this man is gonna come rescue me one day. He's out there, he just doesn't know I exist. And then to find out that not only did he know I existed but he chose not to raise me was soul crushing. He's dead to me. I mean he's physically dead but <laugh> also, he's dead to me. That was really like challenging for me. And as I mentioned in our previous episode, so I spent time within our child welfare system, not only as an adoptee but in foster care. And so a couple years ago, I think it's only been about a year, year and a half, my foster mom died for me.
Lia 00:23:02 She was the closest thing that I had to a mom. And it was really, really challenging. And there are still days where I physically feel like my heart is broken. It's like how do we sit with that? How do we deal with that? How do we deal with loss after loss after loss? And just be expected to be okay or be expected to be grateful because somebody paid for us and made us a part of their family. Noelle, you said something earlier. I think about in order for adoption to happen, something tragic has taken place and I think think that's a really great way to sum it up. And for something tragic to happen, like there's going to be some period of grieving or mourning, you can't get over that. You can try to outrun it, you can try to stuff it down, but it's going to come back up. It's going to affect you. It's going to overflow and seep into the other parts of your life. So I think it's important that, you know, we're talking about this and talking about the ways in which we're trying to figure out how to cope with it. You know, we've talked about therapy, we've talked about talking to other folks within our community. What are some other ways that maybe you've seen or other things that you've done to sort of cope with the grief and the loss of it all?
Dr. Noelle 00:24:31 So I have a blog. For me, I used to write constantly as an adolescent. Now I do my blog. But writing for me has been a huge way to cope. There's something about seeing the words on the page that helped me let it go a little bit.
Tosha 00:24:47 For me, I like to escape, which is not always healthy. Unfortunately my coping mechanisms have not always been the healthiest. And I used to keep saying I was filling a void, like I was missing something. My idea was to fill it with alcohol. But that was also tied to some information I received about my biological family. So that was a part of it. So in some warped way I thought me drinking would bring me closer to them because they drink. I know it sounds nuts but it made sense in my brain at the time. So once I got out of the negative path and got more tools, I have a creative spirit as well. So whether it's making jewelry or drawing or painting something for me it has to be something active. Whether it's talking with people, going bowling, I like physical things. I'm not someone who wants to sit necessarily at a movie. Theater lets us like action packed. But I just like to do things that get out of my head. I like to write dark poetry, <laugh>, that helps me out a lot. Some of it's actually pretty good and therapy got me this far. I would not be at a point to like deal with this in a positive way. Not that I'm pushing, pushing, pushing therapy. But that's what worked and that's what helped me.
Dr. Noelle 00:26:01 I was also a dark poet. I wrote poem after poem about the great void and death definitely caused some great concern in my teens, but it was that void I was writing about a void that I didn't have language to describe.
Lia 00:26:16 Yeah, similar to both of y'all. Writing was something that helped me as well as just like talking to folks when I found folks earlier in the pandemic, I found, you know, support groups and things like that. Honestly that was so impactful for me because talking to my friends about it who weren't adopted, it just a lot of times felt like it was falling on deaf ears. You know they would offer their sympathy and things like that, but they didn't truly understand what I, I was going through Noelle, you mentioned support groups. I do some work with a nonprofit called Peer Support space and myself and a friend are actually starting a group specifically for adult survivors of the child welfare system. And it's going to be done online. And so that'll be a space that I think will be really good for folks to be able to gather and just share. We have a shared identity and just be able to talk about some of the things that we go through in an affirming space. And I think that's also going to help me. Cause I do think it's therapeutic to tell your story, especially when there's so many themes again of like secrecy and not talking about things. So to be able to like get it out there I think is really helpful.
Tosha 00:27:30 That sounds very positive and supportive. I have a question about that really quickly, if you don't mind. This support group, I think it's awesome. Kudos to you for doing that. Now, when you say survivors of the child welfare system, does that include all adoptees or adoptees who went through foster care system, went without homes for a while? Like who would actually fall under that?
Lia 00:27:53 That is a great question. So it's specifically for adoptees and foster kids that were touched by the system. Cause I think it's important to have that space simply for us. By us.
Tosha 00:28:07 I totally agree. And the reason for the question is all three of us have very different experiences and I was adopted right at birth. So I was wondering if adoptees right at birth would qualify or if it was ones that more so had time in the system because this is what I found out in sharing my story sometimes. Sometimes I need to have it as close to mine as possible at times, not always cause that's how you learn how you grow, but just how they have the transracial groups and different groups. They have the domestic and the foreign, like they have groups for every single space. That's just why I was asking.
Lia 00:28:40 No, definitely still valid because you're still touched by the system. Like there was still a process that was involved of the larger system. So yeah, certainly come join us. So we definitely talked about a lot of different things when it comes to adoption and grief. If you had to leave one closing thought with our listeners, what would that be?
Dr. Noelle 00:29:03 So people always talk about how strong we are or how resilient we are, et cetera. And I think what I would like people to be more thoughtful about is that I'm a person in pain, I'm in perpetual pain. And that I would appreciate being cared for as you would care for a person in pain.
Tosha 00:29:25 I would just like to close on this one with this mostly being about grief. I would like to leave everyone with their thoughts of knowing you're not out here alone. Take care of yourselves. Always put yourself first. And I hope you enjoyed this podcast
Lia 00:29:40 And I hope you will be with us with the next one. I would say similar to Tosha, that you're not alone in this journey and it's okay to not be. Okay. Thank y'all so much for again, coming with me on this journey. I just want to let y'all know that we are on social media. So we are on Instagram at Adoptees crossing lines, we're on Twitter at Adoptee Crossing and we're on TikTok as adoptees crossing lines. Shout out to sure for these mics, y'all, I know y'all hear this sound. So we're really enjoying using these mics in their product. And shout out to Riverside fm. That's what we're using to record our podcast. And shout out to Buzz Sprout, they're distribution platform. Thanks so much to all the folks who are involved with recording this podcast.