Adoption always begins with a loss for the birth parents (and the rest of the birth family) as well as for the adoptee. Putting your finger on exactly what is lost can be difficult. You have lost a child, but the child still exists. However, you cannot physically touch the child you have lost. Even in open adoptions, with the ability to physically touch the child, you have a loss of your motherhood to that child.

This loss can be defined as an ambiguous loss. Since ambiguous loss is still a theory, there is no official definition. However, I will use Webster’s Dictionary to define each separate word. Ambiguous – not expressed or understood clearly. Loss – failure to keep or to continue to have something; the experience of having something taken from you or destroyed. Wikipedia defines ambiguous loss as “a loss that occurs without closure or understanding. This kind of loss leaves a person searching for answers, and thus complicates and delays the process of grieving, and often results in unresolved grief.”  I really like this definition because I feel it sums up the complicated process of ambiguous loss theory in simple terms that most people can understand.

The mourning process of an ambiguous loss (referred to here on out as AL) is unlike any other. When there is a physical loss but a psychological presence persists (such as in adoption – open or closed) it can be down right tormenting at times. Other examples of this can include a missing person, a missing body following a disaster, or the loss of a child living at home through divorce. On the flip side, AL can also be in the form of a physical presence but psychological absence such as in the case of Alzheimer’s.

A Physical Loss But Psychological Presence

Your child is not physically with you. Or you have lost the physical role as that child’s mother, father, grandparent, sibling, aunt, uncle. However, in your mind that child is still there. You still think of that child in terms of the way a mother (or other relative) would think of that child. Your mind cannot help but to think of it any other way. You cannot love your child any less than a mother just because you have relinquished your legal rights to that role. It is my opinion that the further in you get being a birthmother, the more this AL is felt. The more time that passes the more likely it is that the reality of what the relationship really is becomes apparent. It is easier, when our children are younger, to still think of them in terms of our own children. And we most definitely are their mothers. However, children become adults and have thoughts of their own and how they think of you is most likely not in the typical way that a child thinks of a mother. This reality becomes more glaringly obvious as the years pass on. The AL is felt more strongly because that psychological presence you have in your mind, as their mothers, is challenged more actively the older an adoptee is. They go on to graduate high school, college, get married, have children of their own. All the while you want to be a part of these things in their lives but you really are not, to them, the “mom.” And in a closed adoption, these realities hit head on during reunion in full force all at one time. If there is no reunion, that AL lingers relentlessly and unbearably until the day you die.  How exactly do you cope with this AL? I have no answers. I wish I did. It really isn’t something they touch on during the adoption process. They should.

The Loss to the Adoptee

The ambiguous loss to the adoptee is a little different than the birth family.

Open Adoption

When a child is part of an open adoption, AL feelings can be present in a number of ways. When visiting with birth family, they may wonder what their life would be like had they remained in their original family. It may be hard, if not addressed properly, for the adoptee to constantly be reminded of this. I am in NO way advocating for closed adoptions. I think they are archaic and cruel to all parties except the adoptive parents. However, it must be noted that even in the most ideal of adoption situations, the adoptee has suffered a loss. Ambiguous as it may be, it is still a loss.

Closed Adoption

The AL is even more powerful and unrelenting in a closed adoption. The adoptee will often mourn the parents that they have never met, they will mourn the life they may have had, they will feel the AL for something they have never known. A psychological presence with a physical absence. Adoptees in closed adoptions may also have a harder time coming to terms with this AL.

I am in no way suggesting that adoptees cannot be emotionally healthy individuals. We are all unique individuals and cope with things in our own unique ways. Some people are able to easier cope than others. Some, not so much. On the other side of the coin, I am not suggesting that all, or even most, adoptees are emotionally healthy when it comes to the AL felt by their adoption.

Imagine that your mother had died during childbirth. She was to be a single mother. Instead her best friend raised you and you have known her as your mother your whole life. When speaking of your natural mother, people express condolences and recognize your right to mourn the loss of your first mother. The woman who gave birth to you. It is not widely recognized as a “good” thing that this happened but rather a tragedy. Your life would not be what it was today had your mother not passed.  You love your mother’s best friend as any child would love a mother. Still, it doesn’t make your loss any less and it doesn’t take away from the fact that you may wonder what your life would have been like had your mother not passed away bringing you into this world. You will never hear anyone say that it was “God’s plan” for your mother to have died so that her best friend could raise you as her own. That would be cruel.

Take this same scenario and apply it to adoption. It’s the same loss. It’s the same feelings. The only silver lining is the possibility of reunion, and even then many people find a grave. Why are people always saying, “It was God’s plan for you to be adopted. It was God’s plan for me to get pregnant so I could gift a couple a child.” Can you imagine how that would make you feel as a person? It was God’s plan to take my mother away so I could have a different mother? This doesn’t mean the adoptee cannot or does not love their adoptive family. It doesn’t mean that they want to change their life. But, they may forever be haunted by the AL of what might have been. How many of you are haunted by the life you may have had if your mother had decided to give you up for adoption? (Okay, maybe a few but I remember my worst fear as a child was that my parents would tell me I was adopted)

My personal AL has been renewed after the contact was made from my daughter. I love that there was communication from her and am over the moon about it. I hope there is more to follow. But, as I stated above, the reality of what really is has come creeping back in. Her letter was amazing and loving, but I am haunted by her words, “I don’t know you…” Intellectually I knew all along she didn’t look at me as her mother. Not in the sense that I would think of her as my daughter. Not that I would ever want to take everything her mother has done for her away, as far as being her mother. But I am reminded, once again, of that loss. That one that I cannot quite put my finger on. I don’t know how to describe it… I probably never will.

They don’t tell you about this loss. Not. At. All.

4 thoughts on “Ambiguous Loss

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