Parenting Tips on Loss and Grief

The adoptive parents must consider their own losses: If the adoptive parents chose to adopt an older child because they could not get an infant, then they must first resolve their own issues or they risk letting their grief become a wall between themselves and the older child. Therapy and support groups can be useful for this and should be undertaken before the child is placed. However, it is never too late to get help with his issue. As well, if the parents have had substantial losses in their own lives and have never come to terms with them, then this too, must be considered before there can be success in helping the child to move past his loss.

Accept that the joy of the parents may conflict with the grief of the child: The parents should be forthcoming in their delight at having the older child join the family. However, the parents should also understand and acknowledge that the child may not be able to relate to the joy until her grief has been identified and validated and she is on the way to resolution. This takes time and patience on the part of the adopting parents who must set aside their own need for immediate reward in the parent/child relationship.

Acknowledge the losses with the child: Talk with the child about all the things she has lost in her life and do this on more than one occasion. These should not be forced conversations although the parent will likely have to be the initiator. The correct moments will present themselves and it is important the adoptive parent not be afraid to enter into, and initiate, these discussions.

Don’t reject or fear the child’s pain: Most loving parents tend to avoid issues that appear to hurt a child. They view this as a form of protection. However, in relation to loss, it is important that the adoptive parents make it clear to the child that they can hear how much the child misses the orphanage, or the last foster parents, or the last school, or the last language, or the birth mother that beat the child, etc. The child’s grief over the past can sometimes feel like rejection to the new parents. But that is irrelevant. What counts is that the child learns that she can tell her new mom and dad about she misses and how much it hurts. Sharing feelings of grief can facilitate bonding, and , if she can’t say it with words, she will say it with behavior.

Comfort the child: Let the child know that it is all right for him to sit on the lap of the adoptive parent and cry when he misses his birth mom, or when he is feeling sad that he can never live at home again, or when he is missing a sibling or missing a foster parent. It can be hard for an adoptive parent to listen to a child cry about missing an abusive or neglectful birth parent, but the adoptive parent must put those feelings aside for a more appropriate time.

Get pictures/photographs: Try to get as many photographs of people from the child’s past as possible. Keep them separate from the other family pictures for the first year or so, or until the child indicates that she is ready for her life to merge with that of the adoptive family. If there are no photographs available, try to get postcards or other types of pictures of the child’s city and country of origin.

Have the child join a peer group for dealing with loss: It would be best for the child to go into an adoptive children’s group, but if there are none in the area, then any counseling group that focuses on loss would be useful. Children are able to normalize each other’s experiences better than adults. The child may need to participate in this type of group at each stage of development.

Have a family candle lighting ceremony: # 1 This may be done for the child alone or for each family member. Get several candles and place them in a bowl of sand or rocks or anything that will hold the candles. As each candle is lit, state who or what it represents. For example, one candle may represent the birth parents, one candle may represent a former foster parent, one candle may represent a beloved pet or toy that had to be left in a former living situation. The parents may also wish to light candles for losses they have experienced in life, such as death of a parent or family member. However, this ceremony, when done with the child, is not the time for parents to express loss of fertility or the loss of not adopting an infant. After the candles are lit and child and family members have acknowledged each loss and perhaps said good bye to each part of the past, the candles can be blown out, either one by one or all at once. Something special should then be done with the candles. They can be buried, or tossed in to the ocean or a river, or wrapped up and put in a safe place. Just make sure they are not used again.

Candle Lighting Ceremony #2: The second candle lighting ceremony is part of a ritual that is also useful for building identity. This involves the same procedure with candles, but in this ritual, the child lights a candle for each of the people or things which she feels she has gained. This should not be done to supplant #1, but can be added to it to help the child understand the gains that have arisen from the losses.

Write a letter: The child may wish to write a letter saying good bye to people from the past. This letter may be mailed, hand delivered, or put in a bottle and thrown out to sea, or burned, or buried etc. Some of the people to whom the child wishes to write may be deceased or their whereabouts unknown, while others can be easily located. The delivery of the letter is less important than the writing of the letter.

Do not add to the losses: Many older children have existing relationships with relatives and foster parents at the time of placement. Some of these people may be very different from the adoptive family and can be disruptive to the child’s ability to settle. Rather than cut them out of the child’s life when there are difficulties, find a way to mediate and resolve the conflicts or, if all else fails, learn to live with them. Creating fresh wounds by cutting out a demanding grandmother is more likely to send the child back to grandmother than to help the child bond with the new family. Contact with siblings and birth parents must also be considered. Siblings may be in foster care, in a residential treatment setting, with relatives, or with birth parents. Depending on the safety and the setting, it is best if the child does not have to count her siblings among her losses. She will inevitably re-establish contact with them as soon as she is old enough to do it on her own, so it will be safer and healthier for the child if the contact can be maintained and monitored by the adoptive parents. Some, but not all, birth parents may be difficult to establish a relationship with. However, is the child has a bond with those parents, she will seek them out as soon as possible just as she will her siblings and any other birth relatives. As well, if she is forced to stop seeing them with the placement, she will be angry as well as grieving and this combination can create an severe obstacle to letting go of the past. Children from other countries may have existing relationships that the prospective adopting parents are not told of. So, it is important to ask the workers in the orphanage if there are relatives or parents with whom the child should be maintaining contact. The adopting parents may have to do some detective work in order to find addresses and names, but this can be done if planned for ahead of time.

Take the child to a massage therapist: The stress of grief can cause all kinds of physical problems such as chronic head aches and stomach aches. A professional massage therapist can help the child release the tension from his body without interfering in the grief process. Be aware though, that massage can also release memories from past trauma, so be sure that the message therapist is aware that this is a potential risk for child and be sure to tell the child’s psychologist or therapist that he is receiving massage therapy. It would be best if the therapist has some telephone contact with the message therapist. As well, the parent can have the massage therapist teach his or her some simple massage techniques so that the parent can begin to do some of this with the child at home.

Remember that anniversaries can trigger grief: A child with a traumatic background will have many significant anniversaries, some of which he will recall without difficulty, others of which will be repressed or experienced before the child was verbal. These may include when the child was first removed from the birth parent, or when the child left a favored caregiver, or when the child was physically brutalized, or around a certain time in each month when the birth parents were less functional, or when the child last saw a beloved grandparent, etc. Most of these significant times will not be known to the adoptive parents. It can be helpful for the parents to make note of times when the child appears to be acting out without cause and see if there is a pattern or if the acting out always occurs around specific dates. If there is a pattern, this information should be given to the therapist so that s/he can determine if the acting out is related to loss.

Source: Handout for NYSCCC 2003 conference workshop presented by Brenda McCreight, PhD, May 9, 2003, Albany, NY. Reprinted with permission of the author.

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