Grieving for a Failed Adoption

When you open your heart to a child -- or in some cases, to the promise of a child -- and the adoption falls through or doesn't work out, it's normal to feel devastated. The term "failed adoption" is used to describe adoptions where the adopted child joined the family for a time but was later removed, as well as for anticipated adoptions in which the child never arrives. Both involve working through feelings of grief, and frequently anger and guilt over what went wrong.

Grief in Disrupted Adoption

Between 10 and 20 percent of all adoptions end in disruption, with the adopted child returned to the care of the placement agency, according to the website 2. The older the child, the more likely it is that the adoption will fail. The grief in disrupted adoption is often mixed with feelings of guilt that you couldn't make it work or guilt that you feel relief over the disruption 2. Anger -- at your agency for not realizing the depth of problems within your child, at yourself or at the child himself -- complicate grieving. Everything in the house, from family photos to your child's room, can remind you of your loss. Talk as a family about how best to handle constant reminders of the missing family member. Knowing that your disrupted child is also dealing with complex emotions can intensify your own grief.

Grief When the Birth Mother Changes Her Mind

The grief you feel when a child is taken from you -- even if it's by his biological parents -- rather than given up is different because there are no mixed feelings of grief and relief. Often there's little warning or time to adjust to the news before the agency removes the baby from your care. If friends and family downplay your grief, expressing sentiments such as, "Your agency will bend over backwards to find you another baby," you may feel angry that your baby is seen as fungible -- easily replaced by another child. You might want to dismantle the nursery or may find it a place of comfort; follow your own feelings, and don't let others dictate what you should do.

Grief When the Adoption Fails Before Birth

The grief you feel for what might have been when a placement never occurs might be less than that of losing a child placed in your home, but it's grief nonetheless. The hardest part of this type of failed adoption is that other people don't understand your loss of someone you never even met. Parents-to-be whose adoption falls through have no public rituals for grief 1. Comments such as, "You'll find another birth mother," or, "Maybe you'll get pregnant now on your own," cause pain because they show the lack of understanding of the depth of your grief.such as:

  • Comments such as
  • "You'll find another birth mother," or
  • "Maybe you'll get pregnant now on your own," cause pain because they show the lack of understanding of the depth of your grief

Getting Past Grief

In all types of disrupted adoptions, getting past grief takes time -- a lot of it -- as well as soul-searching and talking about what happened. Reach out for help from your agency if you have one; it may have support groups for parents who have been through a disrupted adoption. Talking with other parents who have gone through the same situation, and who provide a non-judgmental community, can help you come to terms with your own grief. Involve all family members in conversations about what happened. If you have other adopted children, they may have concerns about their own place in the family. Don't expect that you and your partner will grieve in the same way or for the same amount of time; give each other space to grieve in your own way.