Grieving the child that never died: The grief of a failed adoption

February 24, 2014

I think we try very hard not to compare and categorize grief around here, especially in this corner of the loss community, but even as I say that,  I am not totally sure if this experience fits with the type of experiences and grief that we normally talk about here.

But for me, it is my type of grief. Well at least one of the types I carry with me daily. I could probably write a post about every category on this Magazine. Infertility for years. Miscarriages. A full-term daughter stillborn at 39 weeks. But the one category that isn’t here quite yet, at least not often, is the grief and despair of a disrupted, failed, reversed adoption. And what it is like to grieve a child who has not died but is also no longer with you.

I was in the room the day that she was born. I was the first person to hold her and then look into her eyes. I was the one to hold her and keep her safe. My husband and I were the ones who brought her home, into our hearts and we are the ones who gave her a name. I’m pretty sure this name still exists on her official birth certificate over a year later. She was ours, totally and completely. The genetic connection argument was completely wiped out the second that we held her.

The day she left, we grieved for her like any parent who has lost a child.

Our relationship was obliterated by a broken system who thought it was perfectly fine to return  a newborn child to a drug addict at home where she was eventually beaten by a new boyfriend, a beating which required her to encase both of her arms and her back in a cast. 

The day that we found out about her abuse from our adoption lawyer, the grieving started all over again.

She is alive. She breathes and lives and exists somewhere, most likely within 60 miles of our house. Yeah I don’t even know how to tell people how I grieve this child. I don’t even know what I am to her. I know that I can tell people that my daughter Rhiannon was stillborn. That she died. And that she was mine. I can answer clearly when people ask how many children I have, at least when it comes to my biological daughter. But in adoption things are a little bit more fuzzy. For 12 days I announced her to the world as my daughter, with the obligatory Facebook posts.  We received baby gifts and congratulations. We were parents and she was our daughter. And the world accepted her as such.

Then 12 days later she was no longer ours and no legal system had ever given us the term “parents”. We were merely her legal guardians. To the system, we were nothing more than babysitters, so when I go to tell people about the two children that I lost within a year, our adopted daughter and my biological daughter, I still don’t know exactly what the words should sound like at this point. I don’t know how to tell them that I lost two children but one lives. 
One thing we recognized after Rhiannon died is that we never had a funeral for our first loss.  We never got to have people come around us and realize the depth of our grief, definitely not in the same way. We never got flowers sent to our home. We never had friends bring us meals or offer to come help us clean. Our grief was rarely acknowledged. People were very sad for us, don’t get me wrong, but to them, it felt like mere bad luck and “you’ll still get a happy ending.”  As if each child along the way becomes replaceable and the end that we all desire is just ‘A’ child. Not ‘The’ child we already had. My fellow loss parents of biological children hear this often, that we can just try again and just go on to have another eventually. This sentiment is especially true in the world of adoption where people consider children just a little less “really yours” because of that lack of genetic link and each child is truly replaceable because “none of them were ever really yours anyways”. I wish those words were hypothetical, but we all know that words and phrases slip out of well-meaning mouths during our times of incomprehensible mourning. 
But I do know that I grieve her and miss her. Maybe not in the same way as my daughter who lives in the cemetery down the road, because there was an ending to that grief, where I know the outcome, however much I may want to change her death and make it never happen. But for this child there are similar things I grieved. The future and dreams that were lost forever. Plans that will never come to fruition. We had to do some of the same things with her loss that we did with our daughter who died. In both cases we packed up a nursery, put things away that were no longer to be used. Twice now, people have come to take newborn children out of my arms, to either return them to damaged homes or in the second instance, to take them to the morgue.

I’m about sick of people coming to take babies away from me.

We’ve had to ask our families to remove baby items from our home twice now. It felt the same both times I assure you. More than anything else, those moments both stand in my mind crystal clear as the way to connect parents of failed adoptions and deceased biological children. The day you close the door to the nursery feels exactly the same to all of us, no matter how that child came into your life.

It’s losing a baby. She was our child that we loved and planned for and, as far as we were concerned, was a part of our family.

It’s a very odd place to be in which you grieve a baby that was very much yours and very much never yours all at the same time. I don’t know whether or not now to even call her my daughter. I don’t know how to tell people when they ask me how many children I have, and I know that half of them dismiss those 12 days as “not real parenting”. I do know that for fellow parents who have been impacted by the loss of a child you hoped would be in your life forever, you always wonder. You wonder if the court failed. If they are being taken care of or if your worst fears are coming true, and they’ve returned to the homes of nightmares. Foster Parents you especially know this horror as you watch over precious children who return at times to parents who you know without a doubt will be inflicting all the damage you just undid over the course of a year. I don’t know that I have a point at the end of this discussion other than to say that you as an adoptive parent should be recognized and your pain is just as real. If you felt like anyone ever dismissed your experience, you are probably right. Unfortunately I’ve lost children in both situations and I really urge you to speak out and honor your loss as valid and important alongside all of the other types of loss parents out there.

To my fellow loss community who might not have ever considered this possibility, I urge you to think about the foster mom who cares for a baby for a year, nurturing her through detox and newborn phases, only to watch the court determine that in the end, blood relations matter more than your consistent care, so a third cousin will now be taking this baby from their arms. Or the parents who have waited for years to adopt and finally connect with a child overseas. They receive pictures and cards and updates, sometimes for years, and even travel multiple times to meet these children. And yet one day they discover that the country has closed adoption and there is literally no communication and no way to discover what happened to your child in Russia, China, Ghana. Or, our situation, where a private adoption went well until addiction and selfishness ruined the life of a precious newborn baby—a baby who found herself (within a year) living in no fewer than 5 homes. Ours, her mother’s, then her mother’s new boyfriend, removal by CPS to a loving foster family and then eventually back to her grandmother.

We all love and we all hurt when that love is lost.




  • Lauren

    Lauren. Survivor of infertility, adoption loss, miscarriage and stillbirth. Also a trauma therapist; irony at it's finest. Waiting for our rainbow. Loving wife (most days!). Soon celebrating the 12th anniversary of my 21st birthday and wedding day. Not brave. Not strong. Just Rhiannon's mom. I write at 180therapy.com about stillbirth, child loss, baby loss

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