Monday, September 21, 2020

Birth Grandparents and The Grief of Adoption Relinquishment

[Reviewed and updated February 18, 2024]

Whenever we allow a child to be adopted we are also saying to the parents of that child that we do not value their parenthood, because we are willing to eliminate their role and to provide their child with a new birth certificate, which allows the false assumption that they as parents did not exist. Most children have grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and often siblings. Adoption denies that those relationships exist. The denial involved in adoption devalues the entire family of origin. This is an insult to the child, to the parents of the child and to all other family members. How could we expect people not to be deeply hurt by such an experience? 
~ Evelyn Robinson, Adoption and Loss -- The Hidden Grief

A reader writes: My sister's 25 year old son fathered a child out of wedlock and chose to give it up for adoption. Family/blood ties are very important to her and she and her husband are devastated at the loss of their first grandchild. Can you recommend a resource that helps a person work through grief of a more general variety than death? No one has died, it just feels like someone did. Thank you for your time!

My response: I'm so very sorry to learn of your sister's loss of her precious grandchild, and I can only imagine the depth of her grief. As you say, it really does not matter that "no one has died; it just feels like someone did." Your sister's grief is just as real, just as painful, just as legitimate ~ because for her, it is the same as if this child has died. In effect this grandchild is, in fact, lost to her forever. That is a profound and significant loss, and it is certainly worthy of grief.

You don’t say whether this was a closed or an open adoption plan, but based on what you’ve described as a loss that has devastated your sister and her husband, I am assuming this one was closed. (In a closed adoption, the record of the biological parent is kept sealed, the identity of the biological father is not recorded on the original birth certificate, and no identifying information is provided either to the birth family or to the adoptive family. An open adoption gives both families access to personal information about each other as well as the option of personal contact.)

Adoption is a process that presents significant challenges, not only for the expectant parents, but for extended family members as well. As birth grandparents, your sister and her husband are faced not only with managing the pain and suffering of losing their first grandchild, but also with the challenges of supporting their son in his decision to relinquish this child forever. As parents they may be struggling with a host of conflicting feelings, including disappointment and anger at their son for being in this situation in the first place, and disappointment, anger, guilt and blaming themselves for their own real or imagined failures in parenting. So that your sister and her husband can support their son effectively throughout this process and come to terms with their own reactions, it’s important that they acknowledge and understand what they are feeling and why.

Complicating your sister’s grief at the loss of her grandchild is the fact that it is shrouded in secrecy: there is no formal ritual surrounding an adoption loss. In a closed adoption, there is no public announcement of the birth or of the loss, and no public outpouring of grief. This is a classic example of a disenfranchised grief ~  what grief expert Kenneth Doka has described as Hidden Sorrow, “a loss that is not or cannot be openly acknowledged, socially sanctioned or publicly mourned”. With no place to take her grief, your sister may feel isolated and alone ~ and she is fortunate that you are looking for ways to give her the support she deserves as she finds her way through the adoption journey. So what are the resources you might suggest?

Individual counseling with a qualified grief counselor offers a safe place where your sister can share her reactions to this loss ~ and taking care of her own grief first is perhaps the best way she can help her son with his. See Finding Grief Support That Is Right For You.

A support group ~ either in person or online ~ that is aimed specifically at birth grandparents is a wonderful way to find adoption support and to connect with others whose experiences are similar to one’s own. See, for example,’s Community Forums.

While they aren’t specifically addressing a grandparent's grief at the relinquishment of a grandchild in an adoption situation, those that focus on the grief of birth parents may be of some value in explaining why this loss hurts so much. See Impact of Adoption on Birth Parents: Conclusion and Additional Resources.

I also suggest the following resources:

On the Death of An Infant, Child, Grandchild page of my Grief Healing website, you will find links to a number of sites devoted to the special grief that is felt by a grandparent when a grandchild dies. See especially the following:
See also Helping Someone Who Is Grieving, where you will find links to several other resources and articles that I think you will find helpful as well.

I hope this information proves useful to you, my dear, and please know that I am thinking of you and your sister.

Afterword: Thank you so much for your kind words and very specific resource helps. I had done a search too but was overwhelmed with sorting through it all.  I will look into all of this. God bless!

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