The Need to Belong: Understanding Grief and Loss in Adoptees

By Kimberly Craig, MA
Program Director, Sierra Tucson

During the holidays, families recently came together to celebrate roots, heritage, and cultural traditions. But for some adoptees who do not have knowledge of their biological history, it can be a very difficult time that brings up many conflicting emotions. Honoring old traditions are important – they help to create family bonds that provide an individual with a sense of belonging and connection. However, they also can accentuate the relational dysfunction for an adoptee, creating some anxiety upon entering the New Year.

The lack of knowledge about personal biology and heredity is referred to as Genealogical Bewilderment, which was a theory utilized by H.J. Sants in the 1960s to help explain the confusion adoptees can experience concerning their origins. The desire to know more about one’s personal history is completely normal and natural, but for the adoptee, it can create a complex paradigm or a double bind that makes it difficult to process feelings and be authentic. An adoptee who does experience a sense of loss resulting from his or her adoption may feel extreme guilt for having these feelings, which can lead to an attempt to hide them. The adoptee also can have a great fear of being perceived as ungrateful to his or her adopted parents, which brings up a greater fear of abandonment. Many adoptees may attempt to conceal these feelings to avoid hurting or betraying their adopted parents.

There are simple ways in which therapists and family members can support an adoptee during this time and help to shape his or her identity:

  1. Ask and encourage the adoptee to talk about his or her feelings: Many adoptees have a desire to talk to someone, but refrain from doing so due to fear of abandonment, which will prevent them from being honest and open about their feelings. Be patient and encourage them to process their feelings related to not knowing.
  2. Normalize feelings: Let the adoptee know that it is normal to have conflicting emotions such as guilt, sadness, and even anger about the loss that can occur with adoption.
  3. Create new rituals: By creating new rituals throughout the year – including holidays, the New Year, and birthday celebrations – it helps to build connection and provide the adoptee with a sense of acceptance and belonging.

It is natural for some adoptees to find times of family gatherings difficult, as they reflect on their personal history that began with adoption and the loss of an ancestral connection. This can result in feelings of rejection, grief, and sadness related to losing their own biological and cultural histories. This is a time for sincere understanding as adoptees continue their journey toward healing, integrating, and enjoying the ultimate feeling of triumph.

For more information about Sierra Tucson’s comprehensive residential programs, please call our Admissions Coordinators at (800) 842-4487 .