Bereavement and Adoption

By Mairead Kavanagh

Permission to Grieve

The Oxford Dictionary describes Bereavement thus: “to rob or deprive of life or hope, to leave desolate, to deprive of wife, son, etc.” I have always believed strongly that grief and loss are part of our lives almost on a daily basis. One of the difficulties that comes up most often for people is that they have a huge problem giving themselves permission to grieve. Life-long messages get in the way. ‘Big boys don’t cry’ and ‘she’s only looking for attention’ block the way, for many of us, to our feelings. So when it comes to dealing with losses which are not deaths, our inner voices tell us to ‘be brave’ or ‘keep the chin up’ and ‘don’t let the side down’.

One of the greatest losses of my own life was the loss of my son through adoption and it took many years for me to be able even to look at the whole area and realize the unresolved grief was crippling. Adoption means many different things to different people. To a birth mother who chooses adoption for her child, it will mean a great deal of pain and loss. For the adopting parents it will bring joy and happiness, as they bring this child into their family. However it is quite likely that this couple may also have had to deal with their own loss if they have not been able to have a child of their own. And the child being adopted will very likely have to deal with feelings of abandonment while s/he adjusts to the new family.

Adoption Law

The past fifteen to twenty years have seen many changes in the laws govern­ing adoption. Before 1952, there were far fewer laws and records of adoptions were kept only by the agencies involved in the adoption, if they were kept at all. Therefore adoptions made before this time often prove diffi­cult to follow up.

In this country (excluding foreign adoptions), a child being adopted can only be the child of a single mother. Even the child of a widow or widower cannot, in the event of a remarriage, be adopted by the new partner. Only in the case of total abandonment by the parents can the courts consider an adoption order for the child of a married couple.

Generally speaking, a child can only be adopted by a married couple. However, in the case of family or close relative, an adoption order may be granted. Very occasionally, when it is deemed ‘in the best interest of the child’, an adoption by a single person may be sanctioned by the courts.

The number of adoptions in this country has been dropping steadily each year. In 1980, 1,115 adoptions were processed. In 1990, the number had dropped to 648 and in 1993, it was down to 500. The breakdown of this 500 was as follows:

205 family adoptions (ie single mothers & partners when married)
5 grandparents
11 other relatives (ie sisters, brothers, etc.)
196 through adoption societies
65 health board orders
17 private contracts

As can be seen from these figures, there are many different scenarios when it comes to adoption. For the purpose of this article, and because it is both my own personal experience and my experience of working with clients in the area of adoption, I will be looking at this topic from the point of view of a mother who has a child adopted by a family she does not know, and the process of grieving which follows. By doing this, I do not in any way wish to imply that the experiences of others involved in the adoption triangle are any less painful.

“Unwanted Pregnancy”

When a single woman becomes pregnant, it is how this pregnancy is handled or related to that may lead a mother towards a decision to have her baby adopted. If she is in a secure relationship, has planned her pregnancy or is happy to find herself pregnant, then the question of adoption may never arise. It is only if she has not planned her pregnancy and finds herself in a situation where she is unsupported by her partner, her family and her community, that the option of adoption is considered. Generally this preg­nancy is known as the ‘unwanted pregnancy7.

As soon as she realizes that she is pregnant, this mother cannot settle in and enjoy her pregnancy. She will begin to plan, worry and make decisions which she is neither physically nor emotionally fit to make. Over the next few months she will watch her body change, she will feel life within her and she will begin to develop a relationship with her baby.

“If a young woman has not yet begun to want the baby she is carrying, she cannot avoid feeling that she is just unlucky. Experience shows, however, that a change gradually takes place in the feelings as well as in the body of the girl who has conceived. Shall I say, her interest gradually narrows down? Perhaps it is better to say that the direction of her interest turns from outwards to inwards. She slowly but surely comes to believe that the Centre of the world is her body.” (1. Winnicott)

This is a physical fact. Due to hormonal changes, the change in her body weight, size and shape, and with the change in her energy levels (ie the mother’s experience of tiring more easily), the mother realizes that this baby is not only here to stay, but is not going to be ignored either.

“Perhaps some reader has just arrived at this stage and is beginning to feel a little proud of herself, to feel she is someone who deserves respect and for whom people should naturally make way on the pavement.You begin to take the risk of allowing yourself to be concerned with the one object, the little boy or little girl human being that will be born. This little girl or boy will be yours in the deepest possible sense, and you will be his or hers.” (2. Winnicott)

But far from being proud and deserving of respect, this mother is already in the process of mourning. Instead of sharing her joy and pride or even her pain and discomfort with others, she must in fact hide her pregnancy for as long as possible. If she is sick, “it’s her own fault!”; and if she is well, “sure, the devil looks after his own.” Her worries are kept to herself and her shame is her punishment.


The most traumatic point of my own “unwanted pregnancy” was the moment when I sat in a room with five other people – all my immediate family – and I felt my baby move for the first time. The moment of joy was followed, almost in the same second, by the most piercing sense of aloneness. Knowing that I could share this experience with no-one, that I could give no hint to anyone that I had just had my first physical experience with my first child, only served to deepen both my pain and my shame. I realized at this moment that I was not entitled to this joy and I was not entitled to my baby and at this moment, I had reached the deepest level of desolation. I knew in this moment that I would now have to choose between my baby and my family. One way or another I had lost.

It is probably at a time like this that a mother who is unsupported in her pregnancy by either her partner or her family or both, will begin to look at her options. How, she wonders, will she manage on her own later on? Perhaps she is financially insecure, feels too young or too frightened of the responsibility she feels towards her child, perhaps she just feels afraid, unsure and isolated. Far from feeling proud in the face of criticism, gossip, judgements and abuse, this mother feels guilt, shame and regret about her pregnancy and may even begin to resent her baby. To a mother, in such an emotional state who feels totally inadequate, the option of adoption may seem like the only way to insure her baby’s security and happiness, and her own survival. For this is how I felt twenty years ago, and although I struggled with plans and ideas, they were opposed and unsupported. At this stage, I could find no other workable solution in what was indeed an “unwanted pregnancy”, but was by no means an unwanted baby.

When the baby is born, there may or may not be an obvious bonding of mother and baby, however there is already in place a close and unique relationship between the two.

“Even in the womb your baby is a human being, unlike any other human being and by the time he is born he will have had quite a lot of experience, unpleasant as well as pleasant. You already know something of your baby’s characteristics because of the movements you have learned to expect from him inside your womb. If there has been a lot of movement, you have wondered how much there is in the amusing saying that boys kick more than girls do; and in any case you have been pleased to have the actual sign of life and liveliness that this quickening has provided. And during this time the baby has, I suppose, come to know quite a lot about you… In a way, I should say that he knows you better than you know him, until he is born and until you hear his cry and are well enough to look at him and take him in your arms.” (3. Winnicott)

When this baby is born, the mother has been torn asunder by a raging conflict; on the one hand she has had a physical, emotional, growing relationship with her baby, while on the other she has been fighting to remain emotionally unattached to her baby whom she knows she must let go. By now this mother is deeply grieving, she is not grieving for a death but for a life, a life she will not be part of. I have no words to describe the pain of this loss, this deprivation, this desolation. However, I was moved to tears when reading a book on the famine, in which Thomas Gallagher describes the leaving of a young man who is emigrating to America. The night before he leaves, the family invite friends, neighbours and relatives to an emigra­tion wake where they mourn the loss of the young people, but especially this next one who is leaving.

“At last, with the kindness of efficiency, the drained and exhausted son tried to leave. Embracing his father, kissing his mother, making quick, solemn promises to take care of himself and send back money, he turned as if expecting his mother to release him. The father too, his pent-up sorrow killing him tried to shorten the ordeal, but the mother, with her instinct for the truth of the situation, would have no part of it. She would never see, be with, talk or listen to her son again, that once she released him from her grasp, he would be as good as dead as far as the rest of her life was concerned. All the untouched time between her and her son, all of it still to be lived, would now and forever be lived in separation. The son knew what she was going through. Her naked grief tore at his heart and to end it once and for all he used his utmost strength and his father’s help to free himself: With the tears streaming down his face, he turned and ran out, waved goodbye to the remaining guests and joined a convoy of youths chosen to accompany him to port. But as so often happened, the mother at the very end broke free of her husband’s grasp and with a deafening wail, ran out of the cottage to lock her arms once more around her son. She clung, she hugged, she sobbed, her concern for appearances completely deserting her. Shrounded in the privacy of a cell, she could not have been more willing to expose her grief, her tears and swollen eyes, the agony in her voice as she cried out, Oh, Tommy, don’t go! God bless you, Tommy! God preserve you! The lord in heaven protect you! Tommy! Don’t go! Without meaning to or trying to, she told everyone present, in language as true as the emotion it expressed, that there is no greater pain in all life’s ills than permanent separation not caused by death itself. She and her husband would retain their full consciousness of loss and their full strength to suffer, knowing as they would that their son was still alive but forever gone, never to be seen, touched, or spoken to again.” (4, Gallagher)

Perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of grieving the loss of a child through adoption is the fact that this secret must not be acknowledged. Perhaps the reason I could not find words of my own to describe the terrible agony I easily recognized in the above passage is because, just as my pregnancy could never be acknowledged, my grief must never be seen in public. I must admit that I have envied the woman her howling out loud, as I have howled inside for many years. I can very clearly remember the shock I felt having told my daughter about her brother. I had expected accusations, questions I had asked myself for years: How could you have? Couldn’t you have tried harder? Where is he now???? Instead, she said with so much kindness,

“Mum, that must have been awful for you.”

That was the first time I truly felt the pain of my loss.

There are many issues connected with adoption which need more space to be addressed, issues such as the morality of separating a mother and child at a time when neither of them is emotionally fit for such a decision – the issue of a society which claims to be Christian yet imposes sometimes silently, often loudly, its unchristian hates and intolerances on the often weaker members of its group. And yes, I do recognize the anger I feel as a result of these issues.


1, 2 and 3: From D.W. Winnicott, The Child, the Family and the Outside World (1964)

4. Thomas Gallagher, Paddy’s Lament.

Adoption Handbook – a directory of adoption-related services (ISBN 0 9526750 0 5) is to be launched by the Adoptive Parents’ Association of Ireland. The handbook will contain information which will be of interest and benefit to all involved in adoption, and people working in related fields such as Health Boards, counselling services, hospitals and doctors’ surgeries will also find this book invaluable. It costs £5 and is available from APAI, Glendalough Post Office, Co. Wicklow, or from Helen Gilmartin (address below). The Adoptive Parents’ Association of Ireland works through local branches with a central council, comprised of voluntary representatives from the branches which meets monthly in Dublin and is responsible for the work of the Association.

Further information may be obtained from:

Helen Gilmartin, Hon. Sec. APAI
Tomriland, Annamoe, Bray, Co. Wicklow
(Tel: 0404 45183)