1. Accept the Loss as a Loss
There is this passage in The Girls Who Went Away, by Ann Fessler, where the mother describes losing her daughter to cancer at age sixteen. She confesses that it felt incredibly similar to the loss of her infant from years before except that no one ever acknowledged that loss. When she lost her sixteen-year-old, she was surrounded by support and love. The juxtaposition was startling.
Our society pushes this idea that those mothers who choose adoption should be happy and pleased because they did something selfless. Perhaps the action was made with positive reasons, but that doesn’t negate the fact that the loss is still a loss. The act of diminishing the pain of a birth mother is essentially admitting that one doesn’t believe they have the right to be in sorrow. There is nothing wrong with the grief that a birth mother feels throughout her experience as a birth mother; all of it is completely natural and should be acknowledged accordingly.
Offer condolences that reflect that of someone who may have lost a loved one. The person will guide you in knowing exactly how they feel about the situation at that given time; be aware and sensitive as you acknowledge the loss.
Additionally, don’t add caveats to your “I’m sorry for your loss” like “but think of the adoptive family.” This diminishes the loss itself and takes the focus from the birth mother’s pain to the gain of another family – which, while beautiful, is part of the reason for her terrible grief.
2. Offer Help
A woman was sitting with her dear friend who was dealing with a sudden, tragic medical emergency in her family. The friend spoke quietly about the overwhelming feelings she was having, all the things she needed to organize and still be able to process the entire incident herself. After listening, the woman asked her friend what she could do to help her, what she needed. Her friend said she had no idea, and kept repeating “nothing,” or “I don’t know.” Instead of retreating, the woman leaned forward and said, “Okay, when you figure it out, I’ll be right here”. And she sat, waiting with her friend, being there, and when the friend finally exclaimed that she needed tea, the woman rushed off to get this woman what she needed, even if it seemed insignificant.
Any time we are dealing with tragedy or trauma, past or present, it can be hard to articulate what we want in those darker moments. Sometimes what we need and want can morph quickly from one moment to the next. Sometimes we haven’t even thought of what we want, and having someone ask can help us focus on ourselves for just a moment. Sometimes, we need nothing other than knowing someone wants to help.
Offer yourself to her; there are many ways that this can be done. Offer to cook dinner for her, ask her to go for a walk, or buy her a book. Ask what you can do to help, and don’t be offended if the first answer is no. Chances are, she’ll continue to decline any help, but remember that the simple offer you are making matters and validates her sacrifice and loss.
3. Don’t Pretend to Understand
Whatever you do, don’t pretend that you understand her. The loss of a child, even through adoption, is a heartbreaking process to work through. It can take years and years to come to terms with it. Be honest when you don’t know what to say, and don’t compare her pain or loss to your own. Tell her you can’t imagine her pain, and that you are there to talk if she needs to.
When we ignore the grief or attempt to distract a birth mother from the placement, we are indirectly diminishing what she has done. Acknowledge and validate her actions and her feelings. Be honest with her when you don’t know what to say or do – she will appreciate your truthfulness.
5. Listen– REALLY listen.
If a woman chooses to share her adoption story with you, listen. When she wants to talk about her grief, listen. When she wants to share things that relate to adoption that you may not understand, but she seems to trust you, really, really listen. Talking about adoption can be a difficult task for many birth mothers because many people seem to have a lot of misconceptions about what birth mothers are. On the same hand, if she chooses not to talk to you about any of these things, there is no need to take any offense.
6. If All Else Fails
If you really are stuck, say nothing but “I’m sorry for your loss.” It’s really that simple. Apologize if it comes out wrong, and admit that you struggle with knowing what to say, but want to offer comfort. Just be honest.
With the internet, filtering is a much easier concept. Think before you post, delete if in doubt. Walk away from the computer, and give it an hour to percolate. In the real world, if you lack a filter, like I do occasionally, apologize. If you want to ask a question but think it might come out awkwardly, rethink the question or ask the question with that preface.
When words are misplaced, they can hurt, even when those words are attached to well-intended statements. Treat her the same way you would treat anyone who has dealt with a grand loss. Don’t negate her loss, don’t try to make her loss pretty. Let her guide you through her experience, if she wishes. In the end, what anyone who has suffered a loss needs is support and acceptance. Choose to give love and don’t withhold your support.