the June 1997 Australian Adoption conference
in Brisbane, Evelyn Robinson delivered a speech on "Grief Associated
with the Loss of Children to Adoption." The speech was taken
from Ms. Robinson's essay on "Bereavement and Loss", which was
written for her degree in social work. Ms. Robinson also presented
the material in August 1998 in Scotland and is currently writing
a book on the subject. Much of the text below was taken directly
from her work.
is the emotional response to loss. The loss can range anywhere
from the loss of a loved one to the loss of a relationship through
divorce or illness, or even a change in life-style such as a geographical
or occupational move. It is characterized by feelings of sadness,
hopelessness, depression, numbness, anger and even guilt. In normal
grief resolution, these feelings gradually subside. Disenfranchised
grief, however, interferes with normal grief resolution causing
the feelings associated with grief to persist for a very long
to Kenneth Doka, disenfranchised grief is grief that is not openly
acknowledged, socially accepted or publicly mourned. Moreover,
the relationship is not recognized, the loss is not recognized
or the griever is not recognized. Doka believes that mourners
whose grief is disenfranchised are cut off from social supports.
With few opportunities to express and resolve their grief, they
feel alienated from their community and tend to hold onto their
grief more tenaciously than they might if their grief was recognized.
to Ms. Robinson, the grief of relinquishing mothers fits the definition
of disenfranchised grief in the following ways. First of all,
the pregnancy and relinquishment were most often kept secret,
preventing any open acknowledgment of the loss. The grief was
not socially supported since the natural mother had placed herself
in a position that was unacceptable to society. She was to blame
and therefore had no right to mourn. The natural mother was an
embarrassment to her family and others so the grief could not
be publicly mourned. She had to pretend that the birth and loss
of her child never happened. In addition, in a relinquishment
situation, the mother child relationship was not recognized, therefore
the natural mother was not recognized as a legitimate mourner
since the loss of her child was not considered real.
goal in successful grief resolution is to reestablish emotional
equilibrium. Ms. Robinson used Worden's model of grief counseling
from his book, Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy, to demonstrate
how the disenfranchised grief of natural mothers interferes with
the successful resolution of grief. The four aspects he presents
as necessary for successful grief resolution include: first, accept
the reality of the loss; second, experience the pain of grief;
third, adjust to the environment from which the lost person is
missing; and fourth, withdraw emotional energy and reinvest it
in another relationship. The disenfranchised grief that natural
mothers experience interferes with the completion of all of these
is difficult for a natural mother to deal with the first task,
to accept the reality of her loss, since she has no concrete focus
for her grief. In many cases, she never saw or held her baby.
Since the child probably still exists, there is no finality to
the loss of her relationship with her child.
Dreams and illusions are hard to mourn. There is also no opportunity
for her to experience the pain of her loss since the relinquishment
is often a secret. Her situation made others uncomfortable and
therefore she could not verbalize her grief. She had to suppress
and deny her pain. The third task is also impossible for a natural
mother. How can she adjust to a new environment without her child
when the child was never accorded a place in her life anyway?
And yet her life situation and psychological environment has changed
dramatically. Finally, how can she reinvest her emotional energy
in another relationship when this one still exists, if only in
normal bereavement, rituals surround and ease the pain of the
bereaved. But for cases of disenfranchised grief, there are no
rituals. A natural mother receives no cards, flowers, or expressions
of sympathy. There is nothing to validate her loss. Society sees
no reason for her to grieve so there are no allowances for a change
in her demeanor, behavior or outlook as there would be in regular
bereavement situations. In addition, there are no rituals to delineate
the length of mourning. No wonder many natural mothers feel as
if their grief will never end.
natural mothers place added blame upon themselves for not being
able to "get over it". When the mourner feels responsible for
the loss, it results in feelings of shame and guilt. Relinquishing
mothers feel that, not only were they to blame for the unmarried
pregnancy and relinquishment, they were also to blame for not
dealing with their grief successfully, making grief resolution
even more difficult.
of Disenfranchised Grief
effects of disenfranchised grief and consequent poor grief resolution
are displayed in a variety of ways and in varying degrees. Depression,
emotional disturbances, withdrawal from society, psychosomatic
illnesses and low self-esteem are all symptoms. Many of those
affected succumb to substance abuse and have difficulty in forming
healthy relationships. Jeffrey Kaufmann is quoted in Disenfranchised
Grief, "The loss of community that may occur as a consequence
of disenfranchised grief fosters an abiding sense of loneliness
and abandonment". Furthermore, people with disenfranchised grief
often have trouble in coping with subsequent losses. Doka states
"..the old disenfranchisement will affect the new situation and
may enforce a repetition of the earlier inhibited grief pattern".
In other words, how a natural mother learned to grieve for what
was probably the first major loss in her life, she will most likely
use, however ineffective, for the next loss.
of Disenfranchised Grief
Robinson believes, that because the disenfranchised grief of relinquishing
mothers is complicated and deep, it is difficult, but not impossible,
to resolve. First of all, a natural mother, starting with herself,
needs to acknowledge and validate the loss in order to address
adoption policy and practice, however, complicates the matter.
One way for a natural mother to establish the reality of her adult
child is to retrieve any and all documentation, from the relinquishment
paper to the original birth certificate, if available. Also,
letters and pictures from the time of the pregnancy and relinquishment
might be helpful. In addition, Ms. Robinson believes that all
natural mothers should search, if only to establish that their
child is indeed alive and very much a reality. She understands
that a successful search and/or reunion is not a panacea for grief
resolution, since reunion is often traumatic in its own right.
natural mothers find healing in creating rituals surrounding the
loss of the relationship. They make memorials from the very simple
to the complex to validate their grief and "let it go". Many find
solace in a ceremonial burial of their grief.
Robinson strongly emphasizes the need for post adoption services
for natural mothers. These services, which she firmly believes
should not be provided by an agency that arranges adoptions, should
assist natural mothers in coping with the long lasting effects
of their grief. The social workers or therapists must be completely
familiar with the issue of disenfranchised grief and realize how
difficult it is to resolve.
quote Ms. Robinson directly, "The role of support groups cannot
be overstated. Natural mothers have felt for many years marginalized
and abandoned by society. It is very empowering for them to meet
even one other woman who has also lost a child to adoption". To
have someone else validate your pain and loss through understanding
is often one of the first steps toward healing.