The Layered Trauma of Losing My Adoptive Mother

Person in a life ring in the ocean facing a tidal wave

Verywell / Madelyn Goodnight

“It’s just a mom,” I found myself saying. 

My mom had died several months earlier, and her death shredded me into tiny pieces of myself, wrecked by grief. Worse, I ground those tiny pieces down so hard with my self-loathing, until all that felt left of me was tiny grains of gritty, coarse sand.

Out loud, I would absolutely say the opposite, but in my tangled brain, there was absolutely a grief hierarchy. Though I ranked my own grief above, say, losing a sibling, it definitely was outranked by losing a spouse, losing a child, losing a parent at a young age. 

It's not that big of a deal, right?

I was 34 and shouldn't have needed my mom so much, right? While that's a Pandora's box I'll leave for my therapist, the truth remains that, yes, I did need my mom so much. Of course, I did; she was my mom! Also, I'm single and don't have my own kids, so I haven't started my own family unit yet unless you consider my dog (which I do).

Despite having 20 months to prepare as I watched her die of ovarian cancer, I still wasn't ready. She died at 72; her mother lived until her mid-90s, and her sister, my aunt, is currently 87 and healthy. I would have assumed I had at least another 15 years with her.

Compounded Grief

Most people will lose their mother once. But if you’re adopted, like me, you’ll face at least three mother losses—when you are surrendered and then when your birth mother and your adoptive mother die.

The first mother loss happened three days after I was born, as I was handed from my birth mother to my adoptive mother in a snowy parking lot in New Jersey on Valentine’s Day. 

I obviously couldn’t speak at the time, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t have feelings or that this wasn’t a trauma imprinting itself on my brain. Not to mention the I’m-sure-not-easy time she had while pregnant, making this decision to give me up and then planning for it—all while carrying my still-growing body inside of her, an everyday reminder of her decision.

Most people will lose their mother once. But if you’re adopted, like me, you’ll face at least three mother losses—when you are surrendered and then when your birth mother and your adoptive mother die.

These days, society and modern medicine recognize the importance of the mother’s mental health—for the mother's and the child’s sake. So much so that (some) antidepressants, once taboo while pregnant, are now considered acceptable during pregnancy. Untreated mental health issues can be linked to still-term births, slower-than-expected growth, and mental health issues in offspring.

That pre-natal time is when attachment begins to form, according to more modern takes on attachment. Think of how some mothers-to-be talk about their future offspring or cradle their bellies, cooing to their fetus—there’s no way that the presence or absence of that doesn’t affect a child. And so I suffered a loss before I could speak—one that most don’t recognize as a loss, as she’s still alive. This is known as disenfranchised grief.

And, as I’ve written before, adoption is generally discussed in a binary—best thing ever or worst thing ever. I was so lucky to be adopted by whom I was adopted. They were deeply loving parents who never wanted anything but the best for me. If anything, I know they were trying to shield me from further pain.

In the same vein, sentiments from the family like, “I never thought of you as adopted,” while well-intentioned, denied the reality that I was adopted. It didn’t give me room to really realize there was a loss there or permission to grieve.

I could feel around the sides of a vague, gaping cave of loss, but I couldn't fathom its depth.

I don't think my parents realized how they could be the best parents in the world (and they were pretty great) and how being given up at birth could still affect someone, regardless of how great their parents were.

It's not that I wished I'd never been adopted or fantasized about what my life might have been like if I hadn't been adopted. No, it's more like I tried to will myself to have my adoptive parents' DNA instead. (Spoiler: it didn't work).

If you get into a car accident one day and then another before you can get the car fixed, it's hard to tell which accident caused what damage. It's the same with psychological trauma and grief, known as compounded grief.

I met both of my birthparents in my early 20s, and later on, I would process those discreet events in therapy—though not really in the larger context of how being adopted had affected me. 

Losing My Adoptive Mom

And so when my adoptive mom died when I was 34, I was a car wreck. That initial loss and its lifetime of unprocessed effects, along with my mom’s death and several other smaller events that happened that year, led to some pretty intense compounded grief. 

Throw in some genes pre-disposed for rocky mental health with a dollop of self-medicating, and now that car wreck was more of just a fiery mess.

And as the fire spread throughout my life, nothing could tame it, and I ended up checking myself into residential treatment. Before I left, I asked my therapist at the time what she thought would be most helpful for me. 

Throw in some genes pre-disposed for rocky mental health with a dollop of self-medicating, and now that car wreck was more of just a fiery mess.

"Containment," she answered. At the time, I bristled hearing that word, feeling like it meant that I was a small child who needed to be contained. But instead, it was more like the fire that needed to be contained before I could scorch my life even more. 

While I've long hidden a dark pit of loneliness behind my sunny disposition, my adoptive mom was always a life ring I could reach out for when that despair set in. Suddenly the rope had snapped, and I felt myself fighting to keep from being pulled down by the tsunami of grief.

I'd been depending on that life ring being right there for so long that I didn't realize I could swim on my own. And my adoptive mom had enabled grasping that life ring—rushing down from New Jersey to Washington, D.C., on a literal midnight train to come to take care of me when I had bronchitis, for example.

That therapist was right that I'd never learned containment—nor true self-soothing. The metaphor that comes to mind here is a child in a playpen. I could always reach beyond my proverbial playpen in times of disturbance for soothing, which would also soothe my most visceral fear of being abandoned again.

I’d been depending on that life ring being right there for so long that I didn’t realize I could swim on my own.

After my mom died, I wanted to hold everyone in my life tight so that they'd never leave me. I wanted my pain seen, so I could be reassured that I mattered, even if I wouldn't believe it.

After my mom died, I wanted to run away from everyone. I didn't want others to see my pain.

Such is the dichotomy of being an adoptee: having so much fear of losing the connection we want that we self-sabotage ourselves from actually getting there by abandoning ourselves over and over again. To show our true selves would mean a danger of being rejected for them or, perhaps, worse, being ignored.

My adoptive mom's own fear of losing me was at the root of her helicopter parenting tendencies, but I lost myself by trying to be the perfect daughter who couldn't be left. Upon losing her, it became clear these dynamics meant I'd maybe missed some developmental stages, particularly really being able to individuate.

Such is the dichotomy of being an adoptee: having so much fear of losing the connection we want that we self-sabotage ourselves from actually getting there by abandoning ourselves over and over again.

I carry these traumas all too somatically, through my tight neck and shoulders and tension headaches. My physical therapist, who tries to break through this physically tense exterior of mine, reminded me once that we are the only ones with ourselves our entire lives.

About two years after my mom's death, I moved from New York to California to really start the work of being myself, of deciding that maybe I was worth sticking with myself for my life.

I'll never know what the grief of losing my mom would have looked like if I hadn't been adopted, and I'd give back all of this self-growth in a second if it meant having her back, but its way of forcing my adoption trauma to the surface brought me the gift of learning not to abandon my true self.

If you or a loved one are dealing with grief, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

2 Sources
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  1. Suarez EA, Bateman BT, Hernández-Díaz S, et al. Association of antidepressant use during pregnancy with risk of neurodevelopmental disorders in children. JAMA Internal Medicine. 2022;182(11):1149-1160. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2022.4268

  2. Trombetta T, Giordano M, Santoniccolo F, Vismara L, Della Vedova AM, Rollè L. Pre-natal attachment and parent-to-infant attachment: a systematic review. Front Psychol. 2021;12:620942. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2021.620942

By Theodora Blanchfield, AMFT
Theodora Blanchfield is an Associate Marriage and Family Therapist and mental health writer.