Perhaps the most well-known philosophy on grief is the Kübler-Ross model. Psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross postulated in her 1969 book “On Death and Dying” that grievers progress through five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
Later in life, she acknowledged these stages are not universal nor does everyone move through them in the same order. As I grieve the loss of my child, I see elements of these stages in myself as well as in other birthmothers. These emotions can be present both before and after placement, though in different ways for different reasons.
In previous posts, I shared thoughts from other birthmothers on the topics of fear and regret. Two of those birthmothers, Debra and Nicole, said they experienced denial prior to placement and some denial afterward.
“I experienced denial throughout my entire pregnancy as a way to avoid the attachment to my child so that placement would be easier,” Debra said. Her daughter turned 11 this month. “I did deny the adoption early on as well as a way to cope. It was hard to accept the decision that I made for the first few years, but as time moved on and I met other birth mothers, I learned to accept my decision.”
Debra has two other children whom she parents, one older and one younger than her adopted daughter.
“Honestly, I think my denial made the adoption easier to deal with initially and to make the decision to place,” she said. “But after I placed, the denial made me regret my decision and feel guilty that she didn’t have the type of life that my other children have with me. Eventually I learned to accept the placement and am happy with and accept my decision.”
Nicole’s denial carried her through until she went into labor 5 weeks early — alone. She placed her daughter 5 years ago.
“I spent the 35 weeks of my pregnancy in a continual state of denial,” Nicole said. “I didn’t think I had the strength to place, so if I didn’t think about the baby, she would go away, right? Nope, she came early just to make me realize how insane my thoughts were. I made no plans; I didn’t tell anyone I was close to — including family — I was pregnant. I spent that time mostly alone or with people that were too scared to ask if I was pregnant. If I didn’t allow this to become real, I never had to deal with the situation.
“I didn’t snap out of it until I was in labor…and thought something was wrong with the baby. Once her life was in danger, I snapped out of it and asked for help. During childbirth I wasn’t ever present. I drifted into denial just to cope with the fact that I was about to bring a life into the world and not take her home.”
Nicole said that although denial was present through her pregnancy, she learned a lesson from it.
“The result [of my denial] was I realized someone or something was really out there looking after me,” she said. “I went into the hospital 8 centimeters dilated with no plans, and somehow I was OK and the baby was, too. My social worker found me parents immediately and I picked the best ones without even meeting them. My denial made me realize that you can try to avoid certain parts of your life, but they will come to light.”
Recently, I interviewed another birthmother, Tammy, who placed her son in 1988 and dealt with denial until they were reunited 25 years later.
“I denied that I was pregnant for a few months and didn’t tell my parents; only a few close friends,” Tammy said in an email interview. “[My best friend] convinced me to talk with [a Christian adoption agency] about placing my child for adoption. [Agency workers] convinced me that placing my child was the best thing to do because a more mature couple that was ready to have children would be better parents than I could be.”
Tammy became pregnant at the age of 16 and said she struggled with low self-esteem and anxiety, also describing herself as “young and irresponsible.”
“I was afraid of my child becoming like me or worse, like his birth father, and didn’t think I could do a good job [parenting], so I chose adoption,” Tammy said. “I thought it was the perfect solution at the time. I wasn’t ready to have a baby and the adoptive parents were dying to have a baby. I could pick out the perfect parents for my son that I could not be. I could protect him from his father and his very dysfunctional family…All would be right in the world. Rainbows and Lollipops.”
Tammy described her adoption agency as encouraging a sort of denial.
“The denial was pretty strong during the pregnancy — that this was actually my child and that I would never see him again,” she said. “The counseling from [the adoption agency] encouraged me to think that this was not my child, but the adoptive parents’ [child]. I was only a vessel to bring forth this child for them. This denial was necessary, I think, to make me able to give him to another couple. I couldn’t have done it if my thinking was that this was MY child. I detached myself as much as possible. Secretly, I would hold him while in my body and pretend he was mine. I loved being pregnant.”
After giving birth, Tammy said her denial expanded to what would happen next. She said she did not feel ready to place him.
“It didn’t feel right,” she said. “I know now that it shouldn’t feel right because it is not normal. My body was telling me to keep this baby but my fear was telling me to give him a better life. I wanted to do something right for once and thought that this was somehow making a ‘right’ of what I did ‘wrong.’ I never prepared my heart for this. I just kept repeating The Mantra, as I call it: This is for his good. He is going to have a great life. I repeated this Mantra for 25 years until we were able to meet in person.”
For the first three years of her son’s life, Tammy received pictures and letters from the parents. Though she was happy to see how he was growing, she said, she felt sadness and loss that she was unable to express. She thought voicing those feelings would be the same as admitting to making a mistake.
“It was a good choice,” she said of her thoughts at the time. “It shouldn’t make me feel bad. Right? So the Mantra shoved down my grief most of the time. But as I raised my three daughters [later in life], I would think about him and wonder where he was. Who he was. How it must have felt to rock him in the rocking chair and watch him ride his first bike, etc.”
Tammy said she also denied that the adoption might have negative effects on her son. She cited conversations with teenage adoptees that indicated some of their issues stemmed from their adoption.
A few years ago, Tammy decided to look for her son and posted an open letter to him on her Facebook page. A mutual friend connected the two.
“The result of my denial was a big whopper of shock and grief when I finally searched for my son and met the wonderful person he is,” she said. “During our reunion, I fell in love with my son. I had the connection that I wouldn’t allow to happen before.
“He told me that he felt more connected to me than his own [adoptive] mother. Now, this should have made me feel good, but it didn’t. I wanted him to have the best of everything. I wanted him to be close with his family and have it be just like she was his biological mom. It crushed me. I felt so guilty. I wanted to curl up in a ball and cry like a baby. I did this on the way home from our reunion. Thank God my husband was there for me. Leaving [my son] was so hard. I was grieving now. I literally cried for two weeks straight. I missed him so much. He is MY Son. He is MY Son. I love him.
“I’m still grieving the loss of my son. I’m still struggling with my decision. I can’t deny his humanity now. He is real. Not a person I made up in my mind.”
Tammy said she realized after their reunion that she would not have been able to handle these intense feelings immediately after placement.
“Emotionally I could not take any negatives,” she said. “I could not handle the truth that adoption is not perfect.
“I am learning that the other way to deal with the grief and disappointment of adoption is to lean into the grief. I can’t change it. Only God can. He loves me and knows my heart. Accepting my pain and loss is what I’m working on now. Up until a few years ago, I would push down all of my worst moments and hide them. Now I am learning to accept them. [My feelings don’t] mean I am a failure or made a terrible decision. It means I am human. And I am learning to accept the love and support from others to help me through the pain that I had been trying to deny.”
The wisdom from Tammy I most appreciated was a thought she off-handedly sent me in a text message:
Denial is sometimes the only way to cope when you have no other way and life must go on.”
When have you experienced denial? How did it affect you? Were you able to successfully move through it to find peace and acceptance? Share your thoughts in the comment box below.