Search and Reunion Issues

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Consider the following scenarios: A family has come to you for family counseling. The parents are at their wits end in knowing what to do with their fifteen-year-old adopted daughter who has been acting out at school and at home. They ask you if you think it would be helpful to try to locate their daughter's birthmother.

A woman you have been treating for depression for the last three years now reveals to you that she gave up a daughter for adoption twenty-three years ago. She has seen reunions on TV talk shows and is wondering whether she should search for this daughter, her only child.

A male client you have just started to work with is engaged to be married. His fiance is pressuring him to find out more information about his genealogical background because they plan to have children. He is an adoptee and is unsure how to get the information she is requesting.

Each of the cases above involves adoption triad members and search and reunion issues. The adoption triad consists of the adoptee, the birthparent, and the adoptive parent. Search and reunion are automatically part of the package of adoption because creating an adoptive family means separating another family.

Search and reunion issues arise in closed adoptions. If an adoption is truly open, the adoptee and birth family can interact and communicate at any time. In closed adoptions, communication between the families has been nonexistent. Search and reunion typically involves the adoptee and the birthparent searching for each other, contacting each other, and negotiating a reunion relationship.

What is implied in the notion of search and reunion is the issue of grief and loss. All triad members experience loss in adoption: the birthparents lose their child, the adoptee loses biological connections, and the adoptive parents lose the hope of a biological child.

As a therapist you can facilitate the mourning process by helping the client to acknowledge and validate the losses in adoption. The five stages of grief that Elisabeth Kubler-Ross has set out: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance can be a useful tool to help the client explore their feelings. Reassure them that it is possible to move through these stages.

Your adoption triad clients may or may not be aware of the losses they have experienced. The cases above illustrate that symptoms can be the signs of loss whether is the acting-out teenager, the depressed birthmother, or the adoptee who can't speak for himself.

Be alert to possible denial in adoption triad clients. Much like an alcoholic who doesn't see his own drinking problem or an anorexic who feels fat, an adoptee may state that being adopted is not an issue for them. A birthmother may state that she doesn't really think about her child. An adoptive parent may say that she doesn't like to be reminded that her child is adopted. Denial is a very useful defense mechanism - it protects the person from painful feelings.

Where does this pain come from for the adoptee? An adoptee experiences a traumatic event upon his arrival in this world. He is separated from the only mother he has known for nine months. The adoptee is then surrounded by strangers. No matter how well-meaning the adoptive parents are, they are not the birthmother - the person the infant has bonded with during his prenatal life. For a more extensive look at the impact of this separation read The Primal Wound: Understanding the Adopted Child by Nancy Verrier, a therapist and an adoptive mother.

The birthmother also experiences great pain - she has lost her child. It is like a death but less final - -more like being in limbo or missing in action. There are no rituals for the birthmother to grieve. No gathering of people helps the birthmother through this transition and support her grief. She is told to forget the experience and put it behind her. She is told that if she really loves her child she will give him up.

Adoptive parents experience their pain before adoption takes place. If infertility is an issue, they have gone through medical tests and money to try to have their own biological child. The task for the adoptive parent is to release the fantasy child they could have had. It means saying goodbye to a much desired wish. Loss is clearly an issue here that if left unaddressed, will revisit the adoptive family.

How do you treat the pain and loss issues for adoption triad members? One of the most important techniques you can use is that of validating their pain. When their pain is heard and acknowledged, they can move on. If not heard, it will continue to present itself until someone takes notice. Be the one who takes notice.

Therapy with adoption triad members is a lot like bereavement counseling. You allow the person to tell their story until they are done telling their story. Then they tell their story again, as many times as they need to. In any gathering of adoption triad members you will hear people telling their story. It is a way of healing.

How do you know if the grief and loss issues have been addressed for the adoption triad members? Look at the therapeutic relationship. How does each member interact with you? Can the adoptee connect to you in a meaningful way? Does the birthparent believe you when you positively reinforce her? Are the adoptive parents able to talk about how they handled the miscarriages they experienced?

To assess an adoptive family look at the family dynamics and family secrets. What pain is the family hiding? How open is the family to talking about adoption issues? Researcher David Kirk in his book, Shared Fate: A Theory and Method of Adoptive Relationships, found that adoptive families who fared best were the ones who acknowledged the difference of being an adoptive family versus families who rejected the difference. The families who acknowledged their difference were more empathic and had more open communication.

Will every adoptee embark on a search for his or her birthmother? Does every birthmother try to reconnect with their child? Not necessarily. The desire to search for one's child or one's parent can be on an internal or external level or both. There is a natural curiosity to want to know your kin. Some triad members actively search while others passively wait to be found.

When do triad members consider search and reunion? The answer is anytime. An adoptee may be more likely to think about searching when he is getting married, having children, getting divorced, or when his adoptive parents die. There is a sense of internal timing with search. It is important to respect it and allow it. Searching is a way to master the losses in adoption. It is a way to feel in control. Betty Jean Lifton in her book, Journey of the Adopted Self: A Quest for Wholeness describes the sense of empowerment and healing that an adoptee can experience by searching.

As you work with a triad member around the issues of search and reunion you can be very instrumental in helping prepare the client for what they may find. Ask about expectations. Many triad members search as adults and they have had years of fantasies about who the other person is. Find out what the best case and worst case scenario is for the client. Usually the adoptee worries that the birthparent will be dead or not won't want to reunite. Discuss with the client that the person doing the searching is usually more prepared for contact than the person being found. This means that an initial refusal to talk or meet can turn into a desire to meet after the person has had the time to integrate the contact.

Searching is like a roller coaster - it has many ups and downs. Be there for your client during each cycle. Encourage your client to use their intuition. They have been blocking their intuition for years. Expect fear to emerge - they will feel that they shouldn't be searching. Expect anger to emerge - why are they being blocked from this person? There can be many setbacks but there is always hope. Support your client's hope.

Encourage your client to seek support outside of therapy. You cannot and should not be the only source of support for your searching client. It is important that your client have other adoptees and birthparents to talk with who can relate to their experience. Adoptees can find support in local meetings of the Adoptees Liberty Movement Association (ALMA). Concerned United Birthparents (CUB) is an organization offering support and information for birthparents and anyone touched by adoption. The Council for Equal Rights in Adoption (CERA) maintains an updated list of support groups in cities across the country. The American Adoption Congress (AAC) has regional and national conferences and is an umbrella organization for many of the adoption reform groups. All triad members and therapists can benefit from involvement in these groups.

You can also inform your clients about the International Soundex Reunion Registry (ISRR), which is a reunion registry for adoptees and birthparents. A match is made if an adoptee and the birthparent have both registered. There is no fee for this service and it is a good way for the client to feel that he or she has made a step in the search process. Sometimes the mere act of filling out the ISRR form brings up feelings that can be dealt with in therapy. A good book about search and reunions is Adoption Reunions: A Book for Adoptees, Birth Parents and Adoptive Families.

If the adoptee is under eighteen years of age, the adoptive parents can help in the search by submitting an ISRR registry form on their child's behalf. An adoptive parent can also provide any information they may have on the birthparents. Another way an adoptive parent can help their child search is by contacting the adoption agency where the child was adopted and submitting a letter or signing a waiver stating it is OK for their child to meet the birthparents. It is usually during adolescence when identity issues emerge that an adoptee wonders about birthfamily and origins. A book written for teenage adoptees, Where Are My Birth Parents? gently leads younger adoptees through the search and reunion process and addresses common concerns and questions.

Know that active searching is an all-encompassing endeavor. It can be emotionally draining and take on a life of its own. Sometimes the partners or family members of searching adoptees and birthparents have a difficult time understanding the depth of feelings that arise and can feel left out. If adoptive parents are involved in the search it can be a very healing experience for everyone.

Unfortunately, many adoptees feel they do not have the support of their adoptive parents in their search. To many adoptive parents search and reunion is a threatening notion. It can bring up loss issues, questions about parenting roles, and fears that their children will leave them. An excellent book for adoptive parents is Courageous Blessing: Adoptive Parents and the Search.

In actuality, a reunion has the potential to strengthen the ties between the adoptee and the adoptive parents. Many adoptees come to appreciate their upbringing more by seeing how life would have been had they not been adopted. Much like the crises of being diagnosed with cancer or being admitted to a chemical dependency unit, there is a window of opportunity where family members can come together, share feelings, and be closer. Your work as a therapist will be to draw out the fears people are experiencing and clear up the communication between family members.

Reunions are the beginning of a previous relationship. It is where fantasy meets reality. The feelings before, during and after a reunion are usually more intense than anticipated. There can be a rush of excitement and expectation. The thrill of seeing someone who looks like you. The relief of knowing your child is alive and well.

It is common for reunion participants to look for similarities and try to connect in a meaningful way. Sometimes there are striking coincidences in experiences, likes or dislikes, and events. An interesting book on this topic is Synchronicity and Reunion: The Genetic Connection of Adoptees and Birthparents.

Even the happiest of reunions can be overwhelming with the intensity of feelings and expectations. In her book, Birthright: The Guide to Search and Reunion for Adoptees, Birthparents, and Adoptive Parents, Jean Strauss describes five phases of reunions: fantasy, first encounters, the morning after, limbo, and reconciliation. It is not surprising that many describe the reunion experience as something akin to falling in love.

The challenge of reunions is navigating the ongoing relationship. Like any relationship, communication is crucial. People in reunion relationships need to check in with each other. They need to pace themselves. There needs to be an understanding about frequency of communication. It is important for participants to be aware of their feelings and the feelings of the other person. Checking out perceptions and assumptions can make the difference between an ongoing reunion relationship and a nonexistent one. Your therapist role can be that of a communication coach.

It is common for people in reunion relationships to be fearful that the relationship will end. They have already experienced one separation from the person and worry that it will happen again. As a therapist you can work with the triad member to learn to trust. Encourage the client to voice their feelings. Support the client in taking risks in the relationship. Talk to the client about boundaries - how to establish and maintain them.

Misunderstandings can occur about needs and intentions in reunion relationships. Sometimes one person expects and wants more from the relationship than the other person. Actions can be critically analyzed for meaning and misinterpreted. It is important that the adoptee and birthparent learn to directly communicate with the other person. It is also important that each person have a place to talk about their feelings without the other person being there. Support groups are very useful for dealing with post-reunion issues.

Issues specific to reunion relationships will occur. What does the adoptee call the birthmother? Will all family members know about the relationship? Is there a plan for the birthmother to meet the adoptive parents? Where will the adoptee spend holidays? All of these questions can be answered by communicating with those involved. Help your clients in reunion relationships to speak authentically about their needs. Role-play situations that seems difficult for them. It may be beneficial to invite the other party or family member in for a conjoint session.

Healing occurs in reunion relationships. No matter what people find, knowing is better than not knowing. Adoptees feel like the missing pieces of the puzzle have been found. Birthparents can sleep better at night knowing where their son or daughter is. The gestalt is complete --- people have come full circle.

Reunions are honesty in action. Search and reunion break down the wall of secrecy that has been pervasive in adoption. As therapists we know how damaging family secrets are to all the family members. Honesty and openness eliminates the need for search and reunion in adoption. Until that honesty is a reality, we as therapists will need to know how to help adoption triad members process their search and reunion issues.


My reunion relationship with my birthmother inspired me to specialize in adoption issues. While I was searching for her I went to support group meetings and met a lot of adoptees and birthparents. I started going to Adoption conferences. I found that all members of the adoption triad were in pain. Whether I was at an ALMA meeting, a CUB meeting, or a RESOLVE meeting, I was struck by the amount of pain and tears in the room.

Searching for my birthmother was a gift I gave myself. There were many false starts and faint promises but each drawback or step forward helped me to learn about myself. One of the healing aspects about searching is that there are plenty of opportunities for self-knowledge.

The healing has come in many forms. I feel more connected and more centered. Many of my questions have been answered. I can enter into conversations now that I couldn't before. I now know people who look like me.

My birthmother has had some remarkable physical healing. When I first met her she was using a wheelchair, her right arm was paralyzed, and her speech impeded. She had been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in her early thirties. Now, three years later, she walks without a cane, her right arm is fully functioning, and you can understand every word she says. She says she started getting better the day I called.

My work as a therapist has been enhanced by my search and reunion. As an adoptee, I know what it is like to be misunderstood. I have learned on a personal level how valuable support groups can be. I have come to trust my intuition more and more.

I have learned to trust other people's intuition and help them to honor it. In working with adoptees and birthparents in search and reunion I have learned to honor and respect other people's intuition, pain, fear, terror, and joy.


Marlou Russell, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and MFCC in private practice in Santa Monica, California where she specializes in Adoption Issues, and author of Adoption Wisdom.

Credits: Marlou Russell, Ph.D.

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