Tuesday Topic: What Does Grief Look Like?

Here it is!  A Tuesday Topic that I am actually posting on a Tuesday!

From a reader:

I am wondering what a ‘grief episode’ might look like.  We’ve had some very serious regression the last two weeks and I am just wondering if it’s possibly grief related.  We had one day when J. was talking about his ‘first family’ for at least two hours straight.  Most of what he was telling me had to be made up – he entered the orphanage at age three.  He was very attached to these ‘memories’, though. I let him go on and on with it – maybe that was a mistake?  Anyway, that night we had a terrible fit, similar to the ones that we had during our first few weeks home.  Since then, he’s been very oppositional and defiant and we’ve had several more big fits.

So, I guess my question is: how does grief manifest itself and what can we do about it?  When do we need to seek professional help?

(My note:  The writer’s son has been home a  little over seven months and is about seven years old.)

Can you picture all of this as well as I can?  We have had so many episodes like this and it can be very hard to see clearly in the midst of it.  Please leave your thoughts as comments to this post and I will hold them all until Tuesday, June 8th, when I post them all at once.

Thank you for giving generously to one another by sharing what you have learned.


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Let me introduce myself. Russ and I are the parents of twelve children by birth and adoption, and sometimes more through foster care. I'm the creator of One Thankful Mom which has been as much of a gift to me as to my readers. In 2011 I became a TBRI® Pracitioner* and have lived and breathed connected parenting ever since. I'm deeply honored to be the co-author, together with the late Dr. Karyn Purvis, of The Connected Parent; it is her final written work. I love speaking at events for adoptive and foster parents. I'm also the co-founder of The Adoption Connection, a podcast and resource site for adoptive moms. I mentor and encourage adoptive moms so you can find courage and hope in your journeys of loving your children well.


  1. Michelle
    June 1, 2010

    Oh my goodness, my son had this exact same response at 7-8 months (he's 6). I felt like I'd lost the little boy I was getting to know! We had just worked on lifebooks and seeing photos and hearing about it all again set off such grief and anger. We're at 10 months now and that little boy is back thankfully. We sought counseling for our son (and his twin sister) and for me too. My husband and I felt like we were at a loss and so wanted to make sure we were doing the right thing.
    The twins go once a week to a counselor that deals with trauma and anxiety in children. I see a woman who specializes in trauma. She has helped me so much. I feel much more equipped. We're from Canada though. It's a non profit organization that swooped in, assessed us and referred us. We are very fortunate.
    I'm so sorry you are going through this – the grief has been the hardest for our whole family.

  2. Michele
    June 1, 2010

    Our daughters grief (age 12, home 3 years) usually appears as a basket full of lies. She will lie about homework, chores, what she said, what did did, eating, reading, memories, school – just about anything becomes a lie. Sometimes I think it is to get attention, other times it is to hide from her past (whether its her life in China or something that happened yesterday). She will even lie about good things. Consequences DO NOT work! The only things that we have found that works for awhile is to sit down and get HER to talk about it. If either Mom or Dad or a teacher gives a lecture she tunes it out – but if she has to verbally talk about what she said and acknowledge it was not truthful and it hurts others then she usually will feel remorseful and that behavior will go away for a few weeks or a month before it appears again. Have not found a way to prevent it from happening though!

    Michele, Mom to Seven wonderful kids, 3 adopted,

  3. Jill
    June 1, 2010

    That sounds like grief to me. In our experience it was helpful to talk it out. Grief can also look like being a super good kid, it can also look like reserved and shy, clingy, fear or overly friendly. Of course those are also attachment issues, but getting the grief out comes first in true attachment.
    Yep, that is grief all right.

  4. Oldqueen
    June 2, 2010

    My daughter has 3 newly adopted children which are a sibling group. She has had the oldest, a boy for 3 years and the sisters for 1 year. The oldest is mentally challenged so he can't really express his emotions verbally. However you know when he is suffering in some way because he reverts back to being a baby. In his mind babies wet and poop in their pants. This is really gross for a 9 year old boy. Another behavior is he starts ransacking the kitchen. He will get up in the middle of the night to sneak food. One of the sisters has food problems also. We have all learned that December, around Christmas time is the very worst.. All three kids start behaving in ways they did when they first came to us. Our theory is that the foster agencies would wait until Christmas break to transition the children to a new foster home. Even after 3 years they still don't trust that they are in their forever home. With each new experience we can at least acknowledge the behavior for what it is and address it in a more logical way. All the "firsts" are so confusing and challenging. Lucky for my daughter she has a good deal of family support..

  5. Linda
    June 2, 2010

    Good topic and I too wonder what it looks like. My son came to us at 19 months and we were his 5th change of placement. There was one family he spent most of his time with, and I feel he did attach to them. I think it is commonly believed that if a child moves at a young age before they can consciously remember, then they will adjust and attach just fine in the future. Well I firmly believe that my son does grieve for his losses even though he does not remember them. It simply has to affect a young childs emotions when they are uprooted and suddenly lose all that they know and love- even if they are too young to know exactly what is happening or even remember it in the future. My son is 9 years old now, and he also has "fits" that seem to come out of nowwhere. He regresses to very young behavior, and gets very difficult to manage or comfort. I feel he is grieving in the only way he knows, although I don't think he even recognizes it as such.

  6. Linda
    June 2, 2010

    cont. Thankfully we have a good therapist (thank you Lisa for the recommendation) and she is helping us work through this difficult time. We are very hopeful that our son will heal (and we are seeing evidence of that already) with ongoing counseling and alot of patience and understanding on our part. And it is so comforting to have a professional see what we see and help us hold him accountable. There is hope!

  7. Shannon
    June 2, 2010

    I can't relate to this with my kiddo as he's been home such a short time and is much younger. I will say- that my mother denies violently many of the memories that I have CLEAR in my head. Now- whether or not my mother believes it to be true is beside the point. It is how I remember it- the important bits- and her denying it causes more pain and frustration than I can express. I would strongly suggest not hinting the 'unbelief'…

  8. Jillian
    June 5, 2010

    Grief looks like a tornado…strong, violent, taking down anything in its path. Grief looks like a hail storm of emotional baggage being dropped and pounding anything beneath it. Grief looks like an overcast day-when you want to sleep in or mope around aimlessly. Grief grabs you by the neck and screams "HURT ME! SO I CAN FEEL ANYTHING ELSE BUT THIS!" Grief sneaks snacks and purges food. Grief shuts down and regresses…if it moves forward it might forget and start trusting again or for the first time. Above all grief returns, it is beckoned by a scent, a dream, a feeling, a touch…once the tornado can be spoted…the hailstorm might come undetected, once the hailstorms are under watch the overcast clouds may go unnoticed…
    Grief is needed to move forward….as the earth needs the rain to grow its harvest…but sometimes those thunder storms come out of no where on a bright sunny day and stay longer then we expected or catch us without our rain gear.

  9. Kerrie
    June 8, 2010

    At our house, grief looks like behavioral problems. My eldest daughter won't talk about her first mother, or any of the events that led to her being with us, outside of a canned statement she uses when she thinks someone wants her to talk about her first mother (the canned version, by the way, contains small grains of truth while being almost entirely not true, and has the extra joy of sounding like we are bitter adoptive parents who hate her first mother and told her that's why she's here. Which we aren't. And didn't). But at predictable times of the year (birthday/anniversary of removal- yep they're the same o joy- and Thanksgiving to New Years) we get exhausting rages and aggrivated RAD. What I wouldn't give for a clean day of sobbing and verbalizing.

  10. Ashley Catlett
    June 8, 2010

    Our son is 2 and has been home 6 months. He does a lot of whining. I think it is grief and an inner unsatisfied feeling. I feel like he is dealing with something that he cannot express in words. BUT the whining makes us crazy!!!! Food, holding, play, nothing stops it!!!

  11. Kim
    June 9, 2010

    Grief in our family tends to creep in rather than come in episodes. We notice one of our children is having a rough day, or I am having a rough day and after talking through it realize that we are missing the past. Grief comes in waves in our house and we ALL are riding them. Our "S" who is 5 needs to verbally process, sometimes on a nonstop basis, to move through the grief. We set aside special times to really focus on life before and started creating a grief box during those times. An example: one time we decided to draw a picture of what "S's" birth mom looked like b/c we have no pictures. We spent some time looking in the mirror together and wondering about if "S" and her birth mom's nose was the same, etc. Then the picture that was created went into the grief box. Another great thing about setting aside these times is that my husband and I are mentally prepared to move through the grieving with her. When we just try to do it on a whim we barely make it through without having an episode ourselves.

  12. Kim
    June 9, 2010

    Had to post in two comments said it was to long 🙂

    "A" who is 4 doesn't need to verbalize much at all at this point, but what we do see is bad behavior. We usually realize it's grief after we've had a long morning and finally ask ourselves what in the world is going on. Grief! Then we regroup. Give some refocused love and attention and move forward with him. We have also been reading up on grief as much as possible, learning to recognize our own grief and trying to be honest about our own feelings. And, another great thing we have done is determine our children's love language. It's been amazing to watch as we have poured into their love language and see their fear and grief fall to the wayside. We still have a long way to go but those are a few things we are doing.

  13. One Thankful Mom
    June 10, 2010

    This is from Kathie, who sent it via email. You can visit her blog at: http://goodnessandmercyshallfollow.blogspot.com/

    My Really Long Comment:

    Okay, I checked in today hoping there was a wise reader with some answers. (Or Lisa with her wisdom.) I didn't post the question, but certainly understand the difficult situation she is in as she tries to parent her broken child.

    We have a similar situation. We've had our adopted son home for a little more than 5 months. He's eight years old–spent 5 years with a very abusive birthmom and 2 1/2 years in an orphanage.

    For the most part, things have gone really well–with the occasional kick-in-the gut kind of moments. He acts out his grief by pouting, by whining, by showing jealousy, by being hard please, by wanting to be alone, and by crying. I don't really mind the genuine tears, but the other behaviors don't move me to want to show compassion.

    We had an episode last week where we saw what his "grief" looks like. I was semi prepared because we'd had a small traumatic event (we were pet sitting a guinea pig who died in our care). The kids had grown attached to him while he was with us, but they seemed to handle the loss appropriately–even Daniel (our adopted son). I assured them that they didn't cause his death. (He was old and died of natural causes.)

    But that evening Daniel acted out. He first hit his little brother for not giving him a toy that he wanted to play with. Then he lied about hitting his brother screaming that little brother was making it up, "you love him more" kinds of stuff. Then he told my husband that he didn't love him and didn't want him to be his father. Daniel got so upset that he even urinated in his pants.

    This was truly one of our lowest points with him. I was sad because we had made such progress from those first weeks home. I was scared thinking this was the start of the "real Daniel"–that perhaps the good behavior was just an act. My husband and I prayed over him which calmed him down. He finally admitted that he did hit his brother and then lied about it. We thanked him for telling us the truth but let him know what his punishment would be. (Since he has been abused we have chosen not to spank. The punishment was no TV/computer screens and no pool for the next day and a note of apology to his brother.) He wailed but didn't fight us about our decision that night or the next day.

    To the mom who posted the question, I think it's wonderful that your son is talking with you about his past–even if some of it might be embellished. This latest behavior could have been triggered by anything. Just love him and pray over him till he can get through this. I certainly think counseling could be helpful, as well as just getting wise advice from adoptive parents like Lisa who have been on this journey longer than we have.

    Some ways that seem to help my son cope are: Giving him special jobs in our home gives him a sense of pride and purpose. Validating his feelings (even when it seems ridiculous) calms him down. The worst thing I could do is tell him he's being silly. If I sit and listen and tell him I understand why he might feel that way he often comes to his own conclusion that this isn't a big deal after all. Reminding him that I hold his siblings to the same standard helps him realize that I'm not being overly critical with him. Using every opportunity to build him up when he is doing something right–when he picks up his toys without me asking, when he says something kind, when he lets someone else go first, when he obeys the first time. I know these are thing they should do anyway, but for a child who has been told his whole life he is worthless, he just beams when I tell him he is wonderful. I try to sprinkle our days with comments like "I just love being your mom" and "What did we ever do without you in our family?" And most important, I stop and pray when I see him about to melt down (or feel that I'm about to melt down). And I do these suggestions with all my children (I have 3 biological ones) so everyone feels equally loved, appreciated, and cherished.

    I know I probably didn't share anything new, but this is just what works for us. The only other thing I would add is to find people who understand to talk with. Struggling with an adopted child can be a lonely journey. There are days of praying, "Lord, what do I do?" and days that border on "Lord, what have I done?"

    People who aren't adoptive parents may not understand how hard it can be. They may only see your son's best behavior or may only want to hear that everything is wonderful. Often Christians think that following God's call to adopt, to missions, etc. means that it will all end happy. Well, sometimes obedience is hard.


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