Finding Family Is Not About “Closure”

by Barbara Free, M.A., LPCC

     The word “closure,” which is overused at best in our culture right now, denotes ending something, or putting an issue at rest. It has, unfortunately, come to be used when talking about trauma, disaster, death, and even about finding one’s biological family. “They need to get some closure,” we now hear, when the event, such as the death of a loved one, has taken place only a few days before. The people in question are usually still in a state of shock, at best, certainly not at a point of being ready to finish their grieving. When a tragedy occurs, such as a tornado, flood, or fire, we hear that “counselors have been brought in so that the people can get closure.” This is ineffective and perhaps even harmful, when the persons involved have not had time to absorb the reality of what has happened. At a recent training on trauma that I attended, the presenter stated that, in many of these situations, including the World Trade Tower disasters, and the Bosnian War, many of those who received such premature “debriefing” were, several months later, in worse shape than those who received nothing at the time, but who had discussed their trauma with peers, over time.
     What does this have to do with adoption or with searching for one’s family? Quite a bit, in many cases. I frequently hear an adult adoptee say, “I need to find my birth mother so I can get closure”; or adoptive parents say, “We support her search, so that she can meet these people and get closure.” This implies that, once one has found the birth parent and met them, it’s all over and one can get back to “normal.” We forget that life is a process, not a series of unrelated events. We have watched reunions on television, either for real on in movies, and we tend to think of The Reunion as an event, an isolated happening, which began when the people saw each other for the first time, and ended when the camera was turned off.
     Of course, that is not the way it really is. First, a person thinks about the lost parent or child, then makes a decision to search, then searches for either a short on long time, finds the person for whom they are searching, and then is reunited. Obviously, there are exceptions to this, and variations in the length of time spent before the initial reunion, but this is the usual procedure. After the initial reunion, there may be increased contact, or there may not be further development of a relationship. In most cases, there is, whether or not it is satisfying for any of the involved parties. Even if there is no further contact, for whatever reason, the parties involved are forever changed, and rather than ending something, a new chapter in their lives has begun.
     Quite often, adoptive parents encourage their son or daughter to search, or to respond to the birth parent’s search for them. They understand that the birth connection is important, although they may be thinking in terms of “satisfying curiosity,” or merely gathering medical information. They support the search and reunion in spite of their fears that it means they weren’t “good enough” as parents, or that their beloved son on daughter will abandon them for the biological parents, even though most reunited families report that more closeness develops, not less. Underneath, perhaps even at an unconscious level, what they are envisioning, is that the adoptee will meet the birth parent(s), have a nice one-time reunion, see how lucky they are to have been adopted rather than raised by these birth parents, and wish no further contact with them, and that the “nice” (though inferior) birth parents will not invade their happy home, or seek further contact. Even the most supportive adoptive parents, who, in reality, go on to develop an open and warm relationship with the birth parent(s), will later admit that this was their best-case scenario.
     With this idea of “closure” in mind, adoptees and adoptive parents may be dismayed to find that the situation is much more complex than that. They may find that the birth parent, particularly the birth mother, has yearned for a relationship with her offspring, whether or not she dared to consciously hope for it, and whether or not she thought she had any legal or moral night to search. She may also have a lot of delayed grieving to do, both for the lost opportunity to know her child when he/she was a child, for her own lost joy, for her lost relationship with the other parent. In cases where the birth parents later married each other, they have the grief and shame of having relinquished this child instead of raising him/her together.
     It takes time to transform guilt and shame, with which they may have been living all that relinquished person’s life, into grief, and it takes more time to grieve. Grief itself does not go away at some particular point, either. It gradually changes and recedes in the amount of time it occupies one’s mind, but it does not really end. Grief is about missing someone or something, a relationship, not about “closure.” Reunion also allows a resurfacing of the adoptive parents’ grief oven infertility, when that was a reason for adoption. For the adoptee, that primal grief over separation from the birth parent comes back to the forefront. This is not to say that they have spent their entire life being sad oven it, but it is to say that missing that familiar heartbeat and voice was very real for the infant, and was registered in the infant’s brain, in the neuroreceptors in every pant of the body.
     Finding that parent again will not be like picking up where they left off, at birth, because the adoptee is no longer an infant. The loss of those years is real, and needs to be acknowledged. At the same time, reunion allows for a genuine relationship to develop between all who are willing. It involves risk, to share one’s life with the newfound family members, to enlarge the family circle to include everyone. It changes, and deepens, those who are willing to takes these risks.
     There may be times when one or more persons involved experience disappointment, even hurt, but there will also be the joy of recognizing the familiar, of learning more about oneself through getting to know the others. It can open up new ways of experiencing love, even as people acknowledge their fears and sorrows. It may bring about some resolution of wondering, may set aside some fears, may even bring about a feeling of loss of certain fantasies about the others involved. Sometimes those fantasies, both positive and negative, have been an important part of one’s self-identity. The reality of reunion will necessarily alter that perception, and each person will need some time to adjust to that.
     In spite of one party’s eagerness to meet and get to know each other, there may be a great deal of wisdom in taking some time and reuniting more gradually, by letter and by telephone, before meeting in person, and then taking more time to get to know each other. It is much like developing other close relationships in that regard. We generally recognize that even when a couple meets and immediately feels “crazy mad in love,” it is not wise to get married right then, on run away together. This does happen sometimes, usually to their later regret. When a baby is born, the parents may feel an immediate bond with their new infant, but it still takes time to really know this child, and for the child to really know the parents.
     For most people, the reunion of birth parent and offspring resembles a combination of the two examples above. The adoptive parents, who may feel awkward at first in this reunion development, will need their own time to adjust to the reality that their son or daughter has two families (or even three, if both birth parents have other offspring), and will need reassurance that they are not being excluded in any way.
     In summary, finding family is about opening up lives and starting new relationships, not at all about “closure.” We need to find a better term to describe that feeling of being at peace with who we are and who the other people in our lives are.

Excerpted from the April 2003 edition of the Operation Identitiy Newsletter
© 2003 Operation Identity