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Biological Mothers Grief

Blanton, T.L. & Deschner, J. (1990). Biological Mothers’ Grief: The Post-adoptive Experience in Open Vs. Closed Adoption. Child Welfare, 69(6), 525-535.


(Download Biological Grief overview as a PDF)

This study evaluates the grief of the biological mother and its effect in open and closed adoption and compares them to the same study on parents who have lost a child through death.


Grief and mourning are central to the adoption experience for the biological mother (Burnell and Norfleat, 1929; Millen and Roll, 1985; Richmond, 1975). Professionals in the field of adoption debate whether open or closed adoption is more healthy for the biological mother’s post-adoptive adjustment.


A survey was administered to women who had relinquished their children for adoption for at least one year. Fifty-nine women responded (18 open, 41 closed) to questionnaires sent out to 149 women through two adoption agencies (one open, one closed). There are many levels to open adoption; for the purpose of this report, open adoption is defined as the biological mother meeting the adoptive parents.

The questionnaires were derived from a study done on parental grief over the death of a child. Words were adapted to the subject of adoption as necessary, but the questions remained the same. The participants answered “most of the time,” “much of the time,” “sometimes,” and “rarely/never.” Responses were compared to the answers of the parental grieving over death of a child.

The range of the test was based on the mother’s age at birth-which ranged from age 13-40-and the mean was 20.4 years.

The following comprise the definitions used for the study:

  • Open. Biological mothers who relinquished their children through open adoption.
  • Closed. Biological mothers who relinquished their children through closed adoption.
  • Bereaved. Parents who lost a child through death.



Open (30%)

Closed (70%)

Positive feelings about adoptive process. 27.7% 56.15%
Negative feelings about adoptive process.



If you did not use adoption again.

6/7 keep

1/7 abort

22/27 keep

5/27 abort

Grief Comparison

Those with the least grief overall were the bereaved group. Next on the continuum of grief were those participating in closed adoption. Those experiencing the most grief overall were those involved in open adoption.

“Mothers of open adoption felt more socially isolated, expressed more difficulty with normal physical functions and had more physical symptoms, felt more despair, and expressed more dependency than those using closed adoption.”

The open adoption mothers registered significantly stronger symptoms than the bereaved in social isolation, somaticizing, sleep disturbances, appetite, vigor, physical problems, dependency, and despair.

The closed group registered less than the bereaved group in crying and anxiety of death.


The study suggests that, “Mothers relinquishing their children through adoption tend toward more grief symptoms than bereaved parents, especially if the method of adoption was open adoption. The method of adoption is a significant factor in grief experienced by a biological mother.”


One agency only sent the questionnaires to mothers who kept in touch with the agency after the adoption.

Not all adoptions go through an agency. As a means of questionnaire distribution, this study only reflects those who went through an agency.

Each agency provides different pre- and post-adoptive services. This study strongly shows that the method of adoption affects the biological mother in different ways and to different degrees.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  1. Adoption seems hard enough without equating it to death. Is this an appropriate analogy?
  2. What kind of grieving support system is necessary to help someone who is experiencing the ‘simulation of death’ from adoption?
  3. What factors could make adoption grief more difficult than the loss of a child through death?


  1. From this study, it appears that grief and mourning by the biological mother are integral parts of adoption. Therefore, a pregnant woman considering placing her child for adoption needs to consider her ability to detach and grieve this loss.
  2. Adoption becomes similar to the death of a child to the biological mother. Therefore, some kind of support group or counseling needs to help her deal with the trauma of adoption.
  3. Anyone working with or counseling a pregnant woman going through the adoptive process must anticipate the post-adoptive grief and shock that will occur. Much grief is visible physically and indicates that the biological mother is suffering. Read signs of grief expressed both orally and non-verbally.

Mike Cramer
© 2018 CYS

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