Katelyn Dixon explores why “goodbyes” can be especially difficult for adoptees, what this has looked like in her life, and some ways adoptees might learn to navigate big life transitions.
Through a streaky windshield and teary eyes, I waved goodbye to my friends one by one as they drove out of the In-N-Out parking lot. Moments before, we reminisced on our favorite memories and shared our hopes and anxieties about the upcoming freshman year over burgers and animal-style fries (a quintessential California send-off for those who were headed out of state). The hangout seemed like any of our other countless, spontaneous In-N-Out runs all throughout high school, but deep down we knew this one was different. None of us wanted to admit out loud that what happened next would completely change our friendship forever.
So, I sat alone in my car, frozen in disbelief, unable to shift into reverse. Because I knew the moment I heard my ‘94 Camry engine rev, I would need to accept a grave reality: this was the last hangout before we all left for college. It wasn’t until months later that I was finally able to name the uncomfy feeling that we all avoided that afternoon. I would come to know the feeling as grief, a gut-wrenching pain of being forced to say goodbye to people I love.
And unlike Sam Smith, “I’m (not) too good at goodbyes”. In fact, I am awful at them and hate when people leave me. I attach too easily to people and allow them to get close to me. I readily open up even though I know it might hurt in the end.
Saying goodbye can be hard for non-adopted people, but for some adoptees this process can be especially difficult.
Transitions in relationships can trigger feelings of abandonment stemming from the primal wound, a theory coined by Nancy Verrier, LMFT in the early 90s, to describe the life-long impacts of severing the tie between infant and biological mother. Through her research, she found the primal wound “manifests in a sense of loss (depression), basic mistrust (anxiety), emotional and/or behavioral problems and difficulties in relationship with significant others…affect[ing] the adoptee’s sense of self, self-esteem and self-worth throughout life.” Because of the primal wound, adoptees take huge risks when it comes to relationships (platonic, familial, or romantic) due to the fear of being abandoned again.
Even though the loss I experienced with my friends occurred as a result of a natural transition from high school to college, nevertheless it triggered my primal wound. At that point in my life, I felt like a jigsaw puzzle and all my friends were pieces that completed the “puzzle of Katelyn.” When Krista moved to Berkeley, I lost a corner piece. As Laura flew to Boston, suddenly I missed a straight edge. As each friend moved away, integral pieces of Katelyn left with them. I felt incredibly abandoned and asked myself, “who is Katelyn without her friends?”
And the thought of making new friends in college triggered major insecurities around being cool, smart, and pretty enough to be deserving of great friendships. I was also skeptical to find friends I could trust with my secrets, who would understand me and where I came from. On my darkest days I wondered what the point was of making new friends if inevitably we would be saying goodbye four years later.
A friendship goodbye is just one example of the many goodbyes adoptees will encounter in their lifetimes.
A death of a loved one, setting boundaries with a family member, a breakup with a significant other, or a favorite colleague leaving the workplace all have the potential to trigger adoption wounds. But the reality of life is transition and goodbyes are inevitable. It’s a fact that many people will enter and exit in the story of an adoptee’s life. And for me, this was a hard truth to cognitively accept despite experiencing this loss as part of my origin story.
Because my body remembers the searing pain of abandonment to this day, I still grip tightly to my relationships in an effort to protect myself. Because my body remembers, I try to make meaning out of the fact I was separated from my birth family, and as a child the only reason I could come up with was that I was somehow unlovable, damaged, or broken. Because my body remembers, I often found myself trapped in unbalanced, one-sided relationships where I gave too much and belittled my own needs. Because my body remembers, I have internalized the lie that I need to perform in order to be loved.
After years of self-exploration and therapy, I’ve found that most goodbyes are beyond my control. That in itself has freed me from my people-pleasing tendencies, feelings of shame, and the taxing burden of convincing people to stay in my life. I realized people will leave and it’s not always my fault. There’s nothing I can do to make them stay. The only thing in my control is how I react to and process the goodbye.
Now, I have a more balanced perspective on the comings and goings of people in my life. I am still uncomfortable with goodbyes, but don’t take them as personally anymore. They still hurt just as much, but I have better coping strategies to work through the pain of feeling abandoned (see below). And as far as my high school friends go, thankfully with a little bit of effort and a lot of luck coordinating schedules, we still get together at least once a year to reminisce on our favorite memories. And in those moments, all of the pieces are put back together again in the puzzle of Katelyn.
A special thanks to Sammie LaFramboise and other adopted friends who helped me put together these tips!
Practical Tips for Adoptees to Cope with Goodbyes:
- Make space for the big feels through journaling and other creative outlets
- Talk with an adoption-competent therapist who can help you process adoption trauma
- Explore your attachment style and learn how it impacts how you connect with others
- Join an adoptee community (if available)
Practical Tips for Adoptive Parents to Support their Adoptees:
- Be prepared to have conversations with your adoptee about grief, loss, abandonment and what happens when relationships end
- Equip your adoptee with responses and tools when other people ask insensitive or ignorant questions (ex: why don’t you look like your parents) that may trigger abandonment.
- Educate yourself on adoption trauma
- Find an adoptive parent support group (if available)