Ask AF: How to Share Sad News About a Birth Parent?

Years after an unsuccessful search, an adoptive mother is contacted by her daughter's biological aunt, sharing sad news about her birth mother. She seeks advice on how to break the news to her daughter.

Q: When my daughter was in her late teens, she asked for my help in locating her birth mother. We sent a letter via our adoption agency, but never heard back. This was tough for my daughter, but she eventually made peace with this. That was five years ago. Yesterday, I got a social media message from the birth mother’s sister. She told me that my daughter’s birth mother passed away nine years ago, and noted that, as far as she knew, my daughter’s birth mom had never expressed interest in searching, but that she (birth aunt) had decided to search on her own. How do I break this news to my daughter? I worry she’ll feel twice as hurt—learning that her birth mother died and she’ll never get to meet her, and that her birth mother never tried to search for her (do I have to reveal both pieces of information at once?).

A: While we hate to disappoint our children, one truth I have seen proven over and over again with adoptees is that it is so much better to know. Even young children are generally able to handle difficult truths better than adults think they will. For adoptees, not knowing is generally more painful than knowing. It is possible that you could let the birth aunt share the additional details, but it will likely benefit your relationship with your daughter the most if you share with her everything you know as early as possible.

I imagine it could sound something like, "Sweetheart, I have some good news for you—I was contacted by your birth mother's sister who has been searching for you. She was really happy that we were able to connect. The bad news is that the reason we never heard back after sending that letter to your birth mother is because she is no longer living. You can contact your birth aunt by ____. I am sure she will be able to answer lots of questions for you. Would you like me to help you with that or is this something you want to do on your own?"

You wrote that your daughter’s birth aunt had never talked with her sister about searching for your daughter. While it sounds like you were saddened by that information, I don’t think you or your daughter should necessarily take that as a sign that her birth mother never wanted to find her or never thought about her. She may simply have never talked about that with her sister (or perhaps with anyone), even if they were otherwise close.

—BROOKE RANDOLPH, LMHC
is a therapist, wife, and parent (adoptive, step, one-time kinship, and even grand). She is also a private practice counselor in Indianapolis, Indiana. She is the author of The Bully Book: A Workbook for Kids Coping with Bullies, a contributing author to Adoption Therapy: Perspectives from Clients and Clinicians on Processing and Healing Post-Adoption Issues, and the organizing editor for It's Not About You: Understanding Adoptee Search, Reunion, & Open Adoption. She has also authored adoption education materials. She was a founding member of MLJ Adoptions, Inc., where she served as the VP of Social Services for seven years. She is a Young Professionals Advisory Board member for The Villages, which is Indiana’s largest not-for-profit child and family services agency, serving over 1,400 children and their families each day. She is the former mental health expert contributor at DietsInReview.com, a national diet and fitness column. Brooke adopted an older child internationally as a single woman, which she considers one of the most difficult and most rewarding things she has ever done. She has presented at numerous conferences and workshops throughout North America on a variety of topics. Brooke is primarily motivated to encourage, equip, and empower individuals and couples toward more whole-hearted living and conscious relationships.
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