Ask AF: Honoring a Birth Mom's Memory

An adoptive parent asks AF's expert for help with how to explain her birth mother's death to a young daughter.

Q: Our daughter is six, and we adopted her from foster care. We were never able to meet her birth mother, but my daughter has been asking questions recently, so I initiated a search. I learned that her birth mother died a year ago. Do I need to tell my daughter now? If so, how?

A: Secrets are never good, even when they’re sad, and children seem to know when secrets are being kept. There will also never the a perfect time to tell her, so do it now, explaining what you know in a simple way. Be sure your daughter knows that it is OK to be sad and that her birth mother’s death was not her fault. You could say, “You’ve been asking a lot of questions about your birth mother. I tried looking for her, but learned that she died. It wasn’t your fault. You couldn’t have helped her. Doctors couldn’t help her. I am so sad that she died, but I know she would be happy to know that you are taken care of with us.”

Then it would be nice if you acknowledged her memory in some way that fits your family’s beliefs or culture. You could have a prayer service in your home or at a church. You could plant a tree in her honor. You could light a candle. You and your daughter could volunteer with or make a donation to an organization that helps sick children. If you have a photo of her, make a copy, but a nice frame, and display the picture in your home.