Ask The Adoption Coach: Adoption and Obituaries

Roses on stoop
Reader: I have a question that although unpleasant I would appreciate some input. As a mother in the process of an adoption, and as the wife of an adopted person, (who’s biological sister passed away recently) we have had to discuss this. Is it okay, or helpful, or just plain wrong to ever include info about the biological family in an adopted person’s obituary? I know some adoptions are open and some are closed, and I am thinking about adults who later meet their birth parents and somehow wanting to show respect to both sets of parents and the role they played in that person’s life… but I know it is a difficult situation. Any ideas or anything you’ve seen done?
Adoption Coach:
Dear Reader:
What an interesting question! Clearly, you are a thoughtful person who respects biological and adoptive families.
As you said, some adoptions are more open, while others are closed. Mentioning that the person who passed was adopted, for example, may not be necessary or even appreciated if the person didn’t have a relationship with his or her biological family, if the person kept his or her adoption private, or if the person simply wasn’t interested in pursuing his or her biological family. It seems as though the time to have the conversation about “what you want in your obituary” should be asked of the adoptee while the person is still living (along with other important discussions and legal arrangements, like establishing power of attorney, choosing guardians for underage children, etc.), rather than trying to compose such an important piece of writing after the person has died.
There’s not just the adoptee to think about, but also the biological family, who may or may not wish to be named in a public document such as an obituary. Though cumbersome, especially when in the process of planning a funeral or memorial service, it would be most appropriate to ask each biological family member if he or she wishes to be named. If you don’t have permission to do so, it’s probably best not to publish their names.
However, if the adoptee desires, or you, as the obituary writer, find it most appropriate, a simple statement such as, “Charlie was adopted as an infant, and he always felt the utmost gratitude to his birth family for placing him with adoptive parents who loved him unconditionally.” This protects the names of the biological family members while also honoring their place in the adoptee’s life.
If the biological family is mentioned generally or named specifically, be prepared that doing so many be hurtful to the adoptee’s family, depending on how well they have dealt with their own adoption fears and misconceptions. Perhaps the adoptive parents have never fully faced their grief over infertility, for example. Seeing a biological family’s name in an obituary could be quite hurtful, confusing, and angering compounded with the grief they are facing over losing a loved one. This is not to say that you shouldn’t include the biological family’s name, but to every decision there are consequences—positive or negative—and naming could create intense feelings in the adoptive family.
One thing that is very helpful, is for a person to compose his or her own obituary (I have known some to do this) to make the process easier on the grieving family and to have ownership in what is shared. Though this might seem rather cryptic to a younger, adopted person (say a forty-year-old), there are obvious benefits to personally composing one’s own obituary. One major benefit is that the pressure of writing the obituary is taken off a loved one in his or her time of grief. Another benefit is that loved ones can declare that “Charlie took pride in composing his own obituary,” thus taking the burden off the family to explain any name inclusions or exclusions.
Keep in mind that there is such a variety of obituaries. Some mention pets, best friends, ex-spouses, and step-children, just to name a few. There are no hard-and-fast rules about who can (and cannot) be included.
Another way an adoptee could choose to honor adoption, without disclosing names or even his or her adoption “status” would be to request that after passing, in lieu of flowers, donations be made to a particular adoption-minded organization. It’s quite common to see obituaries asking friends and family members to make charitable donations.
Death is almost always an unpleasant topic, so I applaud you for considering the possibilities when it comes to writing an obituary or honoring one that a loved one has written.