Katie Naftzger, LICSW

family therapist, author, adoption specialist, consultant

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When I First Realized that Adoption was a Story of Survival

It was in my first meeting with Nora, 13, adopted from Korea at five months old. She had been crying a lot for the past week talking about how much she missed her birth mother. That’s when her mom got in touch with me.

In those first few meetings, I learned a lot about Nora. She was close with her adoptive parents who were responsive and thoughtful. She had lots of friends and was doing well in school. But there was an aspect of her story that still haunted her. Based on the sparse information in her file, Nora believed that she was left outside of a social welfare agency, and later found and brought in by a worker.

“I could have died,” she said.
Her eyes flooded with tears and she said it again.
“I could have died.”
Those words had never seen the light of day. It was like

a confession. Although she didn’t have the facts, what could have happened frightened her. Like other survivors she had come too close to not making it through. She knew that she had been at risk. She had spoken with her adoptive mother about most things but not this.

What did she need from me? A witness. There are often no witnesses in the lives of adoptees. Although I wasn’t there, I could be a witness for her story. She didn’t need me to tell her that she was safe or loved. She didn’t need me to explain why that might have happened to her. If I had responded that way, she might have sensed that I wanted her to feel better and tried to oblige. Then, she would be doing it for me not for her.

Calm and heartfelt, I said, “That must have been so scary for you to be all alone like that. You were afraid that something would happen to you,” to which she responded tearily, “I know.”

In time, she didn’t need to talk about it anymore. For now, it was as if a burden had been lifted.

Yes, the power of witnessing cannot be underestimated.

Adoptees survived something that was beyond their control. An infant or young child without parents who love and care for them is at risk. Although they may not remember what they went through, they are well aware that their physical and emotional safety was compromised. Life fell apart for a while. Often, there was trauma, relinquishment, abuse and instability. The adoption story is not just of abandonment or relinquishment. The adoption story is about survival. Some survived the relinquishment and then were safe in a stable adoptive home. Others had to survive again and again.

-excerpt adapted from “Parenting in the Eye of the Storm: The Adoptive Parent’s Guide to Navigating the Teen Years.

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