In the past two years, we’ve walked with two dear couple friends through the grief of a failed adoption placement. Both couples were selected by a birth mother through a private adoption agency. They built a relationship with her, had baby showers, prepared a nursery, waited months, and excitedly packed their car for the hospital while the birth mother labored—only to unload the car and re-enter a childless home when she made the decision to parent rather than place the baby.

Our community struggled to care for them in the aftermath of this unique sadness because of its complexity. Although failed placements are actually quite common, the experience was foreign to us, and we were at a loss for how to love and care for them well. Through honest conversations and grieving together, the following five principles emerged as a helpful framework to care for families enduring the grief of a failed placement.

1. Validate Their Loss

Although no death has occurred, the sting of loss is keenly felt following the news of a failed adoption placement. These expectant parents are grieving more than disappointment or the loss of a dream or time; they are longing to hold a particular child they loved and prepared for specifically. They may also be aching over a severed tie with the birth mom they prayed for and built a relationship with.

This pain is accompanied by no semblance of closure. They mourn the loss of a longed-for intimate relationship with a child who will continue to exist away from them. Like any parents, they will remain concerned for this child’s well-being. Even though they may rejoice at the thought of the preserved relationship between mother and child, their knowledge of the brokenness of the situation likely means that questions will linger long after the ache subsides. Will the child end up in the foster care system? Will her birth mother be able to meet her basic needs? Will he come to possess the knowledge of the Father’s love for him in Christ?

Love your friends by feeling the weight of this pain and the angst of these questions. Validate their loss by not hurrying their grief for the sake of your own comfort or the desire to see them “happy.” Avoid the temptation to make dismissive statements, such as “I guess this just wasn’t your baby” or “Don’t worry, you’ll be chosen again for sure in no time.” Don’t reduce their pain with the unfounded claim that God is sparing them a later and greater heartache by withholding this particular child. Jesus knew how the story would end, and yet he wept with Mary and Martha at Lazarus’s tomb. By his power and example, we too can acknowledge the sadness and brokenness of the situation, as complicated as it may be.

2. Allow Their Grief to Be Unique

Just as an adoption journey is different from the process of welcoming a child through pregnancy and birth, so the grief is also unique. All grief is unique. Refrain from over-likening their experience of loss to your own encounters with death, infertility, or even miscarriage. Your insight will be limited by the scope of your personal story, and that’s okay. Identifying with their exact feelings is not nearly as valuable as the quiet ministry of presence. Just show up and listen. Acknowledge your own confusion and uncertainty as to how to respond, and leave space for your friends to freely lament.

Identifying with their exact feelings is not nearly as valuable as the quiet ministry of presence.

The truth of the gospel offers us the humility, freedom, and self-forgetfulness to set ourselves and our experiences aside in order to truly weep with another (2 Cor. 1:3–4).

3. Avoid Criticism and Blame

When we see the ones we love in pain, a cry for justice wells up within us. Be careful to avoid negative statements that may incite bitterness and contempt in the hearts of our hurting friends against the birth mother, social workers, counselors, or adoption agencies. The Bible encourages us to stir up one another to love (Heb. 10:24–25).

Rather than playing the blame game or settling for a scapegoat, we must boldly identify Satan as our true enemy and put our trust in the ability of the true Judge to redeem all that’s gone wrong. We can listen to the lament of our friends without adding fuel to a fire that can give way to hatred and a desire for revenge. Instead of planting seeds of bitterness or fanning flames of anger, we can encourage confidence in God’s goodness by pointing to his provision of Christ to redeem even the most broken relationships in this world.

4. Lighten Their Load

Grief can make the simplest tasks overwhelming. It may be difficult for your friends to get out of bed in these initial days, let alone complete daily tasks like cooking a meal. Bear their burden by serving them practically. Consider their particular responsibilities, and proactively offer specific ways of helping (instead of simply saying, “Let me know if you need anything!”). Returning to normal life will be difficult when they expected to be starting life with a new baby. If you are an employer, offer grace where possible.

As you seek to lighten their load, be careful not to add to it. Don’t give them the burden of comforting you or the task of thinking of a way for you to help. Make sure to obtain their permission before acting, though, as more shock and surprise can more disruptive than helpful.

Ease their burden in conversation by doing the discerning work of distinguishing a caring question from a curious question. One seeks the good of your neighbor; the other seeks knowledge for your own sake. They may not have many of the answers to the questions you want to ask, or be at liberty to share them. Affirming their callings outside of adoption is another way to ease the weight of their responsibilities. Cheer them on where you see them pressing ahead in the places they work and serve.

5. Pray

We don’t always get to play the part we’d like to in the suffering of our loved ones. You may not be able or allowed to apply any of the above principles, because your grieving friends may not want to talk or may need space and time. Perhaps care may even be better received from other sources. As helpless as that may cause you to feel, because of our access to God through our interceding Savior, we are never powerless to help our hurting friends. In fact, the most effective way you can come alongside those grieving this type of loss is through prayer and intercession.

Pray for protection over the child they thought they would bring home. Pray for provision for the birth mom who bravely decided to parent her child. Pray for peace and comfort from the Holy Spirit for your aching friends, for protection from bitterness and the temptation to believe lies, and for the grace to continue walking in the good works God has prepared for them even as they grieve and long for a child.

Truly there is no greater action we can take than to bring the hurt of our friends before a God who is sovereign over their situation, who knows them intimately, and who alone can love them perfectly.