Just a few days ago, I was chatting with a fellow foster parent. Through our conversation, this parent mentioned to me that people around her have tried to comfort her with assurances that God has a plan for her and for the foster children that have been in her home and that are currently in her home. While this is a very common way for people to try to comfort those who are grieving, it tends to minimize and invalidate the feelings of those who are grieving, as if we’re supposed to say “Oh, you’re right, God has a plan. Well, then, I am happy that the child that I loved is gone!”
I want to address ways not to comfort foster parents when they are grieving the loss of a foster child and discuss some ways to help foster parents when they are grieving.
First and foremost, recognize that foster parents are grieving! Sometimes, the grief begins well before any there appears to be a reason for grief. For me, the grieving began the minute our foster son came to live with us. Why would I be grieving then? We had just been placed with our foster son! It was supposed to be a joyous occasion. But, until that point, we had not had a face to face conversation with our foster son’s case worker, nor had we met our foster son. As soon as we had live, interactive communication with the case worker, she informed us that our foster son was not going to be considered legal risk (and thus possibly available for adoption) as we had been told previously, but that he was going to be considered straight foster care. We began grieving at that moment because our hope was to adopt our foster son.
I remember after having our foster son for only three days, while making an emergency run to Babies R Us, I sobbed the entire drive to the store and the entire drive home. It had only been three short days (OK, they were kind of long because I was getting almost NO sleep with a newborn for whom we had been given only 48 hours notice before his placement with us) and already I could not imagine letting him go. I was in love and had willingly given my heart to him because EVERY child, regardless of whether they will be in my home for one hour, one day, one year, or forever, deserves the love of the parents who have been blessed with the responsibility of caring for that child.
Second, recognize that foster parents’ grief is not lessened because we know that there is the possibility, or even certainty, that the child may be removed from our home. Assuming that there is less grief because there is foreknowledge of the possibility of loss is the equivalent of saying to someone with a terminally ill child “Oh, you won’t grieve nearly as much because you know that they’re going to die.” Do you see the similarity here? Yes, we know that there is a possibility that we may lose our foster children; there is even the chance that it will be a positive thing for the child. It does not hurt any less!!!
Third, recognize that for foster parents, sometimes there is no closure for the grief. I do not want to minimze the experience of any parent who has experienced the death of a child, however, for foster parents whose foster children move on to live with another family, if no further contact with the foster family is allowed, there is no closure as there would be if the child had died (I am NOT saying that it would be better if the child had died, please know that). Death is final. There is closure. A foster child’s placement with another family with no further contact with the former foster family gives no closure. This can be torturous! Think of this in terms of a parent whose child has gone missing and is never found. It is often a far greater challenge for those parents to move on because they will always wonder about that child. Foster parents will often experience a similar (I know it is NOT THE SAME, but it’s the best analogy I can think of) lack of closure.
Fourth, for those who are believers in Christ, please remember that although as believers we can grieve with hope for other believers, for our foster children, we may not have that hope of seeing our foster children again, even in heaven, because our foster children may not become believers in Christ. We may not know this side of heaven, if we will ever see our foster children again. The believing parent who loses a believing child or a child too young to make that decision, may take solace in the knowledge that they will see their children again in heaven. As foster parents, we may not have such assurances that we will see our foster children again. There is not always the same hope available in our grief.
Also recognize that a foster parent may be grieving because of the knowledge of where the foster child has been placed. When a foster child is returned to a home in which they have previously experienced abuse, recognize that the foster parent does not have the assurance that the child is in a better place. To the contrary, while there is the hope that the behavior that resulted in the placement of the child in foster care in the first place will not be repeated, there can be no assurance of that. For some foster parents, they know that their children are being placed in a home that is most definitely NOT a better place. Do not constantly remind the foster parent of this fact by reminding them how much better off the child would have been with the foster parent, but do be aware that this may be yet another factor in the foster parent’s grief.
Fifth, do not assume or imply that foster children are replaceable. I have had well meaning people say to me, and I’ve even said it myself, that if we lose our foster son, then we will be able to open our home to another child and help even more children. Although this may be true, and I can take some comfort in it, there will never be another child who will smile like our current foster son. There will never be another child who will laugh (or scream) like our current foster son. Again, this goes back to the basics of comforting someone who is grieving. You should never tell a parent who had a biological child who died to take comfort in the fact that they can always have more children. The same holds true for foster parents. Just because we can help another child, and we may be able to foster again, it does not lessen the pain of losing the child that we had. Some foster parents are never able to foster again because the hurt of losing their foster children was just too much for them to risk going through it again.
Another difficult thing for foster parents to hear is that God has a plan for us and/or for our foster child. For those of us who believe the, yes, we know that God has a plan. Yes, we trust that God’s plan is for the ultimate good. No, this does not make the hurt any less intense. The facts are that we love our foster children as our children and when we lose our children, it hurts. Even if it is God’s plan, it still hurts.
What can you do, then, to comfort the grieving foster parent?
Acknowledge how much the foster parent loves their foster child. Acknowledge the grief that the foster parent is feeling. Allow the foster parent to grieve, just as you would allow a biological parent to grieve the death of their biological child. Grieve with the foster parent. Come alongside that foster parent and walk beside them on their journey through their grief. Expect the grief to be very similar to the grief of someone who has lost a child to a long battle with a terminal illness. Expect the grief to cycle through all the stages of grief: denial (maybe the foster child will be returned to our home), anger (how could the court system do this to my child), bargaining (if we keep calling the social worker and expressing our love for our foster child, maybe they won’t remove him from our home, or maybe they’ll return him to us), depression (sadness over no longer being able to see our foster child, hold our foster child, or perhaps even know how our foster child is doing), and finally, hopefully, acceptance. Unless you have been in the shoes of the foster parent, and even if you have, but you have since moved on to another stage of life and have come to the stage of acceptance of the hurt that you experienced, do not offer the foster parent band-aids for their grief. Allow the open wound of the loss of their foster child to be exposed. Encourage the foster parent to share their feelings. Provide opportunity for the tears that will come to be shed in a supportive and loving environment. Pray for the foster parent, but don’t expect them to be able to pray for themselves or to even want to pray at times. When you love someone so completely and so unselfishly as to say “I know you may leave, but I am going to give you all that I have anyway”, when they leave, part of your heart is torn out and leaves with them and the jagged, bleeding, wound is left to be healed. Be part of the healing process for the foster parent by allowing them to grieve and by avoiding the common mistakes mentioned above that minimize the grief experienced by the foster parent.
If you help foster parents heal, then you will help us to help more children and hopefully, there will be fewer people in need of healing because of it.