In honor of May being National Foster Care Month, Strengthening Families, Changing Lives is running a special series designed to give a voice to the many different perspectives of foster care and adoption. This series will feature guest posts by people with widely varying experiences.
Grief and Loss in Foster Care
by Dr. John DeGarmo, speaker, trainer, author, and leading expert in the foster care system
Recently, my wife and I took in additional foster children into our home, bumping the number of children in our house to nine. I realize that your initial thought is, “Nine children? I thought there was some sort of rule saying you couldn’t have that many kids.” Let me assure you that this was a special occasion, an emergency, and the children needed to be placed immediately. The child welfare worker in charge of the children had called several foster parents before calling our home, but there were no other foster parents able to take the three children together. Initially, my wife and my first response was to say “No,” as it would have been simply too many children in our home. Yet, after further consideration and prayer, we felt that we should foster these three children in need.
In all of my years as a foster parent, and in all of my experiences as a trainer and speaker, I was not prepared for the conditions that these three children faced, which prompted them to come into care. Immediately, my wife and I both gave our hearts to them in unconditional love, hoping to help them in any way we could. After a few days in our home, they were suddenly placed in another home, in another state, with a biological family member. In fact, the transition was so sudden that we were unable to say goodbye to them, as it came without warning during the working hours of the day. The judge gave permission to the family member who had traveled to be at the court hearing. What surprised me even more, were the feelings of loss and grief that both of us felt when the three left, especially since they had only been with us a short time.
Feelings of loss and grief are normal for foster parents, and should in no way be dismissed or ignored. Rest assured, many foster parents do feel grief during the removal of their foster child, because the child has come to be an important and loved member of their family
Each foster child is different, and each placement into a home creates different sets of emotions. As a foster parent, there may be those children you do not have strong attachments to, due to emotional or behavioral issues, yet an attachment with these children is still made, nonetheless. Some foster children will be so difficult, that you may even ask for them to be removed. Still, other foster children will steal your heart, and will become a dear and cherished member of your family, leaving you heartbroken when they leave. When any foster child leaves your home, no matter the level of attachment, there will be emotions when it is time to say goodbye, for both you and the child. After all, the removal of a foster child from a foster home is akin to a loss, and any loss can cause grieving.
Whenever a loved one leaves home, emotions of grief and sadness are normal. Other times, though, a foster parent may be angry with the removal, as the parent may feel that the new placement is not in the best interest of the child. Pointing this out to the child will only upset him further. It is necessary for you, as a foster parent, to remember that you are not in charge of the situation, as difficult as it may be. The removal of foster children from a home is often a decision that is made in the court.
Grief can be expressed in variety of ways, depending upon the individual, and is very personal. Some will shed tears and cry while others will hold it inside. Some will busy themselves in a task, while other will seem detached and far away. The departure of your foster child from your home can be one that is devastating to you and your family. Understanding the stages of grief, based upon Kubler-Ross’ well known stages of grief (1969) is important in order to fully understand the feelings that may come after a foster child has moved from your home. These same feelings may be felt by your foster child when he is removed from his own home, and first placed in yours.
The removal of the foster child may bring feelings of shock to the foster family. After a family member has formed an emotional attachment to the family, the sudden removal may cause deep shock and uncertainty, leaving the foster family confused.
With a sudden departure, some foster parents may deny that they ever formed a relationship with their foster child, or feel any sadness towards the removal. Even though they deny these feelings, they grieve, believing that they were unable to provide the help the child needed.
A foster child’s removal from a foster parent’s home may bring feelings of anger and severe disappointment with the caseworker, as well as with the child welfare system. Foster parents may blame the system or caseworker for moving their foster child into an environment they feel is not productive, or even harmful to the child.
During this stage, foster parents may experience feelings of guilt, blaming themselves with the belief that they are at fault, and try to comprehend what they did “wrong” in the removal of the foster child. Still, other foster parents may experience guilt if they were the ones asking for the removal, as they were unable to continue caring for the child.
Some foster parents will try to substitute the grief they have with helping others in need, in an attempt to justify the loss of their foster child. Others will try to substitute the loss with the placement of another foster child in their home, hoping that this new placement will help them forget about the child that just left.
There are different components to depression brought on by grief. Some foster parents will become easily irritated; others will experience a constant state of feeling tired. Others will feel as if they can no longer continue with their day-to-day lives, and have a difficult time with the tasks associated with family, friends, work, and marriage.
After the passage of time, the grief from the loss of the foster child decreases, allowing the foster parent to accept the removal of the child, and move on. The emotional well-being of the foster parent improves, and a sense of understanding of the child’s removal becomes clearer.
For foster parents grieving the loss of a foster child from their home, perhaps the most important step they can take to aid in this time of loss is to surround themselves with a support group; foster parent associations, churches and religious groups, families, and friends. Within these groups, foster parents will have the opportunity to express their grief without feelings of embarrassment or judgment. Indeed, as one of the stages of grief is that of anger, grieving foster parents can release their anger to members of these support groups.
Many foster parents choose to put their feelings of loss and grief to paper and pen, writing down their emotions in a journal or diary. To be sure, if feelings of loss and grief are not given the opportunity to be released, they will become suppressed, which may lead to complications later in with unhealthy results such as depression, anxiety, and other health-related problems.
For some, grief and loss may lead to physical health issues, such as stress, fatigue, and tension. Regular exercise and healthy eating habits are essential in combating these issues. During this time of loss, it is also important that foster parents ensure that they are getting enough sleep, as lack of proper rest will also result in stress and fatigue. Specific calendar dates may also trigger overwhelming feelings of grief and loss. Birthdays, holidays, and certain milestones for the foster child and family may revive memories and feelings.
If you can, and it is healthy for all involved, consider contacting the child. To help him, as well as yourself, in this time of transition, it is important to reach out and contact him. Call him on the phone and allow him to tell you all about his new home and family. Write letters to him and send pictures of your family and family events to him from time to time. Remember birthdays and other important events in his life, including holidays and school events and send cards. If you live nearby, arrange to attend school functions and extra-curricular activities or programs of his. If possible, arrange visits for him to come to your house. After all, it may give his family a much needed break.
I often tell people that fostering is the hardest job one can do. One of the reasons why is that fostering is not only hard work, it is also heart work. Good foster parents place their entire heart into taking care of these children in need. Most understand that it is emotionally difficult and often traumatic for a child to move from home to home. It is important to also realize that it is emotionally difficult for the foster parent, as well. After all, you are losing a member of your family, and this can be traumatic, too. With the right preparation, though, this time of transition can be a little bit easier for all involved.
Dr. John DeGarmo is a leading expert in the foster care field. Dr. DeGarmo wrote his dissertation on fostering, entitled Responding to the Needs of Foster Children in Rural Schools. He is a speaker and trainer on many topics about the foster care system, and travels around the nation delivering passionate, dynamic, energetic, and informative presentations. Dr. DeGarmo is the author of the highly inspirational Fostering Love: One Foster Parent’s Story, as well as The Foster Parenting Manual: A Practical Guide to Creating a Loving, Safe, and Stable Home. He writes for many magazines and newsletters across both the USA, and in Europe, as well. He has been a foster parent for 11 years, now, and he and his wife have had over 35 children come through their home. He can be contacted at drjohndegarmo@gmail, on his Facebook page, Dr. John DeGarmo, or at his website, www.drejohndegarmo.com.