We have to start with the basic premise that foster parents DO grieve when a child they love moves to a new house. No matter how positive the move might be in the long run, or how hard the placement was, a foster parent will FEEL loss when they leave. This article is a great summery of the complex emotions involved, so I won't go over it again, but just know that this aspect of foster parenting is rough and one most foster parents are not prepared for until it happens.
I think the basic grief is complicated by the fact that the grief isn't clear cut, and sometimes the losses pile up as children come and go from our lives without giving foster parents the needed time, reflection or conversations to heal properly.
In any less than clear grief situation, there are six things that need to happen to help our hearts heal: One needs to find meaning in the loss, temper mastery over the loss, reconstruct identity after the loss, normalizing ambivalence about the loss, revising attachment to the person lost, and rediscover hope. Here is a great article on understanding and processing through ambiguous loss. While the article is more focused on helping foster children work through this, it is also SO applicable to foster parents.
Most foster parents who have been doing this a while have a running count as to how many children have been in and out of their home (and heart). 88... 100... I have heard as high as 300. These multiple losses make it harder to deal and grief, because really how can anyone process all of that? Where would you even start?
I propose a new concept, that I want to start using after every significant placement moves on, foster parent debriefing. I have had a grand total of 5 placements so far, but only 2 of those kids were long enough and held a deep enough place in my heart that I feel like I need to process, to grief them. Every person and every placement is different, but I want to grieve them one by one, so that my heart can be healed up and open to the next child who walks through my door. That child deserves a whole heart-ed Mamma, so I will do what is in my power to give it to them.
What does it mean to be debriefed? Well, debriefing is commonly used in military situations - basically it is making a thorough report of what happened in any given setting. It is also used in times of war or trauma with children. It has been found to greatly decrease getting "stuck" in the trauma and grief of the situation. Conversation really IS healing. I think it could also be healing for foster parents, and is easier to do that we would think.
After a significant placement leaves, give yourself a good chunk of some private time alone, with only a pen, some paper and an open mind. Write about the child. Memories with the child, quirky things you'd do as a family. Write about the ups and downs, the good AND the bad. Write about what you will miss about the child and what you won't miss about the child. What will you do differently in light of this placement for the next child? What will be the same?
Let yourself really think and really feel. Let the tears and the laughter come as they will. Be free to share anything and everything.
And then, so these thoughts, feelings and writings don't just stay inside of you - share them. Get your spouse, a friend, a fellow foster parent and share with them the writings. This isn't about sounding good, it is about staying healthy - so be honest! If you don't have someone you can share with confidentially, consider meeting with a clergyman or counselor. Just get it out to another human being - as soon as you can after the child leaves. Once you have shared it, you can do whatever you'd like with the paper - shred it. Burn it. Save it. Just don't blog it. :)
Here are some questions to get you started thinking - but anything goes, just do it.
- Describe these kids. Memories with them. Quotes you remember from them.
- How long were they with you?
- What good things happened during this placement – high points?
- What hard things happened during this placement – low points?
- Things you’d like to do the same with your next placement?
- Things you’d like to do different with your next placement?
**IF you are not a foster parent, but you're the friend / family member of one, ask questions about the child's time with them. Be interested. Listen to their stories. It is a great gift.