Last night I was researching foster parent attrition; which is a fancy word for foster parents quitting. All across Canada and the U.S. and maybe other countries too, foster parents are throwing in the towel. Unfortunately, the number of children experiencing poverty, neglect, abuse or abandonment has not decreased. This leaves a gap. Many of the children who would be able to live in a temporary family are now being placed in a group home setting.
One of the main reasons I discovered in a variety of studies, was foster parent grief. That surprised me. I guess it shouldn’t because every time I have told my worker that I quit has usually been spoken when I am upset and grieving the loss of a child who I felt concern over where he was going. I often tell people this is the worst job in the world and it is usually when I am grieving. It is such an obvious consequence of the task, yet agencies expect us to cry for a minute then move on happily to the next placement. Many workers are uncomfortable with any display of sadness from a foster parent. Workers need to stay neutral and professional so when a foster parent cries while sharing about the trauma of a child in a meeting and begins to cry, we are seen as too emotional.
So here I am supposed to be sleeping but instead I am awake and pondering how we can help foster parents. How do you help someone grieve? How do you encourage someone to continue grieving but take another child who will most certainly cause more grief? How can workers and agencies help? I am going to offer some insight into how foster parents go through the stages of grief and some suggestions for helping others who are grieving.
Grief is a process. We humans usually go through the stages in the same order but sometimes it varies. The first is denial. It is our body’s defense mechanism for pain. When we are first told what we perceive to be bad news for a child in our home, we can say some strange things. Sometimes we will glaze right over it and start talking about other things. This doesn’t mean we don’t care but just the opposite and our brain is not wanting to hear what you have to say. How can we help others through this stage? Trying to smack them over the head with reality isn’t a good idea. Allow them time to process and to think. Listen to them talk about the weather and know what is coming next. The denial stage can be as short as a blink of an eye or it can last a long time in order for a person to continue functioning.
The second stage is anger. This one is actually my favourite because I get all worked up and tend to get a lot done during this stage. I clean. I clean hard and fast when I am upset and angry. I stew and think about what an unjust world we live in. I give myself time to cry and yell and growl. I call workers and complain and question and argue. I write and then later usually erase! Anger is often scary for everyone. The person who is angry often feels out of control. I think that is why I clean because I can control and also let out energy. Those watching can feel scared of the person who is angry. Anger is a natural part of the process so remember that it is okay as long as you deal with it in healthy ways. Finding ways to release it and knowing what works for you and your family is essential. Exercising, hitting a pillow, walking, yelling, ripping paper, kickboxing classes, cleaning, and writing are all great ways to help calm your angry self. Also remember your children will go through this stage too so help them prepare for it in advance so they don’t end up with suspensions from school! Keep in mind foster parents are not usually angry over an injustice to them but over another person. We often are angry for what a child will have to go through. We are angry because we know they may not have as good of a future as if they stay in our family. We are angry at anyone who caused a child pain and at the thought of a child experiencing more pain.
Since we don’t like seeing children in pain we bargain. That is the next stage in the grieving process. We try to think of ways to change the outcome. We try and negotiate solutions. We problem solve. We pray and try to make deals with God for a different ending. This stage doesn’t usually last too long because foster parents can’t control the outcome. There is not much we can say to change what is happening. We can’t bargain our way out of the pain of loss.
Depression. Enough said! This is by far the worst of the stages. Feeling numb. Moving through your day with absolutely no desire to do anything. It is such a horrible feeling. I take the time for lots of self care during this stage. I sort of hide out for a day, take a bath and I sit. I think and pray. I usually find myself begging God to take away the pain and to help me out of the pit. Depression certainly feels like you are in a pit and can’t get out alone. I am thankful for my amazing family and friends who know that I need laughter and joy to bring me out of it. I am often surrounded by my loved ones and they all know when I am depressed. I am generally a super happy person full of ideas and energy but not when I am depressed. I look and feel like a zombie. I don’t think I am alone in these feelings so why do workers panic when they see our disheveled appearance or lack of clean dishes when we are suffering? This phase can last a day or much longer so it’s no wonder why people wouldn’t want to foster anymore. Wouldn’t it be great if everyone saw the loss of a child we have had in our family for two years as great of a loss as someone who lost a child to cancer after two short years on earth? The grief is the same. The support is usually not. Listening, encouragement and support are the three best things you can do for a foster parent in the pit of depression. This is when having a church family should be wonderful. Surround foster families with care, love, meals, a listening ear, a car wash, a movie night out, babysitting, house cleaning, and the list goes on and on. What you would do for a grieving family do for foster families.
The last stage is acceptance. This stage you would think would be easy but if you come to it too soon you are seen by many as uncaring and cold-hearted. Everyone is different so just allowing people to come to this stage whenever that is needs to be okay! If a person remarries within 6 months of the death of a spouse people often feel the same. Too soon. They shouldn’t be okay yet! But if a foster parent is already busy loving and doting over a new baby just weeks after the loss of one they loved for a year, people think that they have a heart of stone. I used to think that too so I know others do. I have heard it a lot over the years. Now that we have experienced it many times, I can tell you that many foster parents start grieving a child before they leave their family. We know it’s coming. We prepare our hearts for the loss. We continue to discuss the planning all along the journey. We cry many tears over the decisions made for the child leaving. It doesn’t matter if the child is leaving for adoption, back to parents or other family or another place, we still cry. The grief is harder and may take longer for acceptance to come when it is a fast judgement. A judge will send a child who has been in our family for a year to a family member in just an hour. These are the harder ones to grieve as there’s not enough time to prepare our hearts and we are too busy dealing with the grief of our other children. Those cases we usually take a bit of time to recover and regroup before taking on a new placement.
Grief is the body’s natural response to pain or trauma. We need to give people time to go through all the stages and not accuse them of being unstable, incapable of doing their job, or unable to move on. We take on an insane task of loving someone else’s child as our own and then saying goodbye. It is often like a death in the family. I have cried all night over the loss of a child. Wouldn’t you expect that from a mother? or a father? or a sister or brother? Yes! It is expected from a family to grieve over a loss of a loved one so why would anyone expect that a foster family would feel or grieve any differently? We grieve the loss of a loved one many times every year. We actually choose this!!!! This is why I often say we are a special bunch of people. We are crazy to keep allowing this to happen, to keep falling in love with these kids. But this is what we were created for. To love others; to love others as we want to be loved. If my child couldn’t be with me or family for any reason I would want her in the most loving foster home. That is what we try to be for other families and children. That is why we continue to welcome grief and loss into our home ON PURPOSE!