03 Jul Loving and Grieving as a Foster Parent
As I walked down the hall into the daycare, my heart shattered into thousands of pieces as this little boy waved at me and called out “mama”.
This little boy. The one that no one knew whether he would ever learn to talk or stand or smile. Nine months of the same routine, picking him up, and seeing him change and grow and light up when I arrived. This is the last time I will walk down the hall to him calling out to me, the last time that I will see him diving out of his teacher’s arms to get to me faster, and calling “brother” to my other kids. Because tomorrow he is moving to a new family.
I wrote that 4 days ago, and the move is done, but the grief is still fresh and raw. Foster care is all about loving a child that will leave, giving away your family for a child, and realizing your “no” to foster care would cost them far more than what your “yes” could ever cost you. So many times in the past few weeks my heart has said, “The pain is too great, the cost too high. The stench of sin and the pain of broken is too overwhelming.” And yet in my head, the answer has been clear and the call strong – “I saw you where you were in all of your brokenness, and pursued you, and so the privilege is yours to do the same for My children.”
But how do we reckon with the grief, the pain, and the loss? Far too often, I see foster parents who are riddled with bitterness and anger, and are using the pain of their experiences to drive them towards system reform and pouring their life into making things better or different. Sometimes this is good and needed, but sometimes it erodes the presence of the Gospel in foster care and replaces it with the need for more control, more proving that we’re right, and more of a need to be heard because we were wronged.
But how do we reckon with the grief, the pain, and the loss? Far too often, I see foster parents who are riddled with bitterness and anger.
Believe me, I get it. I feel like this child was wronged. He shouldn’t have been moved. Articles on child psychology and therapists would back me up. But it doesn’t matter. He was moved anyway. And my heart is broken – not only for the pain of loss, but for the pain of all the unnecessary trauma and upheaval this child will experience because of this. I don’t want to forgive the people that did this to him, or to “move forward;” I want justice. But is this a God-honoring response? Is this the presence of the Gospel in the midst of broken? Or is this more brokenness in the midst of broken?
Coming to honest terms with our own brokenness is necessary if we are to ever move forward with healing and forgiveness. Caseworkers are humans, so are guardians ad litem, birth parents, and (surprise!) so are foster parents. Foster parents are not sweeping in with giant capes to save the world; they are simply one piece of the larger story that God is orchestrating for these children. In some way, they hope to give these children a place to belong, advocate for them, and get vulnerable by opening up their hearts to a child that will leave; but they are not the heroes in the story. God is. He is the only One who can save these children, truly rescue them, and give them a true forever home. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in what foster parents do for these children with all my heart. But their ultimate sense of permanency and belonging is with God Himself – we are only a picture and a vessel to help get them there.
Foster parents are not sweeping in with giant capes to save the world; they are simply one piece of the larger story that God is orchestrating for these children….they are not the heroes in the story. God is.
The challenges of impermanency for foster children gets me all fired up, because I know it’s creating baggage they will carry throughout their lives. But I am not God in their story, and my fight for their permanency reaches an abrupt halt when decisions are made through the system. And I am not responsible for those decisions; however, it is on me how I respond. My anger, my bitterness, and my guilt at not being able to save them are all tangible evidences of my equally broken sin nature, and my equal dependence and need for a Savior.
Navigating grief is something that people have lectured on for decades, probably even longer. There are tons of support groups, change management seminars, and books out there on this topic; and yet I think in foster care we don’t own it for what it is or take the steps towards healing and health. Losing a foster child is worth the grief – no matter how long they were with you or how they got there.
The Seven Stages of Grief are key to recognizing where we are, and where we need to be. One of the most helpful things about this little graph is recognizing that it is okay to be at any of these places. It is normal, and it is how God wired our human brains to work and process. It doesn’t make you a less spiritual person, or a weak foster parent. It is just owning where you are, and seeing where you need to be. The seven stages are: Shock and Denial, Pain and Guilt, Anger and Bargaining, Depression/Reflection/Loneliness, Reconstruction and Working Through, Acceptance and Hope. (There are many different spin offs of this same ideology, so find whichever one stands out to you.)
Losing a foster child is worth the grief – no matter how long they were with you or how they got there.
There are two keys to navigating grief – knowing where you are and not staying there. Each of these stages is okay to feel and experience and “feel all the feelings” of; but ultimately you can’t live from there. If you find yourself camping out in anyone of these places for a prolonged time, get accountability. Your community can wrap around you to help you work through that stage and move on to the next one. Sometimes we cycle through the first few a couple times before we start making it on to the upward swing of starting to work through things and reconstruct; finding a new normal.
After court on Wednesday where the decision was made to move this little boy, I definitely kept cycling between pain and guilt. Guilt that I hadn’t been able to protect him somehow from this- should I have done more? Could I have done more? Anger at all the people making this decision for him. But as I started packing up his clothes and toys, it was just pain. Pure heartache. We spent our last day together as a family out to lunch and at the waterpark. Seeing his smiles and hearing him call out “mama” kept me between denial of the ticking clock and excruciating pain at the impeding reality of having to say goodbye.
Now that two more days have passed, I switch between anger and depression. I spend time reflecting, looking at old pictures and celebrating how much he grew during his time here, weeping at the loss, and feeling immense loneliness without him here – even though I have two other children at home to care for. Packing up all the items we no longer need without him in our home such as the highchair and bottles and cups and one-year old toys has me swinging between reconstruction and working through, accepting the fact that he’s gone, and back to depression and anger again. I am beginning to see a small sliver of hope – but that’s not where I am camping right now. Right now, I am camped at depression, reminiscing, and feeling lonely. And that’s okay. It is a process. He is worth those feelings
Right now, I am camped at depression, reminiscing, and feeling lonely. And that’s okay. It is a process. He is worth those feelings.
Finally, as foster parents, we have to be asking, “Has our hope been misplaced?” What is the real cause for any bitterness and anger as foster parents? Is it a failure to acknowledge and work through our grief? Is it a lack of understanding of our own brokenness and need for Christ, or an elevated view of our role as foster parents? Perhaps.
Misplaced hope is something that all Christians struggle with in some aspect or another, I suppose. Our forever home is not here, and yet our current sojourn is; so it becomes easy to place hope in some sense in the here and now. In foster care, we place hope in the systems that have been set up to be “in these children’s best interest” to “advocate for them” or to bring “justice” for them. But these systems let us down. Again and again and again.
Hope placed anywhere other than Christ, is hope misplaced.
Hope placed anywhere other than Christ, is hope misplaced. Hope is a good thing, it is what gets us through this life, it is what makes Christianity different than any other religion; but it can only be placed in Christ. Every other thing will let us down. If we expect the “system” to save these children, to protect them, or to shield them from loss; we will be embittered because our expectations will not be met. To all those who work diligently to bring change to the system and to make the lives of these children in care better; thank you. Your dedication and hard work is appreciated. But don’t place your hope there. For any of us. Because we will be let down. Our hope is in the Lord, and Him alone. If we expect the system to “save,” then we will pour our unfulfilled expectations into this “change,” and become caustic when our efforts are not sufficient.
My heart is broken, I am full of anger and loneliness and just pure anguish over losing this child. I am working through the stages of grief and I’m not to the end yet. But for this reason I still have hope: because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed. His compassions never fail, and He is the One who holds the future of each of these children in His hands. Foster care is painful, it is stepping into broken, it is a front row seat to the stench of sin and the misuse of power. But it is beautiful. It is full of joy, and it rings clearly of hope. Because foster care is a picture of the Gospel. It is a reminder of redemption. And it is a powerful picture that our forever home and forever hope is in Jesus our Savior, our Good Father, and the One who is Sovereign over us.
“Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.” The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him; it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.” Lamentations 3:21-26