THOUGHTS ON FOSTER PARENT GRIEF

BY BETTY EVANS

Foster parents deal with loss--either loss of a child to return home, to adoption or another foster home, or loss of their license. Grief is inevitable. It is the natural consequence of the cycle of bonding and separation. It cannot be eliminated or even lessened. It can only be handled with empathy or with disdain by those close by--or what is worst of all, by ignoring it.

Some of the situations I have heard about cry out for better handling! For instance: A toddler was told by his caseworker that he'd been "terminated" and would "soon" get a new mommy and daddy. The poor little kid was plunged into a 6-month void of belonging nowhere. He knew he was leaving but had no new place to get acquainted with, no new people to learn to know. The foster family had to cope with a violent acting-out child, and were furious.

No one had asked how they might have handled this. They resented their little boy being told of the pending move before they were. In fact, they would have held out for NOT telling him until a family had been selected. The foster family viewed the episode as a real error by the caseworker which resulted in chaos in their family and hurt to the child. As I see it, the error was in not including the foster parents in the plan for preparing the little boy for adoption. The family's grief at the pending separation would have been channeled into an acceptable form, rather than anger. Foster parents wonder why they are trusted with the total care of the child but not trusted to have good insight and advice in the decision making.

Another incident: a foster mother was perceived as a threat to an adoption placement and her contact with the adopting parents was strictly limited. The "threatening behavior" was simply adamant insistence on realistically describing the child's degree of retardation, as the mother feared an eventual adoption breakdown. The agency apparently feared the loss of the placement. Result: a frantic, fearful foster mother who caused so much commotion throughout her agency, it's a miracle any more foster children were placed in her home. Also, a failed adoption because the adopting family expected a child who would respond to their affection.

This, however, he could not do; he was not developmentally able to. The solution in this case would have been to rely on the MHMRA evaluation which advised against adoption because of the child's incapacity for reciprocity of love, an essential emotional need for a successful adoption.

The reality of grief and its handling are so well known that much effort goes into training to prepare foster parents to cope with it. My perception is that my agency expects me to eliminate grief by learning about it. I can't. It's there, it's real, and it's terrible. I need help handling it. I need to know "they" know I'm suffering and they don't distance themselves from me when I need them most. AND--handling my grief is easier for my agency if I am TOTALLY involved in the details of a move. If I am this undone by grief, think how much more terrifying is the grief of a child. I can better empathize with the suffering child I love, if somebody's empathizing with my suffering. Increase my strength and I can pass strength along to my child. Increase my grief by insensitivity and I am weakened in my help to a grieving child.

There are predictable stages of grief. In interpreting them (in terms of foster parent behavior), these ideas may be a way of modifying undesirable results in an episode of adoption:

STAGES OF GRIEF AND WAYS TO WORK THROUGH THE STAGES

DENIAL
(Takes the form of foster parent wanting to adopt child.) Foster parent participating in parent selection and placement procedure would assure acceptance.

DESPAIR
(Takes form of inability to cooperate, i.e., argue about placement visiting schedule.) Sub-care worker alert home worker and foster parent association and "buddy" to call the foster parent to offer loving concern.

ANGER
(Takes form of complaining calls to supervisor.) Accept the fact of anger as a legitimate feeling, so that in order to express anger the foster parent doesn't have to find artificial causes for the anger. This misplaced anger often falls on the agency and/or individual workers and causes hurt feelings and misunderstandings.

MOURNING
(Can result in tears and inability to cope.) Allow a time to grieve--agency sends "condolence note" in the form of a warm "thank you" note.

GUILT
Guilt? What place does guilt have in a foster parent's emotions? We would expect it from the natural family who have failed their child. But why us? We have NOT failed their child. I feel guilt at thinking mainly of myself, my loss, my loneliness. WHY? When everyone else feels so great--caseworker proud--new parents ecstatic--child hopeful-why do I feel so rotten?
I want to be as happy as all the rest, but I'm not. And it's all because I'm not fully sharing the happiness of all the rest that I feel guilty. That guilt, unreasoning and unnatural, is out of step with everybody else's feelings, so each stage of my grief is overlaid with the feeling that something is wrong with me; I shouldn't feel like this. I shouldn't hurt so much.
But every time I do--and so should you--every time--or you haven't done what you're supposed to do...to love--to lose--and if you've loved enough, to grieve.

ACCEPTANCE
(Takes form of foster parent asking for another child.) Allow time for healing. This stage is eased by knowing that the adoptive parents will allow their new child her/his memories in a Life Book. Foster parents should never, on their own, initiate an ongoing relationship.
I've asked myself many times why workers seem to ignore the grief in our loss. Do they not perceive it? I hope they do, but since we are viewed as part of the nurturing team, perhaps it is too much for them to face the fact that we pay a heavy price for being so deeply and lovingly involved.


If you would like to communicate with Mr. Evans, he can be reached at:

Mr. Gordon Evans
226 Kilts
Houston, Texas 77024
USA
To email Mr. Evans: Gordon Evans

Mr. Evans has vast experiences in foster care and foster care issues and is a wonderful resource.

 

 

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