When a Child Moves On

Question: My husband and I have become foster parents for Catholic Charities and have just returned our first charge – a 2-month-old we had cared for since he was 2 days old. My husband and I were both struck by the depth of our loss and grief, even though we knew that he would be leaving us at some point. The foster mothers’ support group and the Catholic Charities social worker know of no books that could help us let go of the next child without so much pain. Do you?

Answer: There don’t seem to be any books on this subject, but foster parents will always tell you that pain is part of the process. You fall in love with these children, then you give them up, and it hurts every blessed time. Moreover, it hurts whether you are providing respite care, so the granny can have a much-needed break; emergency care, so the mom can go in for drug rehab; short-term care, so the child has a place to stay while he waits for his adoption to go through, or long-term care, so he has a place to live while he grows up.

Some social workers tell foster parents that they shouldn’t get so attached to these children, but that is exactly wrong. The best foster parents do attach to them; they feel pain when the children leave and they are glad to do it all over again, because they know how much they are needed. If these wounded children can get enough love, nurturing, guidance and kindness, however, they will endure and they will be a little more trusting and a little more loving for the rest of their lives.

The parting may be less painful if you and your husband work with children whose ages are right for you. Newborns tug the heart very tight, and babies and toddlers do as well, so ask the agency for preschool or grade school children instead. There are children who bond so quickly and so closely, however, that you may dream about them for years to come.

Foster parents handle their grief in different ways. Some take long breaks between placements, but others try to get another child to foster as soon as the last child leaves. It never gets rid of memories,” said one foster “but it softens the departure.” The loss also will be less if you meet regularly with other parents, if you work closely with the people in the program, and if you make foster care a team effort whenever you can.

Some of the best agencies have foster parents work with the social worker, the therapist – if there is one – and with one of the child’s parents or an aunt or a cousin or with the adoptive parents. You’ll feel the loss less, and so will the child.

You may also be consoled by reading books on adoption and foster care issues in general. (See Recommended Reads) A good book on separation and loss, like “Living Through Mourning” by Harriet Sarnoff Schiff (Penguin; $13.95) should help too, even through it is about death. Grief is still grief and it still needs to be assuaged.

Reprinted with permission of the author. From The Washington Post Family Almanac, May 9, 2001. Marguerite Kelly can be reached at Box 15310, Washington, DC, 20003

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