“I could never do that. I could never let them go.”
This is still the most common response I hear in regards to foster care.
I get it, and I always try to respond by validating that fear, acknowledging that it is hard and messy just like you would expect, and that I have said and felt the same thing!
However, I also try to follow up that conversation by gently pointing out the reality that it’s really not about us as the adults or our fear of grief.
God had to gently lead my heart to a place of realization that whether or not I felt equipped to handle the pain really had nothing to do with it. If he was asking me to love these children, it was a matter of obedience and faith, not a question of how much it was going to hurt.
But still…how do you say goodbye?
How do you do all the lasts with a child you have poured your heart into?
Last bedtime story, last day of school, last time brushing his teeth, last time braiding her hair, last time snuggled on the couch watching a movie, last bottle, last diaper change, last I love you, last kiss on the cheek?
Believe me, I notice every single painful moment of those days.
How do you willingly walk them out the door of your home back into the place they have been hurt, or possibly into a brand new reality that neither of you is familiar with?
While I’d like to say reunification usually ends in a child returning to a safer, more secure, more healthy home environment…if I’m honest most of the time the situation they return to is far from ideal. Most times the standard reached is the bare minimum, not the best case scenario.
As a foster parent, you walk a tightrope.
On one side you are the strongest advocate and most consistent presence in the child’s life you are caring for. Your voice needs to be heard and part of your job is to speak your perspective into the situation whenever possible.
This can, however, fool you into believing you should have the right to control the outcome of this child’s future, which is false. You are often the last to find out and last to be consulted when it comes to important decisions being made about the very child you love and care for on a daily basis. Despite being the main caregiver for your child, you have zero legal authority to make decisions for their future unless you’ve officially been invited into that process by the court. You are given information about the child’s family only on a need to know basis, and you only have a few pieces of a very complicated puzzle, which means that often you are not equipped to decide what is truly in your child’s best interests when it comes to their family situation. You may or may not be allowed to be present at court hearings and planning meetings. In many ways, your job is much more specific and defined than regular parenting.
In this way foster care is radically different than parenting biological or adoptive children who are in your home permanently.
One of the most difficult parts is recognizing that you need to stay in your own lane, and often that means trusting others to make decisions you desperately want to make yourself. It means acknowledging that you do not have a right to all the information you would like and that others may know important pieces that you are missing. It means trusting that people who hardly know your child may have more insight into what is best for them than you do.
As we go through our days, my foster son feels like just another one of my precious tribe. I pack his lunch, wash his clothes, read him stories and delight in his accomplishments. I put his artwork on the fridge, hold his hand in the parking lot, buy his favourite snacks and plan his birthday parties. I attend parent teacher meetings, advocate for class placement and make charts to motivate him. I know the classroom songs that will guide him through putting on a thousand winter clothing articles, accompany him on field trips, intuitively know when he needs to use the bathroom and start collecting the next size up of clothing.
But simultaneously, I am constantly reminded to hold him with open palms.
I consult his social worker on important decisions, advocating strongly but respecting that it is ultimately up to her. I fill a photo album of pictures of his birth family and talk to him regularly about them. I look into the future and am very aware that his presence in our home is a question mark, not a guarantee. I keep track of the clothing and toys that come home from visits the best I can, knowing I will need to know which ones belong to him, not my other children, if he leaves our home. I file all the reports and pass along all the doctors notes, dentist prescriptions and report cards. I ask permission for haircuts and need someone else’s signature on almost anything that needs to be signed.
All of these things and a thousand others remind me constantly that he is not my child. While this does not necessarily make the goodbye easier, it does put it into context.
The hardest goodbyes involve little hands reaching out for you, screaming as you turn and stumble away, powerless to comfort them. The easiest involve carefully planned transitions, a gentle phasing of one normal to the next as you both adjust.
I have said goodbye to a child sobbing with the pain of it all and I have said goodbye to a child with a deep sense of peace and relief, aching at the loss but knowing that it is right and good.
Usually the end comes into sight long before it’s actually there, and as a foster parent, you learn the signs. Even my children can sense when a child’s case is moving toward reunification.
Grief can begin before the goodbye.
Your heart starts to surrender before your arms let go.
You find what you can do, and you pour yourself into that.
It might be advocating at school so that your child will go home with all the supports they possibly can get.
It might be gathering clothing for the next two years, packing boxes to send home to that single mom so that she will have one less thing to worry about for the next while.
It might be filling photo albums to send, buying gifts or recording every last detail you can think of about the child’s likes, dislikes, preferences, routines and habits.
It might be doing everything you can to build a strong relationship with the child’s permanent family, letting them know they are not alone and you will be right beside them cheering them on.
It might be night after night of tears and prayers and giving that child back into the Father’s hands again and again.
You will learn how to put on a brave face, because her little eyes are searching yours and more than you need to cry you desperately long to reassure her and keep her safe.
All parents, at some point, will be thrust into a situation that feels like more than you can handle.
But somehow, God’s grace is there and pulls us through those deep waters in ways we can hardly fathom or clearly remember later.
You can’t do it, until you have to…and then you do.
Mostly it is a walk of trust, choosing to believe in God’s goodness and sovereignty in the middle of my own fear, doubt and pain. Remembering that His view has much clearer perspective than my own in the grand scheme of eternity.
(And sometimes it involves curling up in a ball and crying your eyes out.)
That’s how we say goodbye over and over,
and somehow keep our hearts in tact.