Finding Your Way Through Grief and Loss as Foster Parents

When we foster or adopt, we open our hearts and homes to a beautiful yet complex journey. Along with the joy and love we experience, we also welcome an unexpected guest named grief. Grief sneaks in when we experience the loss of something that represents safety or happiness in our lives, be it family, a job, our health, or even our purpose. And just like a huge elephant in the room, grief demands our attention. 

Our children bear the weight of grief due to major losses and uncertainty in their lives. As caregivers, we also experience grief as a result of the trauma our children have endured, something known as secondary trauma. We also experience grief ourselves when the time comes for these precious children to leave our homes to be reunified or to move onto another placement through things like kinship care or adoption. Even when we are happy and cheering on good outcomes, grief pays us a visit, reminding us of the profound impact these kids have had on our lives. 

Diving deeper into understanding grief

Grief is the product of loss and trauma, and it is crucial that we acknowledge its presence. It manifests itself in two forms: anxiety and sadness. Both emotions can feel overwhelming, like a threat or an emotional pain we desperately want to escape. However, it is important to remember that in all forms of trauma, including grief, our bodies “keep the score.” (A phrase that comes from a great book on the impact of trauma and the body). We might feel a little numb, possibly tense, sensitive, or the need to be busy.  We will experience emotional reactions as a result, which have an impact on our ourselves and our home.

Anger often accompanies grief, but it is often secondary to the feelings of anxiety or sadness.  We may feel that anger is a more acceptable emotion to express, but it is essential to recognize the underlying anxiety or sadness that is causing it. Guilt is another sneaky secondary emotion to anxiety or sadness, because we feel it is selfish or unproductive to grieve. Understanding this can help us navigate our emotions more effectively and reduce any negative impacts occurring. 

Unhelpful responses to grief can include trying to fix the situation, feeling helpless, or blaming others. We may even find ourselves shutting down or distracting ourselves in an attempt to avoid the anxiety that grief brings. In this case, felt safety plays a crucial role in minimizing the negative impacts of grief and allows us and our children to process the difficult experiences rather than becoming stuck in them.

Regardless of the source or emotion, the healing and repair process occurs within the context of felt safety and attunement. 

What does it mean to attune? (a helpful acronym)

Awareness: Being aware of our own emotions and the emotions of our children.

Tolerance: Practicing patience and understanding as we navigate through the grief process.

Turning toward emotion: Facing our emotions head-on and allowing ourselves and our children to fully experience them.

Understanding: Seeking to understand the underlying causes of our grief and the impact it has on our lives.

Non-defensive listening: Approaching grief with an open mind and heart, and avoiding defensiveness or denial.

Empathy: Connecting with a safe person or resource that helps us feel understood and supported, which helps in facilitating the healing process.

(adapted from Dr. John Gottman’s work)

Lastly, it is important to note that processing grief and finding attunement is best done in the context of community. A supportive faith community, a foster parent support group, an adoptive parent circle, and similar types of groups are vitally necessary when it comes to working through grief. There are many ways to find other people who have experienced the same kind of grief you have in foster care or adoption. Even if your  community has not experienced grief in this way they can become a much needed support for you and your family as you welcome in all the joys and the sorrows that come with engaging foster care.

Grief is an integral part of the fostering and adoption journey. It can be challenging and overwhelming, but by acknowledging and embracing grief, we create space for healing and growth in ourselves. Through felt safety and attunement, we can navigate the complexities of grief, providing ourselves and our children with that same safety and support needed to process and repair the wounds of loss.

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