I’ll not soon forget the first goodbye we experienced as foster parents. I can’t. That first goodbye left me gutted, and I couldn’t believe it. It wasn’t even after an official placement who’d lived with us for months. Instead, it was actually after an emergency respite four-day weekend with two littles. Four days. Good bye. Gutted.
That weekend was the very picture of the insanity of what the first few days in foster care can look like to two little girls; terrifying. “Terrified” looks like kicking and screaming and crying and thrashing and hitting, and no sleep. “Terrified” isn’t personal or discriminate. It shows up during and after trauma, and long after. It rears it’s ugly head in seemingly lovely, delightful moments that flip upside down on a dime. “Terrified”, TRAUMATIZED, is a biological, emotional, cognitive, physical, neurological response. It is NOT a naughty child who is trying to make their world - your world - a living hell. It is NOT a problem child, a trouble-maker, and bad apple. Back off those preconceived notions, please, for the sake of humanity. (Thank you) As a foster parent, or other adult in this circle of foster care, there are a multitude of resources and tools we utilize to minimize triggers and to avoid re-traumitizing children. Thank God for the “trauma-informed” movement. But, the truth of the matter, trauma has happened. The burden still, trauma has happened. The grief of it, trauma has happened. And we, as humans, have to recognize that and we have to meet that, and we have to sit with that. Y’all. We have to.
Sitting with that truth for the first weekend of respite, for those first children to ever step foot into our home, for those two sweet girls, was honestly excruciating.
The last day they were with us, we saw a terrified, sleep-deprived toddler blossom into a little kiddo who smiled and laughed and ran around in the yard freely. It was beautiful, and heart-wrenching. In just a couple of days, we witnessed trust bloom and healing begin. That last day, we got to share sweet moments of hand-holding and late night giggles and smiles the size of Texas. But the other days we didn’t. The other days were full-on survival mode. The other days, of respecting space and setting boundaries and being gentle but firm and sitting with them through the tantrums and teaching them to be safe — those were the foundation we didn’t realize we were building for the last day. And then, well, we said goodbye, in true foster care fashion.
And it was as if the sea had swallowed me up in the dark, scary depths of despair, sorrow, grief, and heart break. It was our first foster care goodbye, and it left me feeling empty. Yet, it also left me feeling like a geyser, filled up with every type of emotion and exploding periodically all over everything. “Hot mess” has no other more fitting picture than this.
You know, I’m writing this so I never forget. Pain is a beautiful system for us to be alerted to brokenness. It’s the symptom that saves our lives. Isn’t it? The pain isn’t what kills us, it’s avoiding the pain - the warning signs - that kills us.
Honestly, I think people assume the goodbyes of foster care are tough because foster families get “too attached” or so attached. While that is a piece - “that” meaning the actual bond and relationship with the child being altered or severed in the goodbye - it isn’t the whole picture, and that is a whole other piece for a different time. Nate and I were confronted with this thought and this misconception from the very first goodbye, the goodbye after only four insane days. That very confrontation we had with the pain of loss and grief, I can still see it, remember it, feel it.
“Meg, you knew this was a short-term placement. You knew it was just the weekend. I just don’t really understand why you’re so broken up about this. You knew they would leave us, that they wouldn’t be with us forever.” Nate said to me as we were driving down a back road, windows down.
The scene is painted in my memory. He was coming from a place of seeking understanding, trying to say the right - the comforting - thing, not at all coming at me in a “get over it” or a dismissive way. And I knew that, and appreciated it. But still, his misunderstanding of me and the depths of my heartbreak frustrated me. The wind tossed my hair about and cooled the hot tears streaming down my face. Pangs of the familiar friend called isolation rushed over me in that very moment too. Not only was I overwhelmed and sad and grateful and discouraged and trying to sort it all, I felt alone in that. It was all beginning to compound, and I wanted so badly for my heart to really be on my sleeve for him to see and understand. But that, as I’ve learned, isn’t really a thing, is it?
So, instead, through the tears and fear and frustration and doubt — who am I to have this heartbreak anyway? — I tried to be articulate.
“You just don’t get it, do you? It’s not that they aren’t with us or that they aren’t under our roof anymore.” I spat out. And it truly wasn’t. “This is their lives! This is the rest of their little lives! What happened actually REALLY happened to them. These girls ACTUALLY experienced unimaginable trauma. This is the rest of their lives; healing from this, or at least trying to. They’ll either spend the rest of their lives healing from this or avoiding this. You know what I mean? This isn’t about me, or us, but them. Can you see that?”
Of course, he could. He could see that. Stunned, and also not at all surprised, Nate just sat with me in that reality, thankfully. He didn’t trying to explain it all, or reassure me that it would all work out. He didn’t spit cliches at me, like - “everything happens for a reason” or “trust in a good God” or “we did our part” or “people have free will but God will fix this” or “they’re better off now” or “all you can do now is pray”. Thank God, he didn’t. He sat with me in the reality of life, that life is hard and ugly, for some more than others, and we just don’t know what’s ahead. As the fear and confusion and doubt and sorrow and anger and grief rushed over me and out of me in the form of salty, toxic tears and gutted sobs, I was met where I was. And together we sat, as the budding trees and puffy clouds passed by our windshield. And together we were confronted, with shock and uncertainty and doubt and fear running through us. And together we said goodbye, for the very first foster-care time.
This one was a crash course in foster parenting, foster loving, and foster goodbyes. It was the first, but it wasn’t the last. No two experiences will be the same, but indeed they have been and will be strung together with the heaviness of goodbye.