There is so much to say about what the hours and days look like after a placement ends and a child who has become part of the fabric of your family’s life leaves your home.
For some, there is a great period of mourning. While you can appreciate why a child is returned to their parents, you’d be lying if you said you were “happy.” You have loved this child, gotten up with him in the night, held him when he cried, pushed him on the swings, taken him to his first picnic, taken him to the doctor, and loved him as your own for the past year (or two, or three…) and now, just like that, he’s gone. Yes, you understood going in that this was going to be part of it. Yes, you know that reconciliation was the goal all along, and you have worked to support that plan. Still, this child changed you. Forever. And just because he’s gone now does not mean that you will ever, ever go back to being the person you were before he came. A part of you left with him when he went home. A part of you has been taken away, and you will never be the same. The grief you are experiencing is a akin to the grief of death, and you need to give yourself time to move through that grief, get counseling and have close friends you can talk with and be honest with as you process your pain.
For others, there is a great period of relief. Sometimes when a child leaves your home, it is not to go home to their parents—it’s to go to another foster home. Sometimes, from the day they arrived in your home, they fought with your own kids. Sometimes they had physical or emotional needs that were just too much for you to manage along with the needs of your own children. Even if a child has been with your family for a long time—perhaps for their entire stay in foster care—it has been a hard, hard road, and when they are finally reunified, you feel relieved. And perhaps that also leaves you feeling guilty.
Regardless of whether you feel grieved or relieved when a placement goes home (or, at least, leaves your home), there are a few things I recommend doing in the days following their departure.
- Give yourself time to process the experience of having had that child in your home. Don’t try to rush through “getting over it.” Take time and space to cry, mourn, and talk about the experience. If you have a therapist (and I highly recommend that you do!), make an appointment within the first couple of days so you can start processing sooner rather than later. If you don’t have a therapist, at least schedule coffee with a trusted friend who is a good listener.
- Try to get away for a bit. Rent an AirBNB in another area of town or another part of your state and get away for a night or two. If you are a childless couple or family with kids, getting away allows you to focus on connecting with each other and reinforcing your family bond. If you are a single foster parent, invite a close, trusted friend or family member to join you. Relax, play games, get outside. Do something to mark the occasion and to nourish yourself and your relationships.
- Consider — and reconsider — your calling. What worked about this placement? What didn’t? What might you have done differently? What resources did you need but not have? Will you do it again? When? Will you want the same age or someone older/younger? These questions have been invaluable for us as a foster family after each placement has left. It’s how we knew that a newborn preemie with medical needs was not a good idea when we had two already in diapers. It’s how we knew that another child with autism was not a good idea while our own son, who is on the spectrum, was struggling with his autism. It’s how we knew that a brother and sister about the same age as our older kids worked well. It’s how we learned that each of our own kids had their own strengths to offer our foster children, and we needed to understand what those strengths were and seek to foster children who fit well within those strengths.
Foster parenting is a complicated and deeply personal experience. Each foster parent has strengths and weaknesses, and learning about what ours are is vital to avoiding burnout and maintaining our own emotional health for the long journey of fostering.
When a foster child leaves our home, it’s important to take time to process, reconnect with our own family, and (re)consider our calling so we can be in it for the long haul.