Resource Parents Feel It, Too: Managing Your Grief When a Child Leaves Your Home
by Jonathan Rockoff •
“So it’s true, when all is said and done, grief is the price we pay for love.”
This poignant line is from E.A. Bucchianeri’s Brushtrokes of a Gadfly, a novel about coping with grief, loss, and trying to get on with daily life despite the hardships happening around you. This is something anyone can relate to—especially resource parents.
The Grief of Children and their Families
If you’re a resource parent, you understand the grief experienced by children in foster care. You know grief’s five stages (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance).
You have been taught, reminded, and then reminded again how children are grieving from the second they come into foster care because they have lost everything they know and hold dear.
Resource parents know youth grieve. They are there with them through the process and will do whatever they can to make it even just a little bit easier.
As they practice shared parenting, resource parents also see the grief stages of shock, protest, and adjustment that birth parents go through when their children are in foster care.
But children and their families are not the only ones involved with foster care who are touched by grief.
A Mixed Bag of Complicated Emotions
When I trained new resource parents, I would always tell them one of the hardest parts of their job is becoming attached to a child who will likely one day leave their home. Going into this, you are told reunification is the ultimate goal. And most placements do end with the child moving out of your home. However, you can’t appreciate the magnitude of this until it happens to you. Even then, it’s not something you get used to.
Many people have told me they could not be a resource parent because they were afraid of their own feelings if or when a child left. I understand. Being a resource parent is a mixed bag of complicated emotions. You will likely feel happy, excited, sad, and anxious all at once when a child moves out of your home.
We Ask a Lot
As child welfare professionals, we ask and expect our foster parents to be strong and stoic when a child moves on. We ask them to put on a brave face during transition, so as not to cause guilt or more trauma for the child.
After the child moves out, professionals tend to pull away from the resource family. In a way, this makes sense. After all, the family no longer has a child placed with them and social workers have other children to focus on.
The family shrinks in size over night.
Often foster families grieve alone. Due to confidentiality, resource parents are not allowed to share the details of their cases with others in their support system, even after the child leaves.
I have heard from many resource parents over the years that the grief caused when a child moves out of their home is the hardest part of fostering. This can sometimes lead to a family deciding to stop fostering. For some families, it is too much to handle.
Something needs to be done to ensure when a child moves, resource parents feel supported as they grieve so they can continue being an asset to youth in North Carolina.
Tips from Resource Families
Here are a few suggestions I hope will be helpful to resource parents the next time a placement ends and a child moves out of their home. These ideas come from foster parents who had a child leave, experienced grief, but got to the point where they could continue fostering.
1. Take a break. Many parents take a break after a child leaves. Before jumping back in with a new placement they take time and recharge their batteries. During this interval they do things they could not when the child was with them. They take a trip, do a project around the home, or just sleep in for a few weekends.
Whatever it is you like to do for self-care, take the time to do it. You may get calls from your supervising agency asking you to take placements again. Please make sure you are completely ready before you say yes. Taking a placement before you’re ready just to please your agency could lead to an unplanned move for the child (this is also called a placement disruption). Unplanned moves can be traumatic and set children back developmentally, so we want to avoid these whenever we can.
2. Reach out. Even if you prefer to grieve privately, consider reaching out to others who have been through something similar. Call on other foster parents, your support system, a local support group, or your child’s social worker to process your feelings. Of course, be mindful of confidentiality: only share your feelings, not what led to the removal of the child or their story. See a professional if you think that will help.
3. Focus on and learn from the positives. Take time to reflect on what went well with the placement. Even if the end of the placement was unplanned or abrupt, there were likely things you did very well. It is very common for resource parents to feel guilt and shame when a child has an unplanned move. It is important to accept that you did the best you could. Look back on what you did well. Learn from the experience, process it, and apply what you did well next time around.
4. Take care of your family. I can’t stress enough how important it is to check in with the members of your family. Even if your partner, your children, and extended family are putting on a brave face, ask how they are doing. Acknowledge their grief. The child who left likely felt like part of the family to everyone in your family. Process this loss together.
My purpose in writing this piece is to assure resource parents they are not alone when grieving the move of a child. This truly is one of the most difficult aspects of being a resource parent. We ask resource parents to give all of themselves and pour their heart out to a child that will most likely leave their home.
I always thought the resource parents I worked with were some of the most selfless people I ever met. I still think that. They give and give every day. I hope every resource parent knows it’s OK to take care of themselves, too.
Jonathan Rockoff is a Training Specialist with the Family and Children’s Resource Program at the UNC School of Social Work.