Foster care can be a wonderful experience for the entire family. It can also be hard on a family in many different ways. The past two years took a toll on our family, but particularly on our children. Each of our children handles it very differently. Some are silent, some focus on all the things that they didn’t like about having a baby in the house, and some cannot keep from recalling all the wonderful memories we made with our sweet girl. And some float through trying to not show their emotions and the sadness they feel. It becomes particularly unique for one of our children who is a biological sibling. At this point, It’s just messy.
It’s hard this journey we take. While we are thrilled for these little ones returning home to biological families, it’s hard. And we miss them. That means our kids most likely miss them as well. I don’t hide my tears or my sadness, and I don’t hide my joy. I try to teach my children that they can feel joy and sorrow simultaneously.
Here are some tangible ways we help our children process the grief of losing a foster sibling.
It’s normal to want to hide away from grief—to not acknowledge it or see it. Sometimes, seeing that little face brings us all to tears. But more than that, it brings smiles and sweet memories. When we were preparing our little one to transition home, we began the process of making photo books of the time she spent with us. One for each house that she called home. Including ours. Although she’d no longer be living here we wanted to give our children a very real and tangible way to hold her close. I will find them thumbing through these wonderful little books talking about sweet memories and maybe some not-so-sweet, as well. They love to see her grow through the pages. Celebrations, big days, small moments. Learning to walk. Special toys and fun events.
For the little ones that go home we send professional photos we’ve had done. We take them from our walls and send them home with them ready to place on their next wall. A visual reminder of where they belong and who they belong to.
Saved videos and photos on our phones. It’s amazing how many times in searching for something on our phones we stumble upon sweet memories of our little ones. And while those memories sometimes bring tears to our eyes, they also bring back sweet memories and an opportunity to talk with our children about them. Grief is real and ever-changing. But reliving good memories helps us all move forward.
Our children are all adopted. They love hearing their own stories and each other’s. They ask provocative questions and I try to give them time to fill in answers in their own stories. They also love to hear about how on a Monday we dropped everything and swung by our storage unit to pick up a car seat and picked up a 9-month-old girl. How we loved her instantly and she was full of smiles. They don’t remember the fear, and that’s ok. They remember taking her shopping for a special blankie and new clothes. They reminisce about picking out new snacks, bottles, and fun patterns on diapers. My daughter loves to tell how they shared a room and her silly antics as she grew. Stories make up lives and make us who we are. We try very hard to leave out the hard stuff unless they want to talk about it. We work at keeping our stories to include language and facts that are honoring their birth families.
We spend a lot of time telling stories, sharing stories, and reading stories. With each story told there are always details added to each story and they grow and grow. The healing that comes with knowing their own stories and having the freedom to share them openly and with restraint of detail. They know that sometimes their beginnings were rough, but they also know that there’s growth, healing, and good in the rest of the story.
The telling of stories often brings healing tears. The tears bring with them joy and longing. We get asked when, and if, they can see their siblings again. Depending on the relationship sometimes we can, and sometimes we can’t.
The belongings of our children always go with them, but the memories don’t. We try to make some physical reminders for my children to remember them. Whether it’s a matching outfit to a former foster child, a duplicate toy that they chose together on an outing, or from a special location—we make these choices intentionally and unintentionally throughout the stay of our little ones.
On a trip to the aquarium, all of my children and our foster child at the time chose the most ridiculous sequined stuffed animals. And each time they reach for them, they stack them together and share a moment about how one chose a seahorse, another a squid, another an octopus, and how our sweet little one chose a turtle. They often wonder if she looks at her turtle and remembers them. And then we share more stories.
Sometimes things get left behind and those small items become mementos: a binky, a pair of small little socks, a bow. All these things hold and bring back memories. Each of those memories brings healing and light into their grief and often into mine as well.
Grief is unique to each family, each person, each of our children. It looks different for each of us from day to day. We often stumble through it; but with experience, we become better at handling their grief and our own. Sometimes we get it right, and sometimes we let them down. I try to never hide my grief. They see my struggle with missing our little ones and sometimes worrying about them. They see the tears when a memory hits. And they see the joy. Most importantly, we share it all. We help them through. And they help us through.