Foster Parent Grief and Debriefing

I could never be a foster parent, I would get too attached.

We knew foster care would be hard, but not this hard.

As foster parents, we go into foster care knowing that it will be hard to say goodbye. But, just like any other loss, the true heartbreak is often worse than we understood before. No matter how positive the move might be in the long run, or how hard the placement was, we will FEEL the loss of them when they leave. 

In my time as a foster parent, I have cared for and said goodbye to over 20 children, and I felt the loss of each child in a unique way.

When family, friends and social workers don’t understand how foster parents are feeling and we don’t allow ourselves to fully process the losses as they come, foster care burn out is not far behind.

While I was heartbroken to say good-bye, I’m still so thankful, we had the chance to know him and love him. He is worth every single tear I’ve cried.

Rachel Lewis

Grief for foster parents is complicated by grief that isn’t clear cut, the child is alive and doing well, just no longer with us.  

For long term foster parents, the losses pile up as children come and go without the needed time, reflection or conversations to heal properly.  These multiple losses make it harder to deal and grieve.

When you lose someone in your life, but they are still alive (divorce, alzheimer’s, moving away), this is called ambiguous loss. There are six things that need to happen to help our hearts heal: One needs to find meaning in the loss, temper mastery over the loss, reconstruct identity after the loss, normalizing ambivalence about the loss, revising attachment to the person lost and we need to rediscover hope.

All of these pieces of healing can happen, but need special attention, as there isn’t rituals around the losses of foster care, as there is in death. There is no funeral. There are no casseroles. There are not sympathy cards. The children are just gone, and we as foster parents are expected to soldier on and be ready for a new placement immediately.

I have come to understand that grief is so much more than a response to just death. It is also a response to the severing of a relationship forever. It is, as they say, “love with nowhere to go.” And there are so many kinds of families loving with nowhere to expend that love.

RACHEL LEWIS

Foster Parent Debriefing

While the child/children are still with you and you know a transition is coming, lifebooks and social stories are a great way for you to work through the transition TOGETHER.

After they move on, in order to make our ambiguous loss a more tangible one and to allow ourselves to fully process the loss, I propose a new concept called foster parent debriefing.

Every person and every placement is different, but foster parents need to grieve them one by one so that our hearts can be healed up and open to the next child who walks through those doors.  That next child deserves whole heart-ed foster parents.

Debriefing is making a thorough report of what happened in any given situation.   It is also used in times of war or trauma with children.  It has been found to greatly decrease getting “stuck” in the trauma and grief of the situation.  Conversation is healing and conversation is self care.

After a placement leaves, give yourself a good chunk of some private time alone, with a pen, paper, and an open mind. 

Write about the child.  Memories with the child, quirky things you’d do as a family.  Write about the ups and downs, the good AND the bad.  Write about what you will miss about the child and what you won’t miss about the child.  What will you do differently in light of this placement for the next child?  What will be the same?

Let yourself really think and really feel.  Let the tears and the laughter come as they will.  Be free to share anything and everything.

Grief is like the ocean; it comes on waves ebbing and flowing. Sometimes water is clam, and sometimes it is overflowing. And all we can do is learn to swim.

Vicki Harrison

And then, so these thoughts, feelings, and writings don’t just stay inside of you – share them.  Get your spouse, a friend, a fellow foster parent, your therapist, your social worker and share with them the writings.  This isn’t about sounding good, it is about staying healthy – so be honest!

If you don’t have someone you can share with confidentially, consider meeting with a clergyman or counselor.  Just get it out to another human being – as soon as you can after the child leaves. 

Once you have shared it, you can do whatever you’d like with the paper – shred it.  Burn it.  Save it.

Here are some questions to get you started thinking – but anything goes, just do it.

  • Describe these kids.  Memories with them.  Quotes you remember from them.
  • How long were they with you?
  • What good things happened during this placement – high points?
  • What hard things happened during this placement – low points?
  • Things you’d like to do the same with your next placement?
  • Things you’d like to do differently with your next placement? 

Give yourself time and space to remember, grieve and take the right next step.


Extended family, we know that you are grieving too. The longer I do this, the more I am realizing and appreciating the role my extended family plays in “my kids” lives. It has been amazing to see my family rally around me, but not only around me, also around the children that have lived in my home. Within weeks, they are accepted, known and loved as one of our own.

There is joy in their presence and grief in their leaving. We know that you worry about your family member who was the foster carer. We know you love us and don’t want to see us hurt. But, keep asking about the child, speaking their name, sharing your memories. We hope you have seen that love given – no matter how great or how long, matters. That we are responsible for people outside our small family. And that we can love more people, more deeply than we thought.

Resources:


IF you appreciated this article, please share with your networks!

Learn more about foster parent debriefing, that is used to process the heartbreak and grief of foster care when a foster child placement moves and leaves your foster home.

Published by Alisa Matheson, Attempting Agape

I’m Alisa Matheson. Previously a foster parent, an educator, recruiter for teens aging out of the foster care system. I became a full-time contractor and photographer in 2019. I love coffee, deep conversations, snuggles with my kid and justice on the street. I welcome you to share in my journey.

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