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  • Jessica Miles

Grief and Goodbye

Staring grief in the eyes and waiting for it to strike is more daunting to me than grief itself. Grief is defined as “deep sorrow, especially caused by someone’s death.” When you lose something or someone you love, you feel it to your core. If you know death is inevitable, you feel like you have more time to prepare for the loss that awaits you, not that you could ever be ready for the loss of a loved one. If a loss happens suddenly, without warning, the process of grief itself has the opportunity to work its natural course. In the world of foster care, our relationship with grief holds the potential of becoming unhealthy if not appropriately addressed and through the lens of the price paid for us on the cross.

From a foster mom's perspective, I find myself postponing the reality of the pain yet feeling the pain to the core of my bones. I push forward because I know every ounce of the pain I can absorb is worth the love and stability they deserve. As we inch closer to reunification, the brutal reality of loss is waiting around every corner I encounter like a nasty surprise. Sometimes my tears fall out of my eyes when even I don’t understand why. The children are somewhat oblivious. Due to the nature of foster care, they are not clueless; they have no real idea of what is happening as things begin to shift, more visits with bio parents, and lots of questions that have no right answer. Young children in foster care feel every single feeling that we do. The difference is they don’t always have the words to adequately describe the emotions racing through their minds, terrorizing their hearts in the stillness of the night or as they ride in the transporter’s car. This is why you hear how “bad” foster kids are. They are merely reacting to what they are experiencing. Do not believe the lies shouted from the rooftops! They are beautiful children with big dreams who love their parents unconditionally and desire to be loved right back… unconditionally.

Going home is the most significant moment of their life and one that will carry unexplainable loss for the years to come. Usually, we would tell the children and prepare them for all the changes to come. When a child is being reunified, there is a plan to take the proper steps towards reunification, but not this time. We were told that it was not our business, and they would say to us what we needed to know and when we needed to know it… and they did precisely that with less than a 24-hour notice! On top of every single emotion, I was tucking away into an emotional box for later, I assumed the role of carrying the burden of the impending trauma for my precious girls and biological children. If you know anything about trauma, you know this is a box that a professional should unpack, and unfortunately, it is a burden many children carry. As if enough trauma had not occurred for these precious children before removal and then every day apart from their mother, they were about to lose us too. All of the pain I was preparing to face in losing them was quickly placed in lockdown until I had the time and space to care for myself. I am not saying this is the best way to manage this exact situation, but I can tell you that when you have 24 hours to pack 439 days into totes while managing a household… putting my feelings in lockdown is the safest way for me to proceed. The stability, normalcy they had learned to love, their beds, the sounds of their favorite nighttime music, routines, the food they love, teachers, friends, their family… they would get in a car within 24 hours and never come back. Everything in their world was about to change. They did now know this, but we did.

While the night they arrived feels like yesterday, the reality is simple. It was not yesterday; it was 439 days ago. Yesterday was when they called though and told us that they would be at our house at 3 pm to move the girls and we were not allowed to say to them. If the oldest asked, I was supposed to tell her she was going to visitation. Without the freedom to explain why I was packing all of their belongings into totes, I packed. My oldest foster loved to help me do things, so she helped me. She did not ask. I did not tell. She was just edgy and irritable… and rightfully so. As hard as I fought for joy… I was probably edgy and irritable too. It was so hard to navigate all of my feelings and loss of control over all the things.

We skipped school on reunification day. Since we were not allowed to tell the girls, we had to celebrate reunification without explaining what we were doing. Operation Do All The Favorite Things was in full force with favorite dinner the night before and breakfast out the morning of reunification. With hours to spare, we shopped for more clothes, took a hike, played outside at our favorite park, and ate all the food they loved.

Finally, the knock on the door happened. It was the transporter who usually drove them, but she was dropping off a seat. My bio-daughter was about to lose it with tears welling up in her eyes, but she was so brave. My teenager was ready for it to be over because it was just too painful.

Almost an hour later, the caseworker knocked on the door. The promise of a van and all their belongings going with them turned out to be a pipe dream; maybe those were just words to appease my concern for making sure they were allowed to take their belongings with them. The words used in telling the oldest what was happening were confusing and left her with more questions. This whole event left me hoping and praying for the day when reunifications are focused on what is truly best for the children. They have so many big feelings and are often overlooked through these moments… they are essentially stuck in the middle.

I will never forget the look on her face when she understood that she was finally going home to her Momma or the expression that followed as the realization sank in that the caseworker said she would need to choose what she wanted to take with her! She could take the clothes on her back, her book bag for her new school, and whatever we could fit in the caseworker’s car. At that moment, reality hit her in the gut. Going back to momma means she loses everything here, her belongings right now, but her school, teachers, and friends. It wasn’t a fun expression to see. I did all I could do at that moment, and I advocated for the little girl who God entrusted to me. I advocated hard. Imagine a ferocious momma bear protecting her cubs or a herd of elephants protecting a newborn and new momma. That was me. There was nothing that could hold me back. A boldness rose in me. The Holy Spirit gave me strength, and I did my best to make sure another Mother’s girls had everything they deserved.

Through the next moments, all I could hear was the heart-wrenching pain in my father’s voice as he recounted his younger years spent in foster care. All I could feel was the urge to fight for what was right. It would have been nice if my advocating led to instantaneous change. I knew a van could not magically appear, but I was holding that space for the girls. Each of my Father’s stories involved a move. One where the caseworker acted like he was going to Disney. He could take the clothes on his back and whatever could quickly be thrown in a trash bag. I promise this isn’t much. If you don’t believe me, try it. Grab a bag, set a timer for 10 minutes, and gather what you can not live without. You will be devastated by the reality these children face.

I advocated, then possibly over advocated and hit a brick wall. We were not allowed to help move their belongings, so we would have to choose what went them that day. I made quick decisions with a broken heart, leading my husband to the totes they absolutely had to take and prayed they fit in the trunk of the caseworker’s car. They were able to take all of their clothes, shoes, and necessities to stay clean and physically healthy. We grabbed as many bags, comfort items, and favorite things as we could and shoved them into her car.

I squared my shoulders and tucked my heart securely into two separate car seats. As my heart drove away, we blew kisses, and they yelled out the open windows, “I love you, Mommy!” Shattered and broken all for family… and not ours, all for their family’s future.

It is worth it.

When grief hits, it’s much worse than expected. All the anticipation does not minimize the inevitable shock of silence that settles into your home. The subtle reminders of their absence, like shower toys across the shower floor, towels piled up from the showering, and the last toy the toddler played with before her life was flipped upside down and as I crawl into bed, there just feet away is an empty toddler bed. It all serves as a reminder that everything is different now, for the girls and us! We feel it, not only on an emotional level but somewhere much deeper. It is like death, only different because the ones we miss are very much alive and out of reach. It is a confusing grief because it is wrapped up in the feeling of joy for their family. Reunification is the plan, and it is overwhelmingly beautiful.

As a mother, I fight for the space to feel ok, yet my heart reminds me that I am broken right now.

This is ok; it is ok that I am not ok.

I remember the moment I stared into the eyes of my new little ones. It feels like yesterday. Oh, my heart leaps at the memory of those big, brown eyes. It was love at first sight. I knew they weren’t mine and never would be, but the love I had for them matched what I knew of loving my own babes. My stomach flips as I remember absorbing the CPI’s words, they speak no English, and we know nothing. This could be a couple of hours or much longer. One tiny girl asleep in my husband’s arms and the other staring at me with wide eyes, saying way more than words ever could. A year later, I would learn exactly what she was thinking. My brave girl found the words to describe how terrified she was that night. She said, “You were a stranger to me. I did not trust you, but now I do.” While my body heaved in silent cries of pain and brokenness, I recalled those words and prayed, “Oh Lord, help her trust YOU now.” While her mother’s arms are where she belongs, change is hard.

Just like nothing can prepare you for the release of control as you say YES to your new placement… absolutely nothing can prepare you for the moment you release control of your, YES and they are driven away. When you are a foster family, you know loss awaits you. As a matter of fact, you sign up for the loss and welcome grief into your home. Essentially saying, “Yes, I will carry your burdens. I will experience loss for your personal gain. I will lose it all for you.”

This is where hope is birthed. In the dark, still hours of painful moments that can not be fixed, they can only be experienced. These sacred moments, while excruciating, expose the spaces of our hearts that are not surrendered to the Lord. They create a desperate need for a Savior, comforter, and healer.

Reminding me of the ultimate gift of love, freely given for the remission of my sins. Beautifully broken, my Savior gave his life on the cross. His blood poured out for me, for you. Surrounded by people who hated him and a few who adored him as a family member or friend, he chose you and me. This is my why. Because of God’s gift of salvation and the Holy Spirit, I choose to follow the example set for me. I will give everything I have to shepherd the lost home, lead the broken to the healer, and shelter the orphan until they are reunified. I know that God is faithful. His promises encourage, strengthen and embolden me to pursue Christlike love that leads me into devastation so I can experience healing and growth as I watch miracles happen right before my eyes.

1 John 3:16-17 MSG “This is how we’ve come to understand and experience love: Christ sacrificed his life for us. This is why we ought to live sacrificially for our fellow believers and not just be out for ourselves. If you see some brother or sister in need and have the means to do something about it but turn a cold shoulder and do nothing, what happens to God’s love? It disappears. And you made it disappear. ”

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