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Processing Grief

In the summer of 2008, the world of foster care found my family and I.  We weren’t seeking it out; we had two little ones, a boy who was nearly 3 and one who was 9 months old.  But when I happened to be in the right place at the right time when the daughter of a friend of mine was removed, I volunteered to take her home with me.  I called my husband, asking him to leave work early and meet a social worker at our house.  We had no idea how much that moment would deeply impact our lives. 

We didn’t know what the future would hold.  We knew what the social workers told us, and what we saw as the truth from our perspective.  We knew that a judge signed an order requiring her to stay in state care.  We didn’t, however, know what foster care would mean, how it would impact our children, if she would stay, or what our family would look like in a year. 

I took her home and began untangling a perpetual knot: her tummy was hard and she had awful gas; she was dehydrated and being fed the wrong formula.  We had to borrow a crib to pass the homestudy, and she had serious colic.  She would cry from 5 o’clock in the evening until 1 o’clock in the morning, every night…for a couple of months.  The system began dictating our lives; we had to consult a manual before we could rearrange our house, being certain we were complying with state regulations on sleeping arrangements.  Visitations began dominating our weeks as our schedule wrapped around the trek downstate for her parents to visit with her.

And we became attached; very, very attached.  We fell madly in love with her.  We caught her first smiles, her first giggles.  We watched her learn to sit up on her own and enjoy rolling a ball.  We watched her crawl for the first time, and we have a home video of her playing with a guitar while lying on her belly in our living room, maybe 8 months old.  She took her first steps, celebrated her first birthday, and began calling us muh-muh and duh-duh just like our children did.  On all days except Tuesdays, it felt like she was ours.  We knew, we always knew, that tomorrow was never guaranteed.  Everytime I saw a new pair of shoes a few sizes bigger on clearance or shopped for next season’s jackets, I wondered: would I be the one to put them on her or would she be gone?  Every celebration was bittersweet: would this be our last together as a whole family?

The years passed, and as she reached 2.5 years old, her foster care case came to a close.  She was ordered to return home, and our fairy-tale ended.  On a cold December morning, she was roused from her slumber, carried downstairs, rocked in our living room, slowly dressed, carried into our kitchen, sat at the table, and fed breakfast.  She didn’t touch her food.  In a brief picture that was snapped that morning, she looks somber, forlorn.  When the appropriate time came, her hands were wiped off, her sippy of juice replaced to the table.  Her jacket was retrieved, her hat removed from the sleeve.  With all the strength I could muster, I slipped the hat on her head.  I zipped up her jacket.  I kissed her on her soft head, held her close, told her mommy loves her, and handed her off to my husband.  He solemnly carried her out the front door to the car her mother had parked in my driveway.  She was buckled into her carseat and driven off.  I haven’t seen her since.

On Thursday, the weather around here began to break.  My kids were able to go out and about without wearing a jacket.  Spring is coming.  We went to a local children’s museum with some friends, and on the way back we had to stop at the grocery store.  Singing along to some song I had just heard on the radio, I bounced to the back of my van to unbuckle my middle son.  And for a split moment, I went to unbuckle her.  Instead, I found the empty space where her carseat once sat.  I closed my eyes, and she was still there.  I’ve memorized every line on her face, her chubby toddler hands, the space where her nose meets her forehead - between her eyes – my favorite place to kiss.  For a moment, she was still there; my heart wasn’t broken. 

Having other children while losing one is both a blessing and a curse; I am grateful that life goes on.  I am grateful I don’t have to stop to think about my pain so often – I am far too busy caring for the 3 that still remain.  But in those moments, those times where life marches on, sometimes I still see her sweeping through our family, resuming her usual place in our lives.  It has jolted all of us, and my children often talk about her.  At one point, my son asked me if we would ever have a sister, “You know, one who doesn’t have to go away?”  My three year old asks, at least once a week, where she is, if she is still living with her mom.  These questions are usually followed up by, is she gone forever?  Yes, sweetheart, she is gone forever.

I don’t know how to answer these questions.  Most times I go with the brutal truth, watered down enough to be palateable for small children.  Most times I feel okay telling them, “Mommy really misses your sister today.”  Sometimes I think I do get it wrong, like the times my oldest has caught me bad-mouthing the way her case ended and her family decided to cease all communications with us.  But most days I let him know it’s okay to cry, it’s okay to hurt.  And I try to show them that, through it all, we will survive.  We are strong, we are blessed, and they are loved.  And usually that’s enough, for slowly her vivid memory is fading, being replaced by newly packed memories, moments she never shared with us.  Slowly we are growing into a family of 5, no longer a family of 6.

About Jen Salowitz

I am a mama to 3 boys. I strive to live a greener, healthier live while preserving my children's innocence. I enjoy reading, learning more about natural birth and health-care, and playing the piano!


Comments (19)

That is so hard. I am happy that the baby was able to be reunited, but so sad that the foster family had to lose their little girl. What amazing people these foster parents are.
Bless your heart...I can't even imagine the heartache.
My friend is looking at having two of her foster children return to their parents soon. Knowing all the brokenness that they are going to is tearing her up...but as this article shared the system dictates so much and so long as the check-list is completed it seems that common sense doesn't seem to play into the decision of whether or not these children should return 'home'. This article shared a glimpse into what my friend is going through...I pray this small insight will help me support her through that time of transition. Thank you for sharing your heart with us. I cannot imagine the pain of saying 'goodbye'. Foster families really are such a blessing.
This makes my heart ache. I can't imagine. I hurt, especially, for the little girl who wants to know where her mom and dad are - the ones who raised her for the first 2.5 years of her life.
I feel mostly bad for that little baby girl who had to leave her family and the only parents she has ever known. I cannot believe that was really the Childs best interest.
I am so sorry. Your post filled me with tears for you and for me. We adopted 2 children from my husbands family through foster care in a similar situation. We weren't looking for them but they found us. The time when I never knew what was happening was so incredibly painful every day. I loved them and I never wanted them to leave. It took 2 years for their case to be done and I thank my divine lucky stars every day that I didn't lose them. It is still hard. We have frequent contact with their birth parents and that is difficult for me every time. Hurts me but I don't know how I would have lost them and I know 100% it would be like losing a child to death and I just tried to imagine that I did the best I could. I am so sorry and I can imagine your pain but not truly feel it like you do. I hope you and your family recover from the loss and I will be thinking healing thoughts for you.
Removing this precious baby from her family-her REAL family of 2 years- is evil working in our world. I don't care the circumstances. My heart is breaking for you, the grown-ups and kids who understand together, but more so for this little girl, who is grieving in so many ways alone. God bless you and your family for the two years of joy, peace and stability she had with you. I know a little boy who didn't have even that, and the harm at age 13 seems irreparable, now. There is a very healing book, Captivating, that talks about how women love, and there is a quotation that I hope will heal some of your wounds, someday. "We are not living in the world our souls were made for." Crying with you today.
This is a heartbreaking story. As a mom of a toddler I am moved to tears just reading about the pain of having to say goodbye. These parents gave this little girl an amazing gift by providing her with such love and care during her first years.
I feel your pain. I have been there. I'm so sorry for your loss. I hope one day you can see her again.
Thank you for this wonderful article. I am a foster mother as well. My oldest became our son through foster care and we currently take only emergency placements for short periods of time and only little children as my own children are 5 and 2. I appreciate that Mothering has included a more comprehensive view of mothering onto their site, this has often been one thing I have hoped Mothering would incorporatate somehow. Often people dismiss the emotions tied into being a non traditional mother, but this article vividly shows these emotions and provides wonderful insight into the pain and reality of opening your home to a child that needs love. While being a foster parent has had many strong parts that would take pages to write about, there is one big aspect of fostering that keeps most from being so brave and that is the loss and grief. This loss and grief is real and while it is hard for both parents and children, there is something to be gained from the love you teach your children to share with strangers who become family. Thank you for sharing your story and sorrow. What a blessing for your foster daughter, you obviously provided her great strength in a mighty storm in her life. You have also taught your own children such a valuable lesson about love, we have to appreciate it while it is there and take risks. Sometimes it's loving something you know you will loss that teaches us the most. Many will only love what is safe and secure, but to love someone like this and know that you will likely feel the pain, is really deep and something that I admire!
This is truly heartbreaking. I'm in tears. I can't begin to imagine how you are feeling, but I know how I feel just reading your words. I'm sad for your little girl that must feel so lost and abandoned. And for the emptiness in your heart. It was so brave and selfless of you to take her in. I will make sure to say a prayer for my her tonight along with a prayer for my baby girl and hug her that much more. Thank you for sharing your story with us.
Your post brings back bitter-sweet memories. I was an older child whose parents took in foster children. While their decision was deliberate and well planned, we had many experiences like you describe. Did it affect me? Yes! Do I wish it was not a part of my experience? Never! What a wonderful blessing you were to this child, to her parents- who now have her back, and what a blessing she was to you and your family. The pain will dull, it will never go away, but you will come to value it. Thank you for being the difference in the life of this child! Laura
I don't know that the goal of returning a child to the biological parents is always right. This child has a bond with her foster parents, but because the biological parents' rights trump hers, she was removed from those who raised her, the people she knew as mom and dad, to be given to visitors who took 2 1/2 years to finally meet the parenting plan requirements. The child was emotionally injured so those who match her DNA could have her. That wasn't best for her.
I have to agree with "Mom to a princess". If a parent can't manage to get their act together in 8 months or less, that's a good sign things will likely turn worse again in the future. How is this right for a child? Given to people that took 2 1/2 years to get their act together to get her back?! "Biological" means nothing to that child, but love, security and comfort do, and those were taken away from her by giving her back to her so-called "rightful" parents. Just sad for everyone involved, I wish the government would take a closer look at they way they handle foster children's best interests.
this is beautiful. i was a foster-sibling growing up, as in my parents took in foster children. we provided care for 5 babies from the time i was 11 until i was 16. most were shorter placements--from 5 days to 3 weeks. but one was with us for almost 2 years. he came to us when he was 3 months old and was adopted by another family with his biological siblings when he was almost 2. the time when he left, when i was 13 years old, was incredibly painful, but the move was definitely in his best interest. he is a thriving teenager now...my parents have run into his adoptive parents. and, for my brothers and i, the experience of being foster siblings for those years was incredibly powerful. it has affected how we've each chosen to spend our lives, with a focus on social justice, and has created a bond and common set of beliefs between the three of us, who are all very different in other regards. now, more than 15 years later, i feel so incredibly fortunate to have been able to be a part of his life, and to provide a safe and loving home, even it is was not able to be permanent. other cases did not work out as well, and were much more painful for our family and the children involved, as dictated by the "system", but jennifer, i hope that your experience proves to be as life-giving for your family and daughter as it was for us. blessings to you.
I am a mother whose two children were taken into foster care. I missed my six month old baby's first tooth, his first crawl forwards, his first Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. I read your post and I sobbed my heart out because the process of reuniting my children, who had become part of another family, was so heartwrenching for all of us. I developed a strong, strong bond with their foster mother, who tried her very hardest to keep our family intact and especially to tell my 3 year old every day how much I loved her. Without the dedication of such a wonderful woman, I don't know how we all would have survived. She loved my children to bits and they became completely her own and yet she was strong enough to reassure me that my baby knew I was his mother, that I had been the person breastfeeding him for six months, that we had an unbreakable bond even though I could only see him for two hours a week. That raw grief of losing children you adore and being powerless to stop it was something I was forced to suffer through and then, of course, it happened in reverse, to my children's foster mother, brother and sister. My daughter had to go through the hell of her entire life being turned upside down, and I wouldn't wish that on anyone, but I pray every day that she knew that she was loved at every step of the way. It is people like you, Jennifer, and my children's foster mother, that are the unsung heroes of a little girl or boy's life.
Thank you for your replies. It is truly touching to read so many wonderful stories and words of inspiration. It brings tears to my eyes, and the deepest gratitude from the bottom of my heart. Thank you.
As a former foster child that was reunited with my family after 3 years, I have a bit of a different opinion from some of the comments above. While my heart goes out to the author of this article, I can also empathize with the mother. I'm glad this child was lucky enough to have a stable placement for her entire time in foster care. Most don't. In my 3 years, I was moved to 3 foster homes, 2 group homes, and several hospitals. I went to 6 different high schools, 4 in just 2 years. And I was a "good" kid. In my time in foster care I met sooooo many kids that would give anything to be in stable placement that would keep them for even a few months, let alone 2-1/2 years. While I too grieve for the loss of the connection to the foster family, we do not have all the facts in this case to judge whether it was the right decision to send the child home or not. Everyone has struggles. Everyone deserves another chance at making things right, even the biological mother. On behalf of all foster children and biological families, I would like to thank the author of this piece for the sacrifices and care she gave this child. The foundation for self-esteem and self love that was laid with the love and care you provided will be remembered, even if it doesn't seem so. Thank you.
Thank you for sharing this so beautifully. We are Foster Parents as well, and have also experienced and I am sure will experience lots more, the impact returns to the family of origin evoke. It is never easy. But for what we provide the children it is always worth it. Thanks for doing your job so well. Bless you. Dar
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