How To Say Goodbye
“‘I could never do that. I’d love them too much. I wouldn’t be able to say goodbye.’
Too many times to recall, the response to me being a foster carer is met with some version of, ‘I could never do that. I’d love them too much. I could never say goodbye.’
A knife through the collective heart of foster carers everywhere. Because actually, it’s much harder than you think.
First, let me tell you, you will love them, and you will love them hard.
It will pain you to hear them cry…just as it did your own because you want the hurt to end the moment they are in your arms. It will pain you to see them struggle to make a friend at school because you know they have so much love to give to another, and It will pain you to not be able to breastfeed the newborn…because you so desperately want to be able to give something of yourself to them.
And as your time with them rolls on, you realize…when you hear yourself talking about them at the end of a long and tricky day…when you see them faced with seemingly impossible expectations they’re used to just riding.…when you remember reading details of the removal – the turmoil they have faced and the trauma that has wounded their essence – the love you have will soar for them.
And when it settles, it will do so in a much deeper place than you would ever have imagined possible. But that’s not even the part that hurts. It’s the, ‘I wouldn’t be able to say goodbye’ part.
The thing is, you just can’t foster to adopt. It’s important to enter the fostering process with an authentic willingness to support reunification. You are temporarily looking after children who cannot reside at home for a period of time.
So, we all know we will be saying goodbye to the children who come into our care. That doesn’t make it easy for us. In fact, it’s much harder than you think.
As a foster carer, you are stepping into a commitment that will inevitably see your biological children suffer. You are basically allowing your own children – encouraging them – to form a loving relationship with a sibling who you know will leave them.
You are modeling for them ways to fast-track knowing this little person on a much deeper level than they know their school friends or cousins, and all the while, you know that one day, sooner or later, they will be helping you pull down the books from the shelf that belong to them.
They will be helping you slide photos into an album of the camping trip you all took together and they will be helping you remember which scooter is theirs so that you pack the right one.
Basically, you are setting your biological children up for heartbreak.
When you say, ‘I would never be able to say goodbye,’ next time picture this:
Lying on a single bed and facing into her, she wants to bury her head into her little sister’s soul. Her sobbing cries rise and fall from desperate to heartbreak to regret to confusion. Her fair-skinned limbs wanting to merge into one being with her charcoal-skinned sister, begging, pleading, with me not to let her go.
She is hugging everything she grew to love about her. Everything she wanted their lives to be together. Everything they had already built.
I know that, give it a year or maybe a bit less, she will stop asking.
Stop asking for the girl she knew as her sister. She’ll stop pleading to invite her over. She’ll stop wondering out loud about how her day was at school, about whether she still uses her dollhouse, about whether she has learned how to swim now.
She’ll stop, but it’s not because she will forget. She’ll never forget her now. She was with us too long for her to merge into the others. She’ll stop asking because she knows that she had to say goodbye.
That she always has to say goodbye.
It’s much harder than you think.
The Time After Reunification
When a child you have loved and cared for as your own is reunified, you sit at home, and the room is quiet.
Every room is quiet, even though the chatter and the television and the kettle boiling. It’s just quiet.
It’s not unlike a death.
You doze off in an exhausted but light and unsure sleep, only to be startled to wake by a noise that you thought was familiar. ‘Where is,’ …and then you remember, ‘Oh, that’s right.’ You need to remind yourself that the child went home.
For a while, all you can think about is them. There is a piece of your heart, of your whole being, missing. And it will always be that way, varying in intensity. You rush through dinner, longing for the still, longing for dark, so you can be alone in your thoughts. But then you can’t help but wonder. What they must be thinking.
Does she think I just got sick of her? Maybe that she cried too much? Or that she stopped being cute? Does she think that I didn’t really like her in the first place? And that she wasn’t really wanted after all? Then, you go a little further.
You wonder if they will call out for you in the dark stillness of night before their room becomes familiar. You wonder if they will find comfort in the familiar smell of their teddy before it gets washed again. And you wonder if they look for you, trying to recognize you in the people around them now. You wonder if they will try to write to you when they are a little older and want to make contact again. And then, you wonder if they will remember you at all.
As the weeks pass and you haven’t heard from or about them, all you can do is cling to the hope that they don’t need you anymore. That they don’t need help anymore. That they are safe, and happy, and cared for and forming attachments and getting bigger and stronger and that all is well in their world.
It’s literally all you can do.
It’s much harder than you think.
Time rolls on. Your family feels a little fractured. And you remember that you have never actually felt whole since you decided to be a foster parent. Even with the busiest of households, there will forever be children missing at the dinner table. You will always miss carrying that sweet babe out of her cot. And even with the most beautiful of family photos, there will be faces lingering in the spaces around the people who remain.
It’s about now that we foster carers question ourselves, question if it’s all worth it. And we feel more aligned with your response. Maybe I do love them too much. Maybe it really is just too hard to say goodbye. Maybe…none of it really makes sense at all. And down the rabbit hole, we go.
Why can’t we just do the things that normal people do? Have babies, care for our own, not expose our children to the reality of abuse and neglect and pain upon pain. Why can we just live a life in relative safety, not being confronted by and tasked with holding space for children with trauma? Why can’t we just turn a blind eye?
Forget about trauma, brain injuries, physical injuries, fetal alcohol, behavioral specialists, therapies, special needs, support teachers, learning plans, medication, sensory toys….sadness.
It’s much harder than you think.
Moving On From Grief
Carefully, I go into her bedroom. Everything is gone now; the toys, the clothes, the jewelry box with the little ballerina. I sit on the bed and listen to the memories of stories read, conversations had, questions asked, and hugs given. I run my hands over the wall and remember lying here, on the day I was waiting for her, full of strength and promises and hope and honor. And I let that sit.
Glancing up onto a shelf, I see a little blessings card deck. I don’t remember changing the card in a while, I am not sure anyone else has either. I walk over to it and see that the one facing me says, ‘A generous heart, a life of service…and compassion… are the things which renew humanity’ (Buddhist teaching). I think about this for a while.
The reality of foster care is that it’s much more complex than just loving children and finding it hard to say goodbye. It’s much harder than that, and it’s much more important than that. And slowly, through your hot salty tears and racing heart, I realize I am smiling.
This is where it’s at. This is what it is about.
Because the thing is, once you know the need, truly know and witness the need, no longer can you shut your eyes to it.
Once you’re a foster carer, and your heart is open (truly open) to meeting the children exactly where they’re at. To intentionally and vulnerably choosing to join them in their pain, to walk beside them as they navigate their trauma, and to get up each morning and advocate for them in every aspect of their lives…you will never go back.
You can’t un-hear the things they tell you. You can’t unread the things that happened to them. Their need is too powerful to not raise your hand to them.
I leave the room, slowly, and wander into the kitchen, again turning the kettle to boil. I look over to the couch and watch my children in the aftermath of this most recent saying goodbye. Yes, there is sadness. But also, I know.
Their eyes are open to what a meaningful life could look like. To what it means to live a life of service and compassion. And I think about how lucky they have been to show love to a child who thought they were unlovable, and to receive love from a child who learned how to give it. And to accept that in life, everything comes to an end, even if that end is heartbreakingly painful.
I know that in a few days’ time, the phone will ring again.
I will listen to the request of this child new to me. I will feel into my heart and I will listen to my body’s response. I hear the words, but also I know the request is more than if I have space in my home. More than if I have more love in my heart.
The request is if I am willing to go there again. If I am willing to love another too much while knowing that we will, again, have to say goodbye.
I say yes.
Even though it’s much harder than you think. Because it’s much more important than that.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Amy Banson. You can follow her journey on Instagram and Facebook. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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