Fostering Afterword

“How has this experience changed you?”

That was the question a friend asked me about my first foster placement. My brain spun, searching for an answer, but I couldn’t find one for him. Months later, I still can’t. I know I’ve changed, but knowing how I’m changed is not that important to me. Right now, I’m focused on mending after a season of trauma.

Trauma scrambles the brain and the emotions, making truth-telling so much harder. This story has been locked inside me for months; I’m just starting to find words to pray. I’ve tried to write about my experience, even just for my own processing, but the story was locked up tight behind a wall of confusion and tears. Things are finally loosening up and now I want to share a bit of my story with you.

When I took in a young girl last year, I also took in her history. It was fed to me by social workers and therapists in tattered and disjointed pieces that, when gathered, told a story that no child should have to live. There were generations of family dysfunction, major traumatic events, and a chain of broken promises and misplaced blame. Every adult in this girl’s life failed her in big ways. Past trauma and present uncertainties made her anxious, angry, scared, and depressed. Those big emotions led to difficult and unpredictable behaviors, and to some unsafe situations. Every day was a battle. I fought for her and she fought me.

She was desperate for her family, for love, and for a sense of control in a fractured life, but she would have none of that. A judge determined the course of her future. She would never have the life with her family that she desperately prayed for every night at our dinner table. In her loss and grief, she could not accept the love I offered her. It wasn’t personal — I’m simply not who she wants. Somewhere in month four she declared me a primary villain in her tragedy and began to lash out in both passive-aggressive and openly aggressive ways.

I want you to know that love her. Yes, my heart broke over her history, but my love did not grow out of sympathy. I love her because of who she is underneath the PTSD and challenging behaviors. I wish you could have seen and known her as I did in her purest, happy moments. (And I weep that pure, happy moments were so few.) For all her quirks and difficulties, she was goofy and hilarious, shy yet curious, courageous and sweet. She enjoys lip-synching, spontaneous dance parties, YouTube, slime, drawing, unicorns, science, and hip hop music.

I battled for this brave, precious girl every way I knew how. I did my best to parry her behavioral and emotional sword thrusts with calm, patience, empathy, compassion, redirection, healthy boundaries, and reassurances of understanding and love. I tried to teach and show her that I was her ally, not her enemy. I tried to build up her sense of safety and stability. I advocated for all aspects of her wellness — physical, mental, relational, emotional, and spiritual. I sought the advice and skills of experts. I kindly but firmly battled a frazzled case worker who didn’t take our crisis seriously because, apparently, there were emergencies that took precedent. Maybe if things other than hearts were breaking, the case worker would have responded appropriately.

I spent every inner resource I had seeking help, but the stress of our daily life was too much. She was stuck and heartsick. I was stuck and physically depleted. Help wasn’t coming. My hardy immune system failed, succumbing to three major infections in two months. You can only live and battle hour-by-hour for so long. Eventually, I made the most difficult call of my life. I asked them to find her a new home.

In the foster care world this is called a disrupted or failed placement. I hate those words. I hate this reality. I hate that I had to make that phone call.

I hate that children are victimized. I hate that adults are weak and selfish and broken and sick, and don’t or can’t protect their children. I hate that trauma can rewire the brain and while healing is possible, I hate that it is slow. I hate that the best therapies we have don’t always work. I hate that “the system” is underfunded and mismanaged. I hate that social workers suffer an undue burden when all they want to do is help, and I hate that they don’t or can’t always help.

But most of all, I hate that she might hate me.

I mourn that she couldn’t accept my love and that she couldn’t love me back.

I wish that love was always enough.

I am heartbroken that our story together ended this way. I wanted more joy for her. More healing. More friends. More stability. More laughter. More smiles that reach her eyes. I wanted my home and family to be a place where she discovered so many more good things. Now I fear that she’s left my home with only the aftertaste of rejection and remembers nothing of the good and the love. So now I surrender my broken heart and broken hopes to God. I picture her future in God’s hands and pray that there will be overflowing goodness there.

I’m a bit broken but I’m also healing, slowly. I’m through that first, overwhelming wave of grief where you can’t think or see straight. Now I contend against the smaller (and sneakier) crashes of grief. They’re like waves at the beach that look like nothing on the surface but suddenly smack you off-balance, pull you under, and spit you out on the sand. I’m being swept over right now. I’m crying as I write this, dashed hopes stinging my eyes like salt water.

As hard as this was, I know a few things. There was and is some good in this story.

I know this was not a failure of love or resolve. I did everything I possibly could to keep us together and keep us well, but I’m not Jesus. I’m not super-human. I’m not a mental health professional or a child development specialist. I’m just a Jesus-follower who was called to work for justice by loving a vulnerable child. I’m an ordinary woman with a big heart and a spare bedroom and lots of time and life I want to share. So I got licensed and trained. I opened my home and fought wholeheartedly for as long as I could. But I’m human. I have limits and I reached them. It’s good to know your limits and to listen to them. I did my best, and my best was very good, but she needed more than I am equipped to provide.

I don’t regret that I spent my life and love this way. Sometimes good, valuable things are monumentally painful and costly. I know that I didn’t make the wrong decision — to be a foster parent, to love her, or to make that phone call.

So here I am. I’m a post-failed-placement foster parent. I’m rung out and a bit salty but getting back on my feet. I’m changed though I can’t say how. And I’m healing, though the process is slow and lonely. I know I’m going to be ok.

When someone you love is dying

My grandmother Betty battled cancer for more than a decade. Most of my memories of her are tinged by the effects of disease – terrible bloating and vomiting caused by experimental drugs, brutal rounds of chemo that made her hair fall out and grow back in different shades and textures, and our family spring break trips to Mayo Clinic when she was too weak to be at home.

Despite her prolonged illness, I remember many good things too. Grandma’s nickname was Mean Betty Jean but she was just the opposite: invariably kind and calm, with a gentle smile and a friendly chuckle that made me want to cuddle into her side. She taught me how to play card games like Crazy Eights and Kings in the Corners. Every year for Christmas, she bought me pajamas that came packaged with a matching stuffed animal; this was both delightful and silly.

Even though my grandmother was sick my entire childhood, I never realized that she was slowly dying. One ordinary Thursday I came home from school, made myself a snack and was eating it standing by the sink when my mom came in and told me that grandma had died. We stood there for a long time, quietly crying by the kitchen sink. I thought I’d share many more spring breaks with grandma. I was looking forward to another Crazy Eights tournament. But most of all, I wished I’d had the chance to say goodbye and to give her the best hug I had because I knew it would be our last.

Now in my mid-thirties, I’ve said goodbye to several beloved family members and friends. As a hospital and hospice chaplain, I helped people prepare for death and supported grieving families. With death and dying as the landscape of my daily work, I learned that while being a witness of death is never easy, it doesn’t have to be depressing or scary.

The time that precedes death can be the most beautiful time you share with someone you love. It’s a time to give and receive precious gifts. Not gems set in velvet boxes, but true words and actions. Things as simple and life-giving as presence, as saying I love you, as laughing over a hand of cards. These are gifts with the power to free souls from fear and pain and open them to gratitude and joy.

If your loved one is dying – my thoughts are with you. I pray you have the courage to give and receive the following gifts.

Talk about death. We often avoid the D-words – die, death, dying – because we fear it will be too painful for the one who is dying. In my professional experience, dying people want to talk about death. Unless they suffer from dementia, they know it’s their daily reality. Most want to acknowledge it, talk about it and prepare for it as best they can. They want the opportunity to review their lives, tell their stories, to confess their regrets, and seek forgiveness. How will they have a chance to do this important work, this emotional preparation, if we are afraid to accept their reality? One of the greatest gifts you can give your loved one is the freedom to openly face their death.

Know and honor their wishes. Terminal illness comes with an obstacle course of decisions. Do we pursue life-extending medical treatments? Will we manage the pain with narcotics or alternative therapies? What finances do we need to get in order? When and how should we prepare the memorial service? These are important questions, but too often families tackle them without consulting their loved one. Two of the greatest emotional struggles of the dying are loss of control and loss of identity. Asking your loved one about their wishes, and following through with them, honors their personhood. It helps them retain an important strand of control. Start with Five Wishes and advance directives.

Address the bucket list. People who are dying often daydream about what they would do if they had unlimited time and resources. For many, this ‘bucket list’ may not be written on paper, so talk to your loved one about what they want to do with their remaining time. Many bucket list items can be accomplished outright but you might need to do the legwork. Other items might be beyond your loved one’s physical capabilities, but could be modified to achieve the same sense of satisfaction.

Consider hospice. While hospitals do what they can to create a comfortable environment, it’s not an ideal place to share your final days. Hospice provides 24-hour on-call support for patients and families in a variety of settings: private homes, retirement communities, skilled nursing facilities, and in-patient hospice units. It is a free benefit of Medicare, Medicaid (in 47 states) and of most private insurance carriers. A consistent, interdisciplinary care team – including a physician, nurses, a social worker, and a spiritual care provider – will manage medications, address pain, provide informed and compassionate guidance as things change, and generally enhance your loved one’s quality of life. Not all hospices offer the same range of services, so ask for referrals in your area. If you have more questions, start here.

Share simple pleasures. It’s easy to get distracted by all the details that come with caring for a loved one. Meetings with lawyers and ministers are important, but no more so than surrounding your loved one with what gives life to their soul. Focus on simple things. Cook their favorite meal, even if they can only enjoy a few bites or the smell. Hold hands. Reminisce and tell your loved one why you cherish them. Say I love you. Put a cozy lounge chair in the garden and share the sunshine and the quiet. Have a family movie night. Read their favorite stories aloud. Let the grandkids star in a family concert or play. This will be their comfort and joy.

Let them apologize. It’s natural to seek forgiveness and express regret at the end of life. Research shows that the dying seek forgiveness in three categories: the forgiveness of God, of others and of self. Surprisingly, the data says that forgiveness of self is the most difficult category. Seeking the forgiveness of others is certainly a doorway to forgiving ourselves. Families often try to deflect, minimize or avoid such apologies because they don’t want their loved one to feel burdened by grief. Well friends, grief is unavoidable at this point. The good news is that letting your loved one speak their truth is precisely the thing that can lighten their burdens. So when they speak, don’t interrupt. Take deep breaths and listen until they are finished. Then offer words of acceptance and love.

Let yourself be weak. If I had a dollar for every time I heard a family member say I have to be strong… I know this is difficult advice, but it’s much kinder to let yourself fall apart from time to time. Have a good cry in the shower. Go into the basement or the woods and yell. Confess your fears and struggles to a good friend or counselor. Cry out before God. These are better coping skills than trying to rigidly harness the emotions that come with losing someone you love. Grief is an unruly thing; it comes and goes in unpredictable, sometimes turbulent, waves. Try though we might, the tide is not something we can control. It’s best to ride the cresting waves and trust that they will deposit you on shore.

Care for yourself. It’s okay to care for yourself even when your loved one is dying. In fact, it’s critical. Stress and grief will upset your ability to assess your needs, so listen to your friends and family when they say you need a break. Let them take you out for coffee or to the spa. Accept their casseroles, their offers to clean your house and their long hugs. These things are like a good saline drip to a body parched from grief. Plus, it will give them a practical way to help you, which is what they desperately want to do.

Plan a memorial service. This part of the grieving process can be difficult, but also incredibly healing. Through words, music, prayers, pictures, flowers and food you can craft a gathering that honors the life of your loved one. Invite family and friends to contribute and do the work together. You’ll laugh and cry and discover later that this is when the mending began.

Stay connected to God. Friends, this is the time for raw and real prayers. This is a time to use the Psalms like prayers when you have no words of your own. This is a time to sit on the floor in your closet and open your hands to heaven. It’s a time to acknowledge your weakness. To ask for comfort and for the strength for one more day together. It’s a time to realize that God is in every moment working for your good and for the good of your loved one. And when pain, fear, and confusion come, this is when you’ll need to trust that things are not as they seem. Remember that God is with you, doing the unseen, gathering you all under the shadow of his wings.

 

Have mercy on me, my God, have mercy on me,
    for in you I take refuge.
I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings
    until the disaster has passed.
Psalm 57:1