Foster Parent Debriefing: What is it & How does it Work?

We have to start with the basic premise that foster parents DO grieve when a child they love moves to a new house.  No matter how positive the move might be in the long run, or how hard the placement was, a foster parent will FEEL loss when they leave.  This aspect of foster parenting is rough and one most foster parents are not prepared for until it happens.

Grief for foster parents is complicated by grief that isn't clear cut, the child is still alive, still doing well, just not with us.  

And for longterm 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, because really how can anyone process all of that?  Where would you even start?

In any less than clear grief situation, 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.

I propose a new concept called foster parent debriefing.  I have had a grand total of 5 placements so far, but only 2 of those kids were long enough and held a deep enough place in my heart that I feel like I need to process, to grief them.  Every person and every placement is different, but I want to grieve them one by one so that my heart can be healed up and open to the next child who walks through my door.  That child deserves a whole heart-ed Mamma, so I will do what is in my power to give it to them.

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 really IS healing.

After a significant 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.

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 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.

**IF you are not a foster parent, but you're the friend/family member of one, ask questions about the child's time with them.  Be interested.  Listen to their stories.  It is a great gift.