Helping a Child Grieve

When we took our initial foster-care placement for respite care, we did not expect to be told after our first weekend together that our kiddo’s foster parent had unexpectedly died. No one plans for such things. Not adults. Certainly not children. In our shock and concern for the kiddo, we decided to become her permanent foster family. It didn’t make sense to us to uproot a child again when she had comfortably settled into our respite placement. The choice to become her foster family was easy, but helping her grieve and honor her lost family has been much, much harder.

I am neither a parenting expert nor a grief one. As her new foster parents, though, we have had to shepherd her through her own grieving process. Her grief hits in fits and sputters of anger and deep-rolling sobs of despair. Sometimes she seems to have accepted that her parent has died, and other times she’s lonely and sad and missing her old family.

We believe that we have helped her grieve by allowing her to talk about her home. She talks incessantly of her home, meaning her old foster home. We ask her questions about her home, her dog, her parent, and we listen patiently as the kiddo tells (and retells) stories about her family. We have told her explicitly and repeatedly that it does not make us sad to hear her talk about her old life and that she is free to talk about it as much as she wants.

We validate all of her feelings:  the good and the bad. Is she punching a pillow because she’s filled with rage that she’ll never go home? We sit beside her and tell her it’s okay to be angry. Is she quiet and sad and telling us that she just wants her parent to be alive again for just even 10 days? Even just 10 minutes? We tell her we understand that. When she’s humming with joy and radiating zeal, we are happy that she’s happy. When she asks questions about death and the afterlife, we talk about death matter-of-factly. We read a few children’s books together about death. These topics have never been taboo whenever she brings them up.

More than anything, though, we have let her grieve on her own schedule. She doesn’t have to fit some preconceived notions of what she should or should not feel at which point in time. When she was adamant that she did not want to go to the memorial service, we did not push the issue. We certainly raised it the next day, but we respected the “no!” Weeks later when she started talking about knowing where to find an old pet that had been buried in her backyard, I picked up on something in her voice and asked her then if she’d like to visit her parent’s grave. “YES!”

I found out later, however, that the kiddo’s parent was cremated; she could never visit the grave to leave flowers and say goodbye that way. Instead, we decided to plan an alternate memorial service for her parent. I asked the kiddo all kinds of guiding questions about how she’d like to honor her parent (Some people plant trees or flowers or make donations. Do you like the idea of any of those things? How would you feel if the tree died because it is also a living thing? No? Okay, what about…, what should we wear? What should we do?) Through this kind of questioning, we settled on having a picnic down by the river, all of us wearing blue (her parent’s favorite color), with a bouquet of blue flowers that the kiddo would throw one by one into the river. She made a special trip to the florist with me to pick out the flowers herself.

The day of the picnic was unseasonably lovely for August in Kansas. The kiddo was both sad and happy, a truly bittersweet moment as she held the memorial service for her deceased parent. This was the kiddo’s memorial service, and she took genuine ownership of it as she helped even to plan what we’d pack for the picnic (and then helped pack it). This was her moment to honor her parent and to say goodbye. While the grief certainly hasn’t ended, we took an important step that day.

I recall what I had told the kiddo weeks and weeks and weeks ago: I am so happy that we became a family, but so, so sorry that it happened the way that it did.

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