Foster Care: Broken Pieces, Beautiful Story

In blogging about my grief, I face two challenges.  One, I need to be careful of the confidentiality foster care requires.  And two, I don’t want to draw unnecessary attention to my particular sadness.  We all have lost, or will lose, and there is no reason why anybody should be focusing on my specific pain.

I write primarily because it helps me process and it helps me heal, something I desperately need right now.  That means if no one reads this very long and piecemeal post, it will still have accomplished its purpose.

If you do read it, my hope is that it will help you to have greater awareness of what it means to be a foster parent, or really to engage in any ministry where someone suffers loss, so that you can give greater support and sympathy to those you know in the thick of it, and even consider pursuing a similar calling yourself.

* * *

“The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”
~ Psalm 34:18

* * *

I remember last summer when he first entered our home.  It was nearing 10:00 at night.  We had only a couple hours’ notice.  Incredibly tiny, he lay asleep in his carseat.  We signed the papers and the social worker left, and we watched him lying there, still sleeping.

Elanor unfortunately was not sleeping.  At 13 months she was going through a stage of sleep trouble, and she joined Ben for a late-night trip to the grocery store to buy formula and diapers, since he had arrived with very little.  The baby slept on, so after Elanor fell asleep, we went to bed ourselves, only to be wakened in a couple hours to give him our first bottle.

In the morning, David stumbled sleepy out of his room and did a double-take.  Ben sat on the couch bottle-feeding a baby that had appeared out of nowhere, while I was busy preparing breakfast.  Soon after the phone calls and appointments and visits started.  It was our new normal.

* * *

“If You’re all You claim to be,
Then I’m not losing anything.
So I will crawl upon my knees,
Just to know the joy of suffering.
I will love You enough to let go.
Lord, I give you my life;
I give you my life.

“When did love become unmoving?
When did love become unconsuming?
Forgetting what the world has told me,
Father of love, You can have me.
You can have me.”

~ Sidewalk Prophets

* * *

I remember learning that I would probably lose him.  It was early December in the late afternoon, an unusually warm day, so I was at the playground with my children.  I was standing in the playground parking lot when I found out.

I kept breathing in and out while my children played.  We walked home.  I told Ben.  He was about to leave for a church event and the kids needed dinner and we couldn’t process it right then.  We talked about it more later and fell asleep feeling numb.

Was it the next morning or a few mornings later that it snowed?  I looked out at the falling snow already drifting on the ground.  I had woken up in tears and it kept snowing and I kept crying.

* * *

“I do not believe that sheer suffering teaches. If suffering alone taught, all the world would be wise, since everyone suffers. To suffering must be added mourning, understanding, patience, love, openness, and the willingness to remain vulnerable.”
~ Anne Morrow Lindbergh

* * *

I’m going to call him Little Mister now, because he’s not really our foster baby anymore.  He’s hardly a baby anymore.  And I want to make space for another foster baby to come into our family.  Little Mister is one of our nicknames for him.  As is Buster Boo, but that one really makes no sense.

To be honest, it drives me crazy that I can’t write his name online or post pictures.  I totally get why that is not allowed in foster care.  My mind gets it.  The writer in my heart wants to write his name because it is one of my favorite names now.  It is so beautiful that I wish you knew it.  And I won’t even get into what you are missing not seeing his picture.  He only has one of the best smiles in the world.

* * *

I only miss you when I'm breathing
~ Jason DeRulo, Breathing

I don’t like the lyrics of the rest of the song since I think it represents an ultimately unhealthy response to grief.  But those haunting lines I love.  Yes, that is true.  I only miss him when I am breathing.  I only feel that absence, that hole dug out of my heart, all. the. time.

* * *

I remember weaning David at 12 months, and Elanor, at 20 months.  Each time I felt like it should be an important event, but it wasn’t really.  It just slipped by.

When they were born, I was breastfeeding around the clock, probably for a total of eight hours a day or more.  It defined my life, those hours in the rocking chair where I could finish a book in a day and bond more deeply with my baby than I had thought imaginable.  Most times I loved it; occasionally I didn’t.  I wish I had known how truly short-term it would be.

Because life changed.  Soon it was taking me a week to get through a book, since they were nursing faster and less frequently.  Then they were eating solid foods.  They were crawling.  We nursed twice a day.  Once a day.  Every other day.  Hardly at all.  One day we stopped and though I felt it, they hardly noticed.

It was like that, losing Little Mister.  I wanted a gradual transition, and that was what I got, thankfully, though at times I felt it was killing me.  The transition took a few months, all spring and into summer.

At first he was gone for 24 hours.  I packed his bags.  I worried all day before he left.  I felt achingly empty with him gone.  But any mother can handle 24 hours away from her baby, and I got used to it.

And then a weekend.  Then a long weekend.  Suddenly I am his daycare, all day, Monday through Friday.  We are all getting used to this, and the gradualness is healthy for him and for David and Elanor.  We start talking about him like he is a friend who sometimes comes for a visit.  How nice that we get to see him tomorrow!  Like a frog in water that is gradually heating up, they hardly notice what is happening.  That he is about to leave.

* * *

 “Why are you in despair, O my soul?  And why have you become disturbed within me?  Hope in God, for I shall again praise Him for the help of His presence.”
~ Psalm 42:5

* * *

I remember the day he left.  In a way it was such a normal day.  I had Bible study that night, and the next day we were going on a boat trip.  David and Elanor were all excited about the boat trip.

I knew it wouldn’t be the last time we saw him, that we would have a visit again next week.

I also knew as the afternoon wore on, I felt physically ill.  I was busy.  Taking care of three little ones is always busy, and I was trying to pack up his toys to send with him, and I couldn’t find one of the pieces to his boat.  I still can’t find it, and it bothers me.

David trailed him down the stairs to the door as he left.  “Do you know he can say a few words now?  He can say my name!  Goodbye, Little Mister!”

* * *

“There will be a day with no more tears, no more pain, and no more fears.
There will be a day when the burdens of this place, will be no more;
We’ll see Jesus face to face.”
~ Jeremy Camp

* * *

I knew David would have a hard time with his leaving, but I wasn’t counting on Elanor’s response.  For a year she had been the middle child, with a real-life doll to bottle-feed and play with and otherwise mother.  Now she is the baby again.

She keeps crawling around the house.  She found a bottle the other day and started sucking on it.  She even tried to get into the stuff beneath my desk, like he always did. 

She talks about him several times a day.  The other night she was crying in bed, “Little Mister leaved!”

“I know,” I say.  “But we’ll see him in a few days.”  We are counting down those days.

* * *

“He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand.  He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God.  Many will see and fear and put their trust in the Lord.”
~ Psalm 40:2-3

* * *

I remember picking him up for a visit the first time, a week after he left our home.  We found the place, parked the van, and all went inside.  David and Elanor were curious and ecstatic.  What is this place like?  Where is he?

He was sitting in a highchair, eating banana.  When he saw me, he started to cry.  I know his cry, and it was an angry cry.  I don’t know why he was angry.  Was it that they took away his banana to pack him up?  Was it that he hadn’t seen me in a week?  It was like his cry was yelling, “Where have you been?!”

He kept looking at me and crying while they wiped him up, and cried until they handed him to me.  I was briefly in tears, and David and Elanor were smothering him with hugs.  The people there watched, obviously a bit surprised by the show.

“How long did you have him?  Since a newborn?  I could never do foster care, it would be so hard!  At least you can visit him!”

We planned to take him swimming, but he did not want to splash in the water.  He would rather keep his arms around my neck.  I didn’t mind a bit.

* * *

“Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows….”
~ Isaiah 53:4

* * *

Stepping into the foster care world introduced me to a new level of hurt.

I’ve learned that though my specific situation may be unusual, my loss is in no way unique.  Maybe this sounds weird, but I feel at times like I have joined a community of everyone who has grieved.  It’s a really big community, that will eventually include everyone.

Grief is normal.  Even losing a child is normal.  In 21st century America we’re somewhat insulated from the number of tragedies that have struck throughout history and even now around the world.  But still we all, at some point, lose.

When someone says to me, “I could never do foster care.  I could never lose the baby,” I understand that response, but I also feel a bit bewildered.  Of course you could.  You’re human.  That’s what we do.  We all suffer.  We don’t want to sign up for it, but when it hits, we somehow make it through.

* * *

“Eventually, I am guaranteed to lose every earthly thing I have ever possessed.
~ Ann Voskamp, One Thousand Gifts

* * *

Was it worth it?  I sat in kind of an ironic place to think about pain—beside a swimming pool in a beautiful spot in the Baja Peninsula, looking out toward the Pacific Ocean, hearing the waves sweep the shore while the sea breeze blew my face.  Was it worth it?

All I could think was, yes, yes, of course it was.  I’m a somewhat contemplative person (surprise!) and at the end of a school year or calendar year I often think back and process what just happened in my life.

This is the first time I have ever been able to look back at a year and think, “We saved a life this year.”  When I think of Little Mister and how he was when he arrived at our home, and contrast that “before” picture with how he was when he left, our work is so starkly, obviously, worth it.  So much so that I feel privileged, grateful.

I got to save a life this year.  I got to make a forever difference for someone, laying a physical and emotional and spiritual foundation for his entire future.  Of course it cost something, but what could be more worth it?

* * *

“Love alone is worth the fight.”
~ Switchfoot

* * *

Foster care can seem so random.  If you miss the call because your phone is left in the car, you may miss a placement that would have changed your life and family forever.  You may get a baby one day and lose that baby the next week or month or year.  Your friend may get a baby the next day and keep that baby forever.  Some of it is decided by people, but a lot of it is just what some would call random chance.  In the end, no human being can predict exactly what is going to happen, and no one is in control.

It can seem so hopelessly random that my only way through is by trusting in a Sovereign Lord.

I don’t wish we had gotten someone else, even someone “adoptable.”  I am glad we got Little Mister.  And at some level I can even be glad we lost him because I see good in that for him.  It is good to be wanted and loved by your birth family.  And it is good to be loved and missed by the foster family you leave behind.

* * *

“Grief changes us.
The pain sculpts us
into someone who
understands more deeply,
hurts more often,
appreciates more quickly,
cries more easily,
hopes more desperately,
loves more openly.
~ Tanya Lord

* * *

I have read that loss grows the soul, that loss brings with it on its flip side a gain.  This doesn’t negate the loss itself, since that will always be there, but it does bring with it joy and comfort.

I have felt this in ways that are difficult to describe.

In grieving, I am learning to treasure my children and all relationships more deeply.

I am learning to carve out time to rest and heal, because I am realizing that if I maintain a frenetic pace (which used to be my norm and in some ways still is), I endanger my health (physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual), and no one is served by that.

I am learning to make time to enjoy what I do have.  If we had not been losing Little Mister, I don’t know that we would have gone to see the Natural Bridge in May, gone to the Baja just me and Ben in June, or gone boating with my parents in July.  It wasn’t that we weren’t grieving, or that we were trying to drown out our grief in fun.  It was that while remembering and praying for Little Mister, we wanted to rest and heal and treasure the relationships we do have.

* * *

 “It is natural that people feel cautious about loving again because they are afraid of losing again.  Who in his or her right mind would ever want to feel such pain more than once?  Is love worth it if it is that risky? …

“The problem of choosing to love again is that the choice to love means living under the constant threat of further loss.  But the problem of choosing not to love is that the choice to turn from love means imperiling the life of the soul, for the soul thrives in an environment of love.  Soul-full people love; soul-less people do not.  If people want their souls to grow through loss, whatever the loss is, they must eventually decide to love even more deeply than they did before.  They must respond to the loss by embracing love with renewed energy and commitment….

“Still, … there is an ominous dimension to love, especially after loss.  If loss increases our capacity for love, then an increased capacity for love will only make us feel greater sorrow when suffering strikes again.  There is no simple solution to this dilemma.  Choosing to withdraw from people and to protect the self diminishes the soul; choosing to love even more deeply than before ensures that we will suffer again, for the choice to love requires the courage to grieve.”
~ Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised

* * *

We want to foster again.  Our home and our hearts have space for another child.  And I know here in our town there is a desperate need for families willing to welcome babies who have no one else.  I cannot think of a better way for us to “visit orphans and widows in their distress” or to love “the least of these.”

In our next case I hope to adopt, and I know in some cases there is probability, but in foster care there is no certainty.  I think, I hope, I’m okay with that.

* * *

“They didn’t tell us that at the beginning: The moment you let love into your heart, your heart starts breaking. The only way to stop your heart from breaking is to stop your heart from loving. You always get to choose: either a hard heart or a broken heart. A broken heart is always the abundant heart — all those many beautiful pieces only evidence of an abundant life.”
~ Ann Voskamp


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