What I learned in grief counseling as a foster parent

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Maggie shopping with the boys.
Listen to Maggie Zehring talk about this story on KJZZ.

I got the phone call from the lawyer after dinner, as my husband was putting our kids to bed. She said the 2-year-old we’d been fostering for two weeks shy of two years would not be coming back.

We had dropped him off with his family four nights prior, with a backpack of his favorite bedtime animals, books and his beloved blanket. We kissed him on the forehead, held him tight and told him we’d see him in a few days. More than a month later, his mom brought him to visit us in the hospital after our new baby was born.

Reunification of a child in foster care is nothing you can prepare for, and yet, everything you can imagine. It’s grief in every way — a sometimes all-consuming whirlwind of emotion and, at other times, a “thing” that happened many days, weeks and months ago.

I knew I would need grief counseling the second the judge ordered reunification to begin. The decision was approved in court when I was five months pregnant. I knew myself, and I knew our family. I didn’t want to walk the unknown and soon-to-be extra-hormonal territory of postpartum following the loss of a child in our home.

In the months since our little guy returned to his family, I’ve talked to a therapist about all the feelings, ever-present changes and continual efforts and missteps in this grieving process. I’ve learned that everything you read online about grief is right: There’s no one way to do it, and it is not a linear process.

Everyone grieves differently

Every foster parent knows that reunification is an option, so my husband and I figured preparing for the challenge — and the different ways we’d handle it — would be key to our marriage surviving. We literally called out our personal differences and stood up for our own unique needs throughout this foster care case, knowing full well that differences in grieving or managing loss can become another obstacle.

In our home, Nick defaults to more sleep and some movie-binging. I lean toward overworking and late-night crying in the bathroom. Our toddler talked about “his brother” day in and day out and melted down at the end of a days that reminded him most of his best friend. It doesn’t matter what causes the grief: loss of a loved one, loss of a job or a fractured relationship. Everyone grieves differently, and that’s OK.

Grief hits you when you least expect it

On a cool night in late April, I tucked the kids into bed and raced off to our neighborhood grocery store. I had about an hour to my name and was pointed and focused, going up and down the aisles. Then I looked up from my list, and I was hit by a ton of bricks.

When we dropped off our little guy for the last time, it was at the same chain of stores with the same dark night sky. As I was picking out spinach, I looked up and saw a handful of parents and their children sharing the produce section with me. Although this wasn’t reality, I couldn’t shake the feeling that everyone else’s kid looked just like the sweet boy we’d fostered. I was a wreck.

I contained my tears while I used the self check-out (for way too many items), and promptly broke down in the car. My whole body shook. Grief will cut you off at the ankles. It’s nondiscriminatory, has no manners and can leave invisible marks forever on your heart.

Guilt is grief’s best friend

If peace and acceptance is the antidote to grief, guilt is grief’s conspirator. When we unknowingly said goodbye to this sweet boy, I was eight months pregnant. In the midst of intense pain and loss (and hopefulness for his future with his biological family), we were looking ahead to ushering in a new sweet someone.

Our third baby’s birth was incredible. It was swift, fierce and filled with unimaginable wonder. We didn’t know his gender before his arrival, and that added a special element of awe. In the moments, days and weeks that followed, I vacillated between intense joy and relief and guilt and sorrow. I would stroke my sweet baby’s head and cry over the little red head I would break an arm to have in our home again. When I nursed my son in the wee hours, I’d wrack my brain over the what ifs or how comes of our advocacy efforts.

Straddling those emotions has become more fluid and less intense, but acknowledging the guilt aspect of grief has been a huge breaking point (read: ugly crying) at multiple parts of this journey.

You can stay stuck in grief or take the leap to healing

Therapy and time has taught me that grief will linger in unhealthy ways if you let it. Unhealthy grief promotes self-centeredness and can keep you locked in a certain perspective about your life circumstances. Healthy grief is both useful and cathartic, because it allows you to reflect on love and life within the lens of reality.

As you walk your journey of grief — or console those in your circle who are grieving — know that it is a sacred space. The journey of grieving is a well-worn path of humanity that, if we can do it well, brings us closer to each other and the meaning of life.

7 helpful tools for navigating grief

Therapy. Talking to a trained professional about your feelings and experiences can be a liberating part of your journey through grief. Looking for the right therapist can be particularly challenging. There are online tools to help at psychologytoday.com and goodtherapy.org.

Meditation. Meditation is an ancient practice of self-centering through breathing, intentionality, and stillness. For the modern-day parent, the thought of accomplishing yet another new skill is mind boggling and overwhelming. There actually is an app for that called Headspace.

Exercise. It’s like Elle Wood says in “Legally Blonde” — endorphins make you happy. Exercising is one of the best ways of protecting your body and mind from the long-lasting effects of stress and adverse experiences. Join a gym, take regular walks at your nearby park or turn on YouTube for a calorie-burning exercise session.

Reading “A Grief Observed,” by C.S. Lewis. Lewis writes about his own grief after losing his wife. His interpretation of grief — and his experience of his faith in the midst of his loss — was a mirror to my own. This book helped me interpret what I’d felt, anticipate what I might feel and explore how I can move forward with faith and hope still intact. “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear,” he writes. “I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.”

Music. Play all the sad songs. I made an entire playlist of songs that prodded me to let out the tears I’d typically save for an 11 p.m. on-the-bathroom-floor sob fest. It may feel like you are only wallowing in despair, but studies show sad songs can help us accept grief and move through it. Musicologist Kay Norton observes grieving with music helps because “music has the same shape, the same ebb and flow as human emotions” and can push a person to “weep, or grieve in another way that’s appropriate to them.”

Food. Eating something sweet or savory in the wake of loss is a centuries-long tradition. Allowing a few extra servings of cake or your favorite casserole or fancy coffee can give you a chance to both enjoy something and remember the other joys in life amid a season of pain and loss.

Friends. This might go without saying, but hiding away from close friends and family in a time of grief for an extended amount of time is not helpful. Taking a break from parties or a big gathering might be necessary, but in isolation you can become mentally stuck. Take the leap of faith and text that friend or explain your loss to a colleague over coffee. We’re not meant to do life alone — especially when it hurts.

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