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Friday, November 9, 2018

Children in Foster Care: Grief During the Holidays

It is extremely difficult for children to cope with being separated from their families at any time of the year, but it is especially difficult during the holiday season. While they may be living with a very warm, loving family, they are still very likely to miss their biological family along with the traditions and experiences they are used to having. Many children also worry about how their parents are doing without them, wanting to rescue mom and/or dad from pain.

Foster care is a very important system, designed to provide a safe harbor for children. However, many children would rather face the trauma of their biological family rather than experience separation. While their parents have made poor choices resulting in the separation, most children love their parents and want to be with them. They tend to view the foster care system as a big bully in the way of having their family together. Early in my counseling career, I was shocked to hear children beg to be back with parents who horribly abused them. Over the years I have seen the same situation over and over: children desperate to be with their parents. Age has a significant impact on their emotions, as well as the degree of neglect or abuse. Some children recognize the toxicity of the situation or hold resentment, resulting in no longer desiring relationship. The underlying issue that I see is that most children miss their biological families.

Children will commonly fret about how their parents are doing. They want to know how they are going to celebrate the holidays, if mom and/or dad miss them, and how things would be different if they were home. Some children are completely preoccupied with these thoughts, impacting their ability to focus on school work and their ability to make new relationships. It would be expected for these children to experience some depression, anxiety, and/or anger during this time. They are experiencing grief related to the loss of their family, even if it is only a temporary placement.

Foster parents can help by offering emotional support and understanding. Asking simple questions can make a world of difference for these children. Here are some examples: What does your family do on Christmas Day? What was Thanksgiving like for your family? Do you have any special memories of the holidays with your family? Who did you spend the holidays with? Do you have any holiday traditions that we could do this year? Remember, even if their experiences were less than ideal, they represent the culture that the child has been raised in and many memories are special to them. Being able to incorporate some of their family’s traditions could make them feel more at home.

It is vitally important to not view the child’s biological parents as enemies. Children pick up on this very quickly and will often be distrustful of their foster parents. If the child has a bond with their parents, honor it. It is not helpful to make any negative comments about how biological parents did things. If the child seems upset, simply show empathy. Children want a safe place. If they feel that the foster parents are trying to take the place of their biological parents, they will not feel safe. If it turns into a permanent placement, things will progress without the foster parents having to make statements about how they do things better or safer. The children will recognize it over time and appreciate it more if they do not feel pressured to choose between biological and foster parents.

As a therapist, I tend to do grief work to help children process the loss of their parents, even if it is only temporary. Creating a memory box is helpful. They can draw pictures, write letters, or put special mementos in the box. It can be full of their every day experiences, or they can draw pictures or write about their favorite experiences with their parent(s) and extended family. If a child expresses a sense of loss of not being with their parents for Thanksgiving, I would encourage them to draw a picture of what it would look like if they were home for the holiday.

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I also like to use my Journey to My New Family game. It is designed to help children process feelings related to being in a new family with new rules and expectations. It allows them to express how they feel about the changes and how the new roles have impacted them emotionally. There are so many issues that children experience as part of the foster care system, such as abandonment, distrust, trauma, and anxiety. Cognitive behavioral counseling can help children process these issues and to focus thoughts on hope. I strongly believe that emotions, thoughts, and behaviors are all interrelated. If you can fix the problems with the thoughts, emotions and behaviors will also adjust.

I hope these tips help you to have a warm, loving holiday season. Remember to be patient and offer lots of love. The kids are worth it!

Photo by George Dolgikh from Pexels

Narrative Therapy for Grief

Losing a loved one is difficult.  You expect to see them sitting there, ready to embrace you, yet they are gone.  All you are left with are the memories you have shared.  It is typical for anxiety to arise, fearful that these memories will fade and the connection to your loved one will be gone forever.

A couple of weeks ago my grandpa died.  He lived a long, full life, to the ripe age of 95 years old.  He and my grandma were married just shy of 75 years.  As his family and friends gathered for his memorial service, we shared favorite stories.  We were able to laugh and cry at the sweet memories that we shared with him.  It reminded me of how valuable those stories are in processing grief.

Narrative therapy focuses on writing the story.  It puts words to the emotions, describes the memories, and gives permanence to the experience, as you have a written copy that will withstand the test of time.  We tend to take life for granted, that we can always go back and hear the stories.  After the loved on is gone, those opportunities can be lost. However, writing out those stories is a productive way to process loss. 

At the funeral, I was talking to my dad’s cousin about his dad, my Uncle Tommy, who was my grandpa’s brother. Almost 10 years after Uncle Tommy’s death, they found an autobiography that he had written.  As they read through it, they discovered stories of his life that were a treasure to those he loved.  They were able to get it published to share the memories with loved ones and friends.  What a treasure!

I typically advocate making memory boxes during times of grief to remember the experiences that are treasured.  With children, I ask them to draw pictures and describe experiences.  With older kids as well as adults, a journal is a great way to memorialize these experiences.  The goal is to put words to the memories and the emotions.  There is a huge chasm between the brain and the heart.  Words can help connect this chasm to release the pent-up emotion. The concept of narrative therapy is putting words to the experience.

Here are some ways to use narrative therapy during your journey to healing:
  1. Write letters to your loved one and keep them in a memory box.  Add small items that remind you of your loved one and pictures.  During times of sorrow, you can open the box and look through the contents.
  2.  Make a scrap book of memories.  Use pictures and short stories in your scrap book to remember your favorite times together.
  3. Keep a journal handy.  When emotions are strong, write.  You can write about memories, current feelings, how the loss is impacting you on that particular day, or about what life would be like if they were around. Acknowledging the how life is different now due to the loss is an important part of the grief process.
  4. Create videos, songs, pieces of art, or any other creative way of communicating your love and affection.  The art will be symbolic of your experiences, allowing you to feel and heal as you look at it or listen to it.
  5. Join a grief group to share stories with people who are also healing from loss.  There is almost a compulsion to tell stories during grief.  It is your body’s way of processing the loss.  It is OK to talk about it extensively if necessary.  Finding a group of people who understand and are willing to listen can help immensely. 

Grief can be painfully slow at times.  It impacts each person differently, and there is no timeline for “getting over it.”  The goal of grief is to continue moving forward and embracing the emotions as they come. Rather than looking at grief as a series of steps you must accomplish to be through the process, remember that it comes in waves.  The shock, anger, sadness, and acceptance can come and go.  Don’t be shocked if this happens, as it is normal.  The goal is to be able to look back on the memories and smile. 
When the waves of grief come, use it as an opportunity to share the experience.  Give words to the feelings and your grief and loss can help bring healing to others if you take the time to write.  Your stories and experiences can bring joy and hope to other people who continue to struggle with the pain.