The slow goodbye

I spend a lot of time in the meeting rooms at the DHS office. The walls are peppered with posters meant to lend hope, guidance, caution or wisdom to the highly diverse audiences that use the rooms. I have to admit, I wander off focus a lot during trainings and find myself staring at the posters, thinking about their messages and who they are targeting. Last night at the foster parent support group I looked over at one I’d not noticed before. “Attachment is not convenient,” it said.

The statement triggered a twist of reactions within me.

Our time with our foster baby “Oscar” was coming to a close. Our attempt to adopt him had failed and after a year as our baby and a member of our family he would be moving on to another home.

Our family vacation had fallen right on the heels of the adoption committee decision. We talked about canceling the trip, wondering if our emotional state would be productive for the trip. We decided we wanted to go and take him. We believed that the quality time as a family would be good for everyone as we prepared to say goodbye.

This trip was a big collection of delightful ‘firsts’ for him. For us, as his parents, it was a confusing and bittersweet collection of ‘lasts’.

In the midst of fun vacation activities a sad shadow would often pass over us. Oscar would be belly laughing and splashing his hands as we zoomed him through the water, and Kaety and I would meet each other’s eyes—we each knew this would be the last time we’d be in the pool together. We broke our eye contact with each other before we took the next set of thoughts together. When would it be the last time we would hear him laugh? It was agreed between us, without even talking about it, to stay in the moment and feel the grief as it came. We didn’t need to borrow the grief of tomorrow. There would be plenty of time for that.

Kaety and I have struggled to make emotional sense of this transition. We realized that we aren’t wired up as people/animals to let go of children.

Years ago I lost a dear friend to a lingering cancer death. I found myself making parallels between the bizarre situation of losing our baby and that death. During the grim march through terminal illness you start having thoughts like, “This will be the last time we are able to take a walk together,” “This will be the last time we will talk,” and eventually, towards the twilight… the last kiss and the last goodbye.

But our baby is not dying. He is leaving because of policy. My mind, even thought I do not agree, can understand policy and law, but my heart does not.

In the last month people have cautiously and callously asked us, “You chose to foster, you must have known this would happen. Aren’t you used to losing children?”

Questions like this require a lot of patience. How do you explain a child that is a “good fit?” How do you explain that they all hurt… and that eliminating the factor of hurt is never the point? How do you explain that not feeling make us monsters? How do you explain the resilience of the heart, or the big picture of need and giving, or the plain fact that we are made to love no matter the consequences? How do you explain that the privilege of loving is the greatest gift to one’s soul?

Kaety and I are often asked to speak about fostering at civic groups. The sentiment always comes up, “I could never foster, I could not bear to give them up.” We have a pretty good response developed to this statement.

“We’ve all seen that news story of the naked little three-year old running down the middle of a busy freeway at night? Right?”

“I’ve been watching you all while we’ve been eating and chatting, and I know in my heart, without a single reservation, that if any of you came across that scene you would slam on your brakes, fling yourself out into traffic to get that child. You would not for a moment think of your own safety – your mind would only be filled with reaching that child and bringing her to safety. And if you got clipped by an on-coming car and you broke your leg, would you have regretted saving that child? No. You would consider it a small price to pay.

“Fostering is that exact scene in slow motion. We get the child to safety. That safety is always inside our hearts. Yes, they need food, shelter, and care… but they mostly need love. Love leads to attachment. Attachment is the foundation for life-long emotional health. We’ve seen children come back from the most horrific abuses to their bodies and minds, but we rarely see children come back who’ve not had any attachment.”

Choosing to be foster parents means we put our hearts in harm’s way to save a child. Most of fosters Kaety and I take in are short term. We love them and give them what they need to thrive but we know they will be with us for only a day, a week, or a month. But a year or more? That changes things. No, we are never prepared to break the most fundamental thing: the bond of parent to child.

What will we do as we transition to him leaving? What will we do afterwards? We will cry, we will snuggle him for the time we have left, we will celebrate who he is and the joy he brought to our family, and we will have faith that every bit of love and reflection we gifted his spirit will bloom in his life to guide his journey to finding himself.

We will take a break for a while to heal, and to support the kids in the loss of their baby brother. Will we open our hearts again? Of course we will.

As the poster says, attachment is not convenient – nor is it causal.

Nor should it be.

2 thoughts on “The slow goodbye

  • You two are beautiful. I honor your commitment to these little people and their future. You are giving them something that they need right now without regard to your potential short term pain and that honesty is something we should all do more of. You are also teaching your children how to give of themselves and be better humans. May your grief, while real, be short. And the love you share for each other, which is so clear in your lives, be soon available to another child in need. ❤️

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