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How Grief Goes Unnoticed in Foster Children -- and the Underlying Trauma that it Causes

 

I have attended several funerals during my lifetime. At one, when I was still in high school, I remember watching the mother of a friend throw herself over her son’s casket, unable to contain her emotions.

Those of us who were there sat and stared, stunned, but silent. Eventually, a much older lady with gray wispy hair came running down the aisle, throwing her arms around the women’s shoulders, whispering that it was OK and that she should take a break for a while. She hugged the grieving mother and supported her while they looked for an empty chair.

Later in life, I was at a funeral for a man who had died, and his wife, so upset that she was shouting profanities at his casket, banging on it, asking him why he broke his promise to never leave her. Again, a women came from the back and threw her arms around the distraught woman. This time I couldn’t hear the conversation, but you could tell it was soothing.

In any other public situation, these types of outbursts would be deemed unacceptable. But, at a funeral, when individuals are grieving, it seems we have an unstated rule that any and all behavior is acceptable, and it probably should be.

However, what if you lost a loved one over and over again? What if they presumably died more than once? For some of the children lost in our foster care system, that is exactly the case. They are pulled from their parents, and placed in a presumably safer environment. Some are reunited, only to be pulled again. Others will never see their parents again. How are they allowed to grieve?

If a small girl is pulled from her mother’s home, only to be placed in the safety of strangers, and she attends school later that week, only to throw something at another student or even the teacher, is she grieving or a troublemaker?

Children are often unable, and fail to recognize the underlying cause of their own behaviors, unable to make the leap that their grief and sorrow may be connected. Professionals often dismiss these problems as impulsive behaviors or a symptom of a larger psychological issue. Some foster children are not so social; they do not talk much to other children, and have a difficult time understanding their own feelings and actions.

These children have suffered a tremendous loss — a deep sadness and grief that often goes unrecognized, and often leads to deeper traumas. When we learn to recognize that a child may be grieving, it may be easier to throw our arms around them and tell them everything is going to be OK, instead of issuing a punishment.


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Shenandoah Chefalo posted:
Daniel Herd posted:

Early childhood grief does such an effective job at exposing discomfort and lack of real options we have for addressing children as they are.  Schools have taken a very forward position in acting in a way that tells most parents that the school is not an ally in the process.  Grief is hard enough for adults to address in a healthy way and schools are more than willing to discipline, expel, or pathologize away the problem without really looking at it.  Sure this isn't all schools, but exceptions prove the rule in this case since it is much easier to find situations where a child has not received just the level of compassion that the situation warrants. 

While Shenandoah references her experience at these two funerals and mentions that the grief response is understood in that context.  But grief in general isn't understood outside of the immediate situation.  Watching a child be taken from a parent is hard, but that same child acting out a year later is seen as a behavioral problem not a natural consequence.  In the same way, a spouse losing their partner to cancer can be understood before during and briefly after the funeral, but their inability to throw out a pair of shoes two years later is seen as an inability to "move on".  There is a decisive misconception about the reality if a large portion of those who relate to people experiencing grief think of the process as moving on.  This, just like most of our awkward relationship with trauma has more to do with our own discomfort and lack of knowing what to do than it does with what the grieving really need. 

Thanks for the thoughtful and thought provoking piece. 

Daniel- thanks for the thoughtful comment. I couldn't agree more. Grief is not understood or discussed in my opinion enough (I'm hardly the expert) but I believe firmly it needs to be part of the conversation.

Thank you both for raising such an important issue.  I operate a theraputic boarding school for young men.  Much of our population is struggling with the repeated grief you speak of.  One of our therapy groups is centered around grief and the teaching of the skills necessary to express feelings and communicate needs.  We have a great deal still to learn and I recognize we are in a small minority of schools addressing this issue.  However, I can only hope that other school administrators read your posts and take action.  Even a small step is better than no step.  Thank you once again.

Daniel Herd posted:

Early childhood grief does such an effective job at exposing discomfort and lack of real options we have for addressing children as they are.  Schools have taken a very forward position in acting in a way that tells most parents that the school is not an ally in the process.  Grief is hard enough for adults to address in a healthy way and schools are more than willing to discipline, expel, or pathologize away the problem without really looking at it.  Sure this isn't all schools, but exceptions prove the rule in this case since it is much easier to find situations where a child has not received just the level of compassion that the situation warrants. 

While Shenandoah references her experience at these two funerals and mentions that the grief response is understood in that context.  But grief in general isn't understood outside of the immediate situation.  Watching a child be taken from a parent is hard, but that same child acting out a year later is seen as a behavioral problem not a natural consequence.  In the same way, a spouse losing their partner to cancer can be understood before during and briefly after the funeral, but their inability to throw out a pair of shoes two years later is seen as an inability to "move on".  There is a decisive misconception about the reality if a large portion of those who relate to people experiencing grief think of the process as moving on.  This, just like most of our awkward relationship with trauma has more to do with our own discomfort and lack of knowing what to do than it does with what the grieving really need. 

Thanks for the thoughtful and thought provoking piece. 

Daniel- thanks for the thoughtful comment. I couldn't agree more. Grief is not understood or discussed in my opinion enough (I'm hardly the expert) but I believe firmly it needs to be part of the conversation.

Early childhood grief does such an effective job at exposing discomfort and lack of real options we have for addressing children as they are.  Schools have taken a very forward position in acting in a way that tells most parents that the school is not an ally in the process.  Grief is hard enough for adults to address in a healthy way and schools are more than willing to discipline, expel, or pathologize away the problem without really looking at it.  Sure this isn't all schools, but exceptions prove the rule in this case since it is much easier to find situations where a child has not received just the level of compassion that the situation warrants. 

While Shenandoah references her experience at these two funerals and mentions that the grief response is understood in that context.  But grief in general isn't understood outside of the immediate situation.  Watching a child be taken from a parent is hard, but that same child acting out a year later is seen as a behavioral problem not a natural consequence.  In the same way, a spouse losing their partner to cancer can be understood before during and briefly after the funeral, but their inability to throw out a pair of shoes two years later is seen as an inability to "move on".  There is a decisive misconception about the reality if a large portion of those who relate to people experiencing grief think of the process as moving on.  This, just like most of our awkward relationship with trauma has more to do with our own discomfort and lack of knowing what to do than it does with what the grieving really need. 

Thanks for the thoughtful and thought provoking piece. 

Cassaundra May-Mynatt posted:

This article is so accurate.  I was in the Foster Care system from 5 years old until I aged outhe in the year 2000. I never understood why I couldn't connect to people or cope with losing someone until I took the ACE in 2013. Only then did it dawn on me that maybe I never connected in the first place or, perhaps, the way I showed grief didn't translate to other people appropriately.  My boss and I use to have long discussions about how I "coped" was so unique and "taboo" compared to other people.  Great article.  Thanks! 

Cassaundra-I am so glad that this article resonated with you. By sharing our stories we can all begin to heal, as well as help others heal. It is always nice to know that we are no alone in our battles!

This article is so accurate.  I was in the Foster Care system from 5 years old until I aged outhe in the year 2000. I never understood why I couldn't connect to people or cope with losing someone until I took the ACE in 2013. Only then did it dawn on me that maybe I never connected in the first place or, perhaps, the way I showed grief didn't translate to other people appropriately.  My boss and I use to have long discussions about how I "coped" was so unique and "taboo" compared to other people.  Great article.  Thanks! 

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