How to Deal with the Grief of Reunification


min read

As our front door closed, my heart shattered and my face grew warm with ugly tears. Sarah, who we’d had from seven days old to just shy of her first birthday had just left with her case worker. She was moving to her biological grandparents, and my husband, myself and all our other children were crying. Our 5-year-old, however, did not understand that this time our baby girl was not coming back. “Mommy, why is your face so red?” she asked. I shut my eyes.

It’s been almost two years and I can still remember the way Sarah smelled. We had packed all her belongings, including a couple of presents for her birthday and as many diapers as we had. The children all stood by the front door as we waited for the inevitable. When Sarah’s case worker arrived, we passed her around the family, and everyone gave her a tearful hug. Sarah giggled, basking in all the attention. She had no idea this would be the last time we would see her.  

Our 12-year-old boy tried to hide Sarah under the blanket hoping that if he hid her, the case worker wouldn’t take her.

Why does this have to be so hard?

Why did I have to give my whole heart to this little girl only to have her taken from my arms? We knew that her biological grandparents were going to take good care of her. We knew that they were safe and loving. But regardless, my heart did not want to let her go.

I took a deep breath, opened my eyes, and saw my children broken and mourning their little sister. They loved her just as much as I did, and we were all on this painful journey together. We sat together for a long time, crying, telling stories about Sarah and laughing.

Grief is tricky, it’s overwhelming and it’s important.

Too often, when overwhelmed with the feelings of grief, we stuff it down. But eventually we are so full of grief we explode with it. Instead of pushing it down or turning our backs on the beast that is grief, I want to encourage you to push forward and lean into it.

I admittedly did not do this when Sarah left. Instead, I kept myself busy with my to-do list. And when that was complete, I made a new to-do list. I didn’t have to be sad if I kept my body and my mind running. Very quickly I became run down, angry and short fused. My children felt it as I pulled away from them and refused to even talk about Sarah. Thankfully, a wise friend reminded me that I was going to need to face the grief eventually, and maybe that time was now.

My first step was a practical one - I threw her old bedding into the laundry, packed up the baby gear and organized any leftover supplies. Every item I touched brought tears to my eyes, but instead of pushing them away, I allowed myself to sink into the pool of grief I’d been avoiding. One of my kids saw me, began to cry as well and joined in helping me pack. Together we quietly put everything away before settling onto the couch to reminisce about the things we loved about Sarah - her giant blue eyes, the way she would raise her hand to her mouth when she was nervous, the way she smelled.

As we talked, God brought a Bible verse to mind. “Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted.” Matthew 5:4

Like me, you may have heard this verse a million times, but that day it resonated differently. To get the blessing, to receive the comfort, I had to actually mourn Sarah leaving. I’d been finding ways to keep my brain and heart from lingering on her memory for too long. In that moment, I knew I could no longer shy away from pain. I needed to lean into it. Every day after that I looked for ways to remember Sarah - looking at her pictures, sharing stories, praying for her. And every day, my pain and sorrow became smaller and smaller.

A year after Sarah left, I came across a box of her newborn clothes, and the moment I opened the box I caught her sweet scent. Tears pricked my eyes, and I felt that old temptation to shut the box and push away the pain. Instead, I called one of my daughters over and had her smell the clothes with me. Together, we giggled through tears and told stories about our silly little girl.

Unprocessed grief can be a thief of joy

Unprocessed grief can be a thief of joy and comfort if you do not allow yourself time and space to heal. But we need not fear our brokenness, for God promises that He “is close to the brokenhearted; He rescues those whose spirits are crushed.” Psalm 34:18  

As foster parents, we know that reunification is the goal. Our hope should be for God to restore and heal the family He designed for these kids, allowing them to safely return. But this does not change the level of loss and sorrow we feel when they leave us. In a way, stepping into foster care means inviting grief into our lives. But there is hope beyond goodbye. Do not be afraid to turn to God and allow Him to heal your broken heart.

3 Resources for Managing Grief

Maybe it’s time for you to begin the process of facing and healing from grief. We’ve collected a few resources we find especially helpful for foster families.

1. The Story of Alan and Jamie Finn

Watch the story of Alan and Jamie Finn as they share their own experiences with reunification and what it has taught them. Over eight years and nearly 30 placements later, they speak into the purposes God has revealed to them through heartache. Watch story.

2. Refuge In Grief

Author Megan Devine offers a few different resources for processing grief on her website, including access to her podcast, a video on how to help a friend through grief and her book, “It’s OK That You’re Not OK.” View website.

3. A Land Called Grief

If you’re looking for a resource to help your children and family process grief together, we recommend “A Land Called Grief” by Maddie Janes. “A Land Called Grief is a story that helps little and big kids alike understand the emotions that show up when we navigate through the stages of grief. Although grief can be heavy, A Land Called Grief, helps us understand that our grief can be turned into something beautiful.”  Purchase book.

Need more parenting tips?

Check out our parenting resources where you’ll find topics like trauma, reunification, tips for new parents and sibling dynamics.

Another great read