I caught a train in a daze, and spent most of the journey working to block out any thoughts of what I might be greeted by. I walked through the centre of a town in the North East arriving at the hospital. In a slightly surreal moment a young child shouts out in the lift, “I love this place” – the adult accompanying him explains that his mother his just given birth to his sister. Life begins and life ends.
I passed the ward she had been in for the last few days down to the room she had been put in because of her poor condition. It brought back memories of when my father died; it was to be a repeat performance with the same outcome. I enter the room in a daze not knowing what to expect. She lies there sleeping with an oxygen mask covering her face.
After years of struggle with Parkinson’s and latterly with cancer, my Mum died peacefully. At the funeral and the wake that followed we celebrated a wonderful life and a person of immense courage. We were a family of six and now there are three of us left. I have now lost my eldest brother, Mum and Dad. It is a sad time and a time of adjustment.
All these losses have been difficult and yet I have my memories. What is crucial is I have a narrative and I can cope with these losses. By the very fact that I have my memories and my sense of belonging, I can put things in some kind of order. I also I have my immediate family and friends I can talk to in order to make sense. However, the grieving process that people go through is the crucial stage of adjustment that allows us to move on. In my view we are all changed by the process, we are different, albeit not necessarily in any major way- we do not, for instance wear a placard saying, “I am in mourning”. This sense of difference may not be noticed by others.
All of us at times during our lives will experience loss and how we recover from that loss will depend on so many factors, including such factors as the actual event, the circumstances, level of attachment and also our level of resilience. In my own case the deaths of my mother and father were very sad, but ‘natural’ in that they were part of the natural flow of life. The death of my brother thirty years ago was more traumatic and still haunts me; it was traumatic because it was unexpected and more difficult to come to terms with.
Although I may find the process of writing this article slightly cathartic, the object is not for some therapeutic benefit but to make the point that loss is a natural part of a person’s life. However, when a child is taken into foster care this is not an ordinary loss. It is something extraordinary for that child and they will see themselves as ‘different’ and will be seen by others as different.
Foster children will have social workers and carers. They are likely to have a medical examination just for coming into care. They will have their contact with their birth family organised and in some cases supervised (Kendrick 2005 and Sinclair 2005). If you add in the disruption to friendships, schooling and the difficulties children may have experienced prior to admission, it is little wonder that many children in the care system have problems in adjusting.
A good assessment is always crucial in planning for a child’s future care needs, a process that is not merely a part of a statutory planning function but a process of discovery where the professionals and carers involved begin to understand the way the child views the world. The assessment is not an end in itself but the start of a journey in which the child needs to be given the opportunity to make sense of what has happened and be involved in planning for their future.
It is important that we build on the child’s strength and resilience, whilst at the same time constantly providing the child with opportunities to talk about their experiences. This is not some kind of imposition in which we order a child to talk but should be a natural process, the pace of which is set by the child.
I have worked with some very kind, patient and loving foster carers who have looked after some damaged children but through empathy, insight and skill have helped children grow and develop. For others, their journey is more complex and requires specialist therapeutic input to help them adjust. This process of adjustment and development cannot take place in isolation but needs to be in conjunction with schools, social workers and health professionals.
Kendrick (2005) Social Exclusion and Social Inclusion: Themes and Issues in Residential Child Care in: Crimmens, D and Milligan I (eds.) Facing Forward: Residential Child Care in the 21st Century Lyme Regis: Russell House Publishing
Sinclair, I (2005) Fostering Now: messages from research. London: Jessica Kingsley Press