Special Edition – Caregiver Spotlight on Grief and Loss

We are delighted to end our first season with our last caregiver spotlight episode!

Join Sharon O’Neill and Janine Beaudry from the Vermont Child Welfare Training Partnership as they talk about Grief & Loss as it relates to kin, foster and adoptive families with Michelle Colburn, FSD Resource Coordinator.


Cassie Gillespie (00:03):

I’m Cassie Gillespie and you’re listening to Welcome To The Field. Welcome To The Field is a podcast of targeted trainings for child welfare professionals. And we often focus on the experience of child welfare workers out in the field. However, for the last two episodes of our season, we want to bring you a different lens and a different focus and shine the spotlight on the caregiver experience. So today’s episode is a special episode, specifically designed for kin foster and adoptive caregivers here in Vermont. Enjoy!

Sharon O’Neill (00:40):

Hello and thanks to our listeners for tuning in today. I’m Sharon O’Neill.

Janine Beaudry (00:45):

And I’m Janine Beaudry.

Sharon O’Neill (00:46):

We’re Kin, Foster and Adoptive Family Training Specialists with the Vermont Child Welfare Training Partnership we’ll be your hosts today, as we talk about grief and loss, as it relates to kin foster and adoptive families. Joining us today is Michelle Colburn, a Family Services Resource Coordinator from Brattleboro. Recently, I was attending a meeting where Michelle gave a presentation about grief and loss and her work with kinship foster and adoptive families. These are such important foundational issues in child welfare. And I asked Michelle if she would join us on Welcome To The Field to share her experiences and learning with caregivers and Family Services Workers. Thanks for joining us today, Michelle. Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your role as a Family Services Resource Coordinator?

Michelle Colburn (01:33):

So in my role as a resource coordinator, my work is to recruit, retain and support foster families. I also feel in my role as a resource coordinator, I feel really comfortable for I’ve really lived the full circle of foster parenting for I myself was adopted. So I kinda think I get the gamut for, I also adopted three children, my husband and I did. So I really feel that I get a clear understanding of the grief and the loss, we just didn’t adopt. We fostered along the way also. So I feel that I have a genuine understanding of what foster parents feel and what they, and what they go through.

Sharon O’Neill (02:24):

That’s a great point that is such rich experience. I’m sure at times challenging experience that you bring to your role you know, to be able to have lived and professional experience in this, and often that’s one of the reasons why so many people come forward and say, I want to be a foster parent because either they’ve had a similar experience, they might have been in foster care. They know someone who was in foster care. And we also have a lot of families who are providing kinship care, who have taken care of other family members children. And that’s one of the main reasons through recruitment that I would imagine you hear so many people say, that’s why they want to do this work.

Michelle Colburn (03:17):


Sharon O’Neill (03:18):

What are the main things that you’ve learned about grief and loss in your role as a Resource Coordinator?

Michelle Colburn (03:24):

I think when, when foster children first enter your home, we as foster parents should treat them as a family members, foster parents have many tasks, they catch up on medical, dental appointments, therapy, education. And with this said, this brings a bonding experience to the table. We as foster feelings to love these kids, but to keep their heart really guarded because the goal is always reunification. And that’s a really hard task to ask anyone to do. It’s the hardest job, but the best job that you’re ever gonna love doing, making a difference is seeing the difference is amazing, for you help them build a toolbox foster families give so much, but they also need to keep in mind that the goal is always reunification for our foster children to return home or to a kin provider. And letting children go back home, I think really is the scariest part of all. I think that you’re not sure will they be safe? Have their parents done all the work that they need to do? Their home is not going to be like your home. But that is their home and that’s their family. And I think we have to put trust into the social worker and our system that these children will be safe when they go home.

Sharon O’Neill (04:40):

Yeah. I think it’s a really important comment that you made about I forget exactly how you said it, but about having a guarded heart. And I wonder if you could talk more about that? Cause I would imagine that’s just so hard. I think back to my days as a foster parent, and it’s just so hard when you are involved daily in someone’s life and you’re taking care of them. It’s hard to have a card at heart because you just naturally form an attachment or a bond with them. So I wonder if you could tell us like some ways that you support families in trying to achieve that?

Michelle Colburn (05:17):

I think that any foster parent that comes to us that wants to foster is filled with empathy and compassion and they want to do the best they can to help this child thrive and help them to build a toolbox. That’s going to help them when they leave your home. I think that reaching out to foster parents and helping them to build a toolbox in helping them to understand that this child will more than likely go home, that it prepares them for that. It prepares them to reach out to the parents to help the parents also in support them into support the children. So it becomes this cast that everybody’s joining in on.

Janine Beaudry (06:02):

Well, it sounds like you’re saying that if you walk into the role with, a guarded heart, is one way of talking about it, but also just with the, knowledge that you’re not just opening your heart to this child or youth, you’re opening your heart to this child or youth wherever they may end up being. And that has to include thoughts toward their family of origin, because that’s the initial goal always. Unless, unless it’s too unsafe for that to even be a goal to start with. So it kind of, reorients your perspective around who you’re opening your heart to maybe from the start.

Sharon O’Neill (06:46):

I also am thinking about along the course of a placement or, you know, reunification or even the termination of parental rights that there are many places along the way where grief and loss occur for the child or youth and their family and maybe also the foster parent. Can you give us some examples of how that comes up along the way?

Michelle Colburn (07:17):

So when a child first comes into care there’s a huge loss. They lose so much, they lose their home, they lose their family. And they lose a lot of things that are very close to their heart. Like, if their blanket isn’t brought with them, they lose their the food they like to eat. They lose the smell of their home. They lose a lot of comfort that made them feel very comfortable. So when they move into a home that is not like theirs. Maybe they lived in a small home, maybe they lived in a home that was really cluttered. And then they go in their place in a home that’s huge, a very large home with many children in the home in maybe there was not a lot of children in the home that they left or maybe vice versa. And so getting used to that home is a big loss. They also don’t get to see their parents every single day in every single night. And they don’t get to be kissed goodnight by their mom and dad’s. And that’s a huge loss for these kids. When they come into care, sometimes we don’t have enough homes within our community districts and we have to move them out of the district. So now they’re not only just losing their community, they’re also losing their schooling and we have education stability in place, which is great. And we always try to get our children back to where they are. So they’re not losing their school and they’re not losing their friends, but that always isn’t possible.

Janine Beaudry (08:56):

Well, it sounds like Michelle, what you are talking about is something that might be surprising to the average person. So if you’re not experienced in working with these kids and youth, if you’re not experienced in fostering or taking care of a child, who’s related to you, that’s coming from a different home. You might assume I’ve got a lovely home. We have great food here. We’re in a great school system. And these are improvements. You might assume that the change from whatever home a child or youth came from to my home, it would be a positive change. And therefore there shouldn’t be any reason for there to be grief or loss related to that. But it sounds like you’re talking about grief and loss is a change from what you know, and what you’ve come to love and how you’ve come to feel connected and grounded in the world. And that can be there, regardless of what situation you’re leaving and what situation you’re going into. I wonder if you’ve noticed folks being surprised by a child or youth having that kind of response to moving into a different home?

Michelle Colburn (10:07):

Yeah. I think that when children are moved into a foster home, I think foster parents feel that they’re trying to give as much as they can to our kids when they come in. I think that they’re trying to make up for something maybe that was missing for them. And I think that when our foster children don’t accept it or appreciate it right away, sometimes there could be a loss for the new foster family, like they’re trying so, so hard to reach out to to one of our foster children and it’s not being received, and they feel that loss of why they can’t help them out, because that’s why they came to be a foster family is to help a child out.

Janine Beaudry (10:55):

Yeah, that’s a great point because obviously if somebody is walking into this role, they’re doing so because they want to be providing a good home and giving love and support to a child or youth. And we actually just heard a comment from a previous guest talking about, how she learned that love is not, not the end, right? It’s, you come to realize, you give love and it doesn’t mean that that makes everything better. And so there is potentially some loss in like, wait a second, I’m giving you all of this love and I’m giving you all of the support, I had a hope for what would happen in response to that. And the hope I had isn’t what’s happening right now with this year, right? I think how you have to go into this unconditionally with unconditional care, unconditional love, unconditional acceptance. I think all of that has to be rolled into one ball to make this work.

Sharon O’Neill (11:55):

Michelle, we’ve been talking about foster care and kinship caregivers, and I’m wondering, is there a difference in the way grief and loss is experienced for kinship caregivers as opposed to non relative foster parents?

Michelle Colburn (12:13):

So when you’re a foster parent and the foster child comes to live with you, you are dealing with their grief and loss, the child’s grief and loss. When it becomes kinship, it’s, it’s much different because the role is reversed. It’s changed. So if grandma and grandpa become the caregiver for their grandchild, they no longer can grandparent as much. They lose that role of grandma and grandpa. They become the caregiver for their grandchild that comes into care. And many grandparents grieve that loss that they just want to still be grandma and grandpa and not have the role of discipline and also their son or daughter also is not able to maybe come over as much as they did before. So it’s a very hard loss for kinship providers when they, when they take on this role it’s the best role for children. And, it’s hard for them and that’s why we have a kinship group to address the needs of kinship providers. So they can bring the normal back and normalcy when they come, because when they’re with other grandparents or kinship providers, when they talk, it feels, it feels much more normal for them.

Sharon O’Neill (13:49):

Yeah, that’s a good point. You just said that it’s the best place for kids to go when they move in with a family member, as opposed to someone they don’t know, could you tell us why that would be?

Michelle Colburn (14:03):

Children belong with their family if the placement is possible, rather than to be with a family that they’ve never known.

Sharon O’Neill (14:14):

Yeah. It’s familiar to them, right. They, know the house, they know the surroundings, they know what’s okay at the house and what’s not okay.

Michelle Colburn (14:21):

Right. And they don’t get to lose their family during holidays and family gatherings, and it’s comfortable. And they don’t have to get to know you because they already do know you.

Sharon O’Neill (14:33):

So when a child is not able to return home, and there’s a termination of parental rights, often for foster parents who are not relatives, there’s a certain excitement that we’re so excited that this child gets to join home and be a forever part of our family. For kinship caregivers, it’s a little bit different because there’s a major piece of grief that’s involved with that. Do you want to talk about that?

Michelle Colburn (15:05):

I think that when that happens, kinship families have the loss, that their family member couldn’t parent any longer and sometimes that comes with shame. And I think that they carry that piece with them and they become responsible and sometimes they own that piece. And that’s, that’s a big loss to know that a family member could not parent a child, and now you’re responsible for that child.

Sharon O’Neill (15:42):

Yeah. So, Michelle, it sounds like you’ve gained a lot of understanding about how grief and loss impact and add to the trauma that is experienced in foster care. What are the ways that you’ve educated yourself so that you can be in a support role for other kinship or foster parents. And also tell us what you’ve engaged with in recently to deepen your understanding of the practice.

Michelle Colburn (16:10):

So I became a little concerned with trying to help foster families through their grief and loss, when a child returned home or when a child was united with family members and a child may have been in their home for two years, as long as two years. And I didn’t have the verbiage and, or maybe the intense understanding that I really needed to help them out. So I decided to take a bereavement class through the hospice program here. And it was a seven week class and we did a lot of practicing, but it got very deep where my understanding was how to really take care of yourself and how not to own everything. That’s, what’s happening in your life. Cause you don’t have control of it. And things happen for a reason, but it’s most important is how we’re going to take our care of ourselves after this child is no longer living with you and how can we make it a positive experience. So you can, you can follow your passion. You can continue being a foster parent through all of that. So what I did was after the class I tried it out on one of one of our foster families who a baby was reunited back to its parents. And we talked about those things. We sat down for a long time and we talked about how will you take care of yourself? What are your good memories? Tell me some good memories that you have. Tell me where you’re at right now. And sitting with silences is a great thing. Just listening and not responding, everybody’s everyone’s grief is their own. It’s always different. Nobody has the same grief. And then we took out a calendar and we, and we filled in all the days. How are you going to take care of yourself? What are you going to do on Monday? Are you just going to sit outside and maybe sip some tea and just listen to the birds sing? Or are you going to go kayaking on Tuesday? Are you going to maybe take a yoga class? Are you going to reach out to a friend? Are you just going to find a nice book? I think it’s really important to take care of yourself. And I think it’s really important to reachRout to others who understand like your Resource Coordinator, they’re here to help you because we don’t want to lose you. Foster parents have done such a phenomenal job and it’s the toughest toughest job that you’ll ever do. And I think that the grief is always most always going to be there, whether it’s going to be for the foster parent or for the child, the child is always going to have a grief in their heart. They have lost someone that they really loved if they don’t return back home. So I think it’s working through their grief in your grief and coming together.

Sharon O’Neill (19:19):

Yeah. Those are all really important points. And it sounds like you’ve been able to offer the foster parents in your district and kinship caregivers in your district, a lot of support just from your experience from doing the work for so long. In addition to the support that you provide, what kind of education or training is offered for foster parents and kinship care givers to help them learn and understand how to support families through grief and loss and how to deal with their own grief and loss.

Michelle Colburn (19:57):

Well, there’s a foster parent training that really addresses grief and loss. And I think it’s a great training and I think they’ll come away with a lot from that. There’s different classes that are offered through the partnership, we put them in our newsletters and they’re offered several times throughout the year. I would also suggest that if they need to reach out, if you have a big loss from a child or maybe a parent has passed away of the child, that’s in your care, to reach out to your bereavement center because there are groups that help children through their grief.

Sharon O’Neill (20:55):

Great. Thanks so much. So when you say the partnership, you mean the Vermont Child Welfare Training Partnership?

Michelle Colburn (20:59):


Janine Beaudry (21:02):

Could I ask a question about local bereavement centers? So that’s something I’m not particularly familiar with. Can you tell me a little bit about what that is and how somebody might find them and access the supports that they offer?

Michelle Colburn (21:17):

So our local bereavement and hospice center does not offer classes for foster families due to grief. But they do offer it for a child or a parent loss, they do offer that. I kind of went around about, because I needed this education and sat down with the director of the bereavement piece of the hospice part and told him what I needed. I told them I needed education. I told them that I needed to be more informed that I needed better verbiage that I needed to sit down with other people who have experienced grief and loss, so I could understand it better to help others. So this is why I took this class to understand it more fully into support foster parents and to understand or try to understand what they’re going through and to be a better support to them. What was the most significant idea that you took away from your involvement with hospice and how have you applied that to your work with foster families? I think the most significant is everybody has their own grief. Everybody deals with it on their own and sitting okay with that and letting them go through it, but helping them sit in silence and just to listen and not to rush in and try to make it better because you can’t, and they really need to work it out on their own with the support of others. That is basically what I took away to be a very good listener.

Sharon O’Neill (23:08):

Michelle, this is really crucial and rewarding work. And it’s really hard. What are the ways that you take care of yourself while you’re also encouraging families to take care of themselves through the grief and loss work?

Michelle Colburn (23:20):

I take care of myself because this job is so rewarding. That’s all you have to do is look back and think like, wow, I remember this or that. I have such great experiences that I just pull from them. And we live in such a wonderful community. And the staff that we have in our Brattleboro DCF office are wonderful, very supporting people. And I just pull from all of them. And I also take care of myself by spending time with the things I love. And if it’s kayaking, hiking, walking, I just make sure that it’s a healthy outlet and talk through it. I don’t let it fester. I make sure that it’s out,

Sharon O’Neill (24:08):

Michelle, you’ve learned so much in this journey of deepening your practice. Do you have a vision for how you’d like to share this information so that others like your fellow Resource Coordinators and Family Service Workers can learn from your experience?

Michelle Colburn (24:22):

I recently presented tips and strategies to the Resource Coordinators, and I’m hoping that they came away with some strategies to talk to foster parents. It’s something that we do every single day, we are talking to foster families about grief and loss. And I’m hoping that they are able to put this forth and use this information.

Sharon O’Neill (24:57):

Michelle, is there anything that you would like to share with us about the experience of grief and loss for people involved with the child welfare system that Janine and I haven’t asked you yet?

Michelle Colburn (25:13):

I would say don’t give up, fostering is the hardest job that you’re ever going to have, and it takes a village and we’re all there for you. And we really need you to reach out so we can support you. And our kids need you you’re important.

Janine Beaudry (25:33):

Right. What I’ve heard you saying all the way through is to kind of get to know your own internal world, get to know when you have something that’s troubling you, that you need to sit with, figure out, learn about, reach out to somebody and get support when you need support, and then make sure that you’re taking care of yourself each and every day, along the way so that you can continue to do the work.

Michelle Colburn (26:00):

Yeah. Taking care of yourself is the most important, and when you become a foster parent, your family needs to come first, you need to take care of your family and you need to take care of yourself and you have to keep each other healthy. So you can provide foster care. And be as a whole, for our family, for a child, that’s needing your care.

Sharon O’Neill (26:27):

Those are important words of advice to take care of yourself first, before you can really be available to take care of anybody else. You know, it’s complicated work it’s, it can be when you’re dealing with grief and loss and trauma. And I absolutely appreciate that. You took the time today out of your, your work day to have this important conversation with us really appreciate that you joined us today.

Michelle Colburn (27:03):

Well, thank you for inviting me.

Janine Beaudry (27:06):

Thank you so much, Michelle.

Cassie Gillespie (27:09):

Thanks for listening. If you have any ideas about topics that you want us to cover or episodes that you’re interested in hearing, shoot us a message. You can reach me by email at Cassie.Gillespie@uvm.edu, or you can leave us a comment on the webpage where you downloaded this podcast. Welcome To The field is produced by the Vermont Child Welfare Training Partnership and the State of Vermont and a special thank you to Brickdrop for composing and recording our music. See you next time!

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