How Grief Goes Unnoticed in Foster Children — and the Underlying Trauma It Can Cause

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Shenandoah Chefalo

Shenandoah ChefaloI 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 woman’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 was 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?

[Related: Why Are LA’s Foster Kids More Likely to Be Charged With Crimes?]

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, unable to make the leap that their grief and sorrow may be connected to their own behaviors, can’t recognize the underlying cause. 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 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.

Shenandoah Chefalo is a foster youth alumna. She is a writer and advocate for foster youth and foster care reform. You can learn more about her and her work at

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Luke: Abuse in Foster Care as Trans Youth

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Wounded Teen Activist Returns to City Where He Was Shot

  • Jon Pettigrew

    I’m in agreement about addressing the underlying grief rather than the behavior but telling someone who is grieving that everything is going to be OK seems like it would discount their experience. When someone is experiencing grief, everything is not necessarily going to be OK. It might be more honest to just reassure the child that they will make it through this.

    • Colleen Geerlings

      I agree! When I went through a divorce my 3 and 5 year old grieved in very different ways. My 3 year old threw tantrums and told me she hated me and to just go away while the 5 year old tried to be really good all the time and help her little sister. I would hold my three year old and whisper in her ear that I loved her and that I would not go away. She usually ended up crying but eventually over the next few years the tantrums diminished and eventually went away.People would say to me it will be OK and I wanted to scream at them it is NOT OK and it will NOT be OK. I would respond with, No it’s not going to be OK, yes we will get through it but they will be affected by this despite all of the mending and healing and good that they experience. Any loss or trauma leaves indelible scars, yes we can become stronger from them, and they will fade, but they never go away.

  • Shelly Cobb Cichowlas

    Well said! I feel the same way about youth in our correctional system. It would seem that helping families within the structure of their own communities would reduce the risk of additional trauma.

  • Teresa Theis

    This is exactly how i feel about these poor children. People are so quick to only see the bad behavior and label these kids, but exaclty they are grieving. They have suffered great loss and are to young to understand it. We need to, as the adults who take these kids in, have the strength,love and understanding these little guys need. Its hard i know first hand with my grandson, you can see the pain in his eyes sometimes. He has come such along way. He has been such a great joy for me. It breaks my heart to see his heart broken. I always let him know its ok to love his parents and talk to me about them. He even has a picture of his mother right by his bed. If this helps him get through the heartbreak then thats what i need to do. But i have found that addressing the reason for the anger which is the greif and the scary unknown helps them trust you and be calmer.