Manitoba·Point of View

Widowed foster dad seeks a new 'normal' for foster kids

A widowed foster father recalls stickhandling the grief of his three foster children, and his fears of losing them to the system if he failed.

How widower, child welfare agency worked 'to avoid more trauma for the boys'

A foster father and his kids support each other after the death of their foster mother. (Donna Carreiro/CBC)

He is a Manitoba foster dad with a story he wanted to tell. And so, when CBC Manitoba created a form for our audience to "Pitch a Story," he was one of the first to ask to share his.

Below, in his own words, is his story. The CBC has agreed not to identify him, to protect the identity of those in his care.

In 2002 I met a lady online. 

I asked her what she did for a living and she told me she was a foster parent. Thinking I knew what that was, I was impressed. 

By Valentine's 2003 we were planning a summer wedding. In August of 2003 I became a husband. I also, in that moment, became a foster dad to her now nine-month-old foster son.

The first five years of marriage were hardly typical for a new family. Because of my job at the time, I was gone 25 days a month. 

We built a house and were instantly bumped up to four foster placements with the agency. By 2004, we had a little brother for our boy, and our other two spots were a revolving door of emergency placements, temporary shelter and short-term kids, just needing a place to stay for a bit. 

I became extremely efficient at revamping bedrooms from a single bed to a crib in under an hour, to handling emergency calls that came at any hour of the day or night. 

This was normal life for us for more than a decade.

That was their mom in that hospital bed ... not a 'foster' parent.- Manitoba foster dad

That all changed in July of 2016. 

My wife got really sick. By mid-July the cancer diagnosis was confirmed. By the last week in July, the cancer had spread throughout most of her upper body, surgery was cancelled and we were given the news that her condition was terminal. Even the oncologist was shocked by how aggressive her cancer was.

I don't remember sitting through any training sessions as a foster parent that taught me how to properly tell kids that their parent was dying of cancer.

At that point in time we just had three boys, all permanent placements in our home.

The two oldest had arrived as newborns. The youngest was seven months when he came to stay! This was their mom dying in that hospital bed, not a foster parent.

I didn't have time to prepare for anything. She was placed in palliative care on a Thursday night, and suddenly I was facing the reality of telling my boys that Mom wasn't coming home.

Friday, I took them to the hospital. But the pain from the disease and reality of seeing her boys was more than she could bear. It was heart wrenching to watch the boys talk to her and get no response.

Friday night, I got up just enough courage to sit down with the boys at the kitchen table and be completely honest about what was going to happen. Absolutely the hardest conversation I have ever had and probably ever will.

Nobody wanted to sleep in their beds that night, so I pulled their mattresses off their beds and we all slept in the living room together.

They went to see her two more times before she passed away late Sunday night, with me standing beside her bed.

You see, I'm a foster parent and have no legal rights to my kids.- Manitoba foster dad

Bringing them back to the hospital after she was gone was something I struggled with, but I decided to do it and haven't regretted it. Kids with disabilities still have feelings and need to process things just like everyone else. They needed to see their mom.

I was just hanging on for the ride, trying to be the strength for my entire family.

In the hospital, a counsellor asked me how I doing. I told her I felt like I was being pushed out of an airplane at 30,000 feet without a parachute, hoping to land on my feet unscathed. 

You see, I'm a foster parent and have no legal rights to my kids. So not only was I losing my wife, I could lose my boys as well.

I only had one question I needed to ask ... were they moving the kids?- Manitoba foster dad

The reality of what might happen was shattering to me as a husband and a father.  I was not trained for this. Nothing in my life experiences could shed any light whatsoever as to how to approach this situation. 

People often ask me, "Did you have time to grieve?" My answer is "yup, from the time the boys went to bed until the time they woke up the next morning!" 

There was nothing normal about life in that moment.

After my wife died, I only had one question I needed to ask the agency: Were they moving the kids? Everything else paled in comparison to that one simple question.  

I drove down to the agency a few days after the funeral, not knowing what to expect, but trying to prepare for the possibility that the words "we're moving the boys" were going to be said. On the flip side, I think they might have been worried that I was going to walk in that meeting and tell them "I'm quitting, I'm done, I can't do this alone." 

Both possibilities were equally valid and couldn't be contested. Both sides had the right to toss in the towel and cancel the contract. But I'm too stubborn to quit, and the reality was they had no other placements available for my boys.

We mutually agreed to work together to avoid more trauma for these three boys who had just watched their mom die. 

The new normal had begun.

At this point, I'd been a licensed foster parent for more than a decade. But I'll be honest, my wife handled all the paperwork and appointments for the boys. The learning curve was steep and unforgiving. I scrambled to get up to speed with medical and dental appointments, and the looming start to another school year. 

I was also dealing with the legalities of losing a spouse and not having life insurance for her. All of our plans were set up for if something were to happen to me, not the other way around. 

The alarms were like fingernails on a chalkboard, grinding at my brain at a merciless pace ...- Manitoba foster dad

After a summer that seemed way too short and memorable for all the wrong reasons, the insanity of 'back to school' hung over me like a dark cloud. Buying school supplies was easy in comparison with figuring out what clothes to buy and what size shoes did they wear!?! I could cook food so that everyone would survive, but don't ask me to explain the difference between a boys size 6x and a size seven! 

The logistics of having clothes that actually fit and edible lunches was only one small part of that first September as a single dad.

I have three boys in three different schools for reasons I need not get into here. My oldest is seriously developmentally delayed with FASD (fetal alcohol spectrum disorder) and autism. School was far from a Norman Rockwell experience, and now the educators looking after my boys had to hold the hand of a rookie parent as I sat through my first meetings with them! 

I survived by having a plethora of alarms set on my phone. Get up, get showered, feed the kids, don't forget their meds, load up the van to drive them to school, afternoon nap, wake up alarm (if I actually had a few minutes to nap), get back into town for school pick-up, and then evening pills, and finally bedtime.

The alarms were like fingernails on a chalkboard, grinding at my brain at a merciless pace. 

I have learned that taking time for a nap is OK.- Manitoba foster dad

But I had to do it, I wanted to do it, I needed to do it. Life now wasn't about me. It was about trying to regain a little bit of normal for my boys.  

Fast forward almost three years. Packing lunches isn't so scary. I know what size clothes the kids are wearing, even if they're growing like weeds and what fit last month won't necessarily fit this month. 

Just having Dad look after them seems normal now. 

I'm learning to navigate the agency politics, as frustrating as that can be. Getting my monthly paperwork done no longer causes heart palpitations and I have learned that taking time for a nap is OK. 

Now, however, my two oldest boys are approaching that critical point as a foster child that every foster parent dreads — aging out of the system. 

What is normal now won't last much longer.

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This column is part of  CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.