Life After Foster Care: ‘Aging Out’ Doesn’t Mean That It’s Over 

Thalia Bernal is a former foster youth currently attending college. Last year she was runner up in Foster Media Connections’ Youth Voice Writing Contest. Photo courtesy of Bernal

As foster youth, we learn quickly to accept our circumstances, the realities of our family life, and move on. But what if there was something we had yet to discover about our stories? What if that missing piece was found? Or finds you?

I was always curious about the missing part of my story, especially considering my father was out of the picture. But once I was in college and completely focused on myself, I moved on and accepted the fact that I would never know him or be able to learn anything about him.

So, it sure as hell surprised me when that missing piece to my story found me. When I aged out of foster care and realized I had survived the system, I felt as if the world was now out of bullets and couldn’t possibly surprise me anymore. Boy was I wrong.

I grew up having never met my father, not even by picture. I knew his name and that he’d made me, but that was it. Then one morning I woke up to a text from my brother showing the screenshot of a Facebook message he’d received. The message was from a woman who claimed that she was our aunt, my dad’s sister.

I was confused. Sad. Happy. Mad. Scared. I couldn’t believe it. My first thought was that someone was messing with us. At the time I was all alone in another country, studying abroad, and due to limited connectivity I was left thinking uncontrollably for a couple of days until my brother finally got back to me.

My thoughts were all over the place. A new door was being opened in my life — better yet, a damn parking garage! My dad’s family was knocking and what happened next was completely up to us and depended on the next Facebook message sent.

My brother flooded my phone with images. I finally knew what my father looked like. My whole life I’d curated an image of him in my mind, but I now I learned I was totally off.

I had long accepted that my father did not want anything to do with me, but there was always that bit of hope that I would one day get to meet him. And that meeting him would ease the pain and fill the emptiness I felt after trying to find love and belonging in different homes.

Despite the questions and confusion — I was happy about this turn of events. I might have not completed the puzzle just yet, but I had found a missing piece. All I wanted to know was when I could meet my father. My father. Writing these words stings. It hurts so good.

“Did she say when we could meet him?” I messaged. I thought nothing of it when my brother dodged the question the first time I asked. It was now my third attempt. No answer. I knew something was off.

A couple days later, I woke up to a voice message.

“I’m just going to tell you straight up,” my brother said. “Our dad died three years ago. It sucks because he really wanted to meet us.”

Boom! The world still had bullets left.

The excitement that had built dissolved back into the initial feelings I’d had — I was sad, mad, upset and really confused. Why now? Why bring such news without thinking about how the other person might feel?

I felt as if I was re-entering foster care as an adult. The familiar feelings of emptiness and sadness ran through me. Meeting the people who were in my father’s life would be difficult for me, especially knowing that my father was gone. But why not give meeting them a shot? After all, I had nothing left to lose.

I had been here before, in this place of uncertainty. So why was it so hard this time around? I think it’s due to the idea I’d had that “aging out” means the worst was over, that the only way to go from that point on is up. No matter how much we want this to be true, we have to accept that the unknown will always be on its way. It’s not only part of life, but one of the side effects of foster care and growing up without a solid connection to your family or history.

Despite my hesitation, I took the chance to meet my father’s family. Facebook profile pictures turned into real people. Facial features were compared and stories were shared. I did not know what to expect going in. There is no step-by-step guide on how to correctly meet new family members so I decided to approach it with the same mentality and openness I practiced during my time in foster care. Was I supposed to cry? To yell in excitement? To be angry? What I learned is that there is no right answer. I am thankful I had this opportunity and happy to share that this encounter is growing quickly into a bond that will be around for a long time.

This experience taught me something important: The best thing we can do is accept that foster care will follow us and bring us to our lowest points, but we have to remember that there is always a way out. The world still has bullets left that will rock our worlds, and although we can’t completely dodge them, we can control how we face them.

Foster care will never really be over for us, but we will prosper and be OK. If life in care has taught us one thing it is this: We are resilient.

Thalia Bernal recently graduated with a degree in rhetoric and writing, television and film, and communications from San Diego State University. She says “Writing is, in my opinion, one of the most powerful tools we have. I first fell in love with it when I used it as a coping mechanism growing up — the foster care system was my nightmare and writing was my savior.” She uses her creative energy to tell stories that leave impact, and transforms what most people call unfortunate circumstances or imperfections into strength through writing.

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