How does spirituality enhance the lives of grieving youth in foster care? Since partnering as a scholar with The Enhancing Life Project, I have been analyzing hundreds of youth’s reports to explore and answer this important question. In fact, as I reflect on my process, I am inclined to describe this meaningful research endeavor as being “consumed in and transformed by youth’s stories.”
With more than 400,000 children and youth in the U.S. foster care system, one cannot help but to pause and consider the losses that so many youth experience when they are removed from their homes and separated from their original parents and siblings. Reports by youth in foster care echo this concern: “My parents didn’t die but it felt like that.” “I’ve had plenty of emotional deaths and you know the funerals aren’t planned.” As highlighted in my recent book, The Neglected Transition: Building a Relational Home for Children Entering Foster Care, many youth in foster care report that their experiences of loss and ambiguity are neglected and left unattended by the foster care system when they enter foster care. Youth report they experience significant struggles and challenges as they grieve family members (e.g., original parents, siblings, and extended family) and friends while they simultaneously try to navigate their way through the foster care system. As one youth explains, “[Entering foster care] was kinda traumatic. You didn’t know where you were going or what you were gonna do or if you were ever gonna see your [family] again.”
Despite these many hurdles, youth’s reports demonstrate their strength and wisdom as they draw from their innate resources and transcend adverse life events. As one youth reflects, “I wake up every day and I realize I’m still alive. It inspires me to continue to move on in my life and not give up hope at all… it makes me understand more that even though I’ve went through tough times and rough experiences I can still deal with them…What inspires me is to know that there’s still more challenges that are gonna come my way…more big challenges, more small challenges.”
This youth wisely acknowledges that challenges are an inevitable part of life, but it is up to the individual to decide whether they will be viewed as roadblocks or inspirational milestones. These words echo Dr. Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist, Holocaust survivor, founder of Logotherapy, and guiding theorist for this study. Dr. Frankl advises, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Indeed, choosing our attitudes and how we respond to adversity are human freedoms that have the potential to enhance and catalyze life. As I am learning from youth in foster care, the opportunity to draw upon their spiritual resources (e.g. purpose, inspiration, and connection)—referred to as the noological or noetic dimension by Frankl—can provide youth with meaning and hope, leading to transcendence and transformative change. For example, the majority of youth in this study reported that they have an important and meaningful connection with a divine being. This relationship can offer guidance, support, and meaning. One youth reports, “God can talk to you through your heart and let you know what’s wrong or what’s right. I mean, He also can talk to you in your ear. You know, sometimes you sit down in a quiet place speak to Him and He speaks back.”
Preliminary reports also suggest that many of the youth who participated in the study believe that their life purpose involves serving and helping others. Interestingly, this emerging theme is a primary function of transcendence; that is, self-transcendence is the overcoming of the limits of the individual self and its desires in spiritual contemplation and realization to reach beyond oneself toward another human being or toward meaning
For example, one youth shared, “My purpose is to instill in other females, like teenagers and girls, that we all can be something. No matter what we go through, we can overcome it. So I feel like maybe I’ve been through what I’ve been through to teach someone else that they can be something no matter what happens in life.” Another youth stated, “I feel like I’m supposed to be there for people that’s been through the [foster care] system and stuff like that. I have a story and one day I might write a book or something like that.”
As youth in foster care report, they are willing and able to find meaning in adverse experiences. In this and the upcoming year, I look forward to delving further into youth’s experiences of grief and loss in foster care and if and how spirituality (i.e., the noetic dimension) is embedded in these experiences. Ultimately, I hope to reveal the intrinsic resources used by youth to transcend adversity and transform themselves into personal and social change agents for the enhancement of life.
Read a Q&A with Monique Mitchell about her research here.