Transformation and Healing After Trauma, Loss and Grief

My Mythic Garden

A blog by author and trauma expert Gary W. Reece, Ph.D.

Gary Reece, Ph.D.
“Trouble?” echoed my sister; “trouble?” and then entered on a fearful catalogue
of all the illnesses I had been guilty of, and all the acts of sleeplessness I had committed,
and all the high places I had tumbled from, and all the low places I had tumbled into,
and all the injuries I had done myself, and all the times she had wished me in my grave,
and I had contumaciously refused to go there.
Pip in Great Expectations-Charles Dickens, Chapter 4

In my long career as a therapist I have encountered many individuals who told me stories of incredible hardship and dysfunctional family life. I have said to these individuals many times, “I don’t know how you survived those experiences and managed to have the life you have now. Your survival is amazing.” Then I went on to investigate to see if I could discover the source of their resilience. In most cases I found that early in their childhood there was a person, an aunt, grandmother, or other figure with whom they were able to connect. In the attachment literature I wound a working definition of resilience. Allen Schore writes: “Resilience is an outcome of optimal early attachment experience that shapes the regulator system: This system provides a strong foundation for times when conditions are less than optimal.” (Affect Regulation and Disorders of the Self, pg 174.)
We know the effects of early trauma and relational abuse and neglect, that’s why it is a marvel when someone survives in spite of maltreatment. Disrupted attachment and ensuing loss of family connections threatens the very foundations of all later development: A secure sense of self and identity, the ability to regulate emotion or soothe oneself, and the ability to engage in trusting, intimate relationships. Not only does disrupted attachment forever alter the normal trajectory of development, it also creates wounds which become a deep reservoir of sadness, longing, fear, rage, guilt, shame, confusion and a sense of not belonging anywhere. Terry Levy phrased it thusly, “Traumatize a child and it becomes a life sentence.” Family, neighborhood, community, attachment to parents and siblings, school, and religious institutions, are the essential components of identity development. Without a sense of belonging, there is no secure base for attachment. Losses engendered by removal from family set in motion profound threats to the whole direction of a child’s life. Removal from the home and the severing of family ties and all that entails is equivalent to uprooting a tree from its native habitat and placing it in a foreign and possibly hostile environment and expecting it to thrive. In some cases this happens several times to children in foster care. Richard Rose cogently phrased the consequences:
A child who has experienced poor care, life-threatening actions and/or rejection at a young age may develop an impaired understanding of herself and the world in general. These beliefs can be deep-seated and act as the default concept for the rest of the child’s life. The traumatized state is a potentially lifelong condition which is linked to learned behavior, reinforced by the experience of repeated trauma. (Life Story Therapy with Traumatized Children, Pg. 49)

I have written about the unrecognized and untreated effects of disrupted attachment in previous blogs, as well as in my book: Broken Systems. Research shows that young people in foster care are far more likely to endure homelessness, poverty, compromised health, unemployment and incarceration after they leave the foster care system.
• 54% earn a high school diploma
• 2% earn a Bachelor’s degree or higher
• 84% become parents too soon, exposing their children to a repeated cycle of neglect and abuse
• 51% are unemployed
• 30% have no health insurance
• 25% experience homelessness
• 30% receive public assistance
• An unknown but suspected high number of children migrate to the state prison system
• 660 children have died while in foster care in our county since 1990
These statistics do not even begin to tell the story of the hardship, pain, suffering, and helplessness of the lives of these children subjected to conditions that feel similar to the life lived by Pip under the care of his sister in England years ago. However, statistics often have an empty, detached effect of distancing us from the harsher realities of these suffering children. Statistics need to be made flesh, given personalities. There are individuals, unique and admirable persons, whom I have encountered in my research and work in the past 10 years, and this is what I find remarkable, that some individuals seem somehow to survive incredible circumstances which one would predict they would be very unlikely to overcome.
The question is always one of resilience; why do some individuals manage to survive in spite of overwhelming odds. In my book Shattered Lives. I have examined the effects of early trauma and loss on the development of young children who entered the vast, impersonal system of The Child Welfare Department. I documented specific cases that tracked a child over time. One in particular seems particularly heroic to me, his name is Alex.
I came to know Alex when he was 15 years old. I was assigned his case and made regular home visits to his foster home where he lived with two gay foster parents and two other adolescent foster siblings. His time in this placement was not without drama because of many issues stemming from the relationship between his foster siblings and the foster parents. He subsequently graduated from high school and was emancipated from the system. He is now in his sophomore year at UCLA. Alex wrote me this when I approached him with my idea for telling his story in his own words. As he tells his story, you will understand why I think he is an unusual example of resilience.
I grew up moving around with my mother and brother at a young age. We finally settled in an apartment in Highland Park in Los Angeles when I was 4 years old. This was our home for the next 6 years. I lived here with my single mother and older brother who was 6 at the time. My father was out of the picture before I could remember. My mother and father filed for a divorce just after my birth and as a result, he was not involved in our life from that point on. I was informed that the divorce occurred because of mental illnesses that my mom had developed shortly before.

For the next 6 years, my mother, brother, and I remained in the one apartment complex. I attended Yorkdale Elementary School until 2002 (age 10) when I witnessed the first relapse my mother had experienced. She developed several mental illnesses at one point in her life due to traumatic occurrences. Her relapse led to our neglect and behavior that led her to be taken into custody for some time. During this period, my brother and I were taken to our grandmother’s house only to be taken away for reasons I still do not quite understand. Perhaps she was deemed unfit to care for us. Following this, we were placed into foster care for the first time.

My personal thoughts about foster care were not negative at the time. I knew that where I was beforehand was not the best place for me so I lacked the common feelings of homesickness or sorrow after leaving home. I was actually okay with being in care because I knew this was better for me. During this placement, however, my brother and I became very aggressive with each other and this consequently led to our separation for the remainder of our time in care, which was not too long. The case closed within 2 years and my brother and I were back with our mother just in time to start the second semester of my 6th grade school year. Things seemed to be returning to normal when the exact same thing happened after 2 months. We were placed into care again for the second time but this time the case was closed within 2 months. I didn’t really know what the reasons were behind that but I wasn’t complaining.

Skipping a bit ahead, we all lived together for the next 3 years without a hiccup. At the age of 15, yet again, the same thing occurred. We were taken into care for the 3rd time. After several months in the home with my brother, things got really out of hand between us and I resorted to seeking help at the local police department. This resulted in our separation again. The next home that I was placed in was where I lived until my high school graduation and emancipation.

After Alex wrote me his abbreviated autobiography I invited him to spend the day with me talking about his life. Alex is a mixed race 22-year-old male. His father was from the Netherlands, and his mother is Korean. His older brother Alvin is serving in the Military and they stay in touch. Understanding Alex’s journey into the system begins with his mother’s mental illness. When a single mother is unable to care for her children and the children are removed, there are many extenuating circumstances. Alex told me his family history.
It begins with a huge tragedy. Alex’s parents had two children before they had him and his brother, a 2-year-old boy and a 3-year-old girl. According to Alex they were being cared for by a baby sitter when they both ended up drowning in a swimming pool. His brother was born one year after their deaths, and Alex was born two years later. Shortly thereafter his parents divorced and his father returned to the Netherlands and was never heard from again. I asked Alex about his father’s disappearance. He stated that there were times, when he was much younger that he wished for a normal family. He says:
…But since he was never there I don’t know what I might have been missing out on… In terms of why he left us, I don’t know. It may have been that the deaths of their two children and my mother’s illness may have been too much for him so he went home to his family…In terms of the effect that my father’s absence has had on my life, it cannot be pinpointed. My life is going very well in my eyes, despite the unfortunate circumstances that occurred. I sometimes think that things wouldn’t have gone this well if my father was present. The benefits of having been in foster care are definitely something that I am grateful for. I am pretty much set financially in terms of higher education without having to place any financial burdens on anyone else. Additionally, I feel that my experiences have allowed me to grow in many different aspects and prepared me to be independent far earlier than any of my peers. This may not have been the case if my father had been present.”

Alex describes his relationship with his mother before placement as close and caring and describes it the same way today. (This may be the connection that saved him) For the past five years, she has been living in a residential treatment facility and Alex visits her twice a month. I asked Alex to elaborate on the circumstances of his placement. He stated that his mother stopped functioning for two weeks. “She stopped cooking, was highly agitated, restless, and stopped sleeping. She developed paranoid thoughts, and began behaving strangely (gross symptoms of an apparent psychotic episode). One day she went to my school and talked to the principal.” The principal apparently called and reported her to the police who came and took Alex and his brother away and called Child Protective Services. CPS discovered that there was a relative, the maternal grandmother, and called her, placing the boys with her for two weeks. Then, for reasons unclear to Alex, the boys were removed from her home. This episode set off a chain reaction of unstable, multiple placements as mentioned in Alex’s story. They were first placed with a single woman who lived in Fontana with two children of her own. Alex and his brother were there for a year and a half. Interestingly enough, he says he has no memories of that experience (This is a common experience due to dissociation).
They were then placed back with their mother for two months, and when she regressed, the police had to be called back and they again went into placement. As is often the case, the CSW could not find a home that would take two siblings so they were placed in a temporary home for a week until a suitable foster home could be found. They were then placed in a foster home in Long Beach with a family who had three other foster kids. This placement lasted two months followed by a return to their mother.
It should be noted that during all this time of upheaval, Alex reports that he was being physically and emotionally abused by his older brother; they would repeatedly get into physical fights. Alex states that each time he was reunited with his mother it felt good, and that each time he was removed it was very difficult.
After the Long Beach placement he and his brother were able to stay with their mother for three years in Highland Park. During this time, however, the conflict between him and his brother worsened. He became afraid of his brother because he was physically abusive on a daily basis. He described his brother as domineering and a control freak, and that he wanted to get away from him. During this time, Alex was doing well in school.
One day things deteriorated again and he and his brother got into a physical altercation which led to Alex seeking help at a local police station. He was placed in a Covina home for a month and moved to Glendale. (As a personal observation, Alex demonstrated much maturity and insight by seeking help, but interestingly enough did not report the abuse directly to his social worker). Finally, a social worker was informed about the physical abuse and separated them. She found a permanent placement for Alex with the two men with whom he lived with until graduation from High School. The brother remained in care in the Glendale home until he was able to get into transitional housing. From there he joined the Army.
Alex describes the home where he lived from the age of 15 until 18 as “OK.” Personally, I thought it was “less than ok.” The foster dads were very uncooperative and at times verbally abusive with me. They also had issues in their relationship with fidelity and drug usage. The other two foster siblings also in the home had their own issues with a drug-addicted mother who died of an apparent drug overdose and conflicts with the foster parents. Alex describes himself as being on the periphery, watching all the drama and staying out of it (This seems to be Alex’s primary defense, remaining insulated and detached). He did well in school and the foster dads had a friend who was connected with UCLA and was instrumental in helping him apply and get accepted. He describes his first year as very difficult, a kind of culture shock with being away from home and on his own without family as well as being overwhelmed academically. UCLA has a program that helps foster youth make the adjustment to college which Alex found helpful. That program is called Bruin Guardian Scholars Program. Their resources include workshops on time management and study habits, staying for free in college housing between breaks in semesters, and gives care packages. It is a very good support program exclusively for students who have been in foster care.
Presently, Alex is doing well at UCLA, and his brother is in still the Army. They stay in touch regularly and Alex describes their relationship as much improved now that they do not live together and have both grown up. No doubt a large part of their friction was due to sibling rivalry, the instability of their lives and the stress related to so much loss of control when living with strangers. Today, Alex appears to be content with his life. He is enjoying school, loves to play the guitar and get together with friends to “Jam.” He has several friends and remains in contact with his former foster parents whom he describes as close and supportive. He writes, “I am blessed to have them in my life. We speak frequently on the phone and will occasionally meet and get together about once a month. They check in with me to make sure everything is going ok, and they are there to support me if I need it.” As mentioned, Alex still visits his mother twice monthly. In fact, the day of our interview I took him to visit his mother and met her. They appear to be quite close.
Alex attributes his survival of the placement ordeal to being adaptable. He has the ability to be friendly and makes friends easily. He also believes that even though his mother has serious mental health problems, before her illness they were close and this appears to have given him an early foundation of security. Even though there was a great deal of disruption and multiple placements he still managed to maintain a relationship with her. Alex’s story is still unfolding. He plans to graduate from UCLA with a degree in biology and perhaps work on a Master’s Degree. What is atypical of individuals with such a traumatic history is that he believes he has a future and the ability to control it. As part of his commitment to others, Alex continues to work with a foster family agency. He volunteers his time and frequently agrees to speak to groups about his story.
His reflections on being in the system focus on the way social workers failed to protect him from his brother and how they did not pick up on the severity of his mother’s mental illness. He feels that a lot of the placements could have been prevented if the CSW would not have continued to reunify him and his brother with his mother for brief periods only to have to move again when she regressed. Without the stress of having to care for the two boys, the mother has been relatively stable while living in a residential care facility. Perhaps if she had been adequately assessed for her mental competency, she would not have been tasked with trying to do more than she was capable of doing and the boys would have not been moved around so many times. This highlights the aforementioned issue of the pressure to reunify families and the resultant havoc of multiple placements that happens when reunification fails. When I asked Alex to reflect on telling his story, He replied, “It’s all good. I’ve had lots of time to reflect about my past and I have gotten to the point where I am very comfortable sharing my experiences with others.”
For Alex, the identity issues have revolved around his mother’s illness, his father’s desertion and the resultant divorce that precipitated instability in his life through the critical developmental years of early childhood to adulthood. Again, multiple placements and repeated reunification followed by family disruptions were major stressors in his life.
The transition from foster care through emancipation comes at a critical time in an adolescent’s life. Development to adulthood for adolescents is typified by leaving home and finding a place in the world. This is a stage that, for many young adults in the system becomes a failed milestone. Failure to successfully leave the system and transition into self-dependence is well documented. Alex has done a remarkable job of maintaining family connections and of transitioning to college and successfully creating a functioning support system for himself. Anyone who has left home, gone to college and dealt with all the demands of college life while living on their own for the first time knows the challenges thereof. Skills of self-regulation are required for success. Performing regular self-care habits, eating, sleeping, and personal hygiene, developing study habits, getting up and going to class, deciding whether to study or go to a party are all examples of self-regulation. Additionally, dealing with the pressure of deadlines and exams is a challenge that any kid going off to college must manage. For someone with less maturity, all of these challenges would be overwhelming.
In addition to responding to the challenges of college, Alex also has demonstrated another level of identity development: Empathy and impulse control. His empathy shows in his apparent high regard for his relationships; he treats people well. He is also sensitive to their needs and has good boundaries. He does not use people and throw them away, but maintains his friendships. Impulse control is also a healthy marker of secure identity. Alex’s success in college shows that, as success in college is all about deferred gratification.
Achieving successful emancipation is a major accomplishment. It requires a secure sense of self with an optimistic world view. Alex believes that he has a future that is under his control and that his goals are reasonable and obtainable. He has the social skills to draw people to him, and the ability to move toward his goals in a reasonable fashion. He appears to have a realistic self appraisal and does not appear to be burdened by anxiety, depression, or regrets over his past. For someone who has experienced the kinds of losses, disruptions, and traumas in life that he has, he appears to have done a remarkable job of surviving a very difficult childhood and adolescence and is moving well into the next phase of identity development, early adulthood. His resiliency under many major life stressors indicates a strong core personality.
Transitioning out of foster care was what I anticipated most during my senior year of high school. Not because foster care was unbearable or because I wanted to get out of my foster home. Transitioning out meant I was headed towards college. I was headed towards independence.
For me, foster care wasn’t something I necessarily wanted to escape but the thought of being on my own was something I desired. I would finally do things the way I saw fit without the chronic feeling that I was always being observed and where it seemed that every actions of mine must be “approved.”
Emancipating with this type of mindset really helped me avoid some of the obstacles that others in my position may have been going through. I had been forced to mature more rapidly than the average teenager and this only helped me with independent living. I began college life fresh and anew.
Two fears did come to mind during my transition: would I have a place to stay during school breaks and would I be financially stable? I was one of the lucky few emancipated former foster youth who maintained a continuing relationship with my former foster parents. I was graciously given the opportunity to stay with them during those breaks and weekends I needed to step away from college. And as for financial stability, I soon came to realize how much money was available for emancipated foster youth who are planning to pursue higher education. By taking advantage of this, I was able to rest in the fact that college is not only accessible but also affordable.
While all of this seemed to fall into place, it seemed as though I was always a step behind in finding out about all of the support offered to foster youth. I vaguely heard of these different supports throughout my time in foster care but it could have been done more efficiently and urgently. It was not until I planned on attending college or even began attending that I heard about many of them. It seems that foster youth aren’t aware of these resources because their chances of attending college is slim. Perhaps no one wants to waste time explaining the possibilities to these youth if they don’t express interest in attending college. The reality that emancipated foster youth are less likely to the pursue higher education, let alone graduate from high school, seems to minimize the urgency to inform them about the resources that are offered. This is definitely something that needs to be changed. I was lucky enough to have a separate support system willing to walk me through many of the processes but others aren’t fortunate enough to have a useful support system. My transition would have definitely been much smoother if I had been better informed.
Overall, my transition out of foster care was fun, eye-opening, and life changing. I had to start thinking differently, I had to understand what it meant to prioritize, and I had to be responsible. These things all came with time but having someone there to help me made my transition much, much easier.

Richard Rose put it rather succinctly, “What we needed as children to become securely attached, i. e., safety, stability, warmth, security, and engagement with caring people, we still need as adults.” We also needed to learn how to be self-regulating. However, the problem for children of the System is that they also have to overcome the trauma of being given away, the disruption of placement, violence, and abuse. They need to create within the boundaries of their own lives a sense of safety, security, control, stability, purpose, meaning, and a sense of worth through meaningful attachments. In other words they still need as we all do, to have a coherent narrative. Their lives need to make sense, need a secure base, a sense of belonging, and a place called home. Each step taken in that journey is a defining moment which takes us closer to home. “I am not at the mercy of anyone. While they are accomplishing this, they still struggle with old wounds and questions about who they are, their worthiness, and a primal longing for family. The miracle for all of them is that somehow they found just enough within themselves or found someone at just the right time, and were able to survive against rather overwhelming odds and circumstances. They also survived being in a system that more often hindered their struggles than help them, and in so doing created a coherent narrative which preserved the fragments of their past, without being destroyed by shame, doubt, and fear. The many crises of identity they each weathered resulted in a process of transformation and a stronger sense of personal identity.
Resilience, then seems to be an outcome related to early attachment in which the child got just enough of a connection that allowed for the development of a sense of self and a foundation for coping when times and conditions were less than optimal. Certainly there were also other factors related as well, fortuitous contact with care givers along the way, favorable circumstances which facilitated the next step in his development and a sufficiently supportive environment as he transitioned from foster care to college life. In Alex’s own words, “he was adaptable” and still maintains a relationship with his mother and former foster parents. Alex, I salute you for your many accomplishments, overcoming long odds and persevering in spite of all the hurdles and disappointments along the way.

1 Comment
  1. Dear Gary,
    This is a very interesting and informative story! Thanks for sharing it.
    This young man is so resiliant! How wonderful that he was able to get into U.C.L.A. and succeed.
    How wonderful that he has a continuing relationship with his mother and his foster parents, and that he is preparing himself to be an independent, educated, and competent young man. So heart-warming!

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