Ten years ago this month my parents separated. I was a junior in high school, my sister a freshman. Just eleven months later they were divorced.
In what seemed like only a moment, our entire world was turned upside-down.
A Little History Lesson
Growing up I was a kid who stuffed my emotions away. I perceived from an early age that anger and disappointment were "negative", so I tried to just be happy all the time. I thought my parents and teachers would be pleased with me if I was happy and didn't complain. (note: I am the middle child. If you’ve read any birth-order personality books you probably know we tend toward secrecy and are peace-keepers who avoid confrontation.)
“Keeping it all in” proved poisonous to me. As a young teen I struggled with depression thoughts of suicide. In my high school years I searched for happiness in many places, finding temporary comfort in the darkness of addiction.
When Everything Fell Apart
When my parents separated in 2001 I worked feverishly to keep the appearance of “togetherness”, as I had my entire life.
I was truly in a state of shock. One day we were a family. A mostly-happy, mostly-normal family in my estimation. The next day my sister and I lived in a single-parent home. It was devastating.
I was numb with depression but hid behind the mask of a smile. I spiraled deeper into addiction, desperate to medicate my pain. I quit dance lessons after 12 years because I did not have the energy or desire anymore. I rarely cried when thinking about my parents, but cried about anything and everything else. I experienced rage for the first time, and plenty of it.
Things that Hurt, & Things that Helped
I wish I would have known then what I know now: Divorce is a kind of death, a tearing apart of something that was designed for permanence. With death comes grief. Divorcees and their kids are grieving a terrible loss and need lots of love and compassion.
Things that Hurt:
· Continually being told “You’re so strong & have so much joy in all of this… I’m so proud of you.”
This may not sound harmful, but connecting strength and joy to approval can damage a vulnerable young person. For me it reinforced the need to put up a mask. People wouldn’t be proud of me if I was weak. Yes, that’s really what I believed.
A better thing to communicate to the young person is that it is okay to be weak and broken. A favorite Scripture of mine is 2 Cor. 12:9: “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness.” God tells us to be strong in His mighty power. Embracing weakness is really to our advantage once we bring our weak selves to the Cross. It is there that the fullness of God’s perfect power rests in us.
· “At least your parents were married growing up. You were fortunate to have your parents together as long as you did!” Yes, I really heard this. A lot. I heard this from adults and even peers with divorced parents!
Nothing could be LESS comforting to a hurting person than “things could be worse” & “look at the bright side” statements. Focusing on all the things “you still have” doesn’t change the fact that there was a terrible loss. Belittling their pain will not help them heal and can even cause a person to feel guilty for grieving.
A better way to help is to validate the person’s grief. A grieving person needs to know that their pain matters. Don’t minimize their situation even if it doesn’t seem like a big deal to you in the grand scheme of things. It is a big deal to them, so refrain from making comparisons to other people’s situations.
· “How’s your mom?”
As a teen I absolutely hated this question and rarely received it as a caring gesture (even when it was!). Everything inside of me wanted to explode: “WHY DON’T YOU ASK HER YOURSELF?!” Even when my relationship with my mom was rocky I loved her and did not want to see her become the object of gossip. I figured if people really cared about my mom they would give her a call, maybe ask her to meet for lunch or coffee.
Also, a divorcee’s children have likely acted as liaison between their parents enough already. It is not right to put them in the position of having to answer questions about their parent’s spiritual, emotional or financial state.
A better thing to do is to tell the teen, “I’ve been thinking about and praying for your mom. Could you please give me her number so I can give her a call this week?” Then follow through with the call! The teen will know you care without feeling stuck in the middle.
*I was nervous to bring this one up, because people still ask this question every time I am home. Those of you who still ask—I know all of you well—and I know your intentions are pure. You’re the ones who’ve been making phone calls and sending emails and loving my family for 10 years. I appreciate and love you!*
Things that Helped:
· Being invited over for holidays. People at my church were great about this!
Holidays are hard for divorcees and their kids—family gatherings may not take place and once-valued family traditions can stir up great pain. Inviting a divorcee and their kids to your home for a holiday communicates a sense of love and community.
Even if you figure they have plans, invite them to your gathering. I think a lot of people don’t ask not because they don’t care, but because they figure someone else already has. Sometimes, no one else has! Show some love by inviting them over—it can bring a lot of joy in a hard season.
· Being part of a church family.
Ever been in church when it’s a special time—maybe communion or a candlelight service—and families are supposed to pray together? These times can be really awkward and lonely for kids from broken homes, kids whose parents don’t attend church, divorcees (and all single people while we’re talking about it!). Pull a stray teen or adult into your family and pray for them like you’d pray for your own family. Prayers from my church family communicated love and a sense of belonging.
My youth leaders (most of whom were no more than 10 years older than me) became family to my sister and I when our parents separated. They’d buy us lunch after church on Sundays and sometimes hang out with us all afternoon. They’d ask if we needed a ride to or from church—they made sure we stayed connected. They sent emails and wrote us cards and encouraged us during some of our darkest times.
Ten Years Later
All I can say is this: God is really, really good.
I have a great relationship with both of my parents. I have a great friendship with my sister. I have a joy-filled relationship with God. It’s taken a long time, but He’s done a lot of healing in my heart.
There’s still a tinge of sadness around every holiday. I cry about it if I need to then enjoy my day. And sometimes it’s still strange going to Jersey and having to coordinate “whose house and what time” for family visits. It’s not how things are “supposed” to be, but it is how they are—and I need to make the best of what I’ve got.
What I’ve got is a lot. I’ve got people who love me, and I love them right back!