I think of that image sometimes when working with young people of divorce through my small nonprofit foundation, Faith Journeys. Even though each child has different circumstances to contend with, they are all on a similar journey: of accepting their cross and letting it lead them to new life. Even in the best of situations, their journey will not be easy. Yet I am confident they can beat the odds like I did, if they stay open to God's grace. My parents gave me an appreciable advantage in that regard, especially my mother who insisted that I attend mass each Sunday and Holy Day even though my dad's absence made me feel as if God, too, had abandoned me.
What my parents didn't realize, though, was that I needed additional help to process my grief.
Here are three suggestions I wish they had followed.
1.Give children ample opportunity to express their feelings. This suggestion is perhaps the most difficult, especially for parents who are already struggling to manage their own feelings regarding the breakup. Expressions of pain from children are never easy to hear. When we feel we?ve done something to contribute to them, this experience can become even more difficult to bear. Nevertheless, children require this atmosphere of open acceptance especially regarding their negative feelings. When shortchanged of it, they often develop unhealthy coping patterns which delay the resolution of their grief as well as jeopardize their personal happiness and future relationships. My mother did not allow me to express my sadness about missing my dad. It overloaded her own grief. Plus, she was convinced he would only let me down, as he had let her down, and she wanted to protect me from that hurt. Yet, she didn?t realize there was nothing she, or anyone, could ever do to protect me from the losses in that relationship. With my expression stifled, my grief stayed unresolved, only to surface later and even more intensely in my dating relationships. In the process, I also developed faulty beliefs about grief, concluding I was ?weak,? ?ungrateful,? or otherwise ?bad? for having feelings of sadness, anger, and so on. Which brings me to point number two...
2.Enroll children in a group program or individual counseling, and get this assistance for yourself too. All of us need a safe haven for processing grief, either a group program with others who share our problem or an individual whom we trust and feel safe with. While we may be able to move through grief by ourselves through journaling, creative outlets, and physical activities, an objective third party can help us process grief more fully and teach us effective coping skills, as well as give us that extra support we need for such difficult work. This is particularly true for elementary and middle school age children who, because of their developmental level, require play therapy techniques to express their feelings and inner conflicts. Family therapy sessions are also especially important for this age group so that any unhealthy familial patterns and interactions may be addressed. In the 70s, when my parents separated, group programs for children with divorced parents were not available. My mother did not make use of family counseling either. Not having this assistance encouraged me to cope in an unhealthy way by becoming an emotional caretaker for my parents. They, in turn, by not getting outside support, remained less effective in helping me as well.
3.Let children learn the truth at their own rate. No matter what their age, children often want to know details concerning the breakup. Some parents shy away from this subject until their child is a certain age, while others may tell either intimate or too many details about what went wrong in the marriage. Achieving a balance in this regard definitely is difficult. What can help is to focus on sharing information that is relevant or useful to children, such as how the breakup will directly affect them, lessons learned about dating or marriage, etc. I heard many details after my parents separated, but none that were helpful. I needed to know when and how often I?d see my dad as well as more about who he was as a person. Instead, I heard a lot of badmouthing and inappropriate details which not only fostered my resentment but also delayed my healing appreciably because I became all the more motivated to cling to my wished-for image of my parents. This negative sharing also put me directly in the middle of their ongoing conflict and prevented me from feeling as though I had permission to love them both.
Parents must accept the fact that while their relationship with their spouse has ended, their child will always have that spouse as Mom or Dad. In most cases, children long to be in a relationship with both their parents, no matter what. After all, that parent remains part of who the child is.
In order to help children heal and make a healthy choice regarding marriage, every attempt must be made to help them salvage as good a relationship as possible with both parents. Otherwise, the child will likely enter marriage with excess baggage that puts him or her at increased risk for divorce.
I feel very fortunate to have grown past the pain of my parents? divorce. I have an extraordinary husband, a close-knit family, and a career that gives a deep meaning and purpose to my life.
When I was younger, I doubted these blessings were possible for me. However, God?s grace allowed otherwise.
Every Sunday at Mass, I give thanks for the life I have. I believe in the redemptive value of suffering ? that God can transform pain and bring good out of it ? for I?ve experienced it firsthand.Copyright © 2008 Lynn Cassella-Kapusinski