My thoughts and reflections on my Catholic Faith, Fulton Sheen, the problem of suffering, and books

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Ask Us How We're Doing (or, Please Reach out to Children of Divorce)

I am a child of divorce.

I have been a child of divorce for 19 years.

I have been a Catholic for 18 years.

In those 18 years--and particularly in the past 3 years, when I have been listening and hoping and waiting for this topic to come up--I have never once heard a sermon on the children of divorce--how divorce wounds them, how to reach out to them, how to help them.

I'm not referring to the problem of people who have divorced and remarried. While that is a major problem, it is not an issue that affects me.

(Disclaimer here: I am getting help now, so please don't flood me with comments about how I should see a psychologist.)

The issue that affects me is that my parents divorced when I was 7 years old; my mother and I joined the Faith when I was 8; and in the following years, no one ever reached out to me and said: "Emily, how are you doing?"

I didn't see my dad for seven years--from my 12th birthday to Thanksgiving my Freshman year of college.

During those seven years, no one--none of the priests I knew, no relatives, no family friends--said: "Emily, I know you just moved 2,000 miles away from your dad. How are you doing with that? Do you need to talk?"

No one said anything--because our society views divorce as "normal."

I didn't say anything--because it was all I knew, it was all I remembered. I didn't give anyone the opportunity to reach out, I didn't tell anyone I was hurting, because I didn't even realize that I was; I thought the life I was living was normal.

And that was bad. Numbness, denying our problems.

Not that I'm arguing we need to force children to face things they, perhaps, aren't ready to face. In high school, I was not in a place to face the wounds the divorce caused me; my mentally ill mother thought she had done the right thing by divorcing my father; and I had no support system. But maybe life would have been easier if someone had reached out to me.

Then I went away to college. And there, I saw normal, healthy relationships. I also met a very dear friend whose parents were at that time going through a divorce; and slowly, watching her struggle, listening to her talk, I began to realize that my parents' divorce had wounded me. I fought the realization tooth and nail, until Christmas of my Senior Year, when, as a 22-year-old, I spent half of Christmas Day with my father and half with my mother.

Then it hit me: "Wait a minute, that wasn't normal, it wasn't good, I didn't grow up in a healthy home." By that time, I had a support system. I had friends (when I didn't shut them out) and professors (one in particular, who listened to me vent and let me direct a lot of anger at him) who were always there for me, no matter what; and eventually that one professor pointed me in the direction of a mental health professional.

And now, thanks be to God, I'm healing. Slowly. Painfully. But I'm healing.

But the Church--and please correct me if I'm wrong--is not doing everything She could to reach out to those of us who are children of divorce.

In the past 3 years, I have never heard a sermon about how to reach out to children of divorce. One of the General Intentions at Mass this past Sunday was "for all separated spouses"; but no one ever thinks to pray for the children of separated spouses. No one gives a sermon about how to help children of divorce. No one reaches out to them.

There are workshops for people grieving the loss of a loved one; there are programs (e.g. Retrouvaille) for couples whose marriages are struggling; but where are the programs and the groups for children--both young children and "adult" children--whose parents are divorcing or have divorced?

The only Catholic book I've been able to find, geared towards teens and young adults whose parents have divorced, is this workbook by Lynn Cassella: Making Your Way After Your Parents' Divorce, but that seemed to be it.

Correction: There does appear to be a Catholic program out there--Faith Journeys, founded by Lynn Cassella and, according to its website, "recognized by His Holiness Benedict XVI, Pope Emeritus; Cardinal Donald Wuerl; Cardinal Edwin F. O’Brien; and other Catholic leaders"--but I've never heard of it in any of the parishes in the NOVA area. If you know of anything in your diocese or Archdiocese, please let me know.

I've found some references here and there in letters and addresses by various Popes of the twentieth century, but no one document geared toward the children of divorce. Last year, I eagerly read the Working Document for the Synod of the Family, and was pleased to see several references to childen of divorce (see my post here).

Earlier this month, the National Catholic Register shared an interview with Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, in which the Cardinal, himself a child of divorce, said:
It is so obvious that the first victims of divorce are always the children, because the parents are their parents. They have not only a father, but also a mother. They have a mother, but also a father. If they separate, something is always broken in the life of the child.
. . . But before speaking about the suffering of the parents, we must speak about the suffering of the children.
In response to the question of how he recovered from his parents' divorce, His Eminence continues:
I have a large family network, and that is a great benefit in a family crisis. My parents were not left alone by their families, and we, the children, were not left alone by our aunts, uncles and cousins. The effect of divorce on an isolated, small family of father, mother and child is more dramatic. (Emphasis added.)
Now, how long will it take before the effects of the Synod filter down to the parish level, before the Church starts reaching out to children of divorce? Probably a long time.

So in the meantime, what can we do about this problem?

First and most importantly: pray for the people you know whose lives have been affected by divorce. Even if they're adults and their parents' divorce was decades ago, some of them--and maybe most of them--are still hurting. They need prayers. A specific intention: pray for them to recognize what it means that God is their Father. Because it is very, very hard to understand the love of God as your Father, when your biological father simply wasn't there.

Secondly: reach out. I am eternally grateful to the one professor who listened to me vent, who could tell I was hurting even when I refused to admit I was, and who knew he couldn't help me in the way I needed help, and encouraged me to seek professional help.

Thirdly, do not assume that the kids are "fine," just because they're not using drugs or being openly rebellious. If you're a divorced parent, talk to your children. Talk to them when they're young, let them know they can trust you; so when they're teenagers who trust no one, they are still willing to trust you and talk to you.

Fourth and finally, make inquiries. Ask your parish priest: "Father, are there any programs here at the parish or in the diocese for children of divorce?" I never get involved in liturgical matters, but I am very strongly tempted to write to either my pastor or whoever's in charge of liturgical matters and ask: "Why did we pray for separated spouses at Mass last Sunday, but not for the children of separated spouses?" (I'll try to phrase it slightly more diplomatically than that.)

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