Note: After my husband and I divorced, I was so overwhelmed with my grief that I didn’t notice that my three boys were hurting too. I learned that kids aren’t resilient, as so many people say, and I knew I had to look for ways to help them. Following is an excerpt from my book, Healing the Hurt, Restoring the Hope. I founded Rainbows For All Children, Inc., more than 26 years ago to help youth all over the world who are suffering and grieving from the death of a parent or divorce.
My Personal Journey
“Don’t worry about the children. They’re resilient. They’ll bounce back.”
These reassuring words were salve to my wounds. My husband Jim and I had recently divorced. At the time, my children were young — 5, 6 and 7 — too young, I hoped, to comprehend and be seriously affected by the enormous changes that had taken over our lives. Despite my own deep emotional pain, I clung to the belief that my sons would move through the upheaval in their lives relatively unscathed. “They’ll be fine,” I told myself.
After the divorce, everything in our household changed. For a while, I held down three jobs just to make ends meet. My time for parenting was drastically reduced. The little touches of family were no longer there — time to cuddle, watch television together, or play in the park. Most days, I felt like a machine that was running on drained batteries. Every task was a struggle. I just didn’t seem to have enough time or strength to organize the house, feed the children, and get them to and from school on time. But the kids? They seemed to be just fine. Doing better than I was, actually.
As it turns out, I was naïve, and I was dead wrong.
My sons were not just fine. They were grieving terribly, but I was in such pain that I wasn’t even aware of their distress. In addition, everyone — my friends, family, doctor, counselor, and even parish priest — assured me that my boys would handle the situation and move on. “Kids bounce back,” they said. In the midst of my own agony, I took comfort in their words. In retrospect, I find the very notion absurd.
Children are not rubber bands that can be stretched out of shape and then expected to snap back into position. They are living beings with their own feelings. Like adults, they are deeply affected by loss.
I remained in an emotional daze for nearly a year after my husband moved out, numbed by my own pain and oblivious to my sons’ grief. Then, one day, for the first time in many months, I sat down and took a long, hard look at my children. They’re just fine, right? The unmistakable pain in their eyes shocked me. I felt a searing ache in my heart. How could I have missed this?
In the past, the boys had been active in their school functions, participated in park district sports, and had lots of neighborhood friends. This last year had been different. They’d become withdrawn, sullen, and angry. They fought constantly among themselves. They were cruel to each other — punching and shoving one another so much that I lost track of the number of trips we’d made to the hospital emergency room for stitches. Occasionally, they were verbally nasty to me as well.
Even worse, Michael had started to shoplift candy from the local convenience store. Tom was getting into scrapes at school with his closest friends. And Tim had started spending all his free time watching television or curled up in bed, asleep.
Academically, they were struggling, too. Their grades were spiraling downward. In class, the boys daydreamed; they weren’t “applying” themselves to their work, their teachers said.
My children — the most precious beings on the earth to me — had been hurting all this time and no one, not one single adult, had made the connection between the divorce, their behavior, and their emotional pain. Even today, I cannot imagine how they must have felt, torn by unfamiliar emotions and yet completely ignored. Divorce was the most significant event that had occurred in their lives, and no one — not me, their dad, their grandparents, their teachers, or their pediatrician — had asked them how they felt about it.
That night, I vowed that I would talk to them about the divorce.
Knowing that children chatter best around food, I made a big bowl of popcorn and sat us all down around it on the rug in the living room. As the boys munched their snack, I fired questions at them.
“How do you feel now that your father isn’t living with us?”
Michael shrugged his shoulders.
“Do you mind going to your dad’s on the weekend?”
Tom stared at the floor.
“Does it bother you that I’m working so much?”
Tim avoided my gaze and snatched a handful of popcorn.
I didn’t know what to do. I’d been advised to put on a strong appearance in front of my children. I was counseled to be brave, allow no tears, voice no fears, and never complain. My strength would inspire the children to be strong as well. Sitting with the boys that evening, I realized that I had been living a lie.
So I decided (or was inspired) to share with them what was going on inside of me. I started with what was most important: I told them how much I loved them. I apologized for not talking to them openly and honestly about what had happened to our family. I admitted that this new status of divorced single parent was embarrassing and awkward for me.
I went on to say that I often wasn’t sure how my friends would treat me or how the neighbors would act around me. I even told them that I was still concerned about my family’s reaction. Finally, I told them that I was scared because I didn’t know how to be a single parent.
Along the way, I’ve learned:
- Adults often don’t recognize when children are grieving.
- Children don’t know how to grieve, and the consequences of this can be devastating.
- Children don’t distinguish between the pain of loss that results from death and the pain of loss that results from divorce, separation, or abandonment.
- Children can be healed from loss.
I’ll focus on some of those issues in future articles.
Suzy Yehl Marta, a divorced mother of three sons, gave up the security of her three jobs to do something she knew in her heart had to be done for our youth who were grieving a life-changing loss. She established Rainbows, www.rainbows.org now the world’s largest not-for-profit organization dedicated solely to helping families cope with loss.Tags: grief, hope