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Healing After Divorce—Loving Beyond Loss
By: Susan K. Rowland
A few days ago I attended the funeral of a friend’s son, 44, who’d battled cancer for years. He left a wife and five children. Hundreds of people came to his Mass of the Resurrection. Devastated as the family was, they knew they were not alone in their grief. People hugged them, wept with them, donated money and cooked food.
I was divorced six years ago. There was no funeral, even though divorce is one of the cruelest deaths there is: the death of a marriage. Most members of my ex-husband’s large family, with whom I had been close for 30 years, disappeared from my life. Some were puzzled, some embarrassed, some downright angry. Fortunately, I had friends who called regularly to see how I was doing and who gave me the hugs I so badly needed. But I wept alone, struggled with money problems and ate alone. Suddenly, I had nowhere to go for holidays. There were times when I felt like an outcast, like one of the lepers of Jesus’ time.
Divorce is a death, worse than physical death in some ways. There is no outpouring of support and sympathy that physical death brings. Instead, the divorced person often feels alone and disgraced, especially in the parish community, which (rightfully) is a champion of marriage. Also, the former spouse is still around. The initial pain of divorce is often aggravated by disputes over child support and visitation, adult children’s marriages, holidays and remarriage.
With the divorce rate hovering around 50%, there are few people in the Church who will not experience divorce personally or through a family member, friend or co-worker. What do divorced Catholics need? What attitude should the rest of us adopt? Following are some thoughts about the care of those who have experienced the “death” of a divorce.
In the parish
Individual parishes should be ready to minister to the divorced. In Familiaris Consortio (On the Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World), Pope John Paul II wrote, “I earnestly call upon pastors and the whole community of the faithful to help the divorced, and with solicitous care to make sure that they do not consider themselves as separated from the Church, for as baptized persons they can, and indeed must, share in her life” (84).
Every parish should offer some sort of support program for the divorced and separated. Programs such as Beginning Experience (beginningexperience.org) and DivorceCare (divorcecare.org) can be helpful to the newly divorced. In addition, many dioceses offer divorced/separated support. Check your diocesan Web site for information. Ideally, such a program should combine practical instruction about finances, child support, legalities and Church annulments with informal time for people to share their stories and support one another.
Healing is the goal
For the individual who has divorced and for his or her family, healing is the first priority. Not judgment, not blame, not explanations. Healing. Forgiveness is the most important part of the healing process. Healing cannot happen completely until forgiveness happens. Since forgiveness will take time, the divorced person needs to be ready to forgive. He or she needs to say to God, perhaps daily, “I want to forgive. I can’t right now, but I’m willing to try. Please, Jesus, love him/her for me.”
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Forgiveness has two components: 1) letting go of the person who wronged you, trusting that you can leave matters in God’s capable hands and 2) praying for the one who has wronged you. No one can intercede for someone the way an ex-spouse can.
Family members of the divorced
If a family member divorces, don’t say things like, “You seemed like a happy couple” or “It never looked like anything was wrong.” No one knows what goes on in a marriage, behind closed doors, especially the doors of the human heart. Sometimes the couple themselves aren’t sure for a long time what went wrong or when. Don’t push for information.
If a family member has divorced and you were close to his or her spouse, don’t be afraid to continue this relationship. It will change from what it used to be, but there is no reason to discontinue contact. Greeting cards with a short note, phone calls and meals out can be lifelines to a divorced man or woman who had been close to former in-laws. Just offer your company and friendship.
Newly divorced people need to make a lot of decisions. Some are internal: “Who am I now?” Others are external: moving, changing jobs, going back to college, volunteering. As painful as it is, divorce is an open door for people who have been suffering in a bad marriage. They have agonized and struggled, hoped and pretended, lived in denial and then faced the painful truth.
The divorced need to get on with their lives. If you are a friend or family member, encourage them to do so. Let them talk about whatever new enterprises they are taking on. We do this for the widowed. The divorced, too, need encouragement and support for their plans and new identity.
St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians contains what is known as the “love chapter.” Usually read at weddings, it’s just as appropriate when a marriage ends in divorce. “Love is patient; love is kind….It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends” (13:4-8).
Divorce is the death of a marriage, but it’s not the death of love. Those who are divorced, their family and friends, indeed all of us in the Body of Christ, must remember that we are always called to love. No matter what deaths we go through, love is the sign that God is truly in our midst.
For more information, check out Catholic Divorce Ministry at nacsdc.org. The site offers articles, facts about Catholicism and divorce, resources for further reading and lists of regional support groups.
Permission to Publish received for this article, “Healing After Divorce—Loving Beyond Loss” by Susan K. Rowland, from Rev. Joseph R. Binzer, Vicar General, Archdiocese of Cincinnati, 10-17-2008.
Susan K. Rowland is the author of Make Room for God: Clearing Out the Clutter (St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2007). She is a freelance writer/columnist and nationally known speaker.
By: Frank Frost
■ What experience do you have of divorce—your own, your parents’, a friend’s, a sibling’s? In what ways were these divorces also deaths?
■ How well does your parish community reach out to help those who are divorced in their healing process? What additional efforts could be made to keep them connected to the faith community?
■ Commit to one action that you will do to assure divorced friends or family members of your care and support.
Director Lawrence Kasdan says about The Accidental Tourist that the world is a dangerous, chaotic place, and we will do anything to control our fears about that. This is the case with Macon (William Hurt), who has shut down his feelings to such a degree that Sarah (Kathleen Turner), his wife of 18 years, decides she cannot live with him anymore. Macon writes books that advise business travelers how to travel to places and never really experience them—feeling as if they never left home.
Macon and Sarah’s divorce follows the death of their son, Ethan. But their divorce is also a death of its own. Sarah grieves not only Ethan’s death, but also the lack of support from Macon. He refuses to feel anything lest he re-experience his loss.
Macon accidentally meets Muriel (Geena Davis), a free-spirited and offbeat dog trainer. She immediately recognizes in him a lost soul, telling him she understands how he feels; she’s divorced herself. Attracted to her in spite of himself, he pleads to be left alone when she persists in inviting him to dinner. “I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but you have to stop asking me,” he says, before he unburdens himself. His words refer to his son’s death, but we can recognize in them the grief many divorced people feel: “Every day I tell myself it’s time to be getting over this. I know that people expect it of me. But it’s getting worse.”
When Macon finally lets his guard down enough to begin to feel again, his ex-wife re-enters the picture. The tension between his lost love and his new love drives the film to its conclusion. But the important thing to note—whatever choice he makes—is that healing can only come from love.
Next time you watch The Accidental Tourist, ASK YOURSELF:
By: Joan McKamey
■ How are Macon and Sarah’s visual and verbal expressions of loss similar, whether they refer to their son or to their divorce?
■ Do I agree with Macon’s ultimate conclusion that he cannot control everything, that things just happen?
■ Can I come to look at divorce not with the eyes of blame but with compassion?
Many Church members think that Catholics who divorce never tried to make their marriage work, or never intended to be married for life. Nothing could be further from the truth,” says Debbie George, a divorced Catholic who leads the Divorce & Beyond support group at St. William Catholic Church in Round Rock, Texas. As part of her role as parish director of liturgy and pastoral care, Debbie also meets with engaged couples. She says, “I tell them that I have a ministry to the divorced and that I don’t want to see them there!”
When Debbie was going through her own divorce 17 years ago, she says, “There was no support in my Catholic parish, and I went to another denomination for help. Other Catholics were there. Many of them stayed in that church because they felt welcomed and helped in their need. Ministry to the divorced is not only a way to carry out the healing ministry of Jesus Christ, but also an evangelization tool.” For the past six years, Debbie has coordinated the eight-week divorce support group twice a year at St. William.
Debbie tells Every Day Catholic, “Since my divorce I’ve learned that the Lord is in our midst in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, and that the hand of God is in everything we do. The Church is there to help us when we’re broken, bruised or battered, just like she’s there in our rejoicing. Divorce calls for the healing presence of God that’s so readily available in the sacraments of Reconciliation and Eucharist. Although few Catholic parishes have the courage to offer divorce ministry (lest they look like they’re promoting divorce), it’s no different from ministering to the bereaved, the unemployed, those stricken with illness. It’s about grief and loss. They’re all connected to our incompleteness in this world.”
For those considering divorce, Debbie advises, “Wait at least three days before jumping to conclusions or signing papers. On Good Friday, few expected Easter Sunday. Go back to the promises made on your wedding day and be sure that there isn’t something worth fighting for. There are skills to be learned that divorce usurps. You’ll need those skills in other relationships, so make the investment in forgiveness, patience, charity and consideration now and see where that leads you. Unless your life or the lives of your children are threatened, very little good comes out of divorce.”
What does Debbie share of her experiences of marriage and divorce with the couples preparing for marriage? “I tell them that two people who want to stay married can stay married. First, both have to want it. One person cannot a marriage make! Second, with God as a third person in the union, the marriage vocation is about becoming more like Christ, the One who sacrificed everything for the sake of his bride, the Church. Every thought, every word, every deed either builds up the marriage or damages it.”
By: Jeanne Hunt
Meredith is so lonely. Since Jeff left her she simply goes through the motions: get up; work a long day to avoid the empty house; eat supper in front of the television; fall into bed. There’s nothing to look forward to, no one with whom to share the day, nothing to bring her joy. Her divorce might as well have been a funeral because Meredith sees herself as the walking dead.
The statistics are disheartening: Divorces are more prevalent than successful marriages. When one partner loves and is faithful to the vows and the other abandons those vows, the faithful partner can be paralyzed by hurt, fear, resentment and anger. When a valid marriage ends this way, the faithful partner is left to live a married-but-separated life. There seems to be little hope for the future when all one’s dreams and devotion were trashed by the other. How can victims of such experiences restore hope and joy to their lives?
First, one can learn to care for oneself by planning simple pleasures every day as if caring for a loved one. God loves each of us and wants us to lovingly care for ourselves. Lunching with a friend, buying flowers or watching a favorite movie are expressions of self-love.
Second, one must accept that anger, fear, hurt and resentment are feelings that come without choice. It’s what we do with these emotions that matters. Harboring negative feelings is a poison for the soul. One must choose to respond in positive ways. Often, when one acknowledges a feeling and does something about it, it’s easier to let go of it. Whether it’s seeing a counselor, having a heart-to-heart with a friend or venting in a journal, acknowledging feelings eases the pain.
Third, one must actively create a new life: plan evenings with friends, pursue new activities, plan ahead for times when one might be lonely. One learns to anticipate challenges and protect oneself. At holidays, social occasions—anytime when being alone will cause stress—gathering friends, family and others can help one create good times and new memories. It’s a matter of being an advocate for oneself.
Meredith took these three points and began the journey back to wholeness. She joined a health club, met new people, spent less time home alone and began to travel. She chooses to live as the beloved of God, and her hope has returned.
By: Jeanne Hunt
(for praying alone or with others)
Preparation: Place pieces of colored paper, pens, a large glass bowl, a lighted candle and a Bible on a prayer table.
“Eye Has Not Seen” by Marty Haugen (or other suitable song)
(adapted from The United Methodist Book of Worship)
“God of faithful love and compassion, pour out your healing upon couples whose marriages have ended in divorce.
Help them acknowledge their failures and make new beginnings.
Where there is hurt, anger or resentment, grant the healing of their memories and the ability to put behind them what is painful from the past.
Where they are troubled by feelings of despair or worthlessness, bolster their spirits with hope and confidence.
Where each looks within and acknowledges failings that contributed to the destruction of their marriage, grant them forgiveness for what is past, and help them to grow in all that makes for new life.
Bring healing to their children, other family members and friends.
Help them to accept new realities and changed relationships.
We ask these things in the name of your Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.”
1 Corinthians 2:3-9
“You are invited to take a few pieces of colored paper. On each piece of paper write the name of a family who has experienced divorce. Now, tear the papers into small pieces and hold them in your hands.
Shepherd of souls, we hold in our hands symbols of families torn apart by divorce. Heal their pain, rebuild their lives.”
Response: Shepherd them, O Lord, beyond their needs, beyond their wants, from death into life.
“I invite you to come forward to place the papers in the bowl. As you do so, silently pray for God’s compassion and mercy. As each person places papers in the bowl, let us say again:
Response: Shepherd them, O Lord, beyond their needs, beyond their wants, from death into life.”
“EYE HAS NOT SEEN”