‘Give voice to the pain’: New Catholic ministry seeks to help adult children of divorce
Snuffy the Snuffleupagus’ parents were supposed to have divorced in 1992. The brown, fuzzy Muppet-quasi-mammoth, a beloved feature character on the PBS show Sesame Street, was going to chronicle his experience of the split in an episode intended to address a difficult topic with children.
But the episode never aired. Reportedly, during its screening, it “made preschoolers cry” and did not further their understanding of concepts surrounding divorce, and so it was pulled. It wasn’t until a decade later that the kid’s show would again take on the topic of divorce, in a small segment posted only on their website.
Divorce is a difficult topic to discuss with children, even though an estimated 1 million of them experience it every year.
Today, an estimated one-quarter of young adults are children of divorce – and many of them feel they were failed as youngsters in addressing their pain from the experience.
“That can come from messages from society, like a ‘happy divorce talk’,” Bethany Meola told CNA. The messaging of those talks often goes something like: “kids are resilient, you’ll be fine.”
But divorces and separations often cause deep emotional, spiritual and psychological wounds in children that can last well into adulthood – and that are rarely formally addressed. This is why Bethany, along with her husband Dan, co-founded Life Giving Wounds, a Catholic ministry offering healing retreats, talks and resources for adult children of divorce.
“Our ministry looks at a number of the common wounds that children of divorce experience,” Bethany said. She added that the ministry is for adults whose parents divorced or separated when they were children or young adults.
“The first wound we address is the wound of silence,” she said. Children of divorce often feel like talking about the pain caused by the divorce is not allowed – that it just further burdens their parents, or that divorce is normal and therefore should not be a big deal.
“There’s a lot of testimonies now from adult children of divorce that they felt like, ‘I don’t know how to share this or where to go with this, or even if anyone will care’,” Bethany said.
Bethany herself is not technically an adult child of divorce – her parents separated a few times but got back together, and remained married.
But her husband Dan, co-founder of Life Giving Wounds, is an adult child of divorce. His parents separated when he was 11, but didn’t formalize the divorce until he was 26. That left Dan feeling like he lived in “somewhat of a limbo, though it was pretty clear they weren’t getting back together,” he said.
Dan said as a kid, he felt confused by the separation at first, and then hopeful about his parents possibly reuniting. It pushed him towards God, towards prayer.
“I was praying like crazy for my parents. A lot of rosaries, a lot of Divine Mercy Chaplets in grade school, sixth, seventh, eighth grade.”
But his understanding of those prayers was kind of “cold,” he said. He thought if he just prayed enough prayers, God had to grant him what he wanted. That eventually led to a lot of disillusionment and anger, Dan said, when it became clear a few years into the separation that his parents were not going to get back together.
“You’re caught between anger and love with your parents,” he said. “As a kid growing up, even as an adult…it’s still hard to navigate that – those complex, warring emotions.”
Dan waffled between not wanting to talk about the divorce – because the emotions were just too confusing and because he was worried how his parents would react – to feeling overwhelming anger because it seemed like there was an “unspoken rule,” particularly around his parents or siblings, that the divorce was something that was not to be talked about.
It wasn’t until Dan was a junior in high school that he really started to seek healing through the Church from the effects of the divorce, he said. He went on a retreat and he talked to some priests about what he had experienced for the first time. He told his parents he was seeking healing, and they were accepting of it.
“That really ushered in a path of healing that was going to extend over four more years very intensely,” he said, even though the process was “haphazard.” Not much existed in the Church to address this specific issue, and he had to seek out a lot of resources on his own.
As he studied marriage and family in graduate school at the Potificial John Paul II Institute at The Catholic University of America, Dan was part of a focus group that studied the effects of divorce on adult children. The project, called Recovering Origins, inspired him to create retreats that would help adult children of divorce – and these retreats would soon become the ministry, Life Giving Wounds.
The name of the ministry is taken from 1 Peter 2:24, “this beautiful passage which is, ‘by his wounds, you are healed’,” Dan said.
“It’s Christ teaching us the spirituality of redemptive suffering and helping people live that.”
That healing comes about in several ways, Dan and Bethany said. The first goal of the retreat is to “give voice to the pain,” to let retreatants know that their wounds as a result of divorce are valid, and giving them a place to grieve what was lost.
They share their stories and get their wounds “all out on the table.” Those wounds can take many shapes, Dan added, from protective behaviors like promiscuity and cohabitation, to broken relationships with parents or other family members, to identity crises and strained relationships with God.
Then they bring those wounds to the Holy Spirit in prayer, he said, and invite healing in. They also help facilitate further conversations with parents, spouses, friends, and therapists as needed.
“We also provide them resources on our blog to follow up with a support group. We give them recommended reading, so we give them a lot of the tools that they need in those different avenues, and we’re constantly creating more things,” Dan said.
Jennifer Cox was one of the first participants in a retreat for Recovering Origins, when Life Giving Wounds was still taking shape. Cox’s parents divorced when she was 7 in what she said was a kind of “best case scenario” divorce, at least on paper. Her parents were respectful to each other, they lived close enough to one another that bouncing back and forth between them was not too difficult. They both remained very involved in her life, attending her swim meets and other school events. Jennifer graduated college, became a nurse, and owned a home. By all measurable accounts, she was a successful adult.
“When I was in high school or my early twenties, if somebody said to me, ‘Wow, I’m so sorry that your parents are divorced. That must be really hard for you,’ I just would have looked at them like, ‘Okay. Well I mean, thanks, but I’m fine’,” she said.
But Cox started to notice something was wrong around her late 20s, she said. Although her life was seemingly going well, she experienced depression and anxiety, despite having normally been a very positive and upbeat person. She struggled with self-confidence and had an outsized fear of failing.
She now recognizes that many of those wounds came from a place of not wanting to disappoint her parents and make life even harder for them. She said she also realized early on that she took it on as her “job” in the family to make her parents happy, so that they would not be sad because of the divorce.
“I started therapy, I started really digging into some of my struggles and a lot of the dots connected back to my parents’ divorce,” Cox told CNA. “And I was shocked, honestly. I just had no idea, because my parents divorce was a ‘good divorce’ and we had minimal issues. I have good relationships with both of them.”
The beauty of the retreat, Cox said, was being able to unite her wounds to Christ and to realize that she could use them to help others.
“When he was on the cross, Jesus suffered and had the ultimate woundedness of obviously physical wounds, but also the huge woundedness of being rejected,” Cox said. “Then that was redeemed. He rose again…he did that for all of us.”
“So for me, and specifically this wound of my parents divorce, in being able to acknowledge it and share my story…it makes it worth it somehow.”
Cox now volunteers with the ministry and helps coordinate content for their Instagram page. She said she would recommend the retreat to anyone whose parents have separated or divorced.
“If their parents are divorced, I’d want them to really take the time to reflect, to see where they are, did their parents’ divorce affect them. I think there are so many people walking around struggling with all sorts of things, but not realizing that there might be this route to (healing) that maybe we need to focus on. Think about it, pray about it, bring it to the Lord. Don’t ignore it, really lean into that.”
Samuel Russell is another participant in a Life Giving Wound retreat who now volunteers with the ministry, helping edit their blog.
Russell is a convert to Catholicism but grew up in a Christian environment, he said. Two years ago, when he was engaged to his now-wife, there were family issues and wounds that arose as he prepared for marriage.
Russell’s fiancee was the one who found Life Giving Wounds, and recommended that Russell try one of their retreats.
As someone about to get married, Russell said he was struggling with not having grown up with a marriage that lasted.
“It was the question of: Am I able to do this? Is this something I can actually do, live with? The phrase in the vows – ‘To have and to hold all the days of my life’ – not having that modeled, and having actually a broken model of that, it’s like you’re carrying that with you into something where you’re planning to say: ‘for the rest of my life’.”
“It was a challenge trying to grapple with the psychological level of, yes I can do this,” he said.
Russell said one thing that really struck him during the retreat was a song, Waiting in the Wound, by Michael Corsini.
The song “helped reframe how I think about Christ because…The song implies that Christ is already there. He’s in that wound that you know you have and he knows you have. He’s just waiting for you to come so he can heal it,” Russell said.
Russell said he encouraged other adult children of divorce to explore their own healing when they felt ready.
“I want people to know that they’re not alone in their suffering or grief on this issue,” he said. “And it’s okay to address it now, or address it in the future at a time when you feel more comfortable exploring it.”
Dan said he hopes that Life Giving Wounds helps spark more conversations about healing from divorce in the Church, where sometimes there can be a stigma attached to the topic.
“I think the stigma is there for different reasons, like ‘Oh, I don’t want to bring up woundedness, that’s such a sensitive topic,’ or, ‘I don’t want to treat them as fragile,’ or, ‘I don’t want to upset their parents’,” Dan said.
“I would just say, I’d rather err on giving voice to the pain than saying nothing at all,” he said. “(Adult children of divorce) are getting the message, by and large, that this is something not to talk about, I can’t go to the Church and talk about this, I can’t go to the priest to talk about it. I haven’t heard many homilies from priests about divorce and the effect on children. I don’t know any I’ve heard in the last four or five years.”
Like countless ministries this year, Life Giving Wounds has had to cancel their in-person retreats for 2020, due to the coronavirus pandemic. However, the ministry is hosting an online retreat starting in October, the details of which can be found on their website,LifeGivingWounds.org.
Bethany said while they are disappointed to cancel their in-person retreat, they are hoping the online option makes it even more accessible.
“If you’re a child of divorce and you have seen ways that it’s affected you, it’s a retreat to go on. Or, if you’re not even sure, if you’re thinking okay, I’ve never really taken a good look at this, it’s a great retreat to go on for that, too. There will be people of all different places on that spectrum,” Bethany said.
“No matter what happened with your parents’ marriage, no matter when they divorced, no matter if they ever even were married, if your parents are not together, then the retreat is for you.
“You’re not alone,” Dan added.