One of the most difficult realities of divorced co-parenting is dividing up holidays. Being away from children on a holiday can feel intensely empty and debilitatingly sad. Many of us have divorced families in our extended families. I write this for co-parents, but also for the people who love them. My hope is that it will help you help them get through this holiday season. This blogpost starts with a personal story…
Leaving the home we loved: An example of unacknowledged grief
Recently we moved from the country to the city. In the country, the nights were dark and the stars were bright. It was quiet. On sleepless nights, I would sit on our deck and look at the stars. The amazingly colorful Milky Way stretched brilliantly across the sky. Seeing the vastness of the universe brought me comfort. I could see that my worries were small.
We loved the country and the home on a hill we lovingly built many years ago. But as my husband and I got older, country living became isolating. We wanted to be closer to family. After much debate, we made the difficult decision to moved to a very urban suburb of Chicago, where I am from originally. We went from being 1/4 of a mile from our nearest neighbor, to living in a building with 20 other units, in a neighborhood with many other big buildings like ours.
When I turned off the light in our bedroom the first night in our new home, I was shocked to see how much light flooded in from surrounding outside lights. The stars were invisible, lost in a cloud of city lights. I cried myself to sleep, convinced I had made a huge mistake.
I struggled for months, beating myself up for the terrible decision we made. I tried to figure out how to correct it. Maybe we should go back. But if we go back, we face the isolation and not being near family. I would spin in a circular stream of arguments in my mind, internally debating the pros and cons of living here vs. living there. I was compelled to find the right answer to “wrongness” that I felt.
It was truly painful to live with a mind and body that were in constant battle with itself. Feelings of anxiety, anger, regret and shame coursed through me. My inner world spilled into my outer world. I lashed out at my husband for the smallest things. I blamed him when he mentioned our old home because it stirred up my discontent, and sent me straight back into my internal arguing.
One day, in the midst of one of my tortuous internal battles, I had a thought that changed me. I actually heard a voice in my head say: “Just because you’re in pain, doesn’t mean something’s wrong.” The idea was like a thunderbolt jolting me into a different reality. Could this be true? What if there was nothing to fix? What if nothing was wrong? What if I was just feeling grief, plain and simple. What if I was simply grieving the loss of my old life?
Of course I was grieving. I lived that life for eighteen years. I couldn’t just just skip merrily away and not miss the familiarity of my life. How could I not miss the Milky Way, the beauty, friends and the quiet? Grief is painful, but avoiding the grief by trying to fix something that wasn’t wrong added a whole layer of unnecessary suffering.
When I let go of trying to fix the situation, I dove deeply into my grief. I turned to friends who supported me through my grief by just being with me as I expressed it and cried. My husband and I grieved together. It was a relief to stop fighting it and just let it come. My body was happy to let the battle go, and to just let the river of grief flow.
Being supported in my grief was essential. Having friends and family acknowledge that they understood how painful this transition was created a space for me to move through it. Grief is bad enough, but feeling alone in it, not feeling understood, makes it so much worse. Not being supported in grief is the reason most people get stuck in repetitive and difficult emotions that block their ability to heal.
Supporting co-parents through grief
Like moving from a beloved home, divorce is an event that can cause grief that is referred to as “unacknowledged grief”; that is, grief that is not commonly acknowledged as a significant loss by society. Because it is not acknowledged, co-parents who are experiencing grief are less likely to be supported through it. Families and friends are more likely to get caught up and contribute to anger, than to help co-parents move through their grief. Grief that is not felt and expressed can turn into emotions that are difficult to manage, such as anger, resentment, anxiety, shame and guilt.
This is very common in divorced co-parenting. The loss of the family unit, and the grief felt by co-parents when they have to spend time away from their children, is often intense. Just as my grief led me to feel like I had a problem that needed to be solved, co-parents frequently imagine that their co-parent is the problem to be solved. Feelings of grief can turn into anger toward their co-parent, and a compulsion to change the situation that feels so intensely painful.
It is easy to believe that the co-parent is causing the distress. And, of course, there are difficult co-parents. But focusing on changing the co-parent or the circumstances created by them is likely to lead to more frustration, anger and conflict. Getting caught in these emotions creates suffering for co-parents as it did for me. It catches co-parents in a cycle of difficulty that not only hurts the person who is not moving through their grief, but also REALLY hurts children who are caught in the crossfire. Unacknowledged and unresolved grief creates distress and pain for everyone involved.
The holidays can be an absolutely terrible time for co-parents to be away from their children. TERRIBLE. The holidays represent everything family. The images in our minds, and the expectations that we have are a set-up for making co-parents feel intense grief. Family and friends of co-parents, not understanding the role that grief plays, can make things worse.
Eight ways to help co-parents during the holidays
- It can be hard to see the grief that is lurking behind the anger and frustration. Recognize that there is most certainly grief. How can there not be? Start by grounding yourself in the understanding that the co-parent is grieving, no matter how much it might not look that way.
- Learn to be with grief. The reason we try to fix things is because being in grief, or seeing people in grief is painful. We want to fix it and make it better. But when helping people process their grief, fixing it or trying to make it go away is not what is needed. Remind yourself of that, and be courageous enough to sit with their grief without trying to change it.
- Remember that grief is not scary. We tend to be afraid of grief. We are afraid that it will make us fall into a black hole that we will never come out of. It will not! Allowing the grief, allowing tears is what heals.
- Acknowledge the grief. Say things like “It must be so hard to be away from your children on the holiday.” or “It is sad when parents have to be away from their children on holidays.” Let them know that you know that not being with their children on the holiday is painful and difficult.
- Be prepared for tears, and be a shoulder to cry on. Don’t discourage the tears; in fact encourage them. Say things like “Tears are so good, don’t hold them back” or say nothing at all, but just be present. Don’t try to fix anything! Don’t sugarcoat things or try to make things better. I remember hearing a story about an elderly man who nominated a four year old boy, his next door neighbor, for a contest to find the most caring child in the town. The old man had lost his wife, and the little boy saw him crying. The boy went into his yard, climbed into the man’s lap, and just sat there. When asked what he had said to the neighbor that was so helpful, the little boy said “Nothing, I just helped him cry.”
- Cry with them! Acknowledge your own grief. Say things like “I miss the kids, too. It’s hard that they’re not here.” Joining them in their tears will be a great gift to them.
- Don’t join their anger. If they want to engage you in a story blaming their co-parent, don’t discount the story, but move toward the grief. Say: “Yes, that’s aggravating. But mostly it’s just sad that the kids aren’t here.”
- And finally, initiate gratitude rituals. Speak out about being grateful for children that are not there. Tell stories about things you love about them. This is not designed to sugarcoat a sad situation. This is meant to open our hearts. Grief and gratitude walk hand in hand. When we allow grief it opens our hearts, and when our hearts are open, we can be grateful for what we have, even if we are sad in the moment.
This holiday season, I wish for co-parents to move through their grief, and for them to be surrounded by family members who are courageous enough to help them.
May your holidays be filled with peace, love, meaning and hope!