Home Featured How Grieving My Parents’ Divorce (20 Years Later) Changed Me for the Better

How Grieving My Parents’ Divorce (20 Years Later) Changed Me for the Better

How Grieving My Parents’ Divorce (20 Years Later) Changed Me for the Better

“There are years that ask questions and years that answer.” ~Zora Neale Hurston

My childhood was over at the age of 13. My brother and I were sat down at the kitchen table by my parents, who informed us that they were going to divorce. The pain of losing my family was acutely felt in that instant.

Even though I was distraught as a teenager by the news, it would be another 20 years before I realized the full extent of my loss. To admit that this loss was not fully grieved.

Although divorce is very common in the United States it is not an easy experience for children or teenagers. Even though divorce is a common type of adverse childhood event, or childhood trauma in the United States, it can have serious long-term consequences for children’s mental, physical, and financial health. Children from divorcing families are at greater risk for developing psychological disorders, achieving lower levels of education and having relationship problems.

But not every divorce is the same and each child will be affected differently. This can be a buffer against any long-term harm if the children feel loved, supported, and protected by their parents after the divorce.

But in many cases following a divorce, parents are not in an emotional or financial state to continue meeting the children’s needs at the same level as prior to the divorce. In these circumstances, children are less likely to receive the emotional support needed to properly grieve—which is what I personally experienced.

I began the grieving process after learning that my parents planned to divorce me. I was denial that they would even try to do it. I felt angry at the fact that they were taking my whole life apart. After the anger subsided, I recall pleading with them for several weeks to keep me together. I believe I was stuck in a stage of depression and never reached acceptance.

Then, twenty years later, after a series of stressful life events, I realized how much the divorce of my parents still impacted me—and how I still had grieving to do. At thirty-two, I confronted a childhood I’d spent my whole adult life trying to avoid. I gave myself everything the thirteen-year old me needed twenty years back but had never received.

Through my husband, my friends and a therapist, I received social support. I was compassionate. Two decades later, I was able to give myself permission to grieve the family and childhood of my origin.

I believe the reason that divorce can be so harmful for children is because there is a prevalent belief that children are resilient and they’ll always bounce back. If they have the right support, care and guidance, this might be true. However, children don’t have the emotional maturity to manage their emotions on their own when experiencing such an intense loss. This is especially true when divorce occurs after or is accompanied with other adverse childhood experiences.

Divorce can sometimes cause severe upheaval or disruption to the family structure. This makes children more vulnerable to other types trauma. Children can become more stressed by financial problems, abuse from stepparents, and sudden parent absence. A child’s reliance on their parents can make even the most mildly stressful situation seem life-threatening because they are programmed to do so.

I never fully grieved and accepted my parents’ divorce because I lacked the social support I needed to do so. Because the family was broken, it also caused a break down in my parenting. I was focused on survival and not grieving. It took me many years before I realized that my parents were also concerned with survival. This can be more important than ensuring that your children are ready for adulthood. 

I am sure my parents did everything they could with the resources they had at the moment. But it has been difficult to understand why a parent wouldn’t do everything in their power to shield their child from trauma.

I was not old enough to understand that it was mental illness and substance abuse that caused a parent’s partner to go into violent rages. My parents had to pretend everything was normal for their own survival—all while neglecting to consider the long-term impacts of trauma during such formative, developmental years.

To avoid the instability and chaos of the post-divorce homes, from the age of fourteen, I bounced around living from friend’s house to friend’s house. By the time I was sixteen, I was already out of school and working in restaurants almost full-time.

I didn’t have any plans for my life, but working gave me a sense of safety and an alternate identity. Nobody had to know I was a teenage from a broken home who lived in a trailer park. They cared only that I arrived on time and completed the job.

Looking back, it’s clear that my desire to leave school and work was very much a means to gain some control over my chaotic and troubled home life. I felt that I was responsible for my own safety and protection, as I didn’t have any one to lean on. This has been a constant feeling all my life.

When I began the process of grieving my parents’ divorce as an adult, I realized how many of my beliefs about the world and myself were connected to the aftermath of this traumatic experience.

My early years instilled beliefs in me that the world is not a safe place—and that I’m not worthy of safety or protection. Through the grief process, I came to realize that the thirteen year-old girl who feared her safety was still in me and wanted to be heard.

I wanted her to know that she didn’t have to be worried. But that wouldn’t be the truth. Because the decade after the divorce would be filled intensely with turmoil and distress. It would be unreasonable to expect her to deal with challenges beyond her years.

While I couldn’t tell her that she would have nothing to fear, I could tell her that she would get through it with courage. She would be an adult who was able to love and dedicated to her husband’s health and preservation. She would also go through college and graduate school to pursue a professional career, as well as travel around the globe.

I could tell her that her life would be difficult in her thirties, and that it would bring out old wounds she had kept close for many decades. However, she would be strong enough not to dwell on her past and suffer the pain of losing her childhood. And that through this journey, she would learn to forgive and show compassion—to herself and to others.

Grieving my parents’ divorce changed me. I’m no longer waiting for the other shoe to drop. And I’m no longer blaming myself for a truncated childhood. I’m also learning that the world is not as scary and unpredictable as I’ve spent my entire adult life thinking it was.

I’ve discovered that while there was a point in my young life when I experienced hardships that exceeded my ability to cope, I now have all the tools I need inside of me. It is possible to stop focusing on survival and instead focus on thriving.

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Megan O’Neil

Megan is a writer and marketing communications professional who covers topics related to careers, human-centric workplaces, emotional intelligence, travel, and expat living. When not working, she can be found traveling, on her yoga mat, or chipping away at her ever-growing book collection. You can follow Megan on LinkedIn or visit megantayloroneil.com.

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