When people divorce, the pain and upset affects everyone in their life: their children, friends, siblings and, of course, parents. Indeed, the parents of a divorcing couple tend to be forgotten. But their children's divorce is often felt as a bitter, personal blow, and many blame themselves.
Unfortunately, some parents react in selfish and petty ways. For example, they may resent having to tell friends and neighbors, worried that it reflects badly on them. Some resent the stress and strain it puts them under, or even fear that they will be asked for financial help. Sometimes a divorce can occur in the middle of other struggles. For example, a man whose wife is fighting cancer may worry that their child's divorce will affect her recovery, and may even be angry with his son for creating such upset. Fear is another common reaction. After all, divorce creates insecurity right at the heart of the family unit.
Of course, such concerns are quite natural, but you must avoid selfishness. Do not make your son or daughter feel guilty. This isn't about you. Remember, just because your children are in their 30s or 40s and have kids of their own, that doesn't mean they no longer need your love or support. Neither does it mean they have outgrown the need for your approval. If they sense that you are angry or ashamed, it may cause them additional upset. Divorce is hard enough in itself. So if you fear losing contact with your grandchildren or daughter-in-law, or if you find yourself crying and unable to sleep, you must keep this to yourself. Your child may already be feeling guilty about the pain they are causing their own children. If they have left their partner for someone else, they may also feel terrible for hurting their ex. The last thing they need is to feel that, on top of all this, they are hurting you as well.
It is also important not to make them feel like a failure. Many people see marriage and relationships as challenges, comparable to forging careers or raising happy, well-balanced children. Divorce is thus an admission of failure. Indeed, people often speak of having "failed at my marriage." In some cases this may be true: maybe they had an affair, didn't put in enough effort, or were too focussed on their career, or whatever it was. But in many cases it is down to simple bad luck. All relationships are a leap in the dark. Sometimes, no matter how hard they try, people find they are just not suited to one another. Reassure your child that these things happen and that divorce is not a sign of failure. On the contrary, it can take immense courage to bring things to an end.
Perhaps most important of all, be very careful what you say about the grandchildren. Yes, this will be upsetting for them. But don't you think your child has already considered that? The thought may be tormenting them. Obviously, only you know your child. In some cases, they may indeed be selfish and uncaring. More often, they will have stuck out a miserable relationship for as long as they could precisely because of their children. The last thing they need is to have their mother or father, the very people they most respect, telling them they are upsetting the kids.
When a couple divorce, their children usually find it hard. This is especially true when the separation is bitter and unexpected (following the revelation of an affair, for example) or when the children themselves are sensitive and young. Grandparents have a vital role to play here. Indeed, children can display extraordinary rage and cruelty towards divorcing parents, and in general find it difficult to talk to them. In any case, their parents may be so preoccupied with their own worries and pain that they are not, as therapists put it, "emotionally available." Children often find their relationship with their grandparents easier and less fraught anyway and so will naturally turn to them.
The question is, how do you respond? First, you need to be careful what you say about your son or daughter-in-law. It is not your place to criticise your grandchild's mother or father. You may be tempted (especially if he or she has been unfaithful to your child), but it would be dishonorable. And it will only add to your grandchild's pain and confusion. You also need to be careful what you say about your own child. Grandchildren will almost certainly probe you. Remember, they are young. They have no experience to draw upon. And they have never been through anything like this before. In other words, they have no frame of reference. They are asking you how they ought to react.
Be honest. Tell them that it isn't your place to criticise their parents. And try to defuse their anger as best you can. Remind them that their parents are not perfect or flawless; they are vulnerable, confused human beings who make mistakes. If you believe they are mature enough, try talking to them like intelligent adults. Above all, you need to reinforce the message that this is not their fault. Never underestimate the thought processes of young children. They often think and feel a great deal more than adults give them credit for. And you don't know what they have secretly overheard. Some will even conclude that it's all their fault and that everyone would be better off if they disappeared.
Finally, bear in mind that teenagers may be dealing with issues quite separate to their parents' divorce. They may be being bullied, for example, or have developed some kind of addiction or eating disorder. A teenage girl may be being pestered for sex, or even threatened. If their parents are divorcing, not only will they be more sensitized and vulnerable, they may also fear adding to their parents' worries, bottling up their misery and pain instead. You may be the one person in the world they can confide it. So make it clear to them that they can talk to you about anything and that whatever you tell them will go no further (though obviously action may be required if their health and welfare are at stake).
If your grandchildren are very young, the best thing you can do is create a safe, happy place for them to visit. The family home may be full of anger and tears, so the last thing they need is to find the same when they visit you. Try to be fun and upbeat. Take their mind off of what is happening. Read them stories, for example, make their favorite meal, or take them to the beach or zoo. And try to keep the conversation cheerful and jokey. It is your duty to remind your grandchildren that there is more to the world than divorce attorneys, arguing parents, and schoolwork. There is also music and laughter and fun.
Once the papers are signed and things are settled, help your child to establish a new life. Do not allow them to wallow in self-pity or the sense of failure. Instead, encourage them to see this not as the end but the beginning.
First, there is the question of where they will live. If they are remaining in the family home, encourage them to change things around. Maybe you could offer to pay for a decorator. Not only will a freshly painted and redesigned apartment cheer them up, it will also help them move on. If they are the one leaving, ensure they find somewhere nice. When someone is reeling from a divorce (especially if they did not initiate it), they may be so unhappy, or so numb, that they are taken advantage of, while others are so desperate to escape they buy the first place they find. Once they are there, help them to establish new family traditions. And be very wary of big occasions like Christmas and Thanksgiving. On such days, do what you can to take their mind off what they've lost.
Once they are re-established, encourage them to get back out there and meet old friends, especially those they haven't seen for years. When people divorce, friends sometimes take the side of their partner and cut them from their life – this is especially common when they had an affair. But even friends who stay in touch are a constant reminder. Every time you meet them for a meal or a drink, they describe what your partner is doing or spend all evening saying things like "I still can't believe it: the two of you always seemed so happy," etc. Encourage your child to meet up with old school or college friends instead. Thanks to social media this is easier than ever. Such people may never have known their ex, and so meeting them will remind your child of life outside the relationship – and maybe of happier times.
Also, encourage them to take up new hobbies, or maybe to revive old ones. If your son used to play saxophone in a jazz band, remind him of this. Suggest that he calls up the old band or starts giving lessons. If your daughter once dreamed of being a novelist, encourage her to put pen to paper – or pay for her to do a creative writing course. Nothing will help someone through a divorce quite like discovering a new passion. Try and remember the things that really lit them up as kids. Whether it was baseball, soccer, painting, language, music, it doesn't matter so long as it was a passion.
When someone's child announces their intention to divorce, the impact varies. Some are taken by surprise, others are amazed it took so long. Some will consider it a dreadful mistake, others will hardly contain their delight. But this isn't about you. Your child is probably frightened and confused, trying to work through a storm of emotion and establish a new life. No matter what their age, they need you more than ever.