When Children Divorce

When Alice’s daughter and son-in-law divorced in the mid-’80s, she was devastated. “I adored my son-in-law,” she says. “With three daughters, he had become the son we hadn’t had.” Fortunately, the divorce was amicable, and Alice sees her son-in-law at family gatherings such as the grandkids’ graduations and her granddaughter’s wedding last summer. “But I grieved for a long time,” she says, “and, to be honest, I was really angry with my daughter for a while for not trying harder.”

Divorce rates peaked in about 1987 in Canada with 362 per 100,000 of the population. Today, according to the Vanier Institute of the Family, the rates have lowered to 221 per 100,000. Still, Stats Canada (2008) suggests that an average of 38 per cent of married couples will divorce before the 30th wedding anniversary.

For grandparents like Alice, a divorce can foster resentment, especially if the partner left behind is her child. It can also be distressing if the partner, who has left, has taken the grandchildren, leaving a grandparent with the possibility of limited or even no access to the children.

Even when it’s an amicable separation, divorce is painful for the partners, and it can be more distressing and bewildering for children, who may even feel responsible and suffer from guilt and depression. The very same emotions can plague grandparents.

Grief, the kind Alice felt, is a common emotion for people who have had a good relationship with a daughter-in-law or son-in-law.  Grief is a natural reaction and will take time to heal. There may also be guilt over divided loyalties, especially if it’s your child who has done the leaving.

For a divorced grandparent, there may be an added burden of guilt that they are responsible by example for the failure of a child’s relationship.

“Even those whose marriages have lasted may feel they could have done something to encourage a child’s marriage and avert a family disaster,” says Dr. R.C. Dubuc of Ottawa. All of these feelings take time to work through, but the best solution is to steer our energies in a more positive direction and be (quietly) supportive.”

Being supportive to grandchildren is an important priority. Children of parents going through a separation or divorce may feel confused, sad, even angry. They’re caught between two people they love. At this time, they need a sounding board, someone they trust to listen to their frustrations and their fears, someone to make them feel safe.

That role may be a difficult one for a grandparent, who undoubtedly has his own feelings of fear, grief and divided loyalties. The challenge is to be the sounding board and to refrain from laying blame on either parent. Children need reassurance that they didn’t cause the breakup. More than anything, they need the stability of a warm relationship they can count on and where they feel safe.

Ben and Elizabeth of Kamloops had their grandchildren move in with them for four weeks while their son and daughter-in-law worked through custody issues, financial arrangements and the division of property. “It was a challenging time for us,” Ben says. “We had to work hard to separate our feelings and set them aside to reassure the children and provide them with a sense that they wouldn’t be deserted.” While it was difficult for Ben and Elizabeth, this time-out for their grandchildren gave them a sense of security and a safe place with people they knew were “on their side.”

Grandparents may not be able to put the family back together the way it was, but they can play a crucial role in providing stability and helping the family, particularly the children, in their transition to a new family structure.