Ready, Set, Grieve
She came back to the table and sat down, and after a moment Shukumar joined her. They wept together, for the things they now knew.
--Jhumpa Lahiri, "A Temporary Matter"
I was at my office the day my parents split up. I was gearing up to go on vacation. My boyfriend, John, and I were flying out to Washington state, where we were going to drive north of Seattle and ferry over to a cluster of islands in the Puget Sound and camp. It was June 2001.
Stacks of legal pads covered my desk. I had been reporting a story on "mean girls" for several weeks. I was fiddling with the beginning of the article when Dad called. "Hiya, Brooke," he said. He asked about my weekend. We talked about when I was coming home.
Then Dad grew serious. "I want you to know what happened today," he said. His voice sounded more formal than usual and a bit shaky, which made my heart race the way it does when I stumble out of bed to answer the phone in the middle of the night. Dad rarely called me. Mom would call, and after we caught up, she'd pass the phone on to him. I didn't even think he knew my number. I feared he was going to tell me that he had cancer or that my mother was sick. Did my sister get in a car accident?
I asked Dad what was going on and looked outside my office's picture window at the stream of suits on the city street below. Is this the last scene I'm going to see before Dad delivers news that changes my life forever? I focused my eyes on the tightly coiled black telephone wire. I stuck my pointer finger inside the coil and twirled it around. I waited. Before he called, my mind was already racing in twenty different directions. My story was due the following day. I still hadn't gathered all my camping gear for the trip. My younger sister, Chelsea, was deciding whether she should go away to college; it made me consider canceling my trip and visiting home instead to help her decide.
"I'm staying out at Junie's for awhile," he said. Junie is my aunt, Dad's youngest sister, and she lives near the ocean. "Oh, like a vacation?" I asked. I let go of the black telephone wire, spinning around to face my orange iMac computer, and felt the tension slide out of my shoulders. I could go back to writing my story on teenage girls. Things are fine, I thought. Then Dad said, more softly this time, "No, not really a vacation, Brock." Dad always called me that nickname when he was explaining something important. "Mom and I are just taking time apart to clear our heads," he said.
Dad didn't say that he moved out. Or that he left. Or even, Mom kicked me out. He couldn't. Even Dad wasn't ready to admit how serious this situation was. He sounded embarrassed to have to tell me. He said he had packed up some clothes that morning and brought them out to Junie's. It was temporary. He said not to worry. They were sorting things out.
I said, "Well, this is the farthest you've ever taken a fight, huh?" I quickly apologized; I didn't mean to sound petulant. Dad said I sounded fine. I jotted down my Aunt Junie's number on a yellow Post-it note and stuck it to my computer, next to another Post-it that read, "Order Dad's Father's Day gift."
I told Dad I loved him. Poor Dad, I thought, and I hung up the phone, feeling bad that my parents were fighting. Then I grew steely and rolled my eyes. This is how my parents were--immature. They were two children who couldn't admit that the one they teased and taunted most was the one they truly wanted. I was more annoyed than upset. Of course they'd take a "break" from each other the week before I was leaving for vacation.
I blocked it out. I went to lunch. I chatted about reality TV at the water cooler with friends. I didn't say a word about the conversation with Dad to anyone that afternoon--not even to my boyfriend.
Later that night, Mom called me at home. I turned defensive and cool when I heard her voice. Without waiting for an explanation, I instantly blamed her. She was the one who had never seemed happy with Dad. I always suspected he loved her more than she loved him. Mom was strong-minded and independent. She longed for the kind of lifestyle you see in the pages of a Pottery Barn catalog--a lifestyle my father's painting business couldn't afford her. "Where's Dad?" I asked abruptly.
She didn't hesitate. "I told Daddy to leave," she said. I imagined Dad packing his belongings, carrying his toiletry bag and stacks of crisp, white painter's pants outside to his truck. He might've pretended he was just leaving for a weekend. He'd pull out of the driveway only after he was sure my youngest sister wasn't home. Then she wouldn't have to watch his truck drive away or follow it as it disappeared down the street.
Mom was silent. She was waiting for me to say something, but I couldn't find the right words.
"You know it has been a long time coming," she said.
Again, Mom waited for me to speak. She wanted me to break the tension between us. I was silent. "We'll all be happier this way," she said, before we hung up. "I promise."
A friend once told me that you should look forward to beginnings. To start something is to embark on a journey--and journeys are the only way to learn and evolve. As a culture, we love to mark and celebrate beginnings: the first day of school, the new millennium, the start of a friendship. Beginnings are meant to be cherished. Without them, we would have nothing to reflect on how far we've come.
In divorce, the beginning is the end--the last act in the theatrics of family, one final scene that steals away any reason for celebration. "The day that Mom and Dad split up" is analogous with any tragedy for which we weren't prepared, such as "the day Dad died in a car accident" or "the day Mom found a lump in her breast." It marks a moment that changed our lives for good. One with a finality so heartbreaking that our senses instinctively record where we were and how we felt. "The day that Mom and Dad split up" is often one of the last moments you'll endure with your two parents still living in the same house. Even decades later, adult children of divorce can often recall that day in vivid detail, offering the date, the place, and even what their parent was wearing.
The news of our parents' divorce imparts a harsh reality. Mom and Dad's breakup is a "situation," because we can't think of any other way to describe it, and we must drop whatever we're doing to deal with it. We have a lot on the line. It's the end of our story as we know it, too. We will never find our parents standing side by side on the porch stoop, waving as we pull in the drive. Holidays lose their sense of tradition--of everyone's coming together and immersing themselves in the safety of sameness. We are creatures of habit who rarely welcome change into our lives. Divorce thrusts change upon us, turning relationships we often consider the most stable upside down. It is a good-bye to the most familiar of things, including our own sense of self, the identities that we have created for ourselves as daughter or son, sister or brother.
Because our parents stayed together, happily or unhappily, for more than twenty years, many of us believed that our families would continue to outlast others. Many adult children of divorce watched our parents shimmy onto the dance floor and slow dance cheek to cheek at their own twenty-fifth- and thirtieth-anniversary parties. We were the ones in the audience who oohed and ahhed, and cheered when Dad toasted Mom. We held our hands over our hearts and thought enviously, "I can only hope I know love like that someday."
After our parents' divorce, remembering moments such as this hurts, mostly because they are less believable. Mom and Dad were "faking it." It's like watching a rerun TV movie with really bad actors. Stephanie, a twenty-six-year-old administrative assistant, says that the moment she found out her parents had divorced was like having "the wind knocked out of me. I could not get up and catch my breath." Her parents were together for thirty years. Stephanie had just given them a party. "Then, six months later, we found out that Dad had been cheating on Mom for the past few years."
When our parents tell us they're divorcing, we can hardly believe what we're hearing. Our thoughts spiral away from us as soon as the secret is dispelled:
This must be a joke. My parents didn't stay married for twenty-seven years--go to ballet recitals, work extra jobs to pay college tuition bills, take family vacations, bring flowers home after arguments--only to suddenly call it quits.
Isn't there a statute of limitations on when parents can split up? Mom and Dad are in their fifties. They're close to retirement age. What will they do without the other? Who will cook chicken soup for Dad when he's running a fever or brew Mom tea when she has a sore throat? They need each other.
I thought they loved each other.
Wait, did Mom really just say Dad is leaving? Who is she to say Dad has to leave? I don't want my family to change. I will not just let my mother step into the middle and say it's over.
This is my family, too.
Grief envelops adult children of divorce like a blanket. It tucks us in--you may as well get comfortable--making us yearn for what was and what will never be. Often, we find we are grieving before we even know how much there is to grieve. Part of our grief comes from doubting our right to hurt. In your twenties and thirties, you're supposed to be well entrenched in adulthood, living a life separate from your parents. Sitting in your office and crying about Mommy and Daddy's marriage is not only embarrassing, it's culturally unacceptable. It can make you feel vulnerable and weak, like a little girl who never quite grew up. Ironically, we often react like young children after our parents split up. We fall into old reflexes, demanding explanations, pleading with parents to stay together, asking how they could do this and say they still love us. In the months after Mom told me she was leaving Dad, I figured I'd make a spectacle out of how much I disapproved. Then maybe she'd appease me and stay with Dad. She didn't.
Psychologists say adults coping with their parents' divorce undergo the same sense of loss felt by adults experiencing a parent's death--and researchers agree. A majority of adult kids of divorce surveyed by Teresa Cooney, a family sociologist at the University of Missouri, said their parents' split hurt them as much as the death of a close family member. Divorce brings similar feelings of loss. Just as with losing a loved one, the pain is immediate and deepens over time. University of Virginia psychologist Robert Emery thinks the comparison helps others understand why a divorce is so troubling for adult children. "Are we surprised if an adult child is upset when her parents die? Of course not," he says. "Then why shouldn't we expect her to feel hurt, grief, and pain when her parents divorce?"
In some ways, grieving a divorce is different than mourning a death. Obviously, our parents are still alive. But this only makes our loss more nuanced. Our parents go through the same motions--work on weekdays, sailing on Sundays for Dad and pottery class for Mom--but now they're doing it without the other. There are no excuses we can think of to exempt them from having caused the hardship. No "it was a freak accident," or "the cancer took them too young." Our parents are choosing not to occupy the same physical space. The absence is strange precisely because it isn't by way of sudden death. We don't lose one parent; we lose our entire base. We experience the death of a set of people, a family unit, that brought organization and framework to an otherwise lonely existence.
Grief, in turn, comes quickly and suddenly, turning a blue sky to black, like an afternoon thunderstorm splitting open on a humid August afternoon. You mourn the end of your parents' marriage like a death because there is an instant realization that home will never be the same. This loss is so great, it sometimes feels as if we were losing a piece of who we are. "I felt like someone was trying to saw off my arm," says Rhonda, a graduate student in Chicago, of her parents' divorce. Rhonda had always taken pride in how happy her family seemed. Her mother and father were married for thirty-six years. Her father was a professor. Her mother stayed home with the children. They never fought in front of their three daughters. Rhonda and her sisters grew up in the suburbs of Knoxville, where their house, with a huge yard full of blackberry bushes, was the one where friends loved to congregate. "I was attached to my family," she says. "Looking back, I may have been unhealthily attached to my family. But they were important to me, more important than I was to me. I took pride that my family was perfect and that my husband's family was messed up. Every time I'd hear some drama about them, I'd think, 'Thank goodness my family isn't like that.' "
Rhonda was on a fellowship in New Mexico in 2000 when her parents called her one evening after work. "There's this book Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus," her mother began. "Well, on page 154, it says, 'Have you ever seen a marriage where they seem really happy and then suddenly they get divorced?' " Rhonda sensed where the conversation was headed. "What are you saying?" Rhonda asked, angrily. Her father began to cry, which Rhonda had never heard before.
In the days after the phone call, Rhonda's shock turned into a crippling sadness. "All I wanted to do was talk about it over and over," she says. That semester, Rhonda was supposed to return to school and begin researching her dissertation. "I'd go to my office," she says. "I'd surf the Web, and I would cry. I wouldn't even pay any attention to what I was surfing. It took me seven years to finish a degree I should have completed in five."From the Trade Paperback edition.
Excerpted from The Way They Were by Brooke Lea Foster Foreword by Ian Birky, PhD. Copyright © 2006 by Brooke Lea Foster. Excerpted by permission of Three Rivers Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.