Picking up the pieces

Death is not the only loss that causes grief. In some ways loss of a spouse through divorce can be even more painful With all the discussion about the causes of divorce, few are paying attention to the needs of individuals who are experiencing its grief. According to the authors, society provides some degree of support for the bereaved, but the person who is divorced had better be prepared to grin and bear it.

Lynn and Ron Gordon, nurse and chaplain, respectively, at Kettering Medical Center, Kettering, Ohio, led a session on divorce recovery at the 1982 Institute on Mental Health at Harding Hospital. For further information on the program described in this article, contact the authors at: Department of Pastoral Care, Kettering Medical Center, 3535 Southern Blvd., Kettering, Ohio 45429. (513) 298-4331.

In 1900 one in twenty American marriages ended in divorce. Today in some areas of the United States the divorce rate now exceeds the marriage rate. But while popular magazines, scholarly journals, TV talk shows, and professional seminars have been busily exploring the causes of divorce, little attention has been paid to those actually caught in its turbulence. Society seems to have adopted a 1980s' acceptance of the fact of the rise in divorce without a corresponding acceptance of the people involved.

Lynn and Ron Gordon, nurse and chaplain, respectively, at Kettering Medical Center, learned about the problems facing divorced persons from personal experience. Both were divorced before they met and married each other and both went through similar feelings of shattered self-esteem and abandonment, stemming not only from the primary experience but also from the reaction they noticed in the people around them.

"Friends, the community at large, and even family members place censure on those involved in divorce, branding them with their own biased attitudes and feelings," says Lynn. "If one's partner dies he or she will receive outside support: flowers, food, phone calls. But say, 'My husband left me' or 'I left my spouse,' and you had better be prepared to grin and bear it. 'You've made your bed, now lie in it' seems to be the attitude of many."

The result is a feeling of failure. No matter what has caused the breakup, no matter how right the decision to separate seems to those involved, the programmed judgment of society surfaces: you must have done something wrong. You just didn't try hard enough. You have failed at marriage, and consequently your whole life is a failure.

"You do hope that your minister might be of help at a time like this, but that is not often the case," says Chaplain Gordon.

In some instances divorce seems to put the participants outside the under standing and help of the church. In others, even when the clergy wants to help, many do not know how. Counselor training covers the grief that follows death, but is not apt to address the grief that follows the loss of a love relation ship, no matter how similar the two may be.

This point was brought home to Ron Gordon when he initiated a grief recovery program at Kettering Medical Center, a program open to anyone in the Greater Dayton community who had suffered "a significant personal loss." The wording was chosen deliberately to open the group to persons who had suffered a loss by divorce or such things as loss of a job or a house, as well as a loss by death. But although the grieving process is much the same no matter what the cause, Chaplain Gordon soon found that mixing the death and divorce groups was not a good idea. During an angry exchange one widow told a divorcee, "I lost my husband, but you threw yours away!" The widow never returned. By the time the exchange took place it was apparent that, philosophical differences aside, there was enough need to support two separate groups.

Beginning a divorce recovery program was not easy. The territory was relatively uncharted. Since few similar programs existed, the Gordons sat down together and drew upon their own painful experiences to build a primary support system for persons having difficulty coping with divorce. They coupled this with a helpful workshop in Boulder, Colorado, developed by Dr. Bruce Fisher and aimed at divorce recovery. The Gordons' program was geared to giving people who had no place else to turn an opportunity to express complex emotions and channel energy toward growth-producing goals. Other objectives were to help those in the throes of divorce explore other life-style options; to help the divorced cope more easily with relationships made difficult by the divorce; and to promote a greater intellectual understanding of the reasons behind the confusion and strong emotions those involved were feeling, so that future action could be based on rational thought.

The pilot plan that the Gordons drew up called for the group to meet once a week for eight weeks, with each class period devoted to exploring a different aspect of divorce. The program was kept flexible, however, so that the order of discussion could be changed if that would better suit the needs of the participants.

A typical program goes something like this:

The first meeting usually deals with an overall view of the emotional and social steps that follow divorce. The second one examines the marriage relationship between partners who are splitting. (Interestingly, the Gordons have found that many marriages that end in divorce had a parent-child, rather than an adult-to-adult, relationship. An awareness of such factors can help divorced persons make personal changes to avoid such situations in the future.)

The third meeting studies how rejection and the ensuing anger affect a person's feelings of self-worth. The fourth explores the grief process and how it ties in with divorce. The fifth deals with "rebellion identity crisis," often a major cause of divorce.

The sixth meeting tackles the subject of children, their attitudes toward the split, and parental responsibility in helping them develop ways to cope with the changes in their lives.

The seventh meeting discusses the possibility of future love relationships, while the eighth encourages an overview of newly established goals and growth patterns.

But the sessions provide more than information and suggestions for coping with emotional pain while at the same time carrying on the functions of daily living.

First, they provide a place for divorced persons to take their problems and to discover that they are not alone. The group offers affirmation—"What you are feeling is normal"—and acceptance—"And it is OK to have these feelings."

Perhaps one of the greatest benefits can be likened to a steam valve. Participants are encouraged to express their feelings, and such expressions help provide a better understanding of the stress each has been under. It is easier to recognize your own attitudes as defense mechanisms, for example, if you hear your words, your viewpoint, coming from other mouths. Such third-party expressions can provide the distance necessary for self-recognition.

The sessions help rebuild badly battered egos. Participants learn that with or without spouses they are still useful, worthy human beings. The sharing of feelings gives those involved a chance to give, as well as take. Each person has special insights into the divorce process, and those insights can help others. The social contact is also valuable, especially at a time when many divorced people find that their married friends are no longer including them in two-by-two get-togethers, and that family members may be taking sides—either becoming too sympathetic or too hostile to be comfortable company.

Since the program began about a year ago, fifty-three persons have taken part in five sessions. Forty of those attending were women, and thirteen were men, but the number of men seems to be increasing. The classes are purposefully kept small so that there will be ample time to address individual concerns. The Gordons prefer to refer to themselves as facilitators rather than leaders, to avoid giving the impression that they have the answers to everybody's problems. Divorce recovery, they are quick to say, is basically a do-it-yourself project: the group merely provides a forum for the rebuilding.

One important technique used for self-discovery is journaling. Participants are asked to write down daily some of their thoughts and observations about the divorce and about the class.

"When I first came to class," wrote one man, "I thought I had already made a fairly good adjustment to my impending divorce, but as the weeks went by I found that I had problems and emotions that I still had not adequately resolved."

Another participant said, "Through this class I have learned to accept my children's attitudes concerning the separation." Still another wrote, "Listening to others express their feelings somehow enabled me to understand my own." One person said, "I am glad that someone in the church is not afraid to acknowledge and deal with divorce."

But the recurring theme behind the journal accounts was best expressed by the woman who wrote: "It was great to feel yourself grow and change, as well as to watch others do the same. . . . The fact that I could reach out and talk to other people who had been through what I had been through . . . made me realize that I wasn't alone in this world and I wasn't the only person hurting."

From The Hording Report: A Newsletter of Psychiatry
and Religion, Worthington, Ohio. Used by permission.

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Lynn and Ron Gordon, nurse and chaplain, respectively, at Kettering Medical Center, Kettering, Ohio, led a session on divorce recovery at the 1982 Institute on Mental Health at Harding Hospital. For further information on the program described in this article, contact the authors at: Department of Pastoral Care, Kettering Medical Center, 3535 Southern Blvd., Kettering, Ohio 45429. (513) 298-4331.

July 1983

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