I was 15 years old when my parents sat my brother and me down at our kitchen table. I was sitting quietly with my eyes glazed over, as I wanted to phone my girlfriend instead of sitting through what I thought would be another long-winded lecture on life. Being fifteen, I was convinced that I already knew all of the answers to life’s mysteries.
What did happen was something I never, in my wildest dreams, thought would or could ever happen to me. It changed my life completely! It felt like watching the late news on television, hearing about all of the awful, head-shaking tragedies that happen every day but that you never really, truly believe could happen to you.
That’s when my mom and dad looked us straight in the eyes, hesitated for a moment, and then dropped the bomb: they were splitting up.
At that moment, I was completely numb. My mind was empty, lost. I couldn’t think; I could barely breathe. I felt paralyzed. It couldn’t be real. No way — not my parents! I couldn’t believe it. All I could feel was that immense ache in the pit of my stomach, ready to burst out of my chest. My heart was beating so fast. I was stunned, totally shocked. I didn’t know it at the time, but that instant — that one moment — would change my life, my brother’s life, and my family…forever.
It was Mom’s decision to leave. She explained that over the last few years, she and Dad had grown apart for various reasons and felt they needed some time to think things through and come to a decision about their relationship.
I went to my room, shut the door, and sat on my bed. A river of emotions began to flood my mind. I contemplated, while staring at a poster on my wall, for over an hour. How could this have happened? Why was it happening? Was it something I did or didn’t do? What did Dad do that would make Mom want to leave? What the heck did “growing apart” mean, anyway? It sounded like some kind of shrink babble to me. Did my mom do something wrong? They hardly ever fought. What was going on that I didn’t know about? Was my dad seeing another woman? Was it money problems? Didn’t my parents want to be a family? What would happen to us? Why did Mom want to leave? What could the problem be? What was I going to tell everyone? Would they really split up? What could I do? What did my brother think? What would my family say? Were we going to be okay? At that point, I felt mad — really mad.
Three weeks later, my parents called a family meeting. The room was quiet. My mom and Wes were sitting across from each other, and the look on Mom’s face told the story. Any and all hope I had salvaged came to a screeching halt. I could feel the butterflies fluttering in my stomach as I sat down next to my brother.
I knew right then that this was it. My mom looked determined — like she had made a hard decision that she was uncomfortable with, but was going to follow through come rain or shine. Part of me felt very disappointed and concerned for my mom, but the other part was angry. It had only been three weeks since the breakup, and they had said there was going to be a three-month trial before any decisions were supposed to be made.
We all sat in the living room, waiting for someone to open the conversation. I looked over at my brother to see what his take on this was. I could tell he was feeling uncomfortable. He looked worried, too. I hated the silence. It got into my head and felt like a hammer was pounding down on my heart with every beat. I was anxious to learn about the purpose of the meeting, yet I really didn’t want to hear what I knew was coming.
Finally, Mom broke the silence, opening the conversation by getting straight to the point. She informed Wes and me that the reason our parents had called the meeting was because they had gone to some counseling sessions and reached a decision. I was starting to prepare for the big bomb. My body was shaking and I was on the edge of my seat, waiting for the verdict — just in case it was good news. Mom’s voice cracked as she said, sounding scared, “We have decided to keep the separation permanent.” I quickly asked, “You mean like…forever?”
She nodded her head, yes. I paused for a minute and looked over at Dad for some kind of guidance to this madness, but he just nodded his head in agreement. I didn’t feel anything. I was numb again. Son of a gun, I knew it! I knew this would be the case, but why?
My brother and I didn’t say much. I was upset that my parents had decided it was over. However, what really made me mad was the fact they were supposed to go to counseling for three months and, in my mind, make a valiant effort to piece together what was missing. It hadn’t even been a month! I felt like I had been lied to and betrayed. Like somehow our family wasn’t worth it. If they already knew this in the beginning, why didn’t they just say it was going to be forever, instead of softening us up for the kill? I felt like my parents were trying to make it easier on us or lessen the sting by giving us some hope with the whole “trial” thing. However, in doing so, they just confused me more.
Listening to my mom go on about how things would be now was only getting me angrier and angrier. I couldn’t believe it. She was describing how I was going to conduct myself and how I was going to live. Decisions I felt were mine to make were being tossed all over the living room.
As I sat in silence, I wanted to know all the reasons — exactly why this was happening to our family. Mom couldn’t say anything more, and Dad could only give me the same sugar-coated story about growing apart and becoming two different people. I felt like he really didn’t know what to say — almost as though he finally realized that he should have done something long before this. The explanations were definitely not good enough and I knew I wasn’t going to get many more details, so I said, “I have only one more question. Do you still love each other?” My parents just looked at me, and my mom started to cry. I knew the answer was ultimately “no” — although as I looked into my dad’s face that night, his eyes said “yes”. It just wasn’t enough anymore. It was the last time we talked as a family.
There was no more denying it: my parents were splitting up for good. I still couldn’t believe it. My family was gone and it hurt! It felt like I had lost something so great that it was as if I had died. I didn’t know what was going to happen. The marriage was over…and the new beginning was shaping up to be the ultimate roller-coaster ride of my life.
It’s Not My Fault
For a long time, I blamed my mom for the divorce. Mom made the decision. She was the one who chose to leave the family. It was her reasoning that sealed my parents’ fate. Therefore, I held her responsible for the separation. I felt betrayed by her decision to leave before the three-month trial period was up. I had believed that my parents were going to make a valiant effort to work things out. Then, suddenly, it seemed to me that Mom gave up — threw in the towel like our family wasn’t worth the effort I so desperately believed it was. Although I didn’t understand and was completely shocked by their decision, I couldn’t help feeling that there must be something I could do to fix this. To bring my parents back together. No matter how much it hurt or how much I wanted to fix it, and to change Mom’s mind, the reality was that I couldn’t say or do anything. It was totally out of my control. Unwillingly at first, I had to accept that the breakup was about my parents and their relationship, and not about my brother or me.
Placing the blame on my mom clouded my judgment and deeply damaged our relationship, causing many more hurtful things to happen. In the beginning, I was so confused by my parents’ reasoning and unable to answer the question of why, that it became easier to blame than to search for the truth. It took me a long time and many heated arguments with my parents to learn it wasn’t just Mom’s fault. In fact, it wasn’t my mom’s, my dad’s, my brother’s, my family’s, or my fault. My parents’ actions together created their marriage and ultimately, their actions together also created their divorce. Mom and Dad were and still are both responsible for the divorce.
Divorce brings mountains of emotions, valleys of changes, and oceans of choices. With the explosive pace and immense transitions, placing blame becomes easy, almost like a form of survival. It becomes a way to avoid the truth in order to avoid the pain. Although I initially placed the blame on my mom, many children from divorced families decide to blame themselves. They live with tremendous burdens, assuming responsibility and believing the divorce is happening because of them — something they did or didn’t do, perhaps. Sometimes they worry that they are in the way because they aren’t wanted. Some children might believe they aren’t good enough or are unable to live up to their parents’ expectations. For many unwarranted reasons, children may believe their parents’ divorce is their fault. However, it is absolutely not true. Children are innocent!
Communication Is the Key
To let go of the pain and the hurt, it is essential for children of divorce to talk about their true feelings with their parents. Divorce is a breeding ground for a lack of communication. After my parents divorced, there were many times that I felt I shouldn’t talk to them about how I felt. It seemed like somehow I had become an inconvenience, and I didn’t want to bother them seeing as they were in such a crisis. Other times, I was so scared and upset about how I felt that I could barely allow myself to feel the feelings, let alone talk about them. What if what I was thinking about was true? I wanted to spare myself the pain. I spent a long time hating myself for one big reason: I didn’t know if my parents loved me, and I couldn’t ask.
Because I didn’t discuss things with my parents, I made bad choices, choices I regret to this day — such as giving up my hockey dream. However, eventually I did choose to talk to Mom and Dad. At first, it was only when I couldn’t take any more and my feelings had built up to a boiling point. At these times I no longer cared who I hurt, so I let them have it. It was not the most productive way to talk about my feelings, but over time I learned a big lesson — that no matter what, parents love their children. My parents loved me, and because they told me they did and that it was okay for me to love both of them, we grew closer. That opened the door for communication.
We need to ask the hard questions as well as the stupid or ridiculous questions. We need to confront our fears and take time to talk to ourselves. We need to feel supported and we need to feel loved. To fill these needs, and to help us understand, we have to talk and ask questions. Unfortunately, we don’t always get an answer. However, it helps to get problems off our chest and to a place where we can begin to work on them. As children of divorce, we should not be afraid of how we feel. It’s not wrong or right; it’s simply how we feel. Communication and patience are crucial keys to letting go and moving on with our own lives.
Lessons in Change
There is a universal rule that I learned from my experience: the only thing in life that remains constant is change. Change is something many of us fear and do not like. Change can be difficult to deal with and can cause our lives to go entirely out of balance. There were so many changes in my life after my parents split up that I didn’t have enough time to even think about one change before another one took its place. The life that I had known was flipped upside down and inside out. From all of these changes came many great life lessons, most of which took time to learn. Actually, they took years to learn, and I am still learning more every day. It feels like I have been cursed to be someone who always has to learn by his mistakes.
I have discovered that change can be bad or good. Life is all about change. It is what we do with the changes in our lives that counts. We can learn lessons that will help us get to where we want to go in life, or we can run from change because it is too difficult to deal with and accept. I think that for the most part, we often run away from change when it strikes because it can be a scary thing. Most people resist it and hate it. I did, because it was so difficult to find security in my life. Getting through the day became my biggest challenge for a period of time. It took me a long time to realize I needed to learn from all the changes — to ask myself, “What’s going on here? And how does this affect me? What can I do to cope and to make it better for myself and for others?”
Life will continue to bring changes. It’s up to us to ask the questions, examine our hearts, and use the lessons we learn to reshape the outcome and result. How do we begin to control the changes in our lives? I heard an anonymous statement a long time ago that answers that question, and I believe it defines what it means to learn from the lessons change provides: “The best way to predict the future is to create it!”
The Courage to Heal
All children who have to walk the journey through their parents’ divorce are extremely courageous. There is an old saying that defines the word courage: “In the presence of danger, courage is not the absence of fear, but rather, facing the danger in the presence of fear.” It takes mountains of strength and pillars of courage to face the enormous heartache and loss associated with a divorce. It takes even more courage to grab hold of life and make it everything you want it to be despite the uncontrollable circumstances divorce brings. Even though as children we don’t have a choice about our parents’ decision to part ways, we can control our reactions and make choices about the impact it has on our lives.
Somewhere within our hearts, we all have a little spark that is capable of igniting our courage to take control of our lives at our weakest moments. That strength within allows us to face our fears, confront our pain, and find the spirit to better our lives. Before I could really grasp the effects of my parents’ divorce, in order to make a positive difference in my life, I had to find that little spark.
Realizing I was still okay as a person despite all the changes in my life was a turning point for me. I started to rebuild my confidence instead of wallowing in self-pity. I realized that I had very low self-esteem and had lost my confidence. It hadn’t always been that way. In fact, I had always been a strong, confident person. However, riding the emotional roller coaster of divorce is bound to shake you up and leave you searching your soul. I can guarantee that. When dealing and coping with the delicate matters of the heart that divorce brings, it’s extraordinarily difficult to keep perspective. It takes immense inner strength. Building confidence becomes a fundamental part in accessing this strength in order to build a healthy future.
Somewhere along my journey, I had allowed myself to believe I wasn’t worth anything anymore. I needed to make some changes in my life, my attitude, and my beliefs. The first step was to take ownership of my feelings, and this launched me in pursuit of bringing myself back to life.
To build my confidence back up, I decided it was necessary for me to try some new things. First, I was going to start to be honest with myself about who I was and what I was feeling. I wouldn’t blame anyone else for my problems. I would try being open-minded to new ideas that came my way. Most importantly, I would try to love myself again by pointing out my small successes along the way. Step one: Take back control of my life. Step two: Take some time for myself to examine my true feelings, stop burying them inside, and face my fears. Step three: Ask for help when I need it and express my thanks and appreciation to those who help me.
With my steps in mind, I wrote a list of things I wanted to focus on as I continued my search for confidence and truth. I still follow this list:
Following my list has become a lifelong journey. Creating it helped me focus on myself and my future. It provided a positive influence on building my confidence and self-image, as opposed to the outside circumstances and garbage that had been influencing my choices prior to that. Building self-confidence really is a never-ending task. I need to consistently stay in touch with my inner strength.
Whenever I feel down, lost, beaten, or ready to quit, I remember to never give up on what I truly want. I reaffirm my list of goals and dreams and trust in my instincts, putting it up to God to lead the way.
As a side note, I have learned a cool strategy for working on building self-confidence. It was taught to me by one of my mentors, Bill Phillips. He suggests that it is important to acknowledge your little successes in order to get to the big ones. Each day, write down five things that you need to do or want to accomplish, no matter how small they may seem. The purpose is to congratulate yourself on your successes at the end of each day. This will help keep you focused as you work towards your bigger goals and dreams.
Improving self-confidence takes work and courage. It is a building block for our future and our choices. As human beings, regardless of what we do, we will have successes and failures. We can’t always be perfect, but we can choose to never give up on ourselves. I have developed a belief that we all can achieve what we truly desire in life as long as we put our minds to it, focus, and align our self-image. We must pursue our purpose, simply by believing that we can do it.
Our Choices Control our Future
Through the divorce, I found that the traumatic experiences I had to endure made me start to ask big questions about my life. I recognized that I needed great courage to determine my future and move forward towards my aspirations.
I recall one instance where I was sitting in my thinking chair, feeling depressed — like I just couldn’t handle my life anymore. I had just lost one of my closest friends in a tragic accident, and I again found myself plagued by that dreaded question: Why? Why did someone so young have to die? There was no answer, just as there hadn’t been with my parents’ divorce. It wasn’t fair, and again, I had no control. As I sat there, overcome by so many mixed emotions, one in particular stood out. I was completely fed up with myself about how I had allowed the pain of my parents’ divorce to become an excuse for the rest of my life. I felt I had lost so many things that were dear to me, and that I would never again find happiness, someone to love, or anything meaningful in my life. I spent the rest of the night in my thinking chair, consumed by self-pity.
I started thinking about my past experiences, my parents’ divorce, giving up my hockey dream, and giving up on myself. I wondered how I had ended up sitting there, feeling sorry for myself and wishing I still had all the things I had lost.
I asked myself a question that night: “Craig, how much longer do you really want to continue living in self-pity, pain, and hate, blaming the world for your troubles?” I began to contemplate what I wanted to do with my life, who I was, who I really wanted to become, and what I wanted to accomplish. Emotionally, spiritually, economically, socially, and physically, I had choices to make. Even in my sorrow, somewhere deep inside I knew I wanted to make my life better. I didn’t know how; I just knew I wanted more. As I sat there, I told myself, “Despite everything — my mistakes, my hardships, and my pain — before I die, I want to do something important and be someone special in this world. I want to do incredible things in my life and leave a legacy of contributions and accomplishments that I will be remembered for.” At that moment, I knew I had something to say, something I wanted to tell the world — I just didn’t yet know what it was.
I realized that even though life had brought me many unfair, agonizing, uncontrollable circumstances, I still had choices. I had the opportunity to redesign and create the rest of my life. I didn’t have to live under these circumstances, continually making excuses. We are responsible for our actions and reactions; they are all we can control. I believe we are all born into this world as equals, and we all eventually die. How we deal with and adapt to the bad and good in the middle is up to us. It’s ultimately our choice in the end.
Divorce, for the most part, is a negative experience, but it can have some positive outcomes. One of the most positive effects the divorce had on me was that I found the strength to face my fears. The more I confronted my fears, the more I began to triumph over my issues. I then felt successful, which created a more positive attitude in me. It helped me realize that when you really want something in life, you should wholeheartedly pursue it. Break through your fears and go for it!
Acceptance or Closure
Children of divorce are unwittingly presented with an explosive beginning to a lifelong healing journey. It’s a traumatic event that impacts the rest of our lives. It can continue to haunt our souls with lingering anger and pain, greatly affecting our choices as we continue to encounter new life experiences and move into new phases of our lives, like marriage. Sometimes it seems we will never find a complete ending. There will always be something new sneaking up or old issues being brought up again and again. Therefore, I don’t believe that achieving closure regarding my parents’ divorce is possible for me.
Does divorce ever end? I don’t think it does. It becomes part of you, part of your family, and part of your life. For example, situations such as the following might arise:
There are so many things that sneak up to remind us and sometimes even add more to our bottled-up hurt.
It has been thirteen years since my parents split up, but I can guarantee that one of these days, the phone will ring and there will be some new divorce-related issue for me to deal with. It’s a scary thought to me, thinking it will never end — but it’s true.
Acceptance is the answer. It becomes a journey where we need to take one step at a time — learning, hurting, feeling, and working through it issue by issue. We must accept the situation in order to find some peace and heal.
We can bring closure to certain feelings, situations, issues, or problems that we faced during the divorce journey. We can work through each one and come to a positive conclusion by deciding to accept it or let it go and move on. However, trying to find closure and bury the whole divorce experience so that we will never have to deal with it again — that just doesn’t happen.
So what do we do? Accept it. Accept it as a part of who we are and know it is not what we are. We have the ability to create our own future the way we want it to be. We may have more things to deal with — more pain to come, more obstacles to conquer, and more victories to win. That’s life! However, each of these situations causes us to grow stronger and gain the courage, wisdom, confidence, and strength to deal with new events or resurfacing issues that we are faced with. With acceptance comes the ability to let go and control our own lives, problems, and circumstances. That is something we simply couldn’t have as children journeying through a divorce.
The divorce will be with me wherever I go and whatever I do. I know deep down that because I have come this far in my healing journey, I will be ready to deal with each new circumstance, each new curveball. This will make me stronger, smarter, healthier, and more of a person than I am today.
How to Let Go
Many people ask the question, “How do you let go of the pain? How do you forget and move on?” I don’t know if there is just one answer, but I know what worked for me. I decided to accept and forgive — forgive my parents and myself.
We can choose to understand better by looking at things in a new way in order to make peace and forgive. Eventually, the goal is to move on with our own lives and families in a loving way. I don’t believe we can ever forget, but we can forgive. I know I will never forget the hurt I felt after the divorce. However, searching for the truth and accepting that we may never understand the reasons why; realizing we are all human and make mistakes; and ultimately, learning to love ourselves and find our true spirit — all of these things give us the courage to confront our ghosts and forgive.
I have been able to forgive my parents for divorcing because I can now forgive myself for my own mistakes and my anger. I believe learning to let go is ultimately the beginning to truly finding our spirit and healing after divorce.
Find Your Heart’s Purpose
Have a dream. Find your passion and live your dream, whatever it may be! Have you ever asked yourself what your life is all about? Not the everyday stuff or the daily routine, but what’s inside you, where passions bloom within your soul. Have you ever thought about your life’s purpose? What you really want to do in your life? I came to a conclusion about life when I asked myself those very questions. I believe with all my heart that we are here to contribute our own unique gifts to the world. We need only identify what those gifts are and create a purpose behind them — a “heart’s purpose.”
The greatest lesson my parents’ divorce taught me was to have a heart’s purpose. I learned this through my journey of self-love. Even as I write this sentence, I am still today working on my journey of self-love and on my self-esteem. After years of striving to keep a positive attitude, there are still many times when I find myself doubting my abilities, my limitations, what I can achieve, and what I can really become. Being human, it is easy to fall into being focused on the fear side of the spectrum. When others criticize, attempts fail, the world seems like it’s crashing down, or you feel you’ve lost your purpose or your dream, it’s so easy to give up.
Create passion in your life from the things you feel strong desire for, the things that create fire in your belly and allow you to access the little spark of courage that picks you up and keeps you going. No matter what, never quit! Own your mistakes and failures, as they will teach you lessons you can grow from and lead you in the direction you need to go. At the same time, make sure to congratulate and appreciate yourself for the successes along the way, no matter how little they may be.
This article has been edited and excerpted from Within a Child’s Heart by Craig Henry Leibel. Now a happily-married adult, Leibel shares his own thoughts, feelings, and experiences as a child whose world was rocked to its foundations by his parents’ divorce — and how he worked past the grief and anger to create a deeply satisfying life. This thoughtful narrative offers support and inspiration to parents and children of divorce alike, showing how they can heal and grow from their experiences.