Lynn Cassella-Kapusinski grew up watching her parents’ marriage fall apart. Through her Catholic faith she learned how to embrace this cross and make it an instrument of healing. Happily married herself for nearly 20 years, a licensed counselor and the founder of Faith Journeys, she has made it her life’s work to help children heal from the wounds of divorce. The Register talked with her via email about her new book, The Divorced Catholic’s Guide to Parenting.
You speak of having beaten the odds. What are the odds, in numeric terms? What is your life like now?
Research has demonstrated that divorce can contribute to significant consequences in children, including anger, depression, anxiety, school and social difficulties, and even changes in long-term attitudes toward marriage and divorce. We also know that over three-in-10 (34%) Catholics who are divorced and remarried without an annulment or cohabitating say they never attend Mass. Children from divorced families are 50% more likely than their counterparts from intact families to divorce, according to a 1996 National Opinion Research Council survey of 21,963 adults that spanned more than 20 years. I consider myself fortunate to have grown past my pain. I have an extraordinary husband (of almost 19 years), a close-knit family and a rewarding career in counseling.
What led you to write this book?
The role of parents is critical in this regard. They will have the most impact on their child’s healing journey, for better or worse. From my personal experience as a Catholic child of divorce and my professional experience as a counselor, I think a major reason why children of divorce have a higher divorce rate than those from intact families stems largely from not having adequately resolved their grief prior to marriage. Early intervention is very important. Otherwise, children are likely to develop unhealthy coping patterns, which become more difficult to remedy later on.
How is divorce a unique type of grief for children?
Divorce losses are not clear-cut and defined. While something is lost, something is also still there. This creates confusion for children regarding what needs to be grieved. For example, a parent moves out of the home, so a child may not see that parent as much. That same parent may start dating or become overwhelmed by personal problems, either of which takes attention further away from the child. Yet the parent remains a parent, and a child is often left alone in determining what that role now means.
How does a parent constructively address a child’s grief?
Parents can show acceptance of a child’s feelings simply by saying something like: “I wish I could take the hurt away.” Unhelpful responses are ones that stifle or minimize the child’s pain; for example, “At least your father is still alive.” Unhelpful responses send children the message that certain feelings are “bad” and that the child, in turn, is “bad” or “weak” for having them. As a result, the child learns to repress his grief. Parents may also want to consider my children’s books in this regard. Each chapter opens with a vignette about a child experiencing a difficulty related to separation or divorce. Then there are exercises and instructions that draw on the vignettes and help children to process their experience further.
Forgiveness is the only solution for achieving contentment and peace and perceiving the truth. If a child sees his parent refusing to forgive or making excuses in this regard, the child will learn to do the same. A poor example of forgiveness will only set the child up for unhappiness and distress as well as thwart his emotional healing and, in turn, jeopardize his future relationships.
Why does a rupture with a parent often lead to a rupture with God?
Children’s perception of God stems from their experience of their parents. After my parents separated, my father moved out of state and, eventually, across country. I was never sure when I would see or hear from him; and, when I did, he was consumed by his own sorrow, guilt and other personal difficulties. I put my father’s face on God and expected God to treat me in the same way as I perceived my father as doing: as not important enough to pay attention to and, basically, unworthy of being loved.
How does helping your child through his grief help you find your own healing?
In helping a child heal, parents will likely find their core pain triggered. These triggers can show them areas in themselves that need healing, perhaps an unresolved loss from their childhood or a more recent one from the divorce or separation.
How can a wronged spouse apply this biblical principle: “Do not be conquered by evil, but conquer evil with good” (Romans 12:21)?
While the inclination to hurt back is natural, it is also a tool of the devil tempting us in weak moments. The choice to sin, or to settle for less than what is best for us and others, only leads to meaningless suffering. This cultivates a mindset of “Poor me. Life is unfair. I’m powerless.” Instead, the wronged spouse needs to adopt the orientation of meaningful suffering, which is marked by growth.
Is divorce easier on a kid than seeing Mom and Dad “fighting all the time?”
There is not a simple, black-and-white answer to this question. There are many factors that need to be explored before determining which situation is likely to have the least negative influence on a child. It is also important to recognize that negative parental conflict can continue, and even intensify, after divorce.
Issues surrounding marital problems and divorce are multifaceted and can only be fully known by God. We should always be compassionate and recognize that the deeper issues surrounding these types of questions are not for us to judge or decide in haste. This is why annulment decisions are made by a tribunal of judges: The issues involved are complex, and true wisdom needs to be applied to each individual situation.
What are some of the things kids have expressed to you about being put in the middle?
It creates a lot of conflicting feelings for them. They say they want to obey their parents and, for example, deliver messages when asked. However, they also feel this is the parent’s responsibility, so it makes them angry to be put in this position. Children often say they do not express their anger to parents because they worry it will cause their parent to get mad at them. Children have also shared how hurtful it is to have a parent take out their anger (at the other parent) on them by making derogatory comments, such as “You’re just like your mother/father.” They say these comments make them feel badly about themselves and stay with them for years. Some kids have said that being put in the middle makes them feel like they are the cause of their parents’ fights. Oftentimes, when boundaries are being violated in more subtle ways, children do not realize that their parent is putting them in the middle, and, out of a need for their parent to feel better, they listen and try to be supportive which, in turn, causes them to worry about their parent even more.
Children, especially middle schoolers, express being intensely embarrassed by this situation and not wanting their friends to know about it. It is not unusual for them to drop out of extracurricular school activities because they do not want to risk their parents attending and getting into an argument in public. Sometimes, the tension becomes so great that these children engage in self-harming activities to alleviate it.
Talk about a kid’s anger being a secondary emotion.
It means that anger is often a kid’s way of covering up or protecting himself from feeling a more vulnerable emotion, such as fear, hurt, powerlessness, worthlessness or unfairness.
This passage of the book stands out. “Looking back, I believe my father tried the best he could at the time. And I thank God for that consolation, which I carry with me always.” What did it take for you to get to this place?
Most of all, it was the Holy Spirit who gave me the graces to set aside my feelings, needs, desires, “rights” and expectations each time I visited my father. By shelving my side, I made room for my father’s side to emerge. I believe he sensed my openness because it, in turn, invited him to share not only his feelings and the circumstances involved in his moving so far away, but also his remorse in not having been there for me as a child when I needed him most. I finally realized and accepted that my father was not capable of providing the type of love I needed. I also realized and accepted that my focus on other external sources — a boyfriend, academic accomplishments, career pursuits — would not fill the “gaping hole” in my heart. I learned how to love myself and made more and more room for God and the sacraments to fill my life. Understanding my father in this profound, personal way helped me empathize with him. It also made my task of forgiving him much easier.
Does time really heal all wounds?
No. Time is needed to get our bearings and absorb the shock after a major loss. However, it is what we do during time that can heal wounds. If we can eventually find the courage to face and process the pain, then we will experience healing.
Register correspondent Susie Lloyd writes from Pennsylvania.