Breaking the Code of Silence on Divorce

Life-Giving Wounds helps adult children of divorce and separation give voice to their suffering, know that they are not alone, and find healing in God’s Divine Mercy.

‘Let the Children of Divorce Come to Me,’ original sacred art by artist Michael Corsini, was commissioned by Life-Giving Wounds ministry for reflection at retreats.
‘Let the Children of Divorce Come to Me,’ original sacred art by artist Michael Corsini, was commissioned by Life-Giving Wounds ministry for reflection at retreats. (photo: Courtesy of Life-Giving Wounds)

MENLO PARK, Calif. — Hallie Colorado, a clinical psychologist, wrote her dissertation on the long-term impact of divorce on children. But, until recently, the mother of six gave little thought to the impact her parents’ breakup had on her own life.

“My parents divorced when I was little, but I didn’t think it affected me,” Colorado told the Register. 

Happily married and enjoying her new position as the director of parish outreach at St. Raymond’s Catholic Church in Menlo Park, California, Colorado believed she had beaten the odds and achieved her goals.

But after agreeing as a professional courtesy to attend a retreat for adult children of divorce and separation sponsored by the Catholic apostolate Life-Giving Wounds, she was astonished by the emotions that surfaced as presenters shared their stories. 

“I cried 30 years’ worth of tears,” Colorado recalled. “It was the first time I was in a room where everyone was like me, and I had no idea how much anger I felt.” 

There was more to the retreat than confronting those buried emotions.

“Our retreat is rooted in Divine Mercy, not only receiving mercy, but living it in every way, chief of which is forgiveness,” Dan Meola, president and co-founder of Life-Giving Wounds, told the Register.

Each three-day retreat, which typically draws 20-30 people, is structured around the Paschal Mysteries and encourages participants to “uncover the wounds” and “die to self,” as they become more aware of how their choices and relationships were shaped by childhood trauma, he explained. 

Next, they are asked to invite Christ into their wounds — “a resurrection moment.” 

And finally, they begin to walk with Christ, going forth in greater virtue, renewed and following the Lord in a deeper way.

“We give people a blueprint that includes a plan of life for developing virtue,” Meola said. 

Chaplains and therapists who are also children of divorce and have participated in previous retreats are on site. 

After the retreat, alumni tap into local support groups and an online community that help them cultivate friendships with others dealing with similar issues, along with resources for ongoing spiritual direction and psychological counseling. 

“You can’t heal alone,” said Meola. “If you are married, you have to lean into your spouse. We provide many different avenues for support.”


Split in Two by a ‘Nuclear Bomb’

Meola and his wife, Bethany, are graduates of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at The Catholic University of America in the nation’s capital, where they met. The couple, who married in 2011, began offering retreats in the Washington, D.C., metro area based on work conducted at the institute that provided a framework for formation grounded in Christian anthropology and the psychological sciences. They established their ministry as a nonprofit in 2020. Today, Life-Giving Wounds is used in more than 10 U.S. dioceses.

Dan Meola told the Register he understood the need for this new apostolate after struggling for years to come to grips with his own parents’ divorce. As is often the case, the breakup hurt his relationship with God, as well as his family members.

“My parents separated when I was 11; and for a few years, I hoped they would get back together and work out their differences in a healthy way,” he said. When that didn’t happen, he felt “crushed” by the realization that his family would never be reunited.

“My whole world felt like it was breaking apart,” he remembered, noting that other children of divorce liken the experience to an “earthquake,” a “nuclear bomb splitting your existence in two,” or a “tabernacle ripped out of the church.” 

As a teenager, he turned to religion to cope with his anger. 

“I demanded that God fix the situation. When it didn’t seem he had answered my prayers, I felt like he was abandoning me.” he said. In college, he “put up walls,” distrusting people whom he feared would hurt or reject him. 

In time, Meola rediscovered his faith and began to understand the liberating power of the Church’s teaching on redemptive suffering. He also knew he could not be healed without forgiving his parents. The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant became a touchstone for his spiritual life as he prayed over Christ’s teaching and shared his struggles in confession.

Likewise, he and his wife have been deeply inspired by Pope St. John Paul II’s writings on mercy and suffering.

“Believing in the crucified Son,” wrote John Paul in Dives in Misericordia (Rich in Mercy), “means believing that love is present in the world and that this love is more powerful than any kind of evil in which individuals, humanity, or the world are involved. Believing in this love means believing in mercy. For mercy is an indispensable dimension of love; it is as it were love’s second name and, at the same time, the specific manner in which love is revealed and effected vis-à-vis the reality of the evil that is in the world ...” 


Personal Healing 

Each participant at a Life-Giving Wounds retreat approaches the mystery of human suffering and Divine Mercy in a personal way, but healing begins with an honest account of their own experience, ending the silence that often shrouds the trauma of divorce and leaves many children to cope on their own in destructive ways. 

Participants see the connection — well established in the social sciences — between their untreated emotional wounds and a string of failed relationships or damaging behavior.

Divorce is associated with numerous negative outcomes for children’s future life as adults, often affecting education, job prospects, incarceration rates, relationships and mental and physical health.

Children of divorce often wonder what they could have “done better” to prevent their parents’ breakup, said Katherine Ambrose, a young single Catholic based in San Francisco, who attended her first Life-Giving Wounds retreat as a participant and now serves as a presenter. “Divine Mercy restores your identity: I am not my parents’ mistakes; I am not my past sins and failings, even if I have acted out because of the wounds I have experienced. There is healing and redemption.”

Ambrose has shared the spiritual fruits of the program with her mother and siblings and believes she will be better prepared for entering a happy marriage in the future and not perpetuate the wounds she experienced. 

During her presentations, she tries to dispel the confusion and misinformation that makes some Catholic children of divorce feel like outliers in the Church, letting them know they are welcome.

Pastors who attended the retreat now look for more opportunities to address the confusion, as well as the hurt experienced by children of divorce.

The belated reckoning with childhood trauma can be especially difficult in a culture that has largely accommodated divorce as a fact of life. California was the first state to approve no-fault divorce in 1969. 

In 1960, 87% of children in the United States lived with both a mother and father in the home, according to the Pew Research Center. Over the following half-century, that number slid to 64%. 

Children of divorce
Clockwise from left: Katherine Ambrose, Hallie Colorado (shown with her husband), Father Luke Leighton and Dan and Bethany Meola know the importance of healing for children of divorce.(Photo: Courtesy of subjects)


Culture of Divorce

In this culture, divorce is often presented as a positive outcome for parents and for families, while children may feel they caused the divorce or that they need to affirm their parents’ new life and relationships, explained Franciscan Friar of the Renewal Father Luke Leighton, a child of divorce and a retreat chaplain who serves in the Diocese of Oakland, California.

After the breakup, children “learn to be quiet” and often take on responsibility for their parents’ emotions,” while their own inner turmoil is not addressed, he explained. At the retreat, wounds are finally “acknowledged, and you are accepted with your wounds,” said Father Leighton. 

“It is a safe place for you to mourn that loss.” 

When Father Leighton began to discern his vocation, members of his family accused him of “becoming a priest to avoid getting into a relationship.” 

“I said, ‘No, the Lord has helped me heal,’” he recalled, acknowledging that he carefully explored that question before taking final vows.

But after participating in a Life-Giving Wounds retreat in 2019, he experienced a deeper healing that continues to transform his life, paving the way for forgiveness and reconciliation within his family.

“I used to hate it when people older than myself would say, ‘If I had to live my life over again, I wouldn’t change a thing.’ I had a lot of things I wanted to change,” he said. “But being in this ministry, I realize that even the most painful parts of my life are precious to me because I can see how Our Lord has entered into my wounds. I can’t change or control the home I was from,” Father Leighton said. 

“All I can do is focus on the healing that Jesus is bringing about in my life. I can trust that, if that happens, I can deal with things differently as my heart changes and I become more loving. Already, I have a greater appreciation and mercy for my family than I did.”

During a recent retreat Mass, with the image of Divine Mercy close by, Father Leighton reminded the congregation that true healing could not be found in the flight from suffering, but in a willingness to invite Christ into the most painful parts of one’s life and allow them to be transformed into the fire of redemptive love.

“The very place of my woundedness is where Jesus meets me,” said Father Leighton. “That becomes the place of connection with the Lord.”

Through her experiences on her Life-Giving Wounds retreat, Colorado recalled the early years of acute financial instability, as her mother, now single, was forced to move 20 times. 

And there was the agony of shuttling between two households and the family holidays that never developed a satisfying rhythm. 

“I was the part-time cousin, the outsider looking in,” she said. 

The same disconnect complicated school life and friendships with classmates, making her feel “self-conscious, with a huge scarlet letter.”

The first day of the retreat exposed the wounds inflicted by her parents’ divorce. And during the next two days, Colorado learned how adult children of divorce can go on to lead a “holy, healthy, happy life” as they turn these hurts over to the suffering Christ and receive the grace of his Divine Mercy, in turn. 

“It is hard to imagine what you can have in common with the Savior of the world who went through so much torment,” she said. But “it is only in his Divine Mercy that you can let go of those wounds.”

By the close of the retreat, she experienced a “feeling of lightness I didn’t know existed — and with that a sense of peace and joy that I cannot believe I lived without for so long.”

“It has helped make me a better wife, a better mother and a better person,” she said. “I wish I had found this retreat years ago.”