Monday, January 28, 2008

Another Hidden Cost of Divorce

Yet another reason to avoid divorce. "The New Alone," an editorial by Elizabeth Marquardt in Sunday's Washington Post "Outlook" section, explains how divorce makes the lives of elderly Americans and their adult children even more lonely and complicated as they grow older. In Ms. Marquardt's words,
Reduced birth rates, widespread divorce, single-parent childbearing, remarriage and what we might call "re-divorce" are poised to usher in an era of uncertain obligation and complicated grief for the many adults confronting the aging and dying of their divorced parents, stepparents and ex-stepparents. And compared with the generations before them, these dying parents and parent figures will be far less likely to find comfort and help in the nearby presence of grown daughters and sons.
Research she has conducted with Professor Norval Glenn of the University of Texas-Austin indicates that it is divorce itself - not merely the aftermath - that strains parent-child relationships. Contrary to the notion of the "good divorce," research conducted by Marquardt and Glenn indicates that even so-called amicable divorces can be especially traumatic for children, since their parents' decision to divorce often catches them completely by surprise. (I can attest to this from my own experience.)

A generation of children raised during the years when American divorce rates exploded is now faced with the prospect of a grief process further complicated by divorce.
...[I]n a divorced family, the parent who has recently died may have symbolically "died" a long time ago for the surviving parent, while for their child, both parents have been very much alive. When parents are married, there is the possibility of shared grief. A father loses a wife at the same time that a grown child loses a mother. Shared grief offers comfort and can draw remaining members of the family into a new kind of closeness. By contrast, adults from divorced families grieve the death of a parent alone. Even if the surviving parent is kind and loving, that grief cannot be shared in the way it could be if he or she had still been married to the deceased.
Of course, the situation is even further complicated when you add the stepparent factor. In some cases, like that of Ms. Marquardt, her grief at the death of her beloved ex-stepfather was short-circuited in a sense because no one around her recognized her loss. In other cases, adult children are faced with the prospect of caring for widowed stepparents to whom their obligations are unclear.

Her concluding comments suggest that what she has observed is only perhaps the tip of the iceberg:
Much of the expert literature on death and dying implicitly assumes an intact family experience. It assumes that people grow up with their mothers and fathers, who are married to each other when one of them dies. Some scholars are beginning to investigate aging and dying in families already visited by divorce. But most scholars and the public still give scant attention to the loss of other parent figures or to the deeply complicating, long-lasting effects of family fragmentation.

Nearly 40 percent of today's adults have experienced their parents' divorce. Increasing numbers of younger adults were born to parents who never married each other at all. I am certain, because I'm one of those living it, that the painful contours of the new American way of death will be discovered and defined by my own generation for years to come.
Sobering words indeed. But not, I believe, an excuse for despair. The prospect of loneliness in one's twilight years may instead serve as an inducement for couples tempted by divorce to work things out instead. Couples tempted to play at being a family by having children without benefit of marriage can add this to the growing list of reasons that this is a very bad idea.

Note: You will have to sign on to the Post website to access their archives, but the service is free, at least for recent articles.


Jennifer F. said...

Wow, fascinating thoughts. My husband and I are in a very "modern" situation in that we're both only children and both of our parents are divorced. It makes concerns about caring for our parents in their old age so much more difficult.

Anyway, thanks for these thoughts. I just discovered your blog (via Historical Christian) and I'll definitely be back. I'm a fellow convert to Catholicism so I can relate to a lot of what you say.

Keep up the good work!

Heide Seward (aka, Miss Climpson) said...

Thank you, Jennifer, for your comments. I, too, am a child of divorce, though I do, thankfully, have siblings to help shoulder the load. But it is more of a load than it ought to be. Your comments prompted me to go to your blog. I think I have surfed there before, but this time I paused to read your conversion story. It was very moving, and I look forward to reading more of your posts. Sounds like you and your husband entered the Church exactly when my husband and I did--Easter Vigil of 2007. Happy Anniversary!