After almost 21 years of a very dysfunctional marriage to an abusive alcoholic, I divorced my husband and the father of my children. His contact with the children was limited and only occurred if they reached out to him. He made no attempt to contact them. He finally told them he wanted no more contact with them, and for their own peace of mind, they complied.
When my ex-husband was terminally ill, he told his current wife he didn’t want any of his children involved. As a result, my children were not notified of his passing nor included in the obituary. They only found out because a stranger used social media to contact one of them for more information.
How do I help them deal with this final rejection? I have tried for years to tell them that he loved them but didn’t know how to show it. I now feel like I was wrong and he really was incapable of love.
This is such a painful ending to an already tragic abandonment. I can only imagine how hard you’ve worked over the years to help your children make sense of not being wanted by their father. As you know, it’s something that makes no sense to a child.
I don’t think it’s your responsibility to speak for their father and explain why he did what he did. Even though I could spend pages explaining the connection between addiction, shame and abandonment, none of this will ultimately be helpful to your children at the current time. There may come a point in their lives when they are interested in seeking answers to better understand their father’s condition. However, what they need now is what Dorothy Becvar called “the ministry of presence.”
Your presence sends an undeniable and tangible message to them that they aren’t alone, even though their father left them. Your words won’t speak the message more powerfully than your physical presence. If your children are spread out over miles, do your best to make a personal visit to each of them and give them your support and presence.
You don’t have to dance around the reality that their father has abandoned them. You don’t have to make up reasons and excuses for him. You can even apologize to them and say that your attempts to help them make sense of their father’s choices may not have been helpful to them. Admit that you clearly don’t know what he was thinking and how he could have done this to them. Let them talk about it or not talk about it. Each of them will have their own way of coping with this tragedy.
Don’t push them to get over it, forgive him quickly or seek a final answer to this painful outcome. This is an ambiguous loss that doesn’t provide them with closure. The process to discovering answers and peace in the aftermath of his death is a long process.
Even though they will need time, space, and permission to grieve these losses, chances are they will each arrive at a place where they have the answers they need. We are built to create meaning out of our experiences and I trust that your children will accomplish this, especially with your loving presence and support.
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in St. George, Utah. He specializes in working with couples in all stages of their relationships. The opinions stated in this article are solely his and not those of St. George News.
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