It is sometimes assumed that divorce’s impact is no different than the death of a parent. Clearly, painful, but not unique. Here I try to show why divorce is different because of its on impact the being of young people. The Children of Divorce.
It seems that the difference between death and divorce has something to do with ontology. Death may shake a young person’s being, as he witnesses the monster of negation take his mother, for example. But such a situation, though frightening, never throws his own being into question, as if making it only a shadow. It can suggest or reveal vulnerability: the death of a parent may witness to the reality that one day the child will also be overcome by death. But, again, it does not retroactively threaten his being as divorce does. Death looks to a future reality, an event that will happen as time unfolds for the young person. Divorce does not so much point forward as throw the foundational event of the child’s very origins into regret and question. Death promises the eventual end of his being; divorce questions if he ever should have been at all. This no doubt is a much more haunting reality. Rather than wondering if you will be remembered at all after your death, divorce asks if you ever should have come into being, now that those who are responsible for your being have negated the relationship that created you.
This also has a great amount to do with agency. As we have seen, we are given our being through action. Death (unless it is suicide, which opens up a whole other truckload of issues) rarely if ever occurs through the agency of the dying person. Disease, accident, and tragedy happen to the parent over and against their choice (action). But divorce is an action, not a fate; it may feel unavoidable, but from the child’s perspective it will always come finally by the choice of one or both parents to end the union. For instance, Natalie says, “There were days like that where I really, honestly wished she had died. Then there’d be only happy memories. I was scared of the idea of divorce when I was twelve, and I’ve never been scared of my parents dying. It never even occurred to me until the divorce.”[iii]
Because divorce is integrally connected to agency and because these actions create encounters that form community, its action weighs much heavier on the ontology of children. The child is the outgrowth of the community of Mom and Dad, of being-with. Death ends community person-to-person, but it does not negate the community of memory. The child in death must bear the reality that her dad is gone, but he remains a longed-for and missed agent in the still-existing community called family. He, even in his death, is part of the narratives and history of the community. But in divorce these narratives take on the residue of anger (or hatred), and the history is split. Now with Mom, Dad can never be spoken of, or only spoken of with frustration, suspicion, or indifference. In relation to the children, divorce then splinters a parent’s being, while death does not. Staal articulates this ontological reality when she says, “Here’s the thing, though: Time flirts with us, flashing what could have been, what should have been, what was. When a parent dies, children are at least given the pretense that they will travel through the five stages of grief in accepting the death. . . . But with divorce, there is no rubric detailing how we should act or feel, especially as we get older. Lacking the finality of death, divorce can start to mimic a film negative. We become hooked on what’s missing, where blank spaces have replaced substance.”[iv]
[iii] Royko, Voices of Children of Divorce, 198.
[iv] Staal, Love They Lost, 17.