My parents recently separated after 45 years of marriage. My dad is 70 and heartbroken. How do I help him through this and work through my anger towards my mum?
What a horrible shock this must have been. There seems to be a belief that children whose parents separate have it more difficult than adults whose parents do the same. The truth is that parents separating and families dividing is always unsettling and destabilising, whether you are 7 or 37. You might be feeling as though your world has been remodelled almost overnight and, because you are all grown up, you should be able to just take this in your stride. This is not the case. Let yourself feel all the feelings… there are going to be many of them.
It is a strange moment when we realise that our parents are fallible and human, just like we are. It requires a mind shift. In this situation, in particular, you might end up taking on the role of parent with your dad as you help him through his heartbreak. Give him love and compassion, but try to reserve some of your energy for tending to your own emotions too. Let your dad share his feelings with you but keep your boundaries up. Try not to be drawn into any negative talk about your mum. He will have other people that he can vent to. Your job at this moment is just to love him and to reassure him that he is not alone.
You say that you are feeling angry with your mum and this is permitted. There are no ‘shoulds’ for your emotions right now. Let yourself feel it and, as far as possible, let yourself express it either to your mum or, if that feels too overwhelming, to a friend, a family member or a professional. Anger is so often viewed as a negative emotion but it can also be protective. At this moment, it is keeping you from further hurt. Let it swirl, but also know that the dust will settle, and you will be able to rebuild your relationship with your mum. It’s cliched but true: time is a great healer.
We tend to reserve grief for death but I think this is strange. We can, and should, grieve for endings of any kind: break-ups, leaving a job, the end of the marriage, the loss of a friendship. Grief, according to Glennon Doyle Melton, is our proof that we once loved. This doesn’t mean that we need to take to our beds and shut out the world, or wear a wedding dress for the rest of our lives, staring at our uneaten wedding cake, reclusive and alone, like Miss Havisham. But it is okay at this moment to let yourself grieve. You have suffered a loss: the loss of some of your foundational beliefs about your parents and, by extension, about yourself.
However, try not to let this make you feel that your happy family memories are somehow invalidated by this new reality. Love is what makes a family and the love still exists, even if it is moving in different directions now. You will all adjust to this situation and come out of the other side and things may even be better in the long run. In the meantime, look after yourself and chat to a professional if you need to. I wish you luck on the journey ahead.
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