Divorce triggers an outpouring of deep emotions: sympathy for the couple whose marriage has failed and concern for the welfare of their children.
But what about the parents of the divorcing couple? Often, their devastation goes unseen. And yet, these family elders mourn the loss of the marriage, and many fear that bitter custody battles or a faraway move will cut them off from their grandchildren.
"You're struggling with a ton of emotions and questions. You're confused, disbelieving, saddened," writes Marsha Temlock, MA, author of Your Child's Divorce: What to Expect - What You Can Do.
Fred and Cheryl Waller of Rialto, Calif., have seen two very different sides to a child's divorce. When one son divorced amicably, the Wallers remained in touch with their ex-daughter-in-law and grandson. "There was no fighting or arguing with any of us," says Cheryl Waller, a 61-year-old homemaker. "The mother was friendly with us and we've always been friendly with her, and it goes to this day."
But when another son divorced, a bitter court battle ended in a nightmare for the Wallers. Their son lost custody, and they have not seen the two grandchildren from that marriage for a decade. At first, says Waller, "You're on an emotional wringer. For four months, I couldn't think straight." But, she adds, "I had to get on with my life. I had other grandchildren, and I had to concentrate on them."
Temlock, also the mother of two divorced children, likens the pain of divorce to that of a death. "Like their divorcing children, parents have to grieve. Following the initial shock and denial, there is a healthy period of mourning, leading to acceptance and recovery."
Right after the news breaks, though, parents of divorcing children often make common mistakes, Temlock tells WebMD. They badmouth the son-in-law or daughter-in-law, jump to conclusions about what soured the marriage, or immediately try to seize control of the crisis and end up making their own child too dependent on them in the long run.
How parents behave initially sets the tone for the future, Temlock says. "The way in which you react to your child's announcement will pave the way for your future relationship with your child, your grandchildren, and soon to be ex-in-law."
Fortunately, parents can be a strong source of support to their divorcing children, enabling them to rebuild their lives, Temlock says. They can also provide their grandchildren with a sense of security and stability.