Have you ever used cement glue to attach two items together and then, after it dried, attempted to separate them? Even with utmost care, they never look quite like they did originally. God declares in Genesis 2:24 that marriage is “becoming one flesh”, literally meaning stuck together like glue. The word divorce means “to turn different ways or to separate.” But once two become one, separation inevitably causes irreparable damage.
As grandparents of children who have experienced the divorce of their parents, we can testify to the painful after-effects on the families involved. We have faced challenges for which we felt unprepared both as grandparents and parents of adult children. In the United States, the average marriage length is 12.2 years and the divorce rate for first marriages is between 40-50% (even higher for second marriages). Unfortunately, many Christian grandparents find themselves in this position regardless of their views on the theology of divorce and may be looking for help maneuvering the journey they never expected. Although every divorce is unique, there are some basic guidelines to help grandparents avoid common landmines.
- Do a check-up on your own marriage. If married, grandparents can reassure grandchildren of their own commitment to one another and to them. Be a model of a life-long, loving, unselfish, forgiving, communicative relationship.
- Work on managing your own feelings well. Parents of adult children may understandably feel embarrassment, anger, helplessness, shock, hurt, guilt, grief, or worry when a divorce is announced. But this is a time when our grandchildren (and even their parents) need a steady presence and a reassuring place where things are still the same. Grandparents can be a source of calm, comfort, and security. Jesus is the Rock on which we build our lives as Christians and we, in turn, can be a sanctuary where our grandchildren can find stability, emotional support, and unconditional love. In order to do this, grandparents may benefit from a source of support for themselves; this could include a prayer group, a counselor, or a community group such as Al-Anon or Parents of Addicted Loved Ones (PAL). Parental guilt over the choices of our adult children is a common struggle, and the biblical wisdom and encouragement of others is a healing balm.
- Be careful with your responses. Try to stay peaceful and calm in the grandchild’s presence. Don’t interfere when not invited or welcomed. A sound piece of guidance for grandparents in general is especially wise during these times: “Give advice only when asked.” It is much more effective to offer insights or advice after the parents or grandchildren initiate the conversation or ask questions. Our natural instinct may be to take sides or behave unlovingly toward the ex-in-law. Remember that Romans 12:18 exhorts us, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all people.” Accepting that this person is your grandchild’s parent and will be some part of your life due to that fact is a baseline of cordiality. Sadly, grandparents do not have a lot of rights when a divorce occurs; their time with grandchildren is often determined by one custodial parent. Grandparent visitation rights vary from state to state and often require family court intervention if disputed. (One note: If you’ve been close to the “other” parent who is not your child, consider being carefully cautious in the relationship out of respect to your adult child’s feelings.)
Be gracious when speaking with grandchildren about their parents. Try to think of good qualities they may have (Is she a good cook or a fun story-teller? Is he a dad who enjoys playing games with his kids or a hard worker?). Affirm their parents’ love for them. Children may feel the need to defend their parents if they are placed in the middle. With time, they will figure out on their own if a parent is immature, unfaithful, or a poor example. A godly Christian grandparent can best be a safe place for grandkids by being a non-judgmental listener, a safe place for expression of feelings, and a reassurance of love and support. Focus on being a compassionate listening grandparent rather than a judge or professional counselor.
- Maintain regularity in your contact with grandchildren while learning flexibility in the details. Be consistent with pre-existent practices such as visits, phone calls, letters, emails, texts, sleepovers, etc. At this time of multiple losses, changes, and questions, they need a sense of normalcy that comes from familiar routines. Remind them of God’s love and presence with them. Affirm that He will never leave nor forsake them (Hebrews 13:5b).
There may be new post-divorce family rules and roles. There may be a loss of family holidays or traditions. Focus on building new ones if former schedules or celebrations change, and make those special. This will require planning ahead, being flexible, and may affect your personal plans (such as travel, finances, or former “free time.”). For example, birthday celebrations may not occur on the exact day or Christmas gift exchange could take place the week before or after the holiday. There will be times when our “presence” is as much a gift as the “presents” and requires us to sacrifice our own personal expectations or preferences. Even though change is hard, things usually improve with time. We can trust God to work out everything for His glory and our ultimate good even though we are perplexed in the midst of the situation (see 2 Corinthians 4:8).
Divorce is hard on children as well as on adults. We cannot save our grandchildren (or our adult children) from the pain, but we can be calm in the storm as we pray, trust God with the outcomes, and allow Him to love these family members through us. We ourselves will grow and be stretched in the process.