All posts by Mary Murphy

Mary Murphy has an independent psychotherapy practice in Seattle, WA. Her practice specialty is adults living with chronic illness, She also has a weekly psychotherapy group for caregivers.

Jigsaw Puzzle

small_3184362622 (1)         A jigsaw puzzle.  Dozens of  pieces that come apart and   get put back together  again to look just like the picture on the box cover.  Every time.  You can count on it.  Unless, of course, a piece is lost or bruised;  then it makes recreating the picture on the box cover difficult.

I am reminded of a jigsaw when considering the impact of late parental divorce on adult children.  For decades, the picture in the picture frame had the same parents and children.  The family did, after all, grow up together. The family pieces kept intact; no one was lost or replaced.

When parents who have been married 20, 30, or 40 years  decide to divorce,  their adult children may feel like suddenly the rug is pulled out from under, even though  they may otherwise feel like independent adults.  It goes back to the picture frame.  The family picture that seemed so durable over the years now has a crack in the middle.  The formative family  of children is replaced with a new picture showing a new family.

No matter how amicable or  unfriendly the divorce is, both parents and adult children are emotionally impacted.  For some, the road to feeling grounded again is smooth and short.  For others, finding a familiar feeling of  equilibrium may be more daunting.   Reshaping families is complicated.

Adult children of divorce are a unique group.  Oftentimes, it is the so-called assumptions  about how adult children will be ‘just fine’  that are hurtful.   When it comes to parental divorce and children, there are pages upon pages of articles and books, along with research studies, that discuss the impact of divorce on young children and adolescents. It’s not so easy to find comparable articles, books, and research regarding late parental divorce and its impact on adult children.

But the absence of focus on adult children does not automatically mean adult children are not impacted.  Sometimes, the adult child will feel  relief, perhaps wishing the divorce had happened years earlier for everyone’s sake.  Other adult children say they are happy their parents are finally ‘putting themselves first’ and hope each parent lives a happy and fulfilled life going forward.

Many adult children experience a lot of intense feelings such as anger, loss, abandonment, guilt, fear, insecurity, sadness, and loneliness similar to what younger children  may experience.  But what is different is that the adult child has a lifetime of memories.  So in addition to the emotions around the divorce, the adult child has volumes of  family history .  There may be old family conflicts that were never resolved or memories of childhood milestones and family celebrations.  And what about those family picture albums?  What may have felt like a family for ever is now dissolved.

These are but a few examples of how misplaced assumptions about the impact of parental divorce on adult children can be hurtful.  Most often, adult children come out of their parents’ divorce on the other end feeling stronger and perhaps more rooted than they were before.  But to get to the other side in the least painful way, it is important to throw out assumptions and in their place, start a conversation.  Allow feelings to be respected and heard.  Use empathy and compassion.  Acknowledge emotional pain.

Some families do not feel they can have such a difficult conversation without further emotional damage being inflicted.  That is when it is a good idea to consider a skilled therapist to safely guide family conversation.

Whether it is in the family setting or a therapist’s office, a gift to adult children of divorcing parents is to participate in and encourage conversation.  For everyone’s sake.


Adult Children of Divorcing Baby-boomers

small_4079340543 (1)   Baby-boomers, individuals born between 1946 and 1964, currently have the highest divorce rate while the divorce rate in general is declining.  Long-married couples break-up for multitudinous reasons.  The decision may take many years or it might happen in one moment.  One thing certain is  that all concerned in  divorce find themselves starting over, as a newly single adult or an adult child whose childhood family is dissolved. It is the adult child of gray divorce that is often assumed to be the least vulnerable.  The thinking often goes something like this:  Now that the children are grown, they know how to take care of themselves and are busy establishing their own lives and relationships.  Our divorce may be a little upsetting, but they will be just fine. Adult children of divorce find themselves cloaked in assumptions. But reality is different than assumptions. Adult children of divorce often experience similar feelings to young children and adolescents.  For example, feelings of anger, loss, abandonment, fear, loss of family home, loss of security, and loss of the family as a whole , all may arise.  In addition to the familiar feelings any child may experience with parental divorce, adult children are unique in their situation. It is because they are adults, they have a lifetime of memories of growing up in their family.  Just the sheer number of years an adult child has lived with married parents translates into significant loss when parents uncouple. Whether family life was turbulent or seemingly smooth-sailing, everything comes into question for the adult child.  What was the meaning of all those years growing up? As adult children try to piece together clues they may have missed or simply did not want to see, they may feel like detectives trying to unravel fragments and make meaning.   Paradoxically,  just as adult children may feel vulnerable and confused, it is often at this pivotal time in their family that one or both parents may look to an adult child for emotional support ushering through the divorce process. This is where the term adult child is  oxymoronic.  Adult offspring of divorcing parents are in the role of an adult while at the same time trying to manage feelings of abandonment, fear, anger, and betrayal.  The family photographs still show parents and children.  Wasn’t that forever? There is no easy way to uncouple.  Much is written about  both divorce and its impact on young children.  The impact on adult children of divorce is slowly emerging into the collective consciousness.  One of the very best gifts divorcing parents can give their adult children is invite conversation and dialogue.  Create a feeling of safety to express feelings without fear of judgment or criticism.  This is not an easy task in the middle of a family crisis.  If parents and/or adult children do not feel the family can talk without adding pain and rupture, a psychotherapist can assist. Communication and listening are powerful tools.  They can make a world of difference during the difficult process of divorce.

Getting the News

“Hello, this is your doctor’s office calling.  We would like you to come back for another mammogram.  It most likely is no cause for alarm, but we want to be certain.  I have you scheduled for tomorrow.  Will that work?”

They want me to come back ! No reason for alarm! Something does not sound right.  What is happening?  What does this mean?  Maybe they called the wrong person.

These are some of the first thoughts that raced through my mind when I got the call to return for further tests following a routine mammogram.  The second mammogram led to an ultrasound and ultimately a diagnosis.  Until I heard the words from my doctor that I had a cancer, I doubt I ever really believed that it was possible.  Getting the news was simply unbelieveable.

At first, there is a flurry of medical appointments.  Seemingly endless tests, x-rays, lab work, forms to fill out, procedures, and doctor appointments.  The cancer is staged and followed with a treatment plan and prognosis. There is an overload of information.  You try to maintain a feeling of being in control, but it is increasingly difficult.  Feeling overwhelmed barely describes how you are feeling.

Getting the news of cancer or chronic illness is the first  of many steps . You  try to  acknowledge your diagnosis, but you don’t like it.  All too soon, you  realize  there is a new normal in your life.  You strive to  accept the unacceptable.  Maybe you feel it is unfair; you ask yourself: “Why me?” Or maybe you tell yourself that you should be grateful your circumstances aren’t worse; you tell yourself others might have it  harder.  Maybe you minimize the diagnosis in  an effort to keep it from robbing you of the life you were planning.  Maybe you keep it a secret for a while, somehow making it nonexistent.  Or maybe you become all-consumed in anticipation of what the disease will do.

Response to getting the news of a chronic medical diagnosis is unique to each person.  But  universally, loss of health through a chronic illness is a loss of part of yourself.  There are many losses that are prompted with a loss of health.  Some experience loss of a career.  Loss of friends who may feel uncomfortable. Often loss of financial security looms.  Loss of an arm, leg, lung, or other part of you body may occur .  Loss of a life of good health.  Many losses intrude at the time of diagnosis and continue to evolve as your disease evolves.  Getting the news becomes all encompassing.  It is a challenge to attend to other aspects of your life.

When getting the news, I believe it is really important to allow yourself to grieve.  Again, this is wholly individual.  Your path to acceptance may include  emotions  like  anger, fear, denial, isolation, and guilt.  Depression becomes an uninvited guest, as if you did not have enough to think about.  Allow yourself time to grieve.

Getting the news is a life-altering event.    As I went though my treatment, I was aware of limited support.  I learned the hard way that having at least one person to share your experiences with is absolutely critical.  Although it may be the opposite of what you want to do, reaching out for emotional support is part of the treatment.  The doctor takes care of your medical needs.  It is no less important to have a trusted person help take care of your emotional needs.