Reaching Out to Divorced Members

By Sandra Bouley

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    The sacrament meeting speaker testified of the promises of eternal marriage and the blessings of the priesthood. As I listened, my fragile feelings of self-worth once again dissolved, laying open the recent wounds. Words that had guided me in my youth and comforted me in my marriage now became stinging reminders that a cherished life-style was no longer mine. Feeling conspicuous and lonely, I waged again the constant silent battle to stem the ever-present sense of failure. I began to envy those who lost mates through death. Their loss was only a temporary one, and it invoked numerous manifestations of love and support. I had lost a mate—the other way.

    Understandably, many people are hesitant to reach out in these sensitive situations for fear of offending. Others are uncomfortable because they don’t know what to say or do. This uneasiness may also be felt by the divorced, further isolating them.

    But the first days, weeks, and months following a divorce are critical. During this time, self-condemnation can easily extinguish the spiritual light already faltering under the trauma of divorce. Divorced persons, feeling rejected and discouraged, need an extra amount of love and acceptance and regular, visible support—even if they appear to be defensive and unappreciative.

    Following are some ideas to help members understand how they can reach out to divorced people in the Church:

    1. Judge not. Unfortunately, divorce is very public. Many problems can be dealt with in the privacy of one’s home, but divorce becomes public knowledge through word of mouth, the newspaper, the “For Sale” sign, the moving van conspicuously loading half of the furniture. Outsiders can see the tell-tale signs, but they cannot know to what degree that one or both have counseled with bishops and professionals.

    In a world of increasing pressures, both within and without the home, free agency can be exercised unwisely even among Church members. Many men and woman are agonizing over situations they did not choose but were powerless to avoid. It is not for the members to determine guilt and responsibility.

    2. Pray for them. In addition to withholding judgment, members of the Church should pray for the well-being and happiness of divorced members. Having them on our minds, remembering them in our hearts, and calling the Lord’s blessings upon them can bless our own lives as well as the divorced. And the Lord has promised to bless those who come to him in times of need: “Blessed are all they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (3 Ne. 12:4.)

    Praying for others increases sensitivity to their needs and enables members to be truly helpful as they “mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort.” (Mosiah 18:9.)

    3. Reach out with a gesture of acceptance. Demonstrating concern can be as simple as a comforting message like “You are in my prayers and thoughts.” Any message of encouragement, spoken or written, signed or unsigned, will lift a troubled spirit.

    4. As a family, take meals to them or invite them to dine with your family. Divorced people, like those who lose their mates through death, undergo great emotional turmoil. This grief is often compounded by difficult decisions concerning finances, child custody, and, often, selling a home and moving. Understandably, cooking meals may become a low priority. Don’t ask if they want a meal brought in. Chances are they will say no. But few would refuse an affirmative, sincere expression such as “I know you have a lot on your mind right now. We’d like to bring dinner for your family tonight.” Or “We’re bringing dinner at 5:30. Who will be there to let us in?” Or “Please join us at the park tonight. It will be so much more fun with two families.”

    Another benefit of this gesture is that the children, who hurt tremendously when they see their parents upset, witness the outpouring of concern by others. Their burden is eased somewhat by knowing that amid the confusion and change, the love of Church members is constant.

    5. Offer relief from the normal routine. When appropriate, extend an invitation for lunch, a movie, shopping, a sports event, a trip to the genealogical library, a short drive, a long drive—anything that might provide companionship and relief. A sleepless night or general restlessness often generates a search for something “good” to read; some well-placed Church literature may bring comfort to a broken heart and strength to a questioning spirit.

    6. Offer transportation and companionship for temple nights and ward activities. Many who desire to attend and who would benefit from going to the temple or a ward activity may stay home rather than go alone.

    Singles are unlikely to call and request a ride. And they will seldom accept an invitation that suggests a sense of duty, such as “We are having an elder’s quorum party. It will be mostly couples, but you can come if you want.” Or “The bishop wanted me to call and make sure you knew we were having a party.” Or “We are having an adult party, so you are invited.” Single adults are very concerned about feeling out of place. Members could be more sensitive to their feelings.

    7. Offer relief from the children. The parent who has the major responsibility of the children needs time alone to sort tangled emotions, make business calls not meant for children’s ears, or just rest. These can be accomplished more easily if the children are in the safe keeping of trusted friends.

    8. Be sensitive to concerns about the children. One of the greatest worries of divorced parents is the effect the divorce will have on the children. Be aware of that concern and refrain from adding to the burden by telling stories about the problems children of divorce could develop.

    9. Remember that holidays are painful, especially the first year. Sometimes family members are nearby; sometimes they are not. Some people who have just recently gone through a divorce prefer to continue family traditions; others are unable to. Holidays can be extremely painful for the divorced; if children are involved, they are often with the other parent. Even the person who has no children may still feel out of place. You never know if you can make a holiday less lonely unless you ask. An invitation refused is still a warm reminder that someone cares.

    That caring can be a joint effort. Last Valentine’s Day, all the single sisters in my ward received a basket lined with a Valentine cloth napkin (home sewn) and filled with frosted hearts and other freshly baked cookies. The Mia Maids had planned this compassionate service project to brighten what is often one of the loneliest holidays for single people.

    10. Be a good listener. If you find yourself in the role of listener, listen. Don’t scandalize the ex-spouse. Don’t ask personal questions. If the individual is having an extremely hard time coping, suggest a priesthood blessing and a visit with the bishop, who can give spiritual counsel and refer the person to others with specialized training if necessary.

    11. Be supportive. Reinforce praiseworthy behavior at every possible opportunity: “I really admire the way you are handling this difficult situation.” “Your daughter did a beautiful job with her talk.”

    You may not always be aware of the results of planting the seeds of encouragement. During one interview with my bishop, he told me I was setting a good example for others in the ward facing trials of their own. It didn’t stop the tears at the time, but later I often remembered what he said, and I felt better. That simple comment influenced me numerous times when I was trying to find some excuse to stay home from church.

    Sometimes it is helpful to relate stories of others who have gone on to rebuild their lives after trying times. Church history is fashioned with Latter-day Saints who rose to nobility while facing hardships. Inspirational stories such as these may be comforting—but stories about “similar cases” where one person (or both) ended up in tragic circumstances serve no useful purpose.

    Statements like “I’ll bet some days you feel it would be easier just to end it all!” are not supportive either. Remember that some members may be more emotionally unstable or depressed than their appearance may indicate. Inappropriate suggestions floating in the subconscious mind may surface for serious consideration during extremely stressful times.

    Similarly, extolling the virtues of sleeping pills and other drugs can do more harm than good. Let the professionals make that kind of recommendation in the privacy of treatment.

    12. Find out if unspoken needs are being met. Do these brothers and sisters hold a Church position that is too demanding, or do they need more involvement? Being called to a stake position after my divorce was just what I needed at the time. It boosted my sagging spirit, and I looked forward to being in the company of inspired people who were emotionally and spiritual healthy.

    Are the single parents in your ward receiving home teachers and visiting teachers? Are these ward representatives perceptive to the unspoken needs? The importance of these home contacts cannot always be observed. I had not received visiting teachers for over two months during my separation. Two caring friends discovered this oversight, contacted the Relief Society president, and requested the extra assignment. I was touched by this open gesture of caring.

    13. Provide some humor. Nothing is more refreshing to someone who is depressed or worried than to be in the company of a blithe spirit. Wholesome laughter is the most natural of all medicines.

    One of the brightest memories in that dark period was the night my doorbell rang and I found my visiting teachers standing there giggling uncontrollably, about to drop a heaping bag of groceries. The laughter was infectious. I caught it before they were inside. Obviously, their delight had something to do with the contents in the bag heading for a crash landing on the table. They hastily scooped the spilled contents back into the sack, so I could retrieve them one by one. They could hardly wait for me to begin.

    The first item was a can of beets labeled, “Beet you don’t know who cares about you!” The next item was a five-pound bag of sugar bearing a colorful stripe that read, “Sweets for the Sweet.” And so it went for each item they had pulled from their own pantries and spent the last several hours relabeling.

    The messages were so corny, so love-filled, so welcomed! Long before I reached the bottom, my two daughters joined us, and we were all laughing. I slept well that night—and for days, whenever I entered my pantry and spied those much appreciated supplies, I chuckled. I have since moved, but I saved a few of those silly items as keepsakes from Francie and Roseanna, who dealt with a very sensitive subject in a most delightful way.

    Spiritual growth can take place in the aftermath of divorce. But this growth is a long and painful process which can be eased by a warm, nourishing environment—or stunted by an unaccepting one. The worth of a soul is great in the sight of the Lord. Sometimes that soul is a person victimized by divorce, or one responsible for divorce. All who are coping with various degrees of broken hearts and contrite spirits have a great need for understanding, encouragement, and visible support that communicates love and acceptance.

    “Remember in all things the poor and the needy,” said the Lord. (D&C 52:40.) Many of “the needy” today are those who have lost a mate—the other way.

    Photography by Michael M. McConkie

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    • Sandra Bouley, mother of three, is a high school English teacher and serves as activities committee secretary in the Mesa Arizona South Stake.