Friends Do Let Friends Divorce

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by Anastasia Higginbotham


Originally published on The Huffington Post Blog on Aug 13, 2016


Making a book about divorce from a kid’s perspective was, at first, just for me. I wanted to do justice to this family upheaval, so I wrote a story I could relate to and made all the pictures. With every page I completed, I felt calmer, reassured, and most of all, not lied to.

Then recently, divorce struck a little too close to home, and I flipped right out.

A family I love faces divorce. Children I feel connected to are reacting to the news. And I am a child again. Night fills me with dread. My sleep is disturbed — not every night, but many, as this outcome has become clear and become final.

For weeks, a favorite title by Alice Walker has wafted around my head like the scent of honeysuckle, like ancient grandmothers, whispering the secret of life: “The way forward is with a broken heart.”

I have gotten too involved (I can fix it!) and hunted for bad guys (who is to blame for this?). Just as it did when I was a kid, this path of much resistance has culminated, a few times already now, with me feeling totally ashamed and apologizing for everything, literally everything — for being a person who exists and has feelings.

“The way forward is with a broken heart,” Walker reminds me.

I remind myself that I’m for letting kids’ hearts break over something worthwhile. That’s what I’m about — acknowledging that a crisis in their family, a rupture in an important relationship, a broken or lost something (baby blanket, beloved toy) are all “something to cry about” and we would do well to let them. Everyone will grow.

Trying to keep kids’ hearts from breaking over something real only increases the likelihood that their spirits may break instead, and that is much worse. For one thing, you rarely notice the moment when it happened.

Heartbreak can often be traced to an event, such as the day your parents told you their marriage was over or the day your best friend moved away. There’s a crrrrack down the center of things that you can mark and honor. My Syrian grandmother used to write “Sad Day” on her calendar in gorgeous cursive and underline it three times. Every year, those days came round again, usually commemorating the death of a friend or family member, and she made sure to notice.

But spirits break more quietly. Over the course of an entire childhood, for example, in a family where your still-married parents don’t connect with one another, have disdain for one another, or remain unfulfilled, unconscious and far away from whatever first drew them together.

Anne Lamott has said about the benefits of divorce that “…nothing is more damaging to a child than to be raised by miserable parents.” She also notes that “single parents have some of the greatest, most-loved and well-balanced kids around.”

I believe this. And along with Lamott and Walker, I’ve summoned other truth tellers to ease my worried mind, such as the writers of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who set this gem into the season three finale, delivered by Whistler:

“Bottom line is, even if you see them coming, you’re not ready for the big moments. No one asks for their life to change, not really. But it does. So, what are we, helpless? Puppets? Nah. The big moments are gonna come, you can’t help that. It’s what you do afterwards that counts. That’s when you find out who you are.”

A few times lately, I have walked myself through the pages of Divorce Is the Worst, kicking the tires, checking to see if it’s sturdy enough to hold even my grown-up sadness. “Their reasons are theirs, not yours” beams at me from page 45. Get in your place, it tells me.

Just like that other one, this divorce is not up to me.

My only role is to embody Walker’s words, appropriate to every kind of crisis and at every stage of life: “The way forward is with a broken heart.” Children are watching; they need to see it can be done so they trust their own hearts to break without the whole world ending.

Then I remember that this is my favorite part of being an adult — having to see and say and do the difficult, brave thing so that kids can too. Change is constant. No apologies necessary for the feelings that come up. It’s always a good time to notice what we notice, about ourselves and those who care for us.

This is how we find out who we are. This is how we grow up.

Facing Death

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by Anastasia Higginbotham


Originally published on The Huffington Post Blog on Jun 25, 2016


My first funeral was for my beautiful young Aunt Connie who took her own life. Her children, my cousins Monti and Lee Marie, were younger than me when she died and I was five. When I think of my little cousins now, I’m ashamed. I have never once asked them about their lives growing up without her. Over 40 years of Christmases, weddings, graduation parties, First Holy Communion parties, and 4th of July picnics in our Aunt Lucy’s backyard, not once have I dared to speak her name to them for fear of upsetting them, or my uncle, or my aunt whom he married afterward. Aunt Connie is who I pray to when I am in deep, deep trouble, but I’ve never told them that. Surely, they must do the same.

According to research shared by Children’s Grief Awareness Day, one in five children will experience the death of someone close to them by age 15. Those who do not access resources to help them grieve will suffer longer and worse. Their trouble may manifest as depression, substance abuse, or any of the other usual suspects that come knocking when grief cannot be processed.

For too many of these children, the explanations and advice they can expect from the world will be euphemistic and unhelpful: “She’s in a better place.” “She’s at peace.” “She can rest.” It may even be damaging: “He’s only sleeping.” “Heaven needed another angel.” “God doesn’t give you anything you can’t handle.” What kids need are tools to process their natural curiosity, fear, and sadness about death.

Kids who do get support or whose families model healthy coping skills fare better in the short and long run. I am one of the fortunate ones whose parents modeled grief and faced death well—by which I mean only that they did it honestly, true to their personalities.

My mother announced her 71-year-old mother’s death, following a miserable decline from Alzheimer’s, as a relief. I gasped when she told me the nursing home had called. But Mom only shook her head and said, “Honey, I been prayin’ for that woman to die.”

I had not been praying for my Nonna to die, but I was old enough to know my mother was having a different experience. As a child, I found Nonna’s confusion endearing. I once spied her alone in her kitchen, whistling sweet and high to an imaginary bird that seemed to hop along the table at her command. When we visited, she would forget she’d already greeted us. Fifteen minutes into the visit, she’d look up suddenly, as if we’d just arrived. Her face broke into a smile and her eyes lit up. Then the exclaiming over how big we got, how beautiful we were, the kisses to cover our whole faces—it would start all over again!

But I wasn’t there when she got lost in the basement and screamed blood curdling screams into a corner, frozen and terrified, until someone came and saved her. I wasn’t there the day she punched my sister Amy in the jaw for trying to keep her from going out the front door in socks in the snow. By the time she died, Nonna looked about eight years old and had long since stopped being able to speak or purse her lips to receive our kisses—though my heart beats like a cartoon character in love to remember her kiss was one of the last things to go.

A year after Nonna’s death, I panicked upon learning that my father’s father, who did not go to church with us and did not believe in God, would soon die from lung cancer. He had taught us to play poker and laughed in that way that was no sound but wheezing, followed by coughing. This is a trait I’d always loved in smokers, not realizing they were actually dying. I could not bear the thought of that man, who smelled perfectly of cigarettes and Grandma’s perfume, burning in hell for eternity. Though it was clear to me, because I listened in church, hell was just where he was headed.

I paced my bedroom, crying, and could not calm myself. My brother sent for Mom, who found me curled up, still sobbing, in bed. She slid under the covers behind me, wrapped her whole body around mine, and put her mouth by my ear while she explained that, “God would never do that to him.” “But he didn’t believe in God,” I protested, choking between each word. “He won’t go to hell,” she repeated. “Why?” I asked. “Because of how much Grandma loved him.”

This made just enough sense that I slept that night. But I worried after he died, until a dream of him sitting by my bed in the pajamas he wore the last time I saw him alive, put my fears to rest. “I’m okay Stasia,” was all he said. I believed him, believed my dream, and never worried again.

When my mother’s father, my Nonno, asked to be allowed to die at age 91, my mom, her seven siblings, and their spouses conferred and quickly gave their blessing. He had fallen, broken his hip, and contracted pneumonia in the hospital. They wasted no time arguing but readily assented, despite enormous sadness, to let him go. They took turns keeping vigil and refused all procedures offered by hospital staff to treat the pneumonia.

My father is a different story. At age 63, at his own mother’s funeral, my father howled. He moaned. He rocked in his chair, his back quaking to contain his sobs.

An empty coat rack stood behind the funeral director as she spoke of Sarah Elias Higginbotham without knowing a thing about the stylish old Syrian lady whose favorite poker game was Queens and Follow the Queens, who wrote “Sad Day” on her calendar and underlined it to commemorate the deaths of friends and family, and who fed us the most delicious shunkleesh, hot peppers, and Syrian bread I would ever eat in my life.

When the funeral director finished talking, the song “What A Wonderful World” played over our heads as my dad and his sisters were called by name to leave the room we were in and go back to the one where the casket was. With some effort, Dad got up to follow his sister Ardith through the door.

“This is shitful!!!” he yelled suddenly, a word he used often that did apply to this particular moment. Then he raised his arm and whacked the open door with the flat of his hand as he passed by it. The sound was like a gunshot. My arms flew into the air the way you do when a bank robber says: “Stick’em up!”

My parents’ grief over the deaths of their parents and my own silence toward my dear cousins taught me plenty about coping with death. You grieve however you grieve. It comes out however it does. Or else it stays in. And you better believe your kids are watching you and listening too. They will remember.

My own children are six and eleven now, and death has not yet struck their inner circle. When it does, they can count on me to leave out the spin about their loved one being in a better place, the peace and the rest that they will find there. They won’t hear me urging them or anyone else to move on, and they already know there’s a big difference between death and sleeping.

My responsibility as their parent is just to let death be how it is: sad and scary, slow or sudden, natural but never quite fair.

Want to Make Sure Your Kids Get Over the Divorce? First, Let Them Go Through It

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by Anastasia Higginbotham

Originally published on The Huffington Post Blog on Jun 25, 2016

I’ve made a children’s picture book about what it can feel like to go through a divorce or separation. Mine doesn’t try to convince kids that the divorce is for the best. Instead, it cuts to the chase about how empty and unhelpful that phrase is to kids.

My title, Divorce Is the Worst, has provoked criticism from parents who resent any negative language around their divorce. Even recently divorced friends have told me they are reluctant to share it with their child because “he’s doing so well.” They don’t want to introduce the idea that divorce is a big deal.

Meanwhile, the book has been welcomed by kids, counselors, teachers, lawyers and librarians. In presentations to groups of kids, some yell when they hear the title: “That’s for sure!” and “You can say that again!”

Just as sex education doesn’t “give” young people the idea to have sex, acknowledging that divorce is disruptive, life-changing and often hard isn’t what makes it so.

I was 14 years old when my parents told me and my four siblings about their decision to divorce. They said it was for the best, and it was, for them. For me, it was the worst thing that could happen to our family other than a death.

My parents portrayed their divorce as a positive thing: a solution to the problem, not the problem. They told us not to let it affect us. It was a bump in the road, that’s all.

Though they claimed to also be fine with it, my mother had an edge of meanness in her voice now that was brand new; she sang along to Patti LaBelle’s “New Attitude” and discussed our father’s flaws with us. We saw Dad for dinner on Wednesdays — an awkward event we dubbed “broken home night” from which I always returned hungry (not for food, just more of him).

Though the messages from both of them were mixed, they were clearly suffering a loss. I concluded that my pain was trivial next to theirs. No one had died and I should be grateful I still had two parents. And then, God help me, I chose a side: theirs.

For the next 25 years, the two sides battled it out inside me: my parents’ need for a divorce vs. my attachment to our original family, the one that still smiles at me from childhood photos.

Lisa Spiegel, Soho Parenting cofounder and director, describes the impulse to minimize the impact of a divorce on kids as protective in its intention. “There’s this idea that to address or mention any negative feelings may make the child feel worse,” says Spiegel, who works with parents and children. “But that is not in tune with a child’s reality. Acknowledging the impact does not create the impact — it was already there.”

When children’s lives and homes unravel, people are quick to wave it away (usually as a way of comforting worried parents), saying: “Oh, kids are resilient — they’ll get over it.” Cartoonist Lynda Barry describes “the resiliency of children” in her book 100 Demons as “the ability to exist in pieces” and she calls it what it is: “a hope adults have about a child’s inner life, that it’s simple, that what can be forgotten can no longer affect us.”

“A child needs explicit permission from the adult to have their own feelings,” says Terry Real, a family therapist, best-selling author and founder of the Relational Life Institute. “Taking care of the parent implicitly or explicitly by not sharing feelings and not burdening the parent is a really bad idea for the child. The parent needs to step in and make it clear the child’s feelings are not a burden.”

Here’s my view, born of experience and supported by child therapists and divorce mediators today: until we stop telling kids the divorce is for the best (as if that is a comfort), they may continue to experience it as the worst, long after the initial announcement that rocked their world. You can’t get over something you never went through in the first place.

Real resilience is earned, by going through stuff and seeing it for what it is. In the meantime, kids aren’t resilient so much as dependent. Life comes at them. They take it in and keep going — but not because they’re so Zen. What choice do they have? Our children will love us and remain loyal to us through almost anything. That’s what kids do to survive. They will even join us in pretending.

“When there is support, processing, narrative and comfort around trauma, we tend to be able to feel our feelings and experience our pain,” Spiegel assures. “We recognize that there are other loving figures around us and move through it.”

Parents don’t have to feel guilty for their divorce or stay in an unworkable relationship. But we have to recognize that our experiences are separate from our children’s. That backpack they haul from place to place each week? It holds way more than anyone can see.