November 6, 2009

Church offers holiday support for separated and divorced Catholics

By Mary Ann Wyand

Men and women who are grieving the loss of their marriage through divorce may dread the holiday season even as their children look forward to it.

That’s a normal reaction for new single parents in the wake of so many changes in their family’s life, explained Marilyn Hess, associate director of the archdiocesan Office of Family Ministries.

The holidays will also be difficult for men and women without children who are experiencing separation and divorce, she said, because their family celebrations will also change dramatically.

“Particularly early on in the divorce, their grief is focused on remembering what is lost,” Hess said. “So in order to cope with that, it’s important for people who are grieving to look at the holiday rituals that they’re used to participating in and make changes that are going to help them get through the holidays.”

Simplify the family celebrations this year, she advised parents who are experiencing separation and divorce, but remember that your children will want to enjoy the holidays with all of their relatives like they did in previous years.

“Divorce and Beyond—Getting Through the Holidays,” a Family Ministries support program, can help separated and divorced people cope with Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s celebrations, Hess said, even when they don’t feel like celebrating at all.

The six-week series of two-hour programs begins at 7 p.m. on Nov. 16 and continues on Monday nights through Dec. 21 at St. Mark the Evangelist Parish, 535 E. Edgewood Ave., in Indianapolis. The registration fee of $30 includes the “Divorce and Beyond” participant’s manual.

“They may need to make new decisions about how they will spend the holidays,” Hess said. “There are always things that are part of the holidays which are challenging anyway. This might be a time to look at some of the things that are stressful and say, ‘I don’t have to do that this year.’ ”

Budgets are usually different after divorce, particularly in today’s economy, she said, so this might be the year to make a decision to spend less money on gifts.

“Simplify the holiday celebrations this year and talk about the real meaning of Christmas,” Hess said. “Making decisions about changing the holiday rituals that are stressful even under normal circumstances makes sense.”

Hess said the “Divorce and Beyond” program offers helpful advice about how separated and divorced Catholics and their families can find healthy ways to cope with the added stress of the holiday season.

“Some of the parents I have seen going through divorce that I most admired were the ones who said, ‘For my children, I am going to have as much grace as I possibly can. I’m not going to put them in the middle. I’m going to make decisions that are best for them,’ ” Hess said. “That might include going to your family’s Thanksgiving dinner without your children this year to let them be with their other parent’s family then being with your family again on alternate years. Being able to make changes is important.”

Changes are the most painful part of divorce, she said, so it’s necessary to accept and adjust to those changes to minimize the stress.

“Sometimes that’s just admitting that there is going to be stress and making the decisions that you can live with even though you might not like them,” Hess said. “Buying an artificial Christmas tree can be a lot easier and it looks different, which can be helpful and less painful.”

It’s good to talk about your feelings and to discuss the loss of hopes and dreams with others, she said, and it’s also important to listen to your children’s feelings.

“I think it’s important to know what gives you energy and what takes away energy,” she said. “Give yourself permission to say ‘no’ to the things that are just going to drag you down. You’re already having a hard time, and you don’t need to be doing things that are going to make the holidays more difficult.

“When your spouse dies, everyone knows that you are grieving,” Hess said, “but people often do not equate separation and divorce with grief even though that is every bit as much of a grief experience. Grief is a result of unwanted changes, and there are so many changes involved in divorce.”

On a positive note, she said, the holidays are a good time for grieving people to focus on growing in their faith and strengthening their personal relationship with God.

“Advent is a prayerful time, and the experience of divorce can lead us into spiritual reflection,” Hess said. “Often, we need to look at our faith life more closely. More often than not, if we’re faith-filled, prayerful people, it can be a time when our spirituality deepens our relationship with God.”

(For more information or to register, call Marilyn Hess at the archdiocesan Office of Family Ministries at 317-236-1586 or 800-382-9836, ext. 1586, or send an e-mail to her at The registration form, available online at, and check should be mailed to “Divorce and Beyond”, Office of Family Ministries, Archbishop O’Meara Catholic Center, 1400 N. Meridian St., Indianapolis, IN 46206.)

Local site Links: