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Question

After almost 21 years of a very dysfunctional marriage to an abusive alcoholic, I divorced my husband and the father of my children. His contact with the children was limited and only occurred if they reached out to him. He made no attempt to contact them. He finally told them he wanted no more contact with them, and for their own peace of mind, they complied.

When my ex-husband was terminally ill, he told his current wife he didn’t want any of his children involved. As a result, my children were not notified of his passing nor included in the obituary. They only found out because a stranger used social media to contact one of them for more information.

How do I help them deal with this final rejection? I have tried for years to tell them that he loved them but didn’t know how to show it. I now feel like I was wrong and he really was incapable of love.

Answer 

This is such a painful ending to an already tragic abandonment. I can only imagine how hard you’ve worked over the years to help your children make sense of not being wanted by their father. As you know, it’s something that makes no sense to a child.

I don’t think it’s your responsibility to speak for their father and explain why he did what he did. Even though I could spend pages explaining the connection between addiction, shame, and abandonment, none of this will ultimately be helpful to your children at the current time. There may come a point in their lives when they are interested in seeking answers to better understand their father’s condition. However, what they need now from you is what Dorothy Becvar called “the ministry of presence.”

Your presence sends an undeniable and tangible message to them that they aren’t alone, even though their father left them. Your words won’t speak the message more powerfully than your physical presence. If your children are spread out over miles, do your best to make a personal visit to each of them and give them your support and presence.

Both you and your children need the reassurance that you will be held and protected by heavenly hands as you all heal from the devastating effects of his choices. In Isaiah, the Lord promises this protection when we turn to him. He says, “When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee: when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee.”[i]

You don’t have to dance around the reality that their father has abandoned them. You don’t have to make up reasons and excuses for him. You can even apologize to them and say that your attempts to help them make sense of their father’s choices may not have been helpful to them. Admit that you clearly don’t know what he was thinking and how he could have done this to them. Let them talk about it or not talk about it. Each of them will have their own way of coping with this tragedy.

Don’t push them to get over it, forgive him quickly, or seek a final answer to this painful outcome. This is an ambiguous loss that doesn’t provide them with closure. The process to discovering answers and peace in the aftermath of his death is a long process.

Even though they will need time, space, and permission to grieve these losses, chances are they will each arrive at a place where they have the answers they need. We are built to create meaning out of our experiences and I trust that your children will accomplish this, especially with your loving presence and support.

Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at geoff@lovingmarriage.com 

About the Author

Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, UT. He is the owner of Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com) and the founding director of LifeStar of St. George, an outpatient treatment program for couples and individuals impacted by pornography and sexual addiction (www.lifestarstgeorge.com). He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, available at Deseret Book, and the audio series “Strengthening Recovery Through Strengthening Marriage”, available at www.marriage-recovery.com. He also writes a weekly relationship column for the St. George News (www.stgnews.com). He holds a bachelors degree from BYU in communications studies and a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from Auburn University. He served a full-time mission to the Dominican Republic. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.

You can connect with him at:
Website: www.lovingmarriage.com
Twitter: @geoffsteurer
Facebook: www.facebook.com/GeoffSteurerMFT

[i] Isaiah 43:2