Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

A painful but necessary book explores the pain felt by children of divorce

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 13, 2018

Since these days I’m impatiently waiting to see reviews of my new book, I’m embarrassed to admit that I’m only now calling attention to an important book that was published last May. But—better late than never—I would strongly urge all readers, and especially Catholic readers, to dip into Primal Loss: The Now-Adult Children of Divorce Speak. Leila Miller, who edited this heartrending volume, has done an enormous service.

Since the publication of Amoris Laetitia, discussions within the Catholic Church have focused on the pastoral needs of Catholics who are divorced and remarried. Yes, they need help from the Church. But there are others who need help, too: notably the children whose lives have been shattered by divorce, and the faithful spouses who are struggling to keep their marriages intact for the sake of their children. If we all paid more attention to the children, perhaps we would not have to grapple with so many broken marriages, and so many illicit second marriages.

Primal Loss is an emotionally powerful book, largely because Leila Miller uses a very light editorial touch. She solicited thoughts from adults whose parents had divorced, letting them speak for themselves, merely arranging their responses in chapters according to the questions addressed. The contributors, protected by anonymity, have the opportunity to speak frankly. The result is eye-opening.

Are children really resilient, as proponents of no-fault divorce blithely suggest? (And by the way, is there any idea more absurd than the notion that a divorce could occur without any fault on the part of either spouse?) Not if this book is any indication. The contributors are now adults, but they bear the scars of their parents’ separation. Again and again one reads that someone thinks that he has forgiven his parents, or thinks that she has emerged from the emotional nightmares that plagued her youth—and suspects that perhaps the narrator doth protest too much. The pain, it seems, will probably be lifelong.

There is no sociological thesis put forward in Primal Loss, no grand scheme to heal the gaping wounds that the acceptance of divorce has inflicted on our society. But the accounts of shattered children put the whole picture into focus. And what a bleak picture it is! If the “children-are-resilient” thesis were true, one would expect adults to have forgotten their childhood troubles. These witnesses testify to the contrary. Their emotions are still raw. They vividly recall how they felt—and many still feel—confused, unloved, lost, betrayed. The promises with which they were born had been broken.

Thank God my own parents remained married until death parted them. In fact, I grew up at a time and in a neighborhood where divorce was still regarded as a scandal. But reading Primal Loss helped me to understand my wife, who is the child of divorce. I would recommend that pastors read the book. It might help them to bear in mind, as they counsel married couples, that the two adults are not the only people whose welfare is at issue.

Primal Loss is a book about sin and sorrow and suffering: appropriate, perhaps, for Lenten reading. Reading about the painful experiences of so many innocent children, we might gain a greater sympathy for people in need. We might also examine our own consciences, and ask some uncomfortable questions: How have we failed—individually and as a society—to protect and defend family life? How have we allowed divorce to become socially acceptable? How have we betrayed our children?

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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