Coping with divorce: Support groups help provide healing and clarity on Church teachings

After her divorce, Marci said she was left feeling adrift and alone.

Her feelings of grief, anger, loss and confusion were similar to those she experienced after the death of a family member. She didn’t know where to turn to address her emotions.

Through God’s grace, she ended up finding her answer at church.

Marci, who asked that her last name be withheld, joined a support group for divorced Catholics at Christ Our King Church in Mount Pleasant. There, she found the healing and direction she needed to renew her faith and recover a sense of purpose for her life.

“Everyone had a different story, and through listening to them I learned to focus on my relationship with Christ, and I learned that you have to get strong and face something like this and just move forward,” Marci said. “Divorce is like a death. You go through a mourning process, but you also need to let go, to let God come into your life and go on.”

Christ Our King is one of several parishes in the diocese that offers group sessions to help people cope with divorce. A similar program has been available at St. Michael Church in Garden City for several years, and others are in the early stages at St. Mary Magdalene Church in Simpsonville and St. Philip Neri Church in Fort Mill.

The programs offer vital outreach to men and women who, too often, are confused about their place in the Church, and sometimes even feel shunned, according to Rose Sweet, a Catholic author and speaker. Her series “The Catholic’s Divorce Survival Guide” has been used at many parishes nationwide and forms the backbone of the new program in Simpsonville.

Sweet said many Catholics going through divorce are confused about their role in the faith community because they don’t fully understand Church teaching on the subject and may have received negative comments from friends, family, or even clergy.

“People need to know that they still fit in at church and are part of the family by reason of their baptism,” Sweet said. “They have a lot of questions ranging from how to handle the basics of life to what their identity is, and programs like this help them bring their faith into those decisions. The key is to ground yourself in Christ and learn from the stories of others who have been through the same thing.”

Mary Svendsen, a clinical psychologist in Charleston, has led the group at Christ Our King for more than 15 years. Over eight sessions in a four-month period, participants deal with emotions such as denial, rejection, fear, anger and shame, plus discuss how to handle child custody, finances, relationships, dating and the annulment process.

Svendsen said she has worked with people ranging in age from their 20s to senior citizens. Many of them, like Marci, go through a grieving process similar to the loss of a loved one. Being able to talk with others experiencing the same thing is especially useful because participants often feel a deep sense of rejection not only from their spouse, but from the Church they have known all their lives.

“There’s been a change of attitude toward divorce over the past 15 years, but some still feel a stigma,” Svendsen said. “They feel like they’ve been rejected and their self-esteem is low, and sometimes they don’t understand their role in the Church. Our last three popes have really stressed the fact that divorced individuals must share in the life of the Church, and that’s what we try to show them. Divorced people belong in the Church, they need prayer and they need to keep taking part in the sacraments.”


Tips for coping and caring

Are you going through a divorce now or have you been through one in the past? Here are some coping suggestions:

From author and speaker Rose Sweet:

  • Take time to reevaluate your life and what you think is important.
  • Slow down and deal with the shock and grief brought on by the event. Don’t feel like you need to continue with all of your regular activities. Live daily life at your own pace.
  • Don’t rush into a new social life and especially don’t rush into a new relationship.
  • Draw on the trusted family members and friends you already have, spend time with them and do things you enjoy together.
  • If possible, find a member of the clergy or someone else who can help you as a spiritual adviser.

From Mary Svendsen, leader of the divorce support group at Christ Our King Church:

  • Keep close to the sacraments and to the Church.
  • Don’t alienate yourself from the world and don’t suffer through the process alone. Even if you’re not a social person, consider attending a support or discussion group. Listening to others who have been through similar experiences can offer you a new perspective.
  • Take care of your physical, emotional and spiritual needs. Plenty of sleep, healthy eating, exercise and relaxation are especially important after a stressful episode like a divorce.

From participants in the Divorce Recovery program at Christ Our King Church:

  • Focus on your relationship with Christ. Make faith and prayer a big part of your life.
  • Rediscover the things in your life you are passionate about, like a hobby, sport or volunteer work. Renew interests and get involved in the community.
  • Be around people who have positive attitudes and a healthy outlook on life. Don’t allow yourself to be dragged down by others’ negative perceptions about life or about you.
  • Don’t get into a “rebound” relationship. Take time to get your life back on track.
  • Never allow anger at your former spouse to take over your life or affect your relationship with your children.
  • Make an effort to reach out to others in need and do something positive each day for someone else. Just a simple act of kindness toward others can improve your whole outlook.

Do you have a friend, family member or coworker who is dealing with divorce? Here are some dos and don’ts for how to help them through the process:

From Mary Svendsen:

  • Be available to the person and be willing to just listen.
  • Don’t be judgmental. Avoid telling them how they should be feeling or what they should do.
  • Do offer specific help if they ask for it, like the name of a good lawyer or a good child care provider.
  • Be patient and allow them to grieve. Remember that the stages of going through a divorce can be like going through a death.
  • Encourage them to look after themselves and take care of their physical needs. Check on them periodically to see how they’re doing.

 From Rose Sweet:

  • Don’t exclude a friend going through a divorce from regular social events or activities.
  • Extend invitations to them but don’t try to force them. Sometimes people going through a crisis want to be alone, but just the fact you have invited them is important.

 Can I still receive Communion?

Leaders of divorce support groups say one of the biggest misconceptions among divorced Catholics is that they cannot receive Communion, which often causes a lot of unnecessary pain and confusion.

“They think divorce is automatically a mortal sin and they can’t receive, but that is not the case,” said Mary Svendsen, a clinical psychologist who leads the divorce support group at Christ Our King Church in Mount Pleasant.

The fact is that a divorced person who has not been remarried outside the Church can receive Communion. Like all Catholics, these men and women should not be in a state of mortal sin and should go to the sacrament of reconciliation prior.

If a divorced person remarries without receiving an annulment of the first marriage, they can’t receive the Eucharist and must abstain from the sacrament until the situation is settled.

People who are in an irregular marriage are still encouraged to take part in the life of the Church by attending Mass, adoration of the Eucharist, and other activities in their parish.

Divorce Support:

Four parishes in the diocese currently have or are starting support programs for divorced men and women. A program at St. Mary Magdalene Church in Simpsonville began earlier this fall, and another is in the planning process at St. Philip Neri Church in Fort Mill.

Here is contact information for the two established groups:

Christ Our King Church, Mount Pleasant: Separated and divorced support group, new sessions will begin in the spring. Contact Mary Svendsen at marysvendsen3@gmail. com or 843-729-4471.

St. Michael Church, Garden City: Divorce recovery group meets at 6 p.m. on Tuesdays. New participants should arrive at 5 p.m. for preliminary discussion. Contact Barbara Umpleby at 609-422-6855.