For some of us it takes a long time to see our parents as only human, susceptible to the same brokenness that the rest of us suffer from, in need of the same grace that God offers to us all. For me, surviving my parents’ brokenness began my sophomore year in college, a few days before Easter.
I remember sitting in our family room with my youngest brother, the sun streaming in through the open windows warming our backs, and the contrast of the biting breeze that swished past us. My dad sat in front of us on the ottoman footstool, his head resting in his hands. He grimly told us his decision to leave my mom.
My world seemed as though it was crumbling around me. My parents had always seemed so stable, so steady – the possibility that their marriage could be fragile had never entered my mind. I thought of my parents as untouched by the rising rates of failed marriages in the country. It affected the parents of my friends, not my own happy family.
Everyone knows that separation and divorce deeply affect young children, but rarely do people mention how it affects adult children. As a young twenty-something, just beginning my life as an adult, living on my own for most of the year, my parents’ separation shook me. For the first time in my life I saw my parents’ frailty. They made visible mistakes, and that put them on the same ground as me.
My dad moved out Easter weekend. And I went back to school, hurt and confused. For most of my life I looked at the world with rose-colored glasses; my freshman year those glasses had been scratched by an unpleasant roommate situation – now they were snapped in two.
In college, so much of how we have seen the world up until that point shatters. We confront information that seems contradictory to what had always been taught to us and we are left to reassemble the shards. Our high school teachers, youth pastors, parents look naïve. Some of us react to what we learn by becoming cynical, we feel misled and see the problems that exist as irreversible, others of us try to shoulder the problems on our own.
When I came home for the summer, I faced a broken-hearted mother, an absent father, and two younger brothers who were also trying to work through their pain. I reacted to my parents’ separation by becoming the parent myself, my role as their child was flipped on its head. I comforted my mother, I scolded my father, and I tried to patch together the fragmented pieces of my family. Part of me knew that this disordered arrangement could not last; God did not intend for children to parent their parents, or to take on the responsibility of correcting their mistakes.
I was enmeshed in my family’s pain; it was providential, then, that I spent a month of that summer at InterVarsity’s Student Leadership Training (SLT), where my faith and discipleship deepened. While there, my world began to reorganize itself. With the guidance of a veteran staff couple, I began to understand God’s grace for my parents, and for me.
The Holy Spirit revealed to me the anger I felt towards both my parents and towards God, himself. My parents were supposed to care for their children by loving each other and modeling Christ. They had broken their promises – spoken and unspoken.
When I returned home from SLT, I had the work of forgiveness ahead of me. Paul writes in Colossians 3:12-13, “Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”
We must all confront the sinfulness of others. Our parents’ brokenness may be hardest to deal with because often they affect us the most, their sins cut us deepest. When our parents reveal to us their frailty, it is not our job to correct them, but to forgive them.
As He often does in painful seasons, God went about refining my heart. On Christmas Eve, nine months after my father left, he came home. But even today, I struggle with lasting scars from my parents’ separation. The sins of our parents can leave us wounded. God continues the healing process in me. I parented my parents when I saw them broken, and then, when I realized that they were as broken as I, I became their child once again. I learned compassion and forgiveness; I learned that my parents are indeed in need of Grace, just as I am.