My daughter took on my grief during my divorce

My daughter is a sensitive girl, and she picked up on all the turmoil, months before her father left. I was wracked with guilt.

Photo: Courtesy of Carol Weis

She knelt in front of the toilet, like I used to do in church. Kneeling before the votives, I’d light a candle with an offering and a prayer. Right now, I was praying for my daughter, asking to take away the pain she held from my relationship with her dad—the kind that went straight to her tummy.

Her father and I were getting divorced, and the angst leading up to it lived inside her gut.

Sad little girlHow to tell kids about divorce: An age-by-age guide Though I hadn’t actually told her yet, my daughter got wind of what was going on, taking cues from my behaviour. Far too often, she would witness the slamming of cabinets, the sobbing into pillows and the foggy brain that had trouble concentrating on anything. For her, it came in the form of stomach aches—ones that gripped her so badly, her little body shook.

She was almost seven then, and the angst I was feeling became hers. I spent nights with her leaning over the toilet, with pain that made her think she needed to throw up. She had taken on my grief, and no matter how hard she tried, she would never be able to vomit it out.

My husband left four months after I got sober. He needed space from this dramatic change I’d made. We were drinking buddies, and my quitting made things uncomfortable for him. Attending meetings and coming home excited about what I’d heard and learned didn’t help with his unease. I would soon find out how dear his drinking really was to him.

My daughter was five when I made this significant lifestyle shift. She was young enough to not remember me as a drinker—I’d worked hard to control how much I drank after she was born. I’d known for a long time that I needed to stop, but I played tricks with myself, like giving up everything but wine and beer.

Carol Weis and her daughter outside smelling the flowers
Photo: Courtesy of Carol Weis

Getting sober and getting separated in a short amount of time caused an explosion of feelings. All that anger and fear I’d pushed down for years with alcohol seemed to erupt at once. My fear was palpable, which made my daughter feel the same. After her dad left, she would climb into bed with me at night. I let her fall asleep next to me and, when I thought she was sleeping soundly, I’d scoop her up in my arms and carry her to her room, often lying down next to her if she gave any hint of waking.

The stomach aches became more frequent and intense when I finally told my daughter what was looming. I’d just returned from the therapy session where I’d delivered my ultimatum to her dad. I felt nauseous as the words to him tumbled from my mouth: “I need you to stop drinking before we can live together again.”

After a painfully long silence, his response was “I want a divorce.” As we left the office, he added, “You better get yourself a good lawyer.”

I sobbed on the ride home and sobbed some more at home, my body drained by the time the school bus had dropped off my daughter. She had seen me cry more than any child should, and when I apologized once again for all my tears, she put her arms around me and wisely said, “It’s OK, Mommy. Tears help wash away the sadness.”

But I was so afraid. How will I ever make it on my own? Who am I without him? Will this be the thing that makes me drink again? The answers seemed far away that day.

My daughter’s stomach aches continued for months, happening on my most fretful days. Her place of comfort was the bathroom, where she would kneel in front of the toilet. I’d long to wrap my arms around her to stop her from shaking, but she hated being touched when she felt like this. Instead, I’d bring in a blanket and drape it over her shoulders, hoping it would comfort her in some small way. Some nights, we’d be in there for what seemed like hours. On those nights, I’d fetch a pillow and a blanket for myself.

Carol Weis reading a book to her daughter in bed
Photo: Courtesy of Carol Weis

The guilt I felt could not be subdued. It followed me back to bed after tucking her in on those difficult nights. It pushed me to say yes to her at times when I needed to say no. And since I couldn’t drink, I stuffed my face with way too much junk food, adding to my mountain of guilt.

Eventually, my daughter started to see a therapist. She had us make a chart to write down when and where she got stomach aches, which gave us something concrete to focus on and certainly helped alleviate some of my guilt. She continued to see her for another year. It allowed her to speak to someone besides me about her pain. She wanted me to sit in with her during most sessions, until the therapist decided that it might be useful to speak with her alone. My daughter liked having a therapist similar to the one I had—a loving woman who was a lifesaver to me. Our weekly trips to see her therapist gave us more time together and tightened our bond.

As my fear and anger lessened over time, so did her stomach aches, until they only happened when she felt stressed about something in her life. One afternoon, on one of my emotional days, I apologized to her for the divorce. She sat there thinking a bit, then calmly said in her wise voice, “Mom, I think it’s better this way. You and Daddy weren’t really that good together.” I looked at her and managed to smile, saying “I think you’re probably right, sweetheart.”

Carol Weis and her daughter hugging
Photo: Courtesy of Carol Weis

And it was on that day that her perceptive response let me know she was going to be OK. That we would both be OK. And I’m happy to say, we are.

Read more:
Divorce: Most kids thrive better with this custody arrangement
Canada’s divorce laws could soon be updated to put children first

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