Initial Reactions and Consequences

    Jennifer was blessed with Eurasian looks, or what is called in Hawaii, hapa-haole looks. Her mother was of
Swedish descent and her father’s family had came from China. She had long straight light brown hair and a
beautiful face that highlighted both her heritages. There was a fragility about her that was apparent in her drawing
of the “Two Canoes.”

    Her parents had recently separated. Her mother had moved out only weeks before the group started,
becoming a residential counselor for a group home. Jennifer and her younger brother remained in the house with
their father, a dentist. Jennifer’s drawing places her on the shore watching her parents drift apart in separate
canoes. She stands in confusion on the shore with a piece of her heart in each hand. The strongest and most
heavily drawn part of her picture is the large question mark over her head.

    What better symbol for the initial phase of a divorce for a middle school child than a question mark? Why are
you divorcing? Why now? Is there no love left between you? Do people just fall out of love like that? Will you stop
loving me too? Is the family over? What is my position in life now that the family has broken up?

    All these questions come in addition to questions raised by puberty. Who am I? I am no longer a child, but I am
not an adult. Will I be popular? How can I avoid acne? What do changes like having my period mean to me? How
will I act around boys? Will my breasts ever develop? How big will they be? Boys have similar fears. The whole
world is changing. They can’t even depend on their voices remaining in the same pitch during a sentence.

    Like many children at the initial phase of a divorce, Jennifer felt overwhelmed by her questions. The group was
a source of answers and comfort to her. Other group members had been through her stage a year or even four
years previously. They could reassure her and tell her what it is like. Of course, Jennifer’s specific questions
about her place in her family could only be answered by her parents.

Figure 10: Two Canoes


    During one of our group exercises, we play “Dear Abby.” We write a letter to another child or to a parent about
divorce. We express how we feel about such issues as parents dating or remarrying. Jennifer used that time to
write her father. She asked him, “How did the divorce happen? Would I live with you or my mother? Would her
parents and their love for her drift away from her like her canoe drawing showed?” She read the letter to the
group and we were moved. We hoped she would get a reply.

    The next morning she left the letter at the breakfast table for her father to find after she went to school. That
afternoon when Jennifer returned from school, she found a long reply to her letter. Her father, bless his heart, had
answered all her concerns. Jennifer brought her dad’s letter with her and read it to the group. She cried with
emotion and relief as she read it. There was not a dry eye in the group.

    For months after she got the letter, Jennifer carried it with her wherever she went. How many times do we get
answers to all our questions? She kept it close to her and read it whenever she felt worried or sad. It helped
explain how the divorce occurred and more important, it reassured her of her parents’ love for her. Although
things would not be the same, she learned that their love and hopes for her had not changed. She would always
be loved, but her parents would not be together.

    That letter helped Jennifer through a difficult time. She is now finishing high school on the honor roll and
looking forward to attending college after graduation. Her college essay was an inspiring piece about challenges
she faced in life, divorce, and about moving on. In her essay, she blended in quotes both from her letter and her
dad’s reply written back in the 7th grade. The words were as powerful today as they had been then.

    She is just the student that colleges are looking for—she has faced challenges in life, struggled with them and
overcome them to achieve. Is that not only the meaning of Jennifer’s questions, but also of life?