My mom and dad were the perfect couple

 

If I could describe a perfect couple it would have been my mom and dad. They used to hold hands and go for walks together and sit and watch videos together or go out for dinner. They were each other's best friends. However, my dad's company moved to England, so he began to commute, returning to Dublin only at the weekends. Within six months things began to change dramatically and my dad permanently moved to England.

My parents had always seemed so happy and so in love . . . I was devastated. It was hard to understand why things had to change. My Dad was the one who left. He didn't seem to want to be a part of my family anymore and I blamed him. In my eyes, he was the father figure and then he abandoned us. My view had been that marriage was forever. Now there were five people at the table where there used to be six. The fact that I have three sisters made it even more noticeable, because Dad had always been the only man at the table and now he was gone. This had a huge impact on my outlook on men. I didn't have a boyfriend or many male friends at the time and I lost a lot of trust in men in general. I was very, very angry with my dad. For the first two years I didn't talk to him. I wasn't aware of his feelings, just my mom's. My mom was devastated. She was really sick and lost a lot of weight. She became very frail and got pneumonia. So we rallied round and protected her. I was repeating my Leaving when he left, so I remained focused on getting my place in college. Mom is a very strong character, so she helped me to stay focused.

Before the split, I didn't have much of a relationship with my Dad. I was still in a teenage phase of normal rebelliousness, so I didn't have an opportunity to become a friend to my father, as I later did with my mother. I felt he lost the right to be my father, to tell me what to do, to discipline me because he abandoned me. He used to say to us, "I'm leaving your mother, not you guys," but we felt he had left us all. He was all the way across the Irish Sea and living in London. He wanted us to go over to London to visit but at that stage he had a new partner and I didn't want to offend my Mom by going to my Dad's house, which would have meant becoming friendly with his new girlfriend. It took a lot of time to come to terms with the fact that my Mom had been replaced in my Dad's eyes. It was hard to accept that Dad had this new life in which he was happy and content and we weren't part of it. Now I see that I want both my parents to be happy rather than to grow alone, but it has taken me a long time to reach that stage.

When I did my first YABE (Young Adult Beginning Experience) weekend, I had reached the pinnacle of depression and I felt I didn't have a normal family anymore. I was feeling a turbulence of emotions that I had never experienced before. Every day I didn't know what was going to happen. Before my dad left, life had been simple. Afterwards, we lived from crisis to crisis, especially for the first few years. My family life was crumbling and I had no control over it. It was difficult to be the housekeeper, the counsellor, the mediator and the daughter. The strain on my family was enormous as my mom was the centre focus and nobody seemed to realise that we had indirectly lost our dad.

I thought I was alone in these feelings, but through YABE, I learnt there are so many people who come from separated families who have felt the exact same emotions as me - the lack of trust, the guilt, the sadness and the anger. I finally realised I wasn't alone and that it was normal to feel these emotions. From that, I could build each step to reduce the anger and ease the pain.

Grieving after a separation is in some ways similar and in other ways different, to grieving after a death. When people die we cherish their memories and sing their praises. However, separation leaves a bad taste in the mouths of those affected. In my case, initially I wished my dad had died because I would have been able to hang on to the great memories of him and of my family without the shadow of doubt.

I am happy to say that my Dad and I are getting on well now. It's taken five years and there are still a lot of bridges to be mended. The turning point was when I was away in Russia last year for six months, and my Dad and I exchanged emails and letters. Because I was able to communicate with my Dad without pressure from my family, we were able to come to an understanding.

All of us except for my eldest sister live at home with my Mom. My eldest sister got married a few weeks ago and I think that was symbolic for me. I suppose it was the fact that I was seeing my older sister, who I look up to, taking the plunge and having faith in a man. I admire her for that. I have had a boyfriend for the past two years and I have built up a trust with him and other male friends. My Mom is doing really well and has built a life for herself. I used to think "there's no life without my Dad," until a friend said to me, "you have to divide life into life when your Dad lived at home and life after he left".

The past five years have been tough for us all and although the lines of communication are reopening slowly, not all the wounds have healed. Despite the unanswered questions that are solely between a couple, and despite the huge changes in our lives, the impact of the separation and all the hurt, I have come to the conclusion that I have only one mother and one father and it is up to me to be optimistic and make the best of a very sad situation.

I think I'm a lot stronger today. I've learned that having your parents split up is not the end of the world. It can be a catalyst for a better life.

Young Adult Beginning Experience (YABE) are inviting young people aged 17-30 who have experienced bereavement, as a result of parental separation or death, to take part in their next YABE weekend, March 19th-21st in Greystones, Co Wicklow. For further information, tel Olive (01) 451 9237/Claire (01) 450 9619.

Una Spillane was in conversation with Kathryn Holmquist