Going to church is sometimes hard. It’s especially hard when you’re newly separated or divorced.
Once I’m seated and the service has started, I’m usually fine. The anxiety starts while I’m still in bed. I assess all my body parts wondering if I feel sick and have a legitimate reason to stay home. Finding everything healthy, I begin the negotiations: I haven’t missed church in a really long time. Surely I can listen online. Or maybe I can attend a different church. But eventually I get out of bed because the truth is I want to get back to normal. I want to connect with God. And I have kids who need to see me do the right thing–no matter how hard it is.
I convince myself that it’ll be fine, and I sometimes get close to believing it–until I’m sitting in the parking lot. That’s where I encounter my longest mile. Walking across the parking lot feels like the a runway where I’m the center of attention. And it feels like everyone is already wondering: why is she alone?
Then the greeters. As wonderful and important as they are, having someone thrust out their hand and say ‘Welcome!’ is the last thing I want.
I want to avoid eye contact. I don’t want you to ask me anything. And I don’t want to be rude to you, but if I let my stone-face crack to smile back at you I might break into tears. So please … let me avoid you. Better yet, hand me a cup of coffee so we can both have an external focus. Just til I get to my seat.
But then there’s another walk. Across the foyer. Likely nobody notices me, but it feels like every eye follows me, thinking how pitiful I am. Or how strong I must be. Or that I must be doing just fine because I’m here. All of them are wrong. I’m held together by sheer will and the grace of God.
I busy myself for the next few minutes. I go to the bathroom even though I have no need. I get a drink. I check my mail folder. I read a bulletin. If I’m busy, maybe I won’t feel the deep loneliness that reminds me my status has changed.
You might say: why not be proactive and go say hi to someone? It’s simple. That thread that’s holding me together unravels with a simple question that is our culture’s most common greeting:”Hi, how are you?”
Invariably that brings tears or worse. So I stand here, hiding by the coat rack, or killing time in a bathroom stall. But at least I’m at church.
I put on my everything is normal and I’m doing great face. If I have to speak to someone, I make it all about them. And even while I’m deliberately doing everything I can to avoid tears or talking about my problem, there’s a deep deep longing in me to have it all exposed. I want to be loved in this pain. I want to know you are still my friend. I want you to know I’m hurting.
But when the conversation ends, you grab the hand of your special someone and go sit in the sanctuary.
And now comes that moment I’ve dreaded. I have to find a seat. Do I sit in our regular spot? What if the pastor does that “say hi to the people around you” schtick? All the other regulars around me will see I’m alone. Will they ask where he is? Will they look at me with pity? Will the ushers offer his seat to someone else?
But sitting in a new place is just as hard. It’s another reminder that nothing in my world is the same anymore. All the people around that new spot will be forced to notice me. And I really just want to disappear. Suddenly this place that once felt safe and full of peace is awkward, uncomfortable, and full of memories.
I choose my regular spot. It’s just a seat. I know that. But it represents another change. Another loss.
Someone waves me over to come sit with them. I know the gesture is kind. I know she doesn’t mean to make me feel pitied. I’m sure she’d be happy to have me sit there and has no idea that she just made this even more difficult for me. I already feel out of place. To leave my seat and walk across the aisle takes more emotional energy that I have. If only she and her husband came to sit with me. That would be amazing. But they won’t. Their spot is sacred to them too.
This separation and divorce thing is hard. It wears me out. Being in church magnifies every pain and ache. As the worship team walks onto the platform, I feel drained. It’s already been a full day for my heart.
Then the music washes over me. “I need you, oh, I need you…” My mouth forms words. And my soul sings too. My eyes leak. Hands raised, I remember … this is why I came. Because I need God. And I need these people. I need to worship. The pain of marital loss runs deep. It hurts and debilitates. But standing in the congregation with others who have suffered losses — many different kinds — to worship together is good. It is my pain, and her pain, and his pain, and their joy — all of it together that combines with the presence of God to make this a safe place again. My soul breathes. And gains new life.
Now I’m ready. I’m finally ready for church.
Every separated, divorced or widowed person is going to have a different experience. Our needs are different and our hopes are different.
Just because this is my experience doesn’t mean it’s what everyone feels. But it can be a starting place for you if you have a friend who is no longer attending church with a spouse. There’s a fine line between leaving them alone to work it out and jumping in to help them find a new normal.
Some ideas I would have appreciated, and some from others are:
- Come sit with me in my regular spot.
- Offer to pick me up for church — even if my car works just fine. Knowing you are coming will help get me out of bed, and I won’t have to walk in alone. Our conversation will keep my mind off the awkward situation.
- Plan ahead to have coffee with me at church before or after the service.
- Or, promise to save me a seat. That means I can come five minutes late, miss everyone in the foyer, and look like I know exactly where I’m going.
- Don’t ask me how I’m doing. Greet me with a compliment and ask me about the best thing that happened this week. Or talk to me about plans for next week or the week after. I could use a little hope for my future.
- If you see the tears are flowing, or the words are falling out of my mouth faster than my brain and emotions can keep up, put your arm around me. Steer me to a safe, secluded spot, hand me some tissues and let me talk and cry while you guard my dignity. I don’t plan to cry at church or anywhere, but apparently I’m a pretty bad predictor of emotional memories and triggers. At least some days.
- And maybe the best thing of all, text me Monday and tell me how proud you are of me for showing up. And how great I looked. And could we sit together next week? And that you are praying for me.
Are you separated, divorced or widowed? Do you struggle with church attendance? Tell me about it in the comments.