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Ellie: The Humanity of My Parents
October 26, 2017
Ellie is a chipper, fun-loving sophomore in college with a beautiful smile and contagious laugh. Her closest friends know her silliest side, but she is an introvert at heart, content to stand quietly in the background.
Although she has wonderful, rich friendships at college, Ellie’s reserved personality sometimes keeps her from bringing up or sharing some of the difficult circumstances of her life, even to her closest friends. For this reason, I was honored that Ellie agreed to meet with me. I felt humbled as she steeled up her courage and opened her life so I could peer in.
“My parents are divorced,” she began.
When Ellie was ten, her parents started sleeping in separate rooms. While Ellie was aware they were processing a divorce, the family had to continue living together for a long time before everything was finalized.
“I was only ten,” Ellie shared, “so I didn't know everything that was going on and I didn't really understand why, and so it was just really confusing. And so I didn't like to talk about it with people, and I just kind of liked to pretend that things were okay.”
When Ellie was twelve, she and her mother and sisters finally moved out. It was strange for Ellie that the home she had grown up in was no longer her home, but it was still a place she visited to be with her father on most weekends and Wednesday nights. Ellie also found it difficult that her mother had to work and could not stay at home like before, so Ellie had to suddenly pick up new responsibilities with her younger sisters.
Nevertheless, for a couple of years Ellie and her sisters adjusted relatively well to the new dynamics of their life. When Ellie’s mother started dating someone new, Ellie and her sisters found nothing too strange or significant about it.
One day all of that changed when Ellie and her sisters were visiting their father. He sat them down to talk. He told them, for the first time, the real reason for the divorce. Their mother had had an affair with the man she was now dating.
This was devastating news in a Christian family. A family tainted by divorce was shameful enough; the news of adultery was crushing.
Not only her mother’s sins, but her father’s cold and unsympathetic delivery of this news was very painful for Ellie and her sisters. “He just came in with a notepad and he was just like ‘this is why your mother is a terrible person,’” Ellie said. Her brave tears were falling freely as she told me how hard that moment was. “Because, it was kind of suddenly realizing the humanity of my parents,” she explained.
Over time Ellie learned to accept the situation. Her mother continued to date the man, but she apologized sincerely to Ellie and her sisters for the wrong she had done by leaving their dad. While Ellie was not overly fond of the idea of her mother remarrying, she accepted it when that time came, as well.
But the difficulties weren’t over. Ellie’s stepfather brought a lot of new trials to their family. Along with depression and a short temper, he fell into financial trouble alcohol abuse. “He could be very passive aggressive and would just say really rude things sometimes, especially when he was drunk,” Ellie confided.
Ellie’s stepfather went through better and worse. But his was not the only trying situation in the family. Ellie’s father also remarried, and Ellie and her sisters were greeted by a stepmother and two new stepsiblings, as well. The dynamics of a whole new family were sometimes messy and difficult to adjust to.
Then, two years ago, Ellie’s story took a tragic turn.
Her stepfather had fallen back again into his alcohol addiction, and this time, her mother could no longer tolerate it. One night her mother finally told her stepfather that he could not stay in their home. She asked him to leave. In a rare display of calm understanding, he complied.
The next morning was a Sunday. While they were at church, Ellie’s mother received a call from the police. Ellie’s stepfather had committed suicide.
Through tears, Ellie told me how terrible it was. She felt devastated to realize how broken her stepfather must have been to get to that point. Her family was deeply grieved. Yet at the same time, Ellie expressed a strange sense of relief over it all. Many of the issues they had struggled with over the years were suddenly gone, in the worst of ways, surely, but gone. What’s more, Ellie’s stepfather had been so terribly unhealthy and unhappy, but he refused to seek help. “There was nothing that we could do for him,” she said, “and ultimately, we’re probably better off for it.”
Ellie hasn’t shared this part of her story with any friends at college. She often struggles with feeling misunderstood and constantly wrestles over when and how much to share, partially due to her reserved personality but also out of fear for people’s reactions.
Even as a child, Ellie noticed of the heavy stigma against divorce in Christian circles and had trouble opening up about her life. She found that especially in the church, divorce was viewed very negatively. “I felt like that reflected on me, too, and so… I didn’t want to bring it up because I didn’t want to feel judged for that.” Ellie still wishes Christians would take a more gracious and understanding perspective on divorce, especially in relation to the children of these situations.
Indeed, there are hard moments when Ellie finds she cannot relate to “normal” families and feels isolated from the experiences of those around her. There are conversations she cannot participate in, and topics she avoids or keeps vague. But nevertheless, she holds a very healthy, content perspective on her life.
Ellie recognizes a lot of good that the Lord has brought out of the darkness. For one, she takes joy in how much her mother has grown through all of these experiences, displaying grace and strength in persevering through the hard times. Ellie’s whole family has experienced tremendous spiritual growth in the midst of the trials, a fact which Ellie regards as God’s gracious redemption of the circumstances.
Ellie also treasures the deep relationships she has with her sisters as a result of going through these things together with them. Ellie’s sisters are the only ones who can understand and have fully shared her life experiences, and that creates a lasting bond between them all.
Despite all the hardships in her life, Ellie is satisfied in who she is. “I do have an appreciation for where my story has brought me,” she nodded.
“My life looks a lot different than other peoples’, but it’s okay, and it’s made me who I am. And it’s good.”
When Ellie left our interview, I sat quietly for a while in the sweetness that hung in the air. How could a person go through so much and exhibit such courage and grace? What should I take away from her story? Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Ellie is her confidence in God’s faithfulness. Ellie recognizes that her story may be full of flaws and trials, but it is her story. God has made it beautiful.
I hope that by God’s grace we all can come to know that kind of peace.
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I'm busy working on my blog posts. Watch this space!