Life-Giving Wounds: New ministry explores stories of hurt and healing from adult children of divorce

By Christina Gray

The rupture of a family through divorce or separation is a destabilizing event for everyone, but it is children who often carry their wounds into adulthood. This appears to be true no matter what the circumstances of the divorce, no matter your age at the time of the divorce, and indeed, no matter whether you are a monarch or movie star.

Prince Harry, the youngest son of the late Princess of Wales Lady Diana and King Charles, who divorced in 1996, and his wife Meghan Markle, whose parents also divorced, acknowledged this recently on national television. Markle read a poem she wrote at age 12 while a student at Immaculate Heart School in Los Angeles. It acknowledges the fractured sense of self, the shattered dream of an intact family, and fears of failure so familiar to children of divorce:

“Two houses, two homes, two kitchens, two phones,
Two couches where I lay, two places that I stay.
Moving, moving here and there,
from Monday to Friday I’m everywhere,
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that bad,
But often times it makes me sad.
I want to live that nuclear life,
With a happy dad and his loving wife.
A picket fence, a shaggy dog,
A fireplace with a burning log.
But it’s not real, it’s just a dream,
I cannot cry or even scream.”

Until recently, very few dioceses, parishes or college campuses have had a ministry dedicated to this large and diverse population even though half of all children born into married families today statistically will likely see the divorce of their parents.

In many real ways, the unhealed wounds of children of divorced parents strike at the heart of our faith — marriage and family life. Nationally, nearly half of the children of divorced parents statistically are likely to get divorced themselves. Many don’t get married at all and struggle in relationships, with marital and familial commitment, and even with their faith.

Life-Giving Wounds: A Catholic path to healing

In 2021, the Archdiocese of San Francisco’s Office of Marriage and Family Life launched a San Francisco chapter of Life-Giving Wounds. The new, Maryland-based ministry co-founded by Dr. Daniel Meola and his wife Bethany offers a Catholic path to spiritual healing for adult children of divorced and separated parents. The first three-day retreat was held at Vallombrosa Retreat Center in March 2022 and another in November. Two more retreats are planned for 2023, with past retreat participants now serving on the chapter’s retreat team.

Here, three retreat participants, including a priest, share their stories:

Antonio Aguilar, 27, High-tech consultant, San Francisco

For Stanford University graduate and solutions architect Antonio Aguilar, validation came in the form of academic achievement, romantic conquest, athletic prowess and perfectionism.

“Lacking the secure foundation of a two-parent family loving me together, you start staking your identity and worth in other things,” said Aguilar, 27. “I needed to do this to prove that I was lovable.”

Born in Costa Rica into a non-religious home, his parents separated when he was 9 years old. He said his “emotionally distant” mother moved out soon after the birth of his younger brother, leaving his father to raise his sons alone.

Aguilar believes that the trauma of divorce can be so profound for divorcing couples that there is “not enough attention to go around.” Children can feel “on their own” to cope, like he did. “Happy” divorce talk, he said, such as comments about how lucky he was that he could have two Christmases, taught him to suck it up in silence.

“I made it work, largely, or I thought I had,” he said. “I believed I had stitched this wound up by myself.”

At 14, he was drawn to Catholicism. It was in the Catholic community in Costa Rica that his self-described “mother wound” brought him to the feet of Mary.

“I was praying in this chapel, and I told Mary that I needed her to be my mom,” said Aguilar. He struggled to fully respond to what he heard as her tender “yes.”

“I think it’s really hard to accept love,” he said. “You have to open up your defenses a little and change when that happens. It’s easier to stay in your world of coping mechanisms.”

He moved to California in 2014 to attend Stanford University but said his faith “hadn’t grown that much.”

A Catholic friend and retreat leader suggested he attend the Life-Giving Wounds retreat at Vallombrosa.

“As adult children of divorce, we are comfortable going to all these other places for validation that are not of God,” said Aguilar. “Sometimes we try the real thing and see, wow, this is really different.”

The retreat did help him grieve the loss of “two parents loving me together.”

“In learning who God is and how he loves you, it is important to have the love of your mother, the love of your father and the love of them together,” he said. “One of the beautiful things about Life-Giving Wounds is that you go to a place where everybody knows what it’s like to have that taken away.”

Today, Aguilar lives a simple communal life with other Catholic men in the old convent for St. Philip the Apostle Church in Noe Valley while he explores a vocation with the Dominican order.

Katherine Ambrose, 33, Occupational therapist, San Francisco

“I have only one or two crystal-clear memories of when my parents were actually together,” said occupational therapist Katherine Ambrose.

Ambrose, the fifth of six children, grew up in what she described as a “culturally Catholic” home in Maine. Her parents divorced when she was 5 years old, and they had their marriage annulled shortly thereafter.

“Annulment carries its own special wounds,” she added. She doesn’t recall feeling great angst as a child, but said she always knew there was an impact.

A full awareness of that didn’t surface until after college in her mid-20s, a period that coincided with her return to the Church after a brief estrangement.

In dating relationships, she said she saw some “really ugly things come up in myself” in the irrational ways she reacted to people. “I thought to myself, ‘there is really something here to look at.’”

She began seeing a therapist but found that it could only go so far and she could only go so deep. “I knew there was something else, but I didn’t know what it was or where to find it,” she said.

Ambrose learned about Life-Giving Wounds through a Catholic friend who knew her background. Her friend said the new ministry was looking for retreat team leaders and he thought of her.

One of her greatest takeaways from the retreat was a “massive sense of relief.”

“I thought it was part of my personality, like maybe I am just an anxious or fearful or angry person,” she said. “No, this is just how I reacted to the things that happened in my life.”

In the retreat, she heard others speak about “foreboding joy.”

“I’d always had this deep sense within me that if I feel joy, I can’t trust it,” she said. “Like if it’s good, it’s going to go away and something bad is going to happen,” she said.

She said the beauty of the peer-led Life-Giving Wounds retreat is that it is all “Holy Spirit-driven.” Everything is optional, every Mass, every talk, every small group discussion, Adoration, confession, all of it.

“Healing can feel like this daunting, huge task, like I have to do everything at once, and it’s going to be messy and ugly,” she said. “That’s not what God really wants for us. It’s much more of a gentle process than we can conceive of. I think that is what the retreat does so well. With the Holy Spirit at the center, we are being guided to where we need to heal.”

Franciscan Father Luke Joseph Leighton, 40, Chaplain to SF Chapter of Life-Giving Wounds

“I remember the day very well when my parents told me they were going to separate,” said Father Luke Leighton, a priest of the Franciscan Fathers of the Renewal order. He can still picture details in the room of his New Jersey home where his dad stood on one side of him, his mother on the other. “My legs gave out, and I fell to the ground.”

He was 7 years old.

Luke was raised in neither the faith of his Ukrainian/Irish Catholic mother nor his German Jewish father.

By the time he was in high school, his parents had divorced each other and remarried. He dated, but irrational fears of rejection sidelined him.

When his mother began attending a local Catholic church with her new husband, Luke started going with them. Just before his 16th birthday, he was baptized.

One Sunday after Mass, one of the ladies asked if he had ever thought about being a priest.

“I was like, ‘what? No!’ I had thought about opening a surfboard shop. All I knew about priests was that they didn’t get married, and they were close to Jesus.”

He made a quick getaway to a nearby park bench where he saw a vision of a priest before the tabernacle. “My heart was filled with desire in that moment,” he said.

He was a surfer, a snowboarder and a wrestler who liked listening to punk and ska music. But in that moment, it “all felt like bandages around an empty shell,” Father Leighton said.

Before he made his final vows, one of his sisters asked him why he thought he could make such a lifelong commitment to religious life considering his parents divorced.

“Religious formation itself, living in community, all of it draws out your weaknesses and issues,” said Father Leighton, who participated in his first Life-Giving Wounds retreat in Washington after years of self-examination.

“When you go to see a secular psychologist, they very often put your religious life on a shelf, like it’s a separate thing,” he said. You may get a few useful tools, “but you may never acknowledge the deep wound and how it affects the very place of our origins and our identity and how we see ourselves as people.”

After relocating to San Junipero Serra Friary in Oakland in 2021, Father Leighton met Ed Hopfner, director of the Archdiocese’s Office of Marriage and Family Life among the crowds at Walk for Life West Coast. He enthusiastically agreed to become chaplain for the new local chapter of Life-Giving Wounds that Hopfner was shepherding.

The retreat can have a reinvigorating effect on the faith of Catholics, said Father Leighton.

The sacraments “have a place to land,” according to Father Leighton, after retreat participants have spent the weekend acknowledging and grieving their wounds.

“When we take our wounds and press them up against His wounds, all of our pain can go to Him,” he said. 

Christina Gray is the lead writer for Catholic San Francisco.

The 2023 dates for the retreats are: Mar. 17-19 and Nov. 17-19. Watch the Life-Giving Wounds retreat video to learn more.

Please register here to attend Life-Giving Wounds / Healing Retreat

HELPS US HELP adults of all ages with divorced and separated parents give voice to their pain and find deep spiritual healing.