Dear Rachel,

I am a schoolteacher and just received this note from one of my students. I would appreciate your input on how best to respond.

“My parents have recently gotten divorced. Although I haven't even come to terms with it yet, my mind keeps wandering further, ignoring the present. I'm afraid of my parents remarrying. I'm afraid of having to accept another person into my life, and into my parents' lives. That my mom and dad have chosen another partner in life. Someone else to love. It's scary. And what about step-siblings? To learn to deal with a whole new family? I'm really afraid. And scared. And nervous. And call it whatever else you want. I don't know how to deal with it! Maybe you can help me?”

Boca Raton, FL

Dear L.G.,

Divorce is so hard. There is no age that a child is unaffected by its finality and the ultimate transformations that will occur. You must understand that this child is reaching out to you with 100% innocence and vulnerability. It is your duty (and honor) to welcome her and make yourself available to her.

The story is told of a Chassidic Rebbe who offered a private audience to those who sought his counsel. People would come from far and wide to tell their stories of misfortune and to ask for wisdom and a blessing. After each meeting, the Rebbe would change his suit before he welcomed the next guest. It is explained that he would become so immersed in the stories of others that he would himself become a part of their tale, that his whole being ached and pained and perspired with the teller. He would change his clothes in order to be fresh and totally present for his next guest. You can interpret this story as literal or not, but it’s message is clear. When someone comes to you for help and guidance, if you want to make a difference it is essential that you are truly present with them and find a way to connect to their story.

Generally, in a counseling situation there is a lot of listening that happens. She needs to be heard. Likely, a very important part of your role is to provide a place she can “down-load” some of her burdens. So, I would encourage you to do a lot of active listening, let her speak until she’s finished, then you can focus on a response. (Please note, you are in a unique position here, and if the need arises you may need to speak to her parents and share non-confidential aspects of your conversations and suggest professional intervention).

Once a connection and rapport has been established, there are some important things to share in regards to the fears she expressed in her note.

“Staying present” is the only way to get through this. Remember the age-old adage “one day at a time?” That’s what she needs to try to focus on, getting through one day at a time. We can’t do much about the past, and the future is ultimately uncertain, but the only thing we have a real active part in, is the present. Presently, she sounds alone, scared, and confused. She needs to understand that she is not alone. She still has her mother and her father, and she needs to be able to express herself freely with them. If she feels unable to, or perhaps in addition to, then, family counseling may be an appropriate suggestion. There are teachers, Rabbis, friends, trained professionals, and support groups for children whose parents are going through a divorce. She needs to continue taking the “first step,” like she did by writing this letter, and G‑d willing, the support should follow.

Every child needs to understand that when parents divorce, they are not divorcing their children. For many reasons Mother and Father were not meant to live their entire lives together. That’s why G‑d made divorce a mitzvah. He knows that sometimes parents join together, create beautiful children, and then, they need to separate. G‑d in His wisdom, created laws about how to get a Jewish divorce. Nowhere in G‑d’s laws on divorce is divorce from children mentioned. Marriage and parenting are two separate things.

I would support and encourage her to speak of her fears with her parents directly. Her concerns are very real. And the only way to get out of being “afraid, scared and nervous” is to move through it. It is always easier to move through scary places with support around. At the same time, I would gently caution her about getting ahead of herself. If there are no marriage plans on the table, then she is causing a lot of stress in her life worrying about what isn’t. Her energy spent will be much more effective if she focuses on what is.

However, there is no question that if and when her parents remarry it will be a huge adjustment for everyone involved. It’s okay to explore that scenario as long as she doesn’t get stuck in it. She could consider making a list. She could take a piece of paper and draw a line down the middle, and on one side list all of the possible horrors of her parents remarrying. On the other side she could try to imagine anything positive that may come out of such a big event. It may take a while to get anything on that positive side, but just creating the space for such a possibility can be a healing of sorts. Getting anything down on paper, whether it’s words or pictures or scribbles or plain old nonsense can be very therapeutic. She could also consider keeping a journal. It’s a wonderful way to express onself and a good way to chart growth.

Aside from sharing, staying present, and finding emotional outlets, she needs to be reminded that we as Jewish people have a very basic faith in the concept of Divine Providence. The Baal Shem Tov said that there is not one leaf that falls from a tree without a specific purpose. How much more so a huge a life event. This is a situation custom made for all parties involved. Our sages teach us that G‑d does not give us more than we can handle. This situation seems desperate now. But as time goes on, and she continues to explore her feelings and face her fears, she will begin to find that she has strength where she didn’t know it existed. With continued support from family, friends and teachers like you, she’ll come into that strength sooner rather than later.

Blessings of much success to the both of you.