Since becoming a Christian Sian Lowry had heard many talks that impacted her life, but none had ever provoked such a painful gut-wrenching response.
Her tears began to flow as the speaker talked about the pain of divorce – something she knew only too well.
“It was like I was experiencing the emotions all over again. Suddenly I was back in the kitchen of our old house, holding the spreadsheet my then husband had just given me with shaking hands, unable to believe what my eyes were seeing – a list of figures setting out who would get what when we divorced – I was totally unprepared, and I will always remember sinking beneath a huge wave of rejection as I realised my marriage was over.”
When they gathered in groups to pray afterwards, Sian’s passionate prayers for people going through the heartbreak of divorce made a deep impression on the vicar at her church. He was looking for a new facilitator for Aquila, a Christian organisation that runs self-help groups for people suffering the pain of divorce, separation or broken relationships.
Divorce has reached epidemic proportions in the UK with more than 200,000 people getting divorced each year and it has a massive impact on our society. It is not just the couple experiencing breakdown who are hurting, but also their parents, children, siblings and friends. In fact, it’s been estimated that in any 20-year period, a staggering 26 million people will be directly affected by the pain of divorce – that’s nearly half the UK population! Accordingly, there is a huge need for Christians to step in and make a difference.
Sian believed this with all her heart, but her vicar’s request provoked a “What me?” moment as she was still a relatively young Christian. However, the more she prayed about it, the more she knew this was something God wanted her to do.
“Divorce is a devastating experience,” explains Sian. “Nobody goes into marriage without believing it’s a deeply committed and loving relationship that will last for the rest of their lives. When it fails, the fall-out is massive. I can only describe it as a feeling of bereavement. You feel intense sadness and a huge sense of loss because the person you loved has gone out of your life. And you are left behind to pick up the pieces.”
Divorce or relationship breakdown affects people physically, mentally and spiritually.
“I lost a lot of weight,” says Cathy*. “I felt really depressed and couldn’t be bothered to eat. I also found it very hard to sleep. Lots of thoughts kept churning around in my head. Could I have saved our marriage if I’d done things differently? Was there something wrong with me? Was I unlovable?”
Such feelings are all too common, but for Christians experiencing divorce there is often a real sense of shame and isolation, as they can be confronted with judgemental attitudes or made to feel as though they’ve somehow let the side down by not being able to sustain a ‘perfect’ Christian marriage.
“It’s easy to feel you’re a total failure,” explains Sian. “You look around church and it seems you don’t fit in anywhere. You’re a ‘single’ who has been ‘married’, a ‘married’ who is now ‘single’, and if you do have a family it can be hard not to compare yourself with other families who still have both parents.”
Aquila was set up to respond to the hurt that people in this situation – whether Christian or non-Christian – feel. The name Aquila (Latin for ‘eagle’) is inspired by the beautiful and faith-building verse in Isaiah 40:31: “They will soar on wings like eagles” and its vision is to walk with people through the pain, and bring them to a place where they can receive healing and wholeness, and start to rebuild their lives again.
The courses are open to everyone and there is no direct evangelism.
“People are already struggling with huge pain, so we feel our role is just to walk beside them at this stage” says Sian. “However, we do try to reflect Jesus in everything we say and do, and readily share how our faith has helped us cope. In fact, it’s surprising how often people ask us to pray for them. In addition, the helpful information packs we hand out at the end of the final session include details of local Alpha and Christianity Explored courses.”
Run by trained course facilitators who are committed Christians with personal experience of the pain of broken relationships and divorce, the friendly seven-week, self-help course works rather like an ante-natal group in that you learn everything together, and by the end have a ready-made support group. It’s a safe place where attendees know they have complete confidentiality, which means they feel free to share their experiences, worries, hopes and fears.
At the same time, the course doesn’t shy away from tackling tough issues. Rather than just sticking a plaster over an open wound, Aquila looks at why the marriage/relationship went wrong in the first place and what part each half of the couple played, as no one person will be wholly to blame. Accepting individual accountability helps the process of forgiveness, while recognising the fault lines improves the chance of finding hope and happiness in the future.
Aquila also deals with the ongoing issues like: ‘How do you deal with your ex now (especially if children are involved)?’ or ‘What’s the best way to survive this roller-coaster of painful emotions?’
One of the most poignant and important issues is ‘What do you say to the children?’ How do you help them cope when the world they have known is falling apart, especially as some children may feel partly to blame for the break-up? It’s comforting to know that others have experienced similar problems, and the group’s caring support and friendship – where both tears and laughter are shared – helps to accelerate the healing process.
For many people Aquila is a real lifeline. Mike* had dealt with the pain he experienced by simply shutting the door on it, but it was eating away at him inside. Being part of an Aquila group gave him the love and acceptance he needed to finally release those trapped emotions. “It was really good to get things that had upset me for years off my chest. I didn’t realise how much they’d been holding me back.”
Carole*, mother to three small children, found she was struggling to keep her head above water. “I did the Aquila course during a very low period in my life. I needed to make time to work through the emotional trauma of separation away from the exhausting physical demands single parenting brings. The course really helped and I met some wonderful people.”
Lives being changed like this are what Sian loves most about Aquila.
“Seeing people come through the sadness and rejection of relationship breakdown is such a joy. As Christians I firmly believe we need to reinforce the message that, yes, a marriage/relationship may have failed, but that does not make you a failure – God still loves you. The excitement of seeing God’s amazing grace and power flow, enabling people with broken wings to fly again never wears off. It truly is our passion at Aquila!”
*Names changed to protect confidentiality.
Aquila keys to loving support
+ Be the safe place – Your friend needs someone to walk through their pain with them. Listen with empathy, be confidential and don’t judge.
+ Give them space – People experiencing divorce/separation are on an emotional rollercoaster. Accept their moods and don’t take it personally.
+ Give them time – Remember grief is unique to an individual and can go on longer than people expect.
+ Give practical support – When everyday routines are a struggle, practical help is a real blessing, for example, food shopping, a home-cooked meal, housework, babysitting, school/club pickups, play dates etc.
+ Be a good friend – Send encouraging texts, e-mails or cards, meet up for coffee, lunch or a spot of retail therapy, share a Saturday out or be their ‘plus one’ at a wedding or work do. Your support means a lot.
+ Hug them – Rejection hurts. Hugs are a powerful way of showing you care.
+ Pray – Offer to pray with them (even if they’re not a Christian).
Aquila keys for a strong relationship
+ Spend quality time together
+ Add romance – surprise each other with notes, flowers, meals, small gifts etc.
+ Keep talking (and listening) to each other
+ Share your hopes, dreams, fears and anxieties
+ Fight problems together
+ Don’t hold grudges or bring up the past
+ Pray together
+ Ask: “Lord, how can I love my partner today?”
To find out more about Aquila:
+ Visit www.hope-after-heartbreak.co.uk
+ Look for facebook.com/hopeafterheartbreak
+ Call (UK) 07807 058479