Should You Always Say 'I'm Sorry' When Someone Says They're Divorcing?

Warning: Some people argue that this isn't an appropriate response.
03/30/2013 01:39 am ET Updated May 29, 2013
Friends holding hands, emotional support
Friends holding hands, emotional support

My son Lucas is going through a phase when he misses his dad a lot. When he stubs his toe, or is trying to unwind at bedtime, he calls out, "I want Daaadddy." There is an uncomplicated and raw sorrow there that is different than the other many times he cries in a given day. I imagine during these moments he thinks to the comfort of his dad, who lives a mile away, and who he sees twice each week. Maybe when you're barely three, the sadness of not getting a sprinkle cookie bleeds into the sadness of missing a parent. I don't know.

But I do know that it is sad, no matter what. Divorce comes with sadness.

Over the past few years, I've had interesting discussions around the question, "Should you say 'I'm sorry,' when someone reveals they're getting divorced?"

Some argue that is not an appropriate response because you never know how the announcer feels about the split. If they're thrilled at their new freedom, or blissful at banishing a bad spouse, why would a condolence be in order?

I hear that argument loud and clear. After all, I've written numerous times that I was surprised to find that I was am much happier outside of my own marriage. Despite the wrenching heartache, destroyed dreams and turning my life topsy-turvy, the net result of my divorce has been positive, I've felt.

But I fall in favor of offering up a polite, "I'm sorry," as a pat response when someone reveals their relationship is over. After all, "I'm sorry" is always appropriate upon learning of the end of a life. It is the prerogative of the mourner to say, "It was a blessing -- they were suffering," or "It was quick, and we are grateful we can all move on now." There is nearly always at least a note of sadness when someone dies. Custom and sensitivity call for condolences, no matter the feelings or assumptions of the person hearing the news. The same holds true for the end of a relationship. Even if the final result was positive, pain and grief are always part of the experience.

I was thinking through this issue last night as the kids were getting ready for bedtime. "Look," I said to Lucas we stood in the kitchen, arguing over whether he had to eat the last bite of his banana. "Look at all the snow outside!"

I picked him up so he could see the large clumps of flakes fall down to coat the street below. We pointed at the birds in the tree outside that window, and wondered whether they were cold, or if their fluffed-up feathers kept them warm. Something in this sleepy moment, maybe feeling vulnerable in the weather or sensing a call for a cozy embrace, Lucas cried out as he does. Cried out for his Daddy. His dad moved out before Lucas was born, but who hasn't felt that dull ache of missing someone you love?

And so I held Lucas to me and he quickly nuzzled his head into my neck. Tristian Prettyman's
"All I Want is You" came on the radio, and as I swayed to the sweet melody and silly lyrics, I could see Lucas and my reflection in the window. Behind us was the gold glow of our warm apartment. I had one of the moments I sometimes have -- moments when I well up with the feeling of being a proud and confident mother lion, presiding over the safe den I've created for my babies. But in that image of that strong mom was also my hurt child.

"I'm sorry," I said. Lucas let his body hang heavy in my arms as I swayed and swayed. "I'm sorry."