by Carolyn Thomas ♥ @HeartSisters
His body was found in his favourite chair, facing the TV that was still on (most likely, watching hockey). He’d been a lifelong Toronto Maple Leafs fan despite the team’s disappointing inability to win the Stanley Cup each year since 1967; even his obituary included his long-suffering lament:
“When I die, I want the Leafs to be my pallbearers, so they can let me down one last time.” . .
We were high school sweethearts who spent 20 years together, although by now, we’d spent more years divorced than married. But he will always be the father of my two grown children, who are devastated by this tragic loss. He’s also the loving “Gido” to our darling 5-year old granddaughter, Everly Rose. She told me this week at the funeral chapel that she had put two of her drawings and her favourite Tiger’s Eye rock into Gido’s coffin for him.
When one of my friends learned of his death, she sent me a kind note, adding this line:
“My sister also sends you condolences on D’s death, but she wonders if it’s appropriate, since you were divorced a long time ago.”
I’d been wondering about this myself, too. Is it “appropriate” to offer condolences to the ex-spouse of the deceased? Do ex-spouses grieve for long ago relationships that may barely even exist anymore?
Personally, I’ve been feeling more numb than sad (or, like I’d been run over by a very large bus) – but mostly I was terribly upset watching my children suffer. I didn’t cry over the initial news, but instead have felt a crushing and overwhelming fatigue (i.e. even more than my usual level of crushing fatigue caused by ongoing cardiac issues).
When I asked my friend Heather Fox (an experienced bereavement counselor) what she thought, here’s how she addressed my questions:
“Not only are you not ‘just the ex’, but you had a major and important relationship with this man, difficult as it may have been at times. He was the father of your children, and the grandfather of your little darling, Everly Rose.
“So yes, condolences are in order, just for slightly more complex reasons. No wonder you’ve been numb since his death. It was truly shocking, and it is the hardest thing to see your children in pain.”
“You’re in one of the experiences of grief that is little talked about – that of the person in the outer rings of a family loss, through divorce or estrangement or distant relationship, but still deeply affected by it.”
Heather added that others are often unsure of how to respond or support a person whose ex-partner has died. They can even erroneously assume that the death has no impact on them. It can be worse when a death was sudden or the relationship was fraught and difficult.
London psychotherapist and author Sally Baker describes the death of an ex-spouse as “unsettling”. That’s just the word I would use, too.
She explains that this response can often feel contradictory:
“An ex-spouse, after all, is an ex for a reason.”
She adds that we may feel surprised by the intensity of the sadness we feel over the loss of someone who in reality let us down.“But empathy, care and even love for past partners isn’t linear, and doesn’t stop entirely even when the relationship is over.”
I’ve often said over the years since our divorce that when you have children together, you can never really get a divorce.
Yes, you can get a piece of paper that says you’re legally divorced, but being parents together means that there will always be school functions, play dates, team sports, parent-teacher meetings, endless pick-ups and drop-offs, Christmas concerts, graduations, weddings, funerals, family reunions and then maybe if you’re stupendously lucky, grandchildren someday! Each of these will bring you two together – over and over and over again for decades – and with or without adding new partners to the mix.
So post-divorce, we always figured we might as well get along as best we could for the sake of our kids.
When our grandchild Everly Rose was born five years ago, he called her Rosie, after one of his favourite elderly aunts who lived long enough to learn that his new grandbaby would carry her name.
Since he died, we have talked to Rosie a lot about death, and about how sad her whole family is feeling now, and about how much we will miss him, and about why her Mummy is crying so hard.
Rosie wanted to know, “Does this mean we won’t go to Gido’s house anymore for dinner?” Yes, my precious girl, that is what it means.
But even among couples who have neither contact nor children after breaking up, reactions can vary when an ex-spouse dies. Some recent online examples I found:
- “For 12 years, I was a big part of his family, but we’re no longer close. I felt alone with my grief.”
- “I haven’t been involved in his life for over two years. It was like reading about some stranger when I saw his obituary.”
- “We broke up 10 years ago. I thought I wouldn’t be affected by my ex’s death. But I was.”
- “My ex-husband was cruel and violent. I felt only relief when he finally died. I don’t have to be afraid anymore.”
- “We’d been married for 40 years when he left me. He died a year later, the new wife did not want me at the funeral.”
- “The death of my ex brought up scary feelings of abandonment again. It’s like he left me twice.”
- “I was a mess after my ex died, so I talked to a psychologist. She reassured me, my reaction is normal and temporary.”
When high school sweethearts marry young, as we did, they essentially grow up together into the adults they will one day become.
Grief counselor Dr. Alejandra Vasquez echoes this reminder in her response to the death of an ex-spouse:
“When an ex dies, it doesn’t mean that you can’t mourn their death. The history you shared doesn’t go away when they die. It’s important to acknowledge your feelings and emotions.
“The grieving process that you’ll go through is natural, even when you don’t understand the reasons for it. It’s okay to grieve over someone – even when they’re no longer a part of your life. The term used to describe how you may be feeling is disenfranchised grief. It gives meaning to what you may be experiencing — a loss for someone you aren’t supposed to be mourning.”
“Regardless of the circumstances, a funeral should be a place to show respect for those who are in mourning.
“Your decision to attend should be based on the relationship you have with the surviving family members of your ex, as well as whether or not you have children together.
“Put aside whatever issues you may have had with your former partner, and do what is best for those who are still in their life.”
In other words, don’t make this funeral about you. Don’t attend the service if there’s even the smallest likelihood that your presence might make things awkward or painful for your ex’s family.
Rest in peace, D. . . ♥
Q: Have you or somebody you care about had to deal with the death of an ex-partner?
NOTE FROM CAROLYN: I wrote more about how marriage can affect our cardiac health in my book A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease, (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017). You can save 20% off the book’s cover price if you order it directly from Johns Hopkins University Press (use their code HTWN). Or ask for it at your local library, your favourite independent bookshop, or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon.