The sudden death of an ex-husband

 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 may even erroneously assume that this death has no impact. It can be worse when a death was sudden or the relationship was fraught and difficult.

But with divorce rates hovering around 40 per cent, I am surely not the only one with an ex who has died.

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, after-school lessons, 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 – with or without adding your 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 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:
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“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.”

For those wondering whether or not to attend an ex’s funeral service (especially if there’s now a new spouse and/or children in the ex’s life),  Debby Mayne, who writes on funeral etiquette, has this suggestion:
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“Regardless of the circumstances, a funeral should be a place to show respect for those who are in mourning.
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“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.
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“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.
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Even though I’d known my ex-husband since we were teenagers, I’ve been surprised by how much I’ve been learning about him in the heartfelt obituary that our children created for him, and in the kind messages of condolences coming in every day.
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Rest in peace, D. . .  ♥ 
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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.

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See also:
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28 thoughts on “The sudden death of an ex-husband

  1. Hi Carolyn,

    I’m sorry to hear about the death of your ex. Relationships are complex. No matter what your relationship was like at the time of your ex’s death, I’m sure you’ve been experiencing a lot of varying emotions of late.

    And yes, watching your children and your precious Everly Rose deal with this particular pain must be so hard. Her question about not going to Gido’s house anymore for dinner was just so touching. Such a meaningful, concrete thing she singled out that she will miss. That was really quite insightful of her. And your response was equally moving.

    I’m glad you decided to write about this, Carolyn. It’s hard to talk about death, but it’s so important that we do. My condolences to you and your dear ones.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Nancy and thank you for your kind words. You’re so right – my emotions have been “varying” for sure. Right after the death, I was asked by my kidlets to sort and put together four large 2’x’3 photo poster boards for display at the funeral chapel, which I was glad to do for them. It was quite an experience going through boxes of hundreds ( felt like thousands!) of old family pictures – ranging from his earliest black-and-white baby pix to his most recent social-distancing family gatherings outdoors. I could have easily filled all four boards (and more!) with just pix of him as a very young Dad snuggling with one or both of our babies! So many happy memories back then, right alongside the darkest times that ultimately led to our divorce.

      Our Everly Rose is indeed insightful. On the day after we all learned of his sudden death, Everly (who calls me “Baba” – Ukrainian for grandmother) was talking to her Auntie Paula about how sad Mummy was. She looked up and quietly said, “When Baba dies, Mummy is REALLY going to cry hard because then she won’t have any more parents left…”

      We were all stunned that she was figuring that out by herself at age five. 😦

      It IS hard to talk about death. We live in a death-denying society. We don’t want to think about it, much less talk about it. What this experience has taught me is that the next time I learn of a person whose ex-spouse has died, I know that there is simply no downside in being compassionate.

      Thanks again, Nancy – take care, stay safe… ♥

      Like

  2. Hi Carolyn: I think I recall a chat with you in BC about ex’s. Love how you can link a slippery slope of this subject into a heart related subject. Good job! But I believe everything in our life affects our heart; the good, bad or ugly.

    I too have an ex, alive and well and many years my senior. I worked diligently over and after 14 years of marriage to have a decent relationship with my ex for our kids and their kids. It wasn’t so hard, and actually pretty amusing at times when families gather for milestone events. He calls me, I call him. My loving hubby Fred gets it.

    But today’s ex is NOT the same person I married or divorced. He mellowed. He gets my internal drive mechanism to achieve, learn, fight. He understands I watch out for him even in times of COVID, his breast cancer, his stents, my cardiac arrest, car wreck and all with geographic distance, even continental. He discloses why the kids will fuss, why those grands don’t send thank you notes. Really? That man I knew at 40 could have cared less!

    He, like me, have both changed because of our heart health, environment or gossip. I care about him for many reasons, but not one equals my care for Fred. My ex and I will both grieve for each other and each handle it similarly or different.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Joan – lovely to hear from you again. I wasn’t planning at all to write about this very personal scenario on my Heart Sisters blog, but the more I tried to learn about other people going through the death of an ex-spouse, the more I realized that there’s not much out there. And considering current divorce rates, I knew that I couldn’t possibly be the only person who is experiencing this. What did surprise me was the wide variety of reactions I did find: from deep grief in response to the loss of an ex, to complete indifference (or even relief) that the ex was gone. It’s not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ scenario…

      So it’s not directly heart-related, except for the fact – as you wisely say – that “everything in our life affects the heart”.

      I loved reading about how your own ex has “mellowed” compared to when you were married to him. You gave your children (and him) a great gift back then when you made a conscious decision that your children would witness a decent adult relationship between the two of you, for their sake (and for your own).

      I was so pleased to be able to meet your Fred when you two were in Victoria (was that last year?) He is a keeper, Joan! Take care, stay safe…♥

      NOTE TO READERS: You can see more of Joan (and Fred!) in this video from Emory University about her diagnosis of coronary microvascular disease:

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      1. Oh My! Your mind is better than mine. Thanks for the shout out on the Emory Cardiology videos….. does that mean I now owe you, my personal publicist, a check?

        I watched the videos a while back and I am now years older, feel better and move a whole lot better! Hugs Carolyn.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Joan, it isn’t every heart patient who can say, years after the diagnosis, that they feel better and can move a whole lot better.

          What do you think has made the biggest difference in your improvements?

          PS You don’t owe me anything —- this time! 😉
          xoxo

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  3. Dear Annie,

    It was very kind of you to think of me and send me this very helpful article. It gave me some terms for some of the situations I experienced during this loss.

    Of course, every situation is different – Ours being the age factor (82), Brent’s long illness, the fact that neither of us had ever remarried. Of course COVID made the situation very unusual. But the most important fact was that we do have two children and four grandchildren and our post divorce was never ugly or mean. And it was for such a long time – 42 years.

    In fact, my contribution to the ZOOM celebration of life were numbers: 13 – years married; 42 – years divorced; 61 – years friends; and 2 – our children/his legacy. Also the fact that I chose to “forever remember him as loving me.” (Even though it was he who wanted the divorce, but I didn’t say that part!) And I told him that on the phone as he lay dying. Among other things.

    But still. I may have officially been in the “outer ring,” but not really, as Eric and Beth included me in most everything in the final week and the week or so after. It was such a blessing to see them work together in this last honoring of their dad.

    I could relate to so much I read in Carolyn’s piece – for example, hearing the obituaries from our son and daughter. (I am quick to not say ” my.”)

    It is good that you are aware that at some point, you, too, will be in this position. I’m not sure I like Carolyn’s term “disenfranchised.” Can a one-time love, co-parent ever be that?

    And you will let me know when this happens so I can express my condolences, right?

    I love you, Sister. And I thank you. And send a hug, too. Marcia

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I would think it is always appropriate to offer condolences to someone who has lost an important person in their life. Carolyn, I’m so sorry to hear about your ex-husband’s passing. It must be like losing him all over again as good and bad memories arise, and seeing him through the eyes of your children too.

    Years ago a counselor and I talked about the feelings I had over my relationship with my mom, who left my dad when I was 17 to move in with the man who would become my stepfather.

    My brother and I knew they had some serious problems in their marriage, so it was not totally unexpected when she left my dad, but of course it was very hurtful for us all. Their divorce was finalized a few years later on their wedding anniversary — I think their 26th. They walked out of the courtroom together afterwards and Dad (a person who would never hold a grudge) turned to Mom and said, “You know what day this is, don’t you?” She said no, she hadn’t even realized it. He offered to buy her a cup of coffee and they sat and talked and then parted friends — he even went to visit her and my stepdad at least once (they lived in another state).

    In many ways they were closer after divorcing than they were in marriage. Dad died many years before Mom and I don’t really know how she dealt with it, but I’m sure she and stepdad must have grieved.

    Mom was just always wrapped up in her own “stuff” — it never seemed like she was interested in what was going on with me. I know Mom did love me in her own way but not in the way I needed her to love me. There were many hurts along the way. I’m sure I hurt her in some ways too.

    The counselor pointed out that I was dealing with two kinds of grief — grief over the relationship we actually had, plus grief over the relationship that I wished we could have had but never did. I am sure that this second type of grief must be all too common for people who have been divorced. And forgiveness is so important — just letting go of expectations and offenses, and keeping the door open for good communications and understanding.

    Saying a few prayers for you and your family, Carolyn! Comfort and peace to you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Meghan for this wise and kind message. Such a good point about seeing my ex through the eyes of my children (we’ve also witnessed a fantastic outpouring of personal memories shared by friends, family and especially his fellow scientists from all over the world in response to his obituary).

      Thank you also for that touching story of your parents having a coffee after their courtroom appointment. That’s how all ending marriages should end… over a nice cup of coffee.

      I learned long ago that some people are great dinner party guests, but not great marriage material. It’s important to keep that important difference in mind before we walk down the aisle in the first place…

      I’m glad you mentioned those two kinds of grief you experienced with your mother: “grief over the relationship we ACTUALLY had, plus grief over the relationship that I WISHED WE COULD HAVE HAD but never did.” This helps to explain how even those who did NOT have a good relationship with the recently deceased can feel a terrible pain at the loss of that latter (wished-for) relationship you describe. So true….

      Take care, stay safe…. ♥

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  5. Dear Carolyn,

    I am sorry for your loss. Please extend my condolences to your grown children and granddaughter. I am of Ukrainian/Italian descent myself, and I was married to an Ocean Engineer for 33 years. We have two adult children together. We divorced 11+ years ago.

    I will always be sad for what my children went through in 2014 during my 59 days in cardiac intensive care. Bottom line, we committed moms never want our children to suffer in sadness.

    Roz Cerro Golden, CO

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Roz – you are so right: watching our children suffer is the WORST, even when it’s the perfectly natural and normal response to the pain of grief. For the past two weeks, all I’ve wished for is to be able to somehow take away my children’s pain over the loss of their Dad, even as I knew (from many years working in palliative care) that only time can help to address that kind of loss.

      You spent 59 days in CCU?! That’s 59 days of watching your children’s worried faces… I hear ya!

      Ukrainian/Italian funerals must have the best food ever… 😉 My sister Catherine drove three hours from out-of-town to yesterday’s funeral and brought kielbasa and 7 dozen perogies with her for the post-funeral family supper at my daughter’s home… My daughter told her this morning before her aunt returned home that this menu was the most perfect and only way to end that challenging day. (I wrote more about bereavement food in 2012 after my mother’s funeral)

      Take care, stay safe… ♥

      Like

    1. Thank you Deborah for that cyber hug. I’ve learned though this experience that it’s ALWAYS appropriate to express condolences to anybody who has lost a family member or somebody who used to be a family member…

      Like

  6. There are connections in life that are permanent even though they may change, for better or worse, over time. They are still there.

    Sharing in the creation of children is one of these permanent connections. You have written a respectful, informative and sensitive piece, Carolyn, for others to know how to respond in these complex situations.

    Condolences to you, your children as well as others in Dave’s family.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Maxine for sharing that perspective. Children are what my late scientist-ex would have called the “rate-determining step” in any family – everything hinges on how, where and what they are. Once your partner becomes a parent with you, it is, as you say, a permanent connection, no matter what other grown-up relationships may follow in the future.

      Before this death, I didn’t even know that grieving an ex was a ‘thing’, so I’m hoping that others in the same boat find something here that I’ve had to learn, too.

      Take care, stay safe…♥

      Like

  7. My heart goes out to you. Feel your own grief deeply, then just be available for your kids and grandkids. Blessings to your family.

    My ex is still with us at 72yrs old. I met him on a blind date at 17 yrs old and we were married for 32 years/ Divorced for 18. Two children, Two teen age grandchildren. We too have remained friends and gather everyone at holidays when able.

    I know there will be a feeling of great loss, if he goes before I do.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Jill – thanks so much for this. We too celebrated holiday festivities with everyone (including our respective new spouses) which I always thought was nice for our children to experience, considering how hostile some other exes are to each other! When my sister Bev brought her new Italian husband to Canada last year to meet us all, for example, we of course invited David to join us at my daughter’s home for a day of perogy-stuffing for a big family feast.

      My advice: make sure your kids include your name in your ex’s obituary as the first wife and the mother of his children!

      Take care, stay safe…. ♥

      Like

      1. Yes…We too always invited Dad’s lady friend, whom he has been with for 15 years, to all the holiday celebrations. We never had the “nasty divorce” drama. I’m very thankful for that.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Possibly your grief also stems from the feeling of loss of what might-have-been. What if your marriage had worked out? Your relationship had been closer? Seems like you might revisit the reasons that led to the divorce, and ask yourself, probably for the zillionth time, what might have made it work out.

    I’m just imagining this might be some of your sadness. I think it might be, for me, but I hope I never find out!

    Like

    1. We can never assume to know what goes on in other people’s marriage, Holly, which is why it’s rarely a good idea to advise others to “revisit the reasons that led to the divorce” (as if any divorced couple hasn’t already done that kind of post-mortem, endlessly). Just FYI, I knew on my wedding day that I was making a huge mistake – but once the wedding was over, I figured ‘married is married’ and you just have to try your best to make the best of it. Which I did. For decades.

      Had I figured out “what might have made it work out”, I would now be an extremely wealthy wife whose soul had been long ago destroyed instead of the person I have become since that divorce.

      Like

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