Death of An Ex-Spouse

A reader writes: I’m not really sure how to explain how I feel after losing my ex-spouse a month ago—especially since he died the same day I was having major surgery. Consequently, I’ve had quite a few complications from my surgery since I started taking care of my two teenage boys and their grief the morning after surgery when I got the phone call about their father. The funeral (which was put on by his new young wife) was about the last four years of his life and didn’t talk about our boys or even mention those years of his life. The people who spoke at the funeral described a man that the boys and I didn’t even know. Most people (at work and friends) don’t know what to say to me because they feel that I have no emotions about this since he was my ex-husband. It’s an uncomfortable subject for my current husband as well. My sons are grieving, not sleeping well, and I’m working on getting them into a support group. I can’t remember the last time I had a good night’s sleep, and I feel like I’m waiting for “permission” to cry. He wasn’t a terrible person, but he was an awful dad to my two boys. From what I saw, he was a great father to his new family—but that didn’t help my boys then or now.

Marty Tousley, CNS-BC, FT, DCC, responds: I’m so sorry to learn of the death of your ex-husband a month ago, and how awful that it came at a time when you were undergoing major surgery. I’m sure your recovery from all of this—both physically and emotionally—has been difficult to say the least.

I think it’s important to understand that when death follows divorce, people experience a “loss upon a loss.” I don’t know the circumstances of your divorce or whether you and your ex-spouse had resolved the death of your marriage. What I can tell you is that the reactions you may be having (shock, sadness, loss, ambivalence) are not at all unusual when an ex-spouse dies.

For starters, you are in an ambiguous role here: although you are no longer married to this man, he’s still the father of your children and your relationship with him is still significant, if only for that reason alone. Because you have no legal access to medical information, you may not feel fully informed about the nature and circumstances of his death and, when you attended his funeral, you may have felt left out or very out of place. As you have observed, in a situation such as this, your friends don’t know what to say or how to respond, they may not be very helpful or supportive, and they may say some very insensitive things to you. Since you cannot publicly mourn this death without explaining your divorce, you may be reluctant to seek spiritual support. If you’re employed outside your home, certainly your employer will not give you time off from work for this, which only adds to your sense of disenfranchisement, as if you have no “right” or reason to grieve this loss.

How your sons react to this death will depend on their ages, coping styles, relationship with the non-custodial parent before and after the divorce, and their response to the divorce itself. They are in a difficult position too: If they mourn the death of their dad, they may feel disloyal to you—and if they do not mourn, they may feel guilty for not feeling or expressing their loss. If your sons are harboring any negative feelings about the divorce, you may be the target of those feelings, too.

I say all of this to you in an effort to help you recognize that a real loss in fact has occurred here, and it is normal for you to be reacting with real grief. Certainly not every ex-spouse will experience the same reactions; there are many variables that will shape anyone’s response to loss. Nevertheless, since typically ex-spouses have such limited social, familial and spiritual support, you may find it very helpful to vent your feelings in the supportive and nonjudgmental environment that a grief support group or a few sessions with a bereavement counselor would provide. I commend you for seeking group support for your boys, but keep in mind that the best way you can help your children with their grief is for you to take care of your own grief too. So I hope you will consider contacting your local library, hospice, mortuary, church or synagogue to see what bereavement support services are available in your community—for you as well as for your boys. You are not alone; there is good help “out there” just waiting for you to find it.

© 2012 by Marty Tousley, CNS-BC, FT, DCC

Reach Marty through her Web sites, http://www.griefhealing.com and http://www.hovforum.ipbhost.com, or her Blog, http://www.griefhealingblog.com

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Marty Tousley

More Articles Written by Marty

As both a bereaved parent and a bereaved daughter herself, Marty Tousley, CNS-BC, FT, DCC has focused her practice on issues of grief, loss and transition for more than 40 years. She joined Hospice of the Valley in Phoenix, AZ as a Bereavement Counselor in 1996, and for ten years served as moderator for its innovative online grief support forums. She obtained sole ownership of the Grief Healing Discussion Groups in October, 2013, where she continues to serve as moderator. A frequent contributor to health care journals, newsletters, books and magazines, she is the author of Finding Your Way through Grief: A Guide for the First Year: Second Edition, The Final Farewell: Preparing for and Mourning the Loss of Your Pet, and Children and Pet Loss: A Guide for Helping. She has written a number of booklets for Hospice of the Valley including Explaining the Funeral /Memorial Service to Your Children and Helping Another in Grief, as well as monthly columns, e-books and online e-mail courses for Self-Healing Expressions, addressing various aspects of grief and loss. With her special interest in grief and the human-animal bond, Marty facilitated a pet loss support group for bereaved animal lovers in Phoenix for 15 years, and now serves as consultant to the Pet Loss Support Group at Hospice of the Valley and to the Ontario Pet Loss Support Group in Ontario, Canada. Her work in pet loss and bereavement has been featured in the pages of Phoenix Magazine, The Arizona Republic, The East Valley Tribune, Arizona Veterinary News, Hospice Horizons, The Forum (ADEC Newsletter), The AAB Newsletter, Dog Fancy Magazine, Cat Fancy Magazine, Woof Magazine and Pet Life Magazine. Marty’s Grief Healing website and blog offer information, comfort and support to anyone who is anticipating or mourning the loss of a loved one, whether a person or a cherished companion animal. She is certified as a Fellow in Thanatology (Death, Dying and Bereavement) by the Association for Death Education and Counseling, as a Distance Credentialed Counselor by the Center for Credentialing and Education, and as a Clinical Specialist in Adult Psychiatric/Mental Health Nursing Practice by the American Nurses Association. Marty and her husband Michael have two grown sons and four grandchildren. They spend their winters in Scottsdale, AZ and Sarasota, FL, and enjoy their summers in Traverse City, MI. Marty welcomes reader questions and comments, and can be contacted at tousleym@aol.com or through her Web sites, at GriefHealing.com, GriefHealingBlog.com, and GriefHealingDiscussionGroups.com.

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  • I have some understanding of what this reader is going through because I’ve also experienced ambiguos loss, a term first defined by Dr. Pauline Boss at the University of Minnesota. In fact, I just finished reading her book, “Loss, Trauma, & Resilience.” According to Dr. Boss, loss isn’t always death or physical absence and the word ambiguous represents lack of clarity. My brother and I were estranged for a decade. When I attended his memorial service I realized he had changed during these years and wasn’t the brother I remembered from childhood. He was an ambiguous person, something that bothers me to this day. Still, I feel connected to my brother and this reader may have similar feelings.

  • Thank you for your comment, Harriet. Another excellent book by Pauline Boss related to this topic is “Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief.” I also encourage readers to pay a visit to Dr. Boss’s Web site, http://www.AmbiguousLoss.com. See especially “Four Questions about Ambiguous Loss” (How does it differ from ordinary loss? Why does it matter? How does one ease its effects? What are the types of ambiguous loss?) See also a short, Open to Hope video clip featuring an interview with Dr. Boss, here: http://j.mp/zLyScs.

  • Jeri says:

    My son went camping with his Dad on the fourth of July. The fifth of July I got a call from the park ranger, his Dad had died in his sleep.
    Thank God for social services in Elaphant Butte New Mexico. His Dad looked fine when they left.
    We had divorced a few years ago. Lived in the same neighborhood, had very different lives. Had finally reached a point of friendliness and respect, in fact July 3rd I told him, I want you to have a good strong healthy relationship with your son. We had planned two outings for later in the month. It was so unexpected!!!!!!!!!!
    There literally was no real friend he had… just party buddies, his son and me.
    I wonder if people who are married can understand that married or not that person was the parent of your child. Do divorced people feel less pain? I doubt it.
    He loved his son, his son loved him. We were estranged. I never thought he would die so young, 57.

  • Jeri, my dear, I am so very sorry to learn of the sudden, unexpected death of your ex-husband and the father of your son. Please know that you have every right to feel the impact of this loss to the very marrow of your bones, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. I send my heartfelt sympathy to you and your boy.

  • Roz Power says:

    My ex husband died the 4th July and was buried on the 9th July 2012 our sons birthday. Neither me or our son had contact with him for over 3 yrs. He was 51.We have been divorced for 4yrs and seperated for longer. We were good friends once.
    My son did not go to his funneral as there had been so much unhappiness between them ah its a long long story.
    We are left feeling shocked and alone as his family dont include us well our son more but not much. How do I find out how he died as we have a right to know more so our son.
    Its such a funny feeling and so hard to express to people,I feel alone with this grief that I have its so hard.

  • Roz, my dear, my heart goes out to you, and I am so very sorry for your loss. From what you’ve said here, it would seem that of the two of you, your son still has some sort of relationship with his grandparents, so perhaps he stands a better chance of learning from them the details surrounding his father’s death. Your son certainly has a right to know, but whether his grandparents are willing to honor that right is another question. At the very least, you can encourage your son to approach them with his questions. Obviously yours is a very complicated situation, and I certainly understand your feeling so alone with your grief. Have you considered speaking with a grief counselor about all of this, just to have your feelings validated? When others aren’t available to listen or simply cannot understand what you are experiencing and why, it may help for you to meet with someone entirely outside your own circle of support ~ someone who will listen without judgment or reproach. Again, please accept my deepest sympathy, and know that I am thinking of you. ♥

  • Misty says:

    On 11-11-11 my ex husband commited suicide. I still feel lost to this day of how to cope and handle what has gone on with what was our home and items that we bought together and how to handle telling our son that is 8 what happen and why it happen.

    My ex husband had two children before we were married that are much older 26 and 28. We decided to adopt and have a child of our own after we had been married 3 years. 4 years later we divorced and we never really seemed to get over one another. We divorced because Roger was an alcoholic and I wanted him to get help and he refused and I didn’t feel that it would be right to raise a child in that environment.

    On September 27, 2011 I remarried and I could tell that Roger had a hard time with the fact that I finally was moving on with my life after us being a part for 4 years devorced for 2. Our son loves his step dad and that hurt him. Roger had moved on also but only to have her break his heart by leaving him for another man. My son is still attached to the woman that Roger said he wanted to marry and I have not ended that relationship at all he calls her his second mom.

    The note that he left stated for my new husband to take good care of his son. It also stated that my two step children have all the rights to what is left and that my step daughter (who by the way never accepted me as a step mom the entire 8 years we were married) was the one put over everything.

    The home that he lived in was “our home” we bought it together when we first wed. The items inside the home was still all of our items and we would share stuff between us. But now that he had passed I had no right to any of it because I was the “ex”. When I left I took only little and left more then 80% of our items there because I had moved into a apartment and didn’t have storage room to split the house at the time of our divorce. So between me and him we allowed items to stay there and I could come get them as I needed them.

    After he passed the children didn’t include our son in anything and gave all of his things away. They allowed me to take what was in Sam’s room and a few odds and ends and once everyone had taken what they wanted we were allowed to take a few items. Sam had no saying in what he wanted and wasn’t part of anything that was decided. There was Items he said he wanted and they would not give them to him.

    I don’t know how to let go and to grieve because I have a new husband and a child that misses his dad. I don’t know if I should tell him that his father commited suicide. How to help him with not having much of anything that was his dad’s or how to handle that one friend took 50% of what was in the house.

    In 7 days it would be our 14 yr anniversary….. lost in Utah

  • Misty, my dear, I simply can’t imagine how difficult this must be for you and your son, and I’m so sorry for all that you have lost. I’m not in a position to offer any legal advice, and I’ve no idea whether you have any legal rights in this situation. As a grief counselor, I am more concerned about your physical and emotional well-being. Do you have anyone you can talk to about all of this? It seems to me that this is way too much for you to cope with all by yourself, and the good news is that plenty of help is “out there” and available to you if you’re willing to look for it. Have you done any reading aimed at survivors of suicide? I’d like to point you to some resources (articles, books, videos and websites) that I think will be helpful to you, and I sincerely hope that you will spend some time exploring them. You’ll find dozens of them listed on the Suicide Loss page of my Grief Healing website, here: http://www.griefhealing.com/suicide-loss.htm (and note that the first resource listed is a book entitled “After a Parent’s Suicide: Helping Children Heal”). I also suggest that you contact your local church, public library, mortuary, hospital or hospice to learn what bereavement resources are available in your community. Such organizations usually keep a list and will be more than happy to refer you to someone who can help. I hope you will think of this as a gift you can give to yourself and to your son, and I wish you all the best.

  • Debby says:

    I am so glad to have found this discussion as it is my experience, too. Originally from Los Angeles, I was married to a Frenchman and lived in France for nearly 30 years. After nearly 27 years of marriage we divorced — it was my choice to leave following a family crisis during which his behavior changed dramatically. We had our share of ups and downs and had worked through them and I fully accept my share of it all, too. After our divorce I left France and moved to London, then finally moved back to Los Angeles in Dec 2008. Our divorce was final in 2007 and we remained friends, in touch from time to time and talked about how we’d always be connected through our sons, looked forward to being grandparents and even said we’d be there for each other if we ever really needed it. Shortly after my return to L.A. my ex had a seizure and I knew this was really bad news. He reached out to me to be a part of this journey that was brain cancer. Fortunately, I had remained close to all my in-laws and friends. No one ever took sides, thankfully. I went to France when my father-in-law died and then went back 6 months later and was with my ex up until the days before he died in Feb 2011.

    You are right when you mention an accumulation of loss and while still reeling from one you get hit with another. I was beginning to feel like the toy clown that rocks back and forth every time you punch it! I was grieving 30 years of having lived in France, my social, professional and family lives there, then my divorce, and then I was getting settled here in L.A., with one son who lives here and the other one still in France, my father-in-law’s death, then a month later my best friend’s 17 year old daughter who was killed in an accident, and then my ex-husband’s death 6 months after that. I thought it would never end. I had a lot of support from my French in-laws — to the great dignity and honor of everyone, we have never considered ourselves “exes” I will always be an aunt to me nieces and nephews and a sister-in-law.

    I know that I was blessed that my ex reached out to me when he could have kept me completely out and I am so grateful to have been invited to be a part of his journey and to have been able to tell him in those last conversations how much I appreciated and loved him as a man, father and even as a husband. We were able to forgive each other and it made me realize even more so the character that we both shared.

    The “status” of the divorced-widow/widower is dictated so much more by society, what people feel should or shouldn’t be and beliefs than by the reality of what some of us are feeling. All too often place protocol about what is really at the heart of the matter, loving and honoring someone’s grief and loss. What divorce didn’t teach me about communication, myself and relationships, Death certainly would. I could imagine my life without my ex. I could not imagine the world without him. Even though our sons are mature young men now, I still am the surviving parent. One of them is still working though his anger about the divorce and was very protective of his father.

    The layers and layers of emotions that come with each unique situation and individual makes this very complicated. How many times has my own inner critic said, “Who are you to be feeling this way? Or remember why you got divorced.” Or loads of other things all keeping me from feeling at times like I deserve to be grieving at all.

    The reality is that loss is loss and no one can tell another person what is normal, how you should feel or anything else. Compassion, generous presence and empathy are keys. My grief for my ex is no longer overwhelming but is still at times very present. And until very recently, it never even occurred to me to seek the help of grief counseling groups because even I had been telling myself that I’m not “really a widow”. However, my way of healing has been through my work as a relationship and communication coach and a recent solo performance about my story which has had an extraordinary transformational effect on me.

    Thanks for letting me share my story here.

  • Debby, my dear, from my heart to yours: Thank you so much for sharing your important story with the rest of us. For that, you have my deepest admiration and respect, as well as my heartfelt sympathy for your loss.

  • Deb says:

    Marty, I can’t tell you how blessed I am to find you, your site, and these conversations on this subject. I’ve been reeling from recent events and just reading the thoughtful words on this page have helped me already…

    I left a 32-year marriage last March 1, following six months of hell and abuse. (I had to get to a safe place before I could leave him, long story). The verbal and psychological abuse continued after the separation, and over the next few months, I discovered that I had been living with a man with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. His parents, who lived with us at the end of our marriage and whom he moved in with after the separation, also suffer from that disorder. They are all very good at hiding it.
    They are also good at controlling my four adult children through manipulation and lies – have been doing it for over a decade, as I discovered when they tried to have me committed to a mental institution (and failed, because there isn’t anything wrong with me except that I put up with them fall or far too long). My children have been turned against me and would not speak to me after the separation – I lost them, and my three grandsons, as well.

    I had finally saved the money to consult an attorney and begin the divorce filing process, and was planning on doing so after the holidays. On the day before Thanksgiving three months ago, I received a call from my eldest daughter’s husband. He told me that my estranged husband had been in a solo motor scooter accident in Texas, where they lived, and was hospitalized. He was comatose, non-responsive, and non-reactive. Massive head injuries had taken him instantly, although his body survived the accident. I offered to fly there immediately, to be with my children at this awful time (two live there, two in Washington – they were on their way down). My son in law let me know that although my children had no problem with me coming there, my husbands’ parents were already throwing a massive fit about keeping me away. They did not want my children to be in touch with me. I had ‘no rights’ because I chose to leave him and the marriage. My son in law advised me to stay away for the time being, to try and calm things down there. So, I didn’t go. I DID call each of my children, talked to all of them, let them know that i was ready to come at a moment’s notice just to be there for them, and that I loved them. They all spoke to me, they even exchanged ‘I love you’s with me – and that is a miracle.

    In the end, I didn’t go to be with them. My children had to make the agonizing decision to take their father off of life support because there was no hope of recovery (I am still the legal spouse and so I had to give my verbal and faxed permission). He died on Thanksgiving Day, 2012. They never got to say a real goodbye, because he ceased to exist the moment his head hit the pavement on a dusty Texas road. (he was screwing around and wearing no helmet :0/ typical.)

    I have never felt such horrible pain as the moment my strong 28-year old son called in tears to say, “Mommy, Daddy’s Dead”. Like another writer shared above, I could imagine my life without him in it – but I never once thought about the world without him alive. It is a strange situation to have been separated and to lose him – I truly don’t know how to show or hide my grief, and it has been misunderstood by many people. I am working through my own pain and loss – for the marriage, the friendship, the life that I THOUGHT I had and then discovered that I didn’t. For the knowledge that my kids are in such awful pain. For the anger I feel that he has completely escaped any accountability for the things he did to those kids and to me for years. And because of this loss, his parents have escaped answering for their actions, as well. Now they have begun sending me all of the bills associated with his medical care and death, while telling my kids to go to the storage unit in Washington and remove all valuables so that I can’t get them. It’s a mess, and at their hands as they continue to put themselves between me and my kids (which is nothing new).

    My children are in horrible pain, and though I try to help them, I am ‘outside the circle’ of the grieving family. My husband’s parents have been making this entire situation about them and their loss… my kids haven’t really even been able to properly grieve their dad because their grandparents are constantly threatening to commit suicide, etc. due to their pain over losing their son. I am trying to help them as best I can (I have lost close family members before, this is the first death my kids have had to deal with) but feel that I am coming up woefully short because of my own insecurity about how to handle my complicated feelings about the man and his parents.

    I have tried very hard to always speak in kindness about their dad, even about their grandparents who have been so very hateful to me. It is difficult, seeing them as I do as people who delight in damaging me and my relationships with my own family… but I try. I have tried to honor every way that the kids have chosen to remember their dad and honor him (there was no service, just a cremation). I have made this more about them and their loss than anything else. Marty, what else can I do to help my children grieve their loss?

  • Corinne says:

    5 weeks into the process of bereaveing the death of my abusive x-spouse, I am calling this Widow Shock.

    Same as regular bereaving of an ex with the added twist that he was abusive
    which makes things more specific and a confusion of opposites. I attended my first once a month this past tuesday.Cannot find anyone who addresses this particular concern for some much needed intensive care therapy now that the process has taken hold and begins to unfold

  • Imogen says:

    Good Morning

    Thank you for this site.My friend and ex Husband passed away 11 April at 2pm/2:30 pm. I was informed by his ex worker on my way home.

    I don’t know what I am supposed to do, contact his Mum or go to the house before the funeral.
    We spoke via sms’s and in that week before he….

    He said he wanted me to meet someone but I was a bit paranoid and said no and he phoned to apologise at 6am and I then told me he wanted me to meet his son JJ BUT i had met him before what a cute and kind little boy. His Dad loves animals and that is what he passed onto his son. I would NOT have minded to meet JJ AGAIN and again…but I just did not know what to expect. I am even more sad because he was so worried about his sons health and upbringing. He was asking about me if I was seeing anyone but I dont want to beleive this because it will hurt even more. I am not suppose to cry for him because I am the x….

    When we parted it was exactly what you said a death of your marriage..and even worse when you still love and convinced yourself after 3 years that you did not want him and you suppose to have been better off without him. But I have kept pictures and want to go develop my marriage pics again.

    Everything and Everywhere I go i EXPECT to see him waving and being that FRIENDLY HAPPY HARDWORKING MAN I know sorry knew.

    I dont want to see him in the box.

    • I’m so sorry for your loss, my dear, and I hope you will give yourself permission to mourn this death. Your grief is very real, and certainly worthy of your attention. You might consider a few visits with a grief counselor to support you as you come to terms with this death and find ways to carry your pain. You’re also most welcome to join our online Grief Healing Discussion Groups, at http://www.griefhealingdiscussiongroups.com