The cliché about divorce is that your relationship and the fallout from your divorce continue as long as both of you are living. Not so fast. The pain continues even in death.
I’ve seen it enough times now to realize just how devastating it is for your divorced spouse to die. The problems are probably much deeper than I realize, but here are the ones I’ve already identified:
The family doesn’t know what to do with you
It Hurts More
Where on earth did we get the idea that my feelings for my spouse end because a judge has signed a divorce decree? Anybody who’s been divorced knows how wrong that is. Even in the stormiest, most destructive divorce, there are still feelings there for the person who used to share your bed and your life. No, the feelings don’t go away. It’s just that you’re not permitted to talk about them any more.
When my spouse dies after divorce, I grieve over the loss of that person. Yes, I know you can’t stand your spouse now, but hear me out. There will still be a sense of loss if they die before you.
And in the midst of grieving over the loss of my divorced spouse, I’m also grieving over the relationship as I wish it could have been. And in the midst of grieving over the loss of my former spouse and grieving over the relationship as I wish it could have been, I’m usually forced to go back and relive the cruddy experience of my divorce and the unhappiness that led up to it. That’s why I say the loss of your divorced spouse hurts more.
The Family Doesn’t Know What to Do With You
When the family thinks through whom to tell about a person’s death, and whom to consult, they rarely think of the divorced spouse. We often assume that the marriage is ended, and so is the relationship.
Families don’t know what to do with divorced spouses. Do you invite them to view the casket? Do you invite them to sit in the room for visitation? Do they sit with the family? Do you invite them over for food after the service? And families are busy dealing with their own stuff when they’ve lost a loved one. They’re rarely able to focus on others’ feelings.
Lucy and Steve divorced six years ago when he met and fell in love with a woman who worked with him. Their two teenage children spent most of their time with Lucy but visited Steve often. When Steve’s drinking and smoking caught up with him and he died of a heart attack, all the old stuff came roaring back for Lucy.
I spotted her at the funeral. She stood awkwardly in one corner of the room, not quite accepted by the family, unable to leave, and uncertain as to what role to play.
She felt terrible, but she wasn’t allowed to grieve. Her children were clearly part of the family. They belonged. Lucy felt for them and wanted to be there to support them. But yet she wasn’t really part of the family herself, so she had to keep her distance. It was a miserable experience.
Quenella read this page and sent me the story of the death of her ex-husband Simpson. Here’s part of it:
Nine months after our divorce I ran into an old co-worker that let it slip that he was in the hospice program and I knew that meant he didn’t have much time left. Shortly after I ran into Simpson’s mother at the grocery store and tried to strike up a conversation–hoping she would let me know how he was–and she fairly hissed at me, and then shrieked to go away and leave her alone. I ran from the grocery store, angry and hurt. I have no idea what he must have been telling her about me to have that reaction.
A few weeks later, a letter came from Simpson apologizing for what he had done to me, and a few weeks after that, he died. I never saw him or talked to him. I couldn’t go to the funeral after that episode with his mother. I’ve never seen his kids. We were together for ten years. Three years now since his death– and I still feel unsettled. I still feel I grieve. The anger over the divorce is gone, but the emptiness of losing a spouse is there.
I’m a divorcee–and yet not–because he’s gone. I’m a widow–and yet not–because society doesn’t see it that way. I’m stuck in a hard place where very few people will admit to being although I know they are there. You can go to divorce support groups. You can go to support groups for widows…. but where’s the support group for those who have lost two different ways?
So anyway, Lee, don’t know how much help that will be except to let someone know they are not alone. I am just letting time heal the wounds, and going on with life in hopes that some other relationship will come my way before I’m ancient. If not, well, I had a brief shining moment and for that will have to feel content.
The Community Doesn’t Help
When the spouse of one of our friends dies, we know what to do. We call. We send flowers or a card. We visit. We take a casserole.
When there’s an exspouse involved, the first problem is that we often don’t even think of the former spouse. It just doesn’t even cross our mind that they might still have feelings for the person who died. The second problem is that we generally don’t know what to do. Should we call? Should we try to cheer up the exspouse? Will the exspouse be offended that we thought they might still love this person?
Because we’re confused, we do what humans naturally do when they’re confused:
We do nothing.
The number one complaint I’ve heard from exspouses after the death of their former husband or wife is that they went through it alone.
Just pain. And loneliness. And anger. And regret. And more pain.
What You Can Do
So what does that mean you do? I think for starters you reflect on how all this is going to be, so that when it happens to you you’ll be a little more prepared for it. Next, you can print this piece and give it to some friends so they’ll know how you need them to care for you.
Finally, maybe, just maybe, you can change the world. You can decide that you’re going to be the person who is attentive to the feelings of loss and pain that exspouses feel when their former spouse dies. You can decide that something good can come from this whole cruddy experience.