Monday, June 23, 2014

Disenfranchised Grief: When An Ex-Spouse Dies

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[Reviewed and updated November 12, 2017]

It is harder to accept the reality of loss if one is excluded from the dying process, restricted from the funeral rituals, inhibited from acknowledging the loss, or even given delayed news of the death.  ~ Kenneth J. Doka

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.

My response: 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 in fact a real loss 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, and I wish you all the best.

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