Loss of an Ex-Spouse

The death of an ex-spouse is a very common type of loss that creates several issues to consider. Whether the relationship ended amicably or not, the passing of an ex-spouse brings a myriad of feelings, from relief to sadness and pain. The death provides an unsettling closure to a relationship that did not turn out according to hopes and dreams and plans. There may be unresolved issues that no longer stand a chance of healing or forgiveness.

Most marriages have conflict. Sometimes the conflicts cannot be resolved and divorce becomes the end result. The grief associated with that closure is real and can produce some awkward moments. Giving some thought to the process can foster healing, both for yourself and for some relationships. Additional consideration on how to handle this grief may be warranted in the case when children are involved in the process.

Why do we grieve an ex-spouse?

Many who lose an ex-spouse are surprised by the amount and intensity of the feelings of grief for someone when the marriage had already ended in divorce. Such an unexpected grief can cause confusion and anger.

  1. We grieve because we have loved. We love people in spite of how a relationship ends. Few relationships are void of good times and good memories. It is very normal to remember – and grieve – the love once shared when an ex-spouse passes away.
  2. We grieve because we share history. Even a marriage of a couple of years shared holidays, vacations and special memories. If the relationship produced children the history continued even beyond the divorce. It is impossible to erase memories – good or bad – regardless of hurt or lack of forgiveness.
  3. We grieve because we cared for the same people. This is especially true if children are involved. There may be members of the ex-spouse’s family that had become especially close. We cannot only grieve for those people, but with them.
  4. We grieve what might have been. We don’t have to want things to magically change. There does not have to be restoration or even forgiveness. Grieving the death of an ex-spouse revisits memories and mistakes. It challenges us to look deeply inside at who we are and how we have grown.

How should condolences be expressed?

  1. Consider first what the expectations of the family would be regarding a condolence from you. Would the presence of flowers or a card at the services be an encouragement? Would their absence speak of shunning and cause hurt feelings? If you feel the need to express your grief, consider also the feelings of those who will be receiving the expressions.
  2. If it would not be appropriate to send condolences to the public setting, consider expressing condolences to some privately. If there are members of the family of the ex-spouse with whom you have maintained close ties, appropriate gifts or sympathy cards can be sent to the individual homes.

Should an appearance be made at the visitation or funeral?

Services are conducted for the family and friends who are grieving. The presence of an ex-spouse should not be an effort for revenge, but an extension toward reconciliation. If by attending the funeral heartache, turmoil and unrest may be caused, it might be best to grieve away from the services with some close friends and family.

If children are involved, there may not be a choice. If the children have continued to have at least a cordial relationship with the ex-spouse and family, their presence will be expected and will bring comfort. If the ex-spouse has been estranged from the children, the children may want to attend to bring both respect and closure to the relationship. Age and the personality of the child will be determining factors in the decision to attend the services. The children should not attend the services alone.

If members of the ex-spouse’s family have maintained good relationships with the children, try to arrange one of them to oversee the experience. The children will need stability and comfort during the difficult time. If the ex-spouse has continued a good relationship with the family, the presence at the funeral will not only support the children, it may encourage some of the members of the ex-spouse’s family.


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