When Your Ex Dies: Where Does That Leave You?

This post has been weighing on me for some time. I’ve wrestled with the thought of putting this part of my story out there. It still feels so raw and a bit surreal. Yet, I know I’m not the only one dealing with this situation. There is healing power in hearing that someone has been or is where you are as well. That is what is giving me the push to open up the conversation about the emotional rollercoaster that happens when your ex dies.

It’s almost impossible to believe that it has been one year since my ex husband died. To see the words typed out still gives me chills. It had been almost a week since the boys had heard from their father, which was not the norm. I reached out to his parents to see if they knew anything and they immediately became concerned. After a long night of unanswered questions, my phone rang close to midnight. It was his parents telling me he had taken his own life.

I can’t remember what I said or even how the phone call ended. My first thought was of my kids- “Oh my God, how am I going to tell them”? They had already been though so much with the divorce and they were so young. This seemed like too much for them to bear. The next day, I gathered as much courage as I could and sat them down to tell them that their father was dead. It was the hardest conversation I have ever had, but somehow we made it though.

Over the next few days, I was in an emotional fog of confusing emotions. I was unbelievably sad that he chose to do this. I felt sorry for him and hurt that he didn’t see another way out. There was also a flood of memories from when I first met him and when I loved him. I also felt angry. How could he put his children through this? How could he leave us a second time? The past was also still there. He hurt me so many times. The wounds of betrayal were still fresh. The hurtful things he said to me were still playing in my mind. I could not erase the times he completely checked out as a father and the emotional toll that took on the boys. All of those things happened and were my story, but now my story and my feelings felt wrong. The old saying, “Don’t speak (or think) ill of the dead” was stuck in my head. Was I allowed to still have these negative feelings about someone who died? Does his death now negate everything that happened in the past? Did that make me a bad person? It all felt wrong and I felt very guilty. I wanted to erase those thoughts from my mind, but I couldn’t. They were my truth. It was definitely a struggle to even start to understand that this was no ordinary grief, if there even is such a thing. This was complicated.

Next came the funeral. Although his family always continued to treat me as part of the family, just as they had done when we were married, I couldn’t help but feel like an outsider. This was the first time I had seen his extended family, those who I considered my family as well, since before the divorce. The circumstances of why we were all together again made the reunion even more difficult. They kindly offered for me to stand in the family receiving line, but I couldn’t imagine how I was supposed introduce myself to people. “Hi. I’m the ex wife.” was all I could imagine. I started talking to close friends and managed to find my comfort zone with them. When the service started, I didn’t know where to sit. Do I follow the family to the front? Luckily, my youngest, who was 3 at the time, chose for me. He followed our friends and insisted we sit by them. (My older two chose to stay out of the room with my father- it was just too much.) While I know these were my own thoughts and not implied by anyone there, I couldn’t help but feel like I couldn’t find my place. But, what was my place?

In the next weeks, when the emotional mess was too overwhelming, I would try turning to the more factual questions. Am I still considered divorced? Am I now a widow? I found that even these questions did not have easy answers. Nothing about this was straightforward and I felt like I was stuck in no man’s land. Once again, I didn’t have a place. So, I Googled it. As it turns out, even Google didn’t have a straight answer. A widow is considered a married person whose spouse dies. Yet, being divorced implies that there is an ex spouse. I kept clicking on link after link, searching for the right answer. Then, one of the links that I read stopped me in my tracks and was my first sign of clarity in so long. It basically said, “You get to choose because there is no right answer”. This became my mantra and my emotional life preserver.

I started telling myself, I’m going to choose to allow myself to have all the feelings, past and present, because that is my reality. I’m going to choose to not compare my experience to “typical grief”, because this is so far from it. I started to CHOOSE to not put parameters around my feelings and just allow myself to feel whatever came to the surface. It took reading those words on Google to make me realize there is no right way to feel in this situation. I just had to do what was right for me.

As the year went on, my grief and my children’s grief often looked very different. I had to remind myself that this is ok. My experience and memories of their father are not their memories of him. It became hard for me to hear them often martyr him or view their memories with rose colored glasses. Part of me wanted to seek validation by reminding them of how they were often treated. Luckily, I did not act on impulse and gave myself the chance to see that this was all part of their grief process, not mine. They were and still are trying to make sense of all of this chaos that has been swirling around them for their young lives. They are entitled to do this in a way that is effective for them. Maybe it hurts too much to remember the truth at this point. I do know that I want them to choose how to grieve just like I was able to do so.

If this story resonates with you, I hope you were able to find some comfort in knowing you are not alone. This uncommon situation can often feel isolating and taboo on multiple levels. Please know that there is no instruction manual for how to feel in this situation. You have to trust yourself to know that whatever feelings surface are there for a reason. They are there so you can process them and use them to help grow in strength and peace. Choose to be gentle with yourself. Honor your story by acknowledging all of your feelings. I hope you find the strength to choose for yourself where your place is in this experience. Through that choice, you will allow yourself to be free.