Loss – Once Removed

Yesterday I heard from two friends whose ex-husbands had died. Neither had maintained contact with their ex, but once there had been a loving relationship. Both women had children with their former partner. Both children had complicated relationships with their fathers. This peculiar limbo is probably more common than I know.

What’s the protocol? What memories are stirred up? How do you mourn someone you no longer love, may not even be in contact with? Another woman refers to her husband as her “late ex” as a way to acknowledge that he was once in her life – they had four children together – and was not by the time he died.

For one friend, this was a matter-of-fact transaction. Her ex had been out of contact for many years. His last contact with his daughter was unsuccessful. She came home early from the visit and never reached out to her father again. Still, she’s suffered another level of loss. With no clear path, how will she deal with this? Old feelings of abandonment, resentment, anger must be bubbling up, even if she doesn’t acknowledge them. How will my friend comfort her daughter in this morass of the unspoken?

The other friend’s son had some connection with his father. He will be part of the rituals of death and of settling all that needs settling. Here’s a clearer path with opportunities to mourn. Still, how much is below the surface for this son whose ties were severed? If he’s able to surface his emotions, his mother and wife will support him through a complicated maze of feelings.

Who supports the ex-spouse in grief? What does this semi-mourning look like? “Semi” is a poor attempt to capture this hazy state. Both friends no longer loved their ex, but both felt a sense of loss and both had memories of better times. Will they want to sit and tell stories, as they might if widowed within a marriage? Will the good memories be sifted out from the bad? Will their loss be simply dismissed or acknowledged people in their lives?

The third ex in this trio had the most complicated relationship of all. Her late ex had been in a relationship for years before his death. This woman helped him get his life in order and reunite with his children. She was very involved in the lives of two of them and was invited to family events that also included the (adult) children’s mother. She facilitated reestablishing ties between the father and his now-grown children. For this woman, mourning has been long and public. Her facebook posts often mark anniversaries in the life of the departed. She comments on how he would love his grandchildren.  The ex is remarkably accepting of this. It makes her happy to know that her late ex found some measure of happiness and her children had closure.

So, I wonder where the closure is for the estranged ex. When a relationship ends in “thank God that’s over,” what happens to all the other feelings? If divorce involves mourning, is there something left to mourn? How can I support my friends? I’ll listen. And listen. And listen. Hallmark just doesn’t have a card for this.

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