When an Ex-Spouse Dies

By Helen Fitzgerald, CT

In this day of divorce and re-marriage, it appears that very little has been written about the feelings that may come when an ex-spouse dies and how they might affect the present marriage.

Clark and Phyllis had been married well over twenty years when something happened that she found troubling. Her first husband had died of cancer at a young age, and Clark had divorced his first wife after a troubled marriage. Both had children either grown or approaching adulthood. When Clark’s ex-wife died, Phyllis was puzzled by his by his genuine grief. How could he be mourning his ex-wife’s death when there had been so many conflicts in their marriage?

Because this is something that could happen in any marriage where at least one spouse was married before, it might be helpful to the reader to see how Phyllis handled this situation. When she expressed her surprise at his grief, Clark said that he wasn’t so much mourning his ex-wife; he was mourning an important part of his own life — the birth and growing-up years of his children, the beginnings of his own career, the positive memories of a time when married life had not yet gone sour.

Phyllis then began to wonder where she stood in this. She had to learn to be patient, especially when Clark volunteered to write an obituary for his children’s mother. There were many phone calls between him and his children and Phyllis felt left out, even though she realized she wasn’t part of that history. It was an awkward time for her.

In addition, Phyllis had other concerns.. Should she attend the memorial service, which was going to be in another state? How comfortable would she be there, not knowing what his ex-wife might have said about her? Would her presence make family members uncomfortable?

Phyllis was relieved and Clark’s ex-wife’s sister assured that she would be welcomed, and Clark was willing to support her in whatever decision she made.

What happened next presented the two of them with a new test. Clark’s four children had decided to drive to the memorial service — a full day’s drive — and they invited their father to go with them. The car could carry five people quite comfortably, but not six; i.e., there was room for Clark but not Clark and Phyllis. What should Phyllis do? Should she and Clark arrange their own transportation? Should she stay home? Should they simply send their regrets?

What Phyllis finally decided was prompted by something Clark said: “This may be the only chance I will have to be with all four of my children at one time.” (One son lived in Europe.)

Phyllis thought about her own children and how much they meant to her, about their growing-up years, and about all the memories of her life with her late husband. Under the same circumstances, how would she respond to a similar opportunity – and how would Clark respond? As the two of them wrestled with the decision, it became clear that she should urge Clark to go to the memorial service with his children and that she should take a “back seat” for this event. She remained at home and kept in touch with Clark, who went on to have three memorable days with his children. It was an awkward choice for her, but she believed that was the right thing for her to do.

Is this the choice others would make? Surely not all spouses would take the same path as Phyllis. . Since former wives and husbands occasionally find their way into our new lives, through the marriages of our children, births of grandchildren, and – yes—even death, it is important that we avoid tension in our current marriage.

If you have a friend feeling upset or anxious because of the death of an ex-spouse, you might tell her about how Phyllis dealt with her uneasiness about her husband’s grief. The death of an ex-spouse should not threaten an otherwise happy marriage.

© 2011. American Hospice Foundation. All Rights Reserved.