Coping with the death of your ex-husband: 'I wept, but only when I was alone'
When writer Laurie Graham's first husband died, she was faced with a dilemma. Where does an ex-wife fit into the funeral arrangements? And was she entitled to grieve for him?
Published 18/08/2015 | 02:30
A few weeks ago, I experienced a bereavement that was unlike any other I'd ever encountered: the death of my former husband. David and I were married for 20 years and had been divorced for nearly 25 years. Together we raised four children who in turn have produced six grandchildren.
We went through the entire menu - young love, lean times, good times, why-did-I-ever-marry-you times, and finally a cordial friendship.
Although I'd moved to Dublin and he remained in England, occasionally we'd talk on the phone and we'd see each other at family gatherings. We had both found love again and had successfully traversed the minefield of modern family life at our youngest daughter's very traditional wedding. His new partner sat with my new husband and got along very well indeed.
David's death last month caught me completely off-guard. He was only 66 and I had always confidently predicted that he would outlive me. His illness was sudden, his decline dramatic, and the grief I felt at his death took me by surprise with its intensity. It also presented me with a lot of questions. Should I visit him in the hospice? Did I have any role to play in the practicalities that come with someone's death? And was I entitled to my grief? After all, hadn't I closed the account many years ago?
Well, of course, if you've been married to someone and particularly if you've had children together the account is never completely closed, and grandchildren compound the interest earned. I decided I would visit him, to thank him for the good years we'd had together, even though a silly weasel voice in my head whispered: "Nobody wants you there."
In fact, David died before my planned arrival anyway, but that weasel voice made me realise how unsure I was of my place in this situation. Where does an ex-wife fit into the scheme of things? Who was the next of kin? David and his girlfriend had been a couple for many years, though they had never married, nor even lived together. So in a time of grief and stress do you follow the letter of the law or do you allow common sense and compassion to prevail?
David's death was peaceful, with his girlfriend at his side. In those first few hours I had a very clear role, soothing our children's raw grief. It wasn't until the end of the day when the phone stopped ringing, that I felt the full force of my own loss. Having lived perfectly well without David for a quarter of a century I found it impossible to imagine a world without him. Dead? He had some nerve.
I wept, but only when I was alone. I'm happily remarried so to do otherwise seemed somehow inappropriate. I busied myself sorting out pieces of costume jewellery, gifts from David many years ago, which I'd decided to pass along to our daughters and I found the following thought kept flittering across my mind: was I being unduly mawkish over the death of a man who in life had found a thousand ways to infuriate me? Human nature can be so contrary.
Word of David's death spread. Nowadays you're on Facebook before rigor mortis sets in. And a strange thing happened. Two people, acquaintances rather than friends, got in touch to offer their condolences but also to tell me that they knew from personal experience the jumble of emotions I was about to feel. Sadness over a failed relationship, regrets over the bad times, nostalgia for the good times. One work colleague confided that her ex had taken his own life on the anniversary of their child's death. Pain piled upon pain. I had had no idea.
There was a funeral to arrange. David, very typically, had left no will and no instructions except that he wished to slip behind the crematorium curtains to the strains of 'Bat Out of Hell'. I waited for a day or two thinking I might be be consulted about the arrangements. But why would I be? I wasn't paying for the funeral and I had no idea where David was in terms of his beliefs. A close relative informed me that David had never had any time for religion. If pressed, I'd have had him down as an Undecided, but what did I know? A person can change a great deal in 25 years.
I thought my role at the funeral would be simple and clear: to dispense love and Kleenex to our children. I wasn't really prepared for my own emotions - the private memories, the family jokes that our son incorporated into his very fine eulogy, the familiar face on the cover of the service sheet. There were also moments of the most idiotic banality, like the bagpipe lament which I'm quite confident would have brought David out in a rash of tartan-allergy. And then the funeral tea, that strange social occasion that mixes commemoration and small talk with the practical need to refuel.
And so came the inevitable question. "So how did you know David?"
How to explain? I couldn't call myself his first wife, because there was no second. Former wife? Ex? Mother of his children? Repository of a million daft memories of a man I'd known since he just a slip of a lad.
When your ex dies you get to meet a lot of strangers who had a claim on him. New friends, colleagues. They all have their own memories of the man and you may hardly recognise the person they describe. Over tea and sandwiches David's kindness and generosity were extolled. I was glad to hear them recognised.
His enthusiasm for gardening was news to me. Could it be that the man who had reached for anti-histamines at the sight of a plastic rose had turned into Capability Brown? And then there were the tributes to his dynamism. Dynamism? Had no-one else ever noticed his chronic hypochondria?
Had he reserved all his groaning, gasping and sniffling for me, even long after our divorce? Or were his friends simply observing funeral protocol, only to speak solemnly and admiringly of the deceased?
There was a sense of ripping off our straight-jackets when the last of the tea-sippers had left and the children and I were able to reminisce about the David we knew.
I count it as one of our greatest achievements that we raised such a humbug-free family.
One thing about this bereavement that is exactly like any other: the grief comes in unexpected waves. I've been there before so I've been able to prepare our children for those moments, trundling round the supermarket or walking happily along a sunny street when the realisation crashes into you and almost knocks you off your feet. He's gone.
And my own unfinished business? Did it matter that I didn't get to see him before he died? I suppose not. We'd been talking for 45 years. I guess we'd pretty much covered everything.
How to cope
1 Don't try to dismiss your grief. A loss is a loss.
2 Be glad for the good times and lay to rest the bad.
3 When it comes to arrangements, take a back seat unless asked to step up.
4 Be a rock for your children. You can be a jelly later, in private.
5 If your ex remarried, desist from tribal warfare and do not rise to any baited hooks.