Mourning a Former Spouse: Disenfranchised Grief

Mourning a Former Spouse

Dear Dr. Neimeyer,

My ex-husband and I were married for 25 years, together 28. We raised four children together. He was charming, sociable, affectionate, intelligent and silly. We enjoyed numerous good times. Toward the end, however, he became abusive and I made excuses to stay. After he took out his anger on one of the children, I could no longer remain married to him. He was arrested and an acrimonious divorce followed. I subsequently remarried, had nothing to do with him and am quite content. Upon hearing that my ex died of cancer last February, I reacted viscerally which surprised my husband. I had to handle some of my ex’s legal affairs as he never remarried. Occasionally since then, I get flooded with memories of him and the good times we shared. It’s almost haunting. I am saddened he is missing the wonderful events in our children’s’ lives. Do people mourn their divorced spouses years after remarriage?

Carla
Dear Carla,

Just as you so poignantly describe, people can indeed mourn for lapsed relationships, even when we ourselves have chosen to leave them, and when our ex-partners die, we may grieve again, and more profoundly, for what may amount to a double loss. It was precisely this experience of grief over the death of a divorced partner that led my colleague, Ken Doka, to formulate the concept of “disenfranchised grief,” a form of mourning that is considered illegitimate or invalid by the larger world, and perhaps even by the mourner herself. After all, if we left the partner or he or she left us, what reason is there to mourn? Is the partner’s death even “worth” the pain? Does our grief threaten the partner’s current mate, if there is one, or our own? Such grief is therefore complicated by a variety of factors, including the incomprehension or disapproval of others, our own tendency to criticize ourselves for our feelings, or simply the “invisibility” of our grief to the social world. There are few seats reserved at funerals for ex-spouses.

And yet, viewed compassionately, such feelings as those you describe are fully understandable. There were no doubt countless moments of mutual love and joy and the enduring legacy of your shared children, however these brighter times might have darkened as the years moved forward. In my therapy with clients in your position, I encourage them to tease apart the “two spouses,” the younger one whose marriage was predominantly hopeful and positive, and the later one that came to exemplify something quite different. Then, in separate choreographed conversations in counseling, or perhaps in an AfterTalk letter to each [AfterTalk Home Page Link] , I prompt them to express their clear feelings of love, grief and regret to Partner 1, and their anger, disappointment and resignation to Partner 2–with the clients, of course, ultimately being the authority on what emotions, declarations and questions are appropriate to each. Finally, as ex-partners are often excluded (or exclude themselves) from memorial services, it can be useful to create a private ritual that acknowledges the loss–perhaps in the form of visiting a place once significant in the relationship for a walk-through and private reflection, or a symbolic ceremony of release witnessed by others who would understand. In either case the goal is to validate the grief as real, even if also complex, and in this way to counter the disenfranchisement that denies the legitimacy of the loss.

–Dr. Neimeyer

2 comments on “Mourning a Former Spouse: Disenfranchised Grief

  1. Peggy Sapphire’s book, The Disenfranchised: Stories of Life and Grief When an Ex-Spouse Dies (Baywood, 2013), is a good resource for people who grieve the loss of a former spouse. It consists of reflections of many people who experienced this loss and their feelings and journey afterwards.

  2. Wow. You are the only person who seems to have addressed this. And thank you for addressing it. My husband and I got divorced in Feb 2014 by my choice in hopes it would convince him to get back on his bipolar medications. Instead it pushed him over the edge and he died in a single car accident in October 2014, because he was self medicating with alcohol. He was my best friend. And it killed me. But even my parents after a sorry while thought “I should be over it by now”. I searched for articles on my situation and could find none. So thank you for making me feel a little less crazy.

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