When an Ex Dies: No Place for Your Grief
For years, they shared a life. But upon his death, she was an outsider.
Death makes a man’s wife a widow, but what of his ex-wife?
Bob, my ex-husband, died a week into the new year. He had battled health issues for years, but hadn’t been in the hospital. His death wasn’t expected. The father of my two children, Bob was once my best friend and husband. Then we got divorced and hated each other. For many years. What were we now? Nothing. Ex equals zero.
One January afternoon, a rare chest cold had the better of me and I curled up under the electric blanket and, uncharacteristically, fell fast asleep. About an hour later, I woke up and saw a list of missed calls on my phone.
There was one each from my kids Annie and Christopher, and one from Kelli, my ex-husband’s wife. The lineup wasn’t typical; I called Annie, my oldest, first. She answered with: “Bob died.”
Held at a Distance
Time stopped for a minute and a rush of sadness and history enveloped me as somewhere in the background, Annie was telling me what she knew. Of course I would go there, to Bob’s house, where he was found. My — our — kids were there. I started to tell Annie I was coming right over, but she stopped me and said not to come right away. Wait at her house, she asked, practically around the corner from Bob’s.
I left immediately with my husband Angelo. We arrived at Annie’s where her husband Tony and 4-year-old son Luca gave the illusion that everything was fine — Luca played happily near the still-standing Christmas tree and Tony tended a pot of pasta. But I couldn’t concentrate; thoughts of Bob, our kids, his wife, their kids, swarmed me … so I walked over to Bob and Kelli's without waiting any longer for Annie’s call.
Flashing Lights and Tears
In minutes, I was walking up the driveway skirting dark SUVs with pulsing red and blue lights. Serious-looking men moved about purposefully in and out of the garage apartment that Bob used as his office. That’s where he died, but his body had been taken away and a team of officers was still examining the location. Their presence felt intrusive, even though they were doing their best to be respectful.
Kelli and her 15-year-old son stood on the lawn. At nearly 6 feet, he was already almost as tall as my son. His red-rimmed eyes stared off into the night. Kelli and I didn’t speak, but I opened my arms and held her as she cried into my coat. Tears ran down my own face as the reality of what happened a few hours earlier began to stab at my heart.
His Other Life
Inside, looking for Annie and Christopher, I walked through rooms that felt familiar, and not just because I’d been to their house a couple of times before. In their living room, knickknacks I had dusted and rearranged over 25 years earlier during our own marriage rested on bookcases and shelves. Nearly every flat surface was covered with framed photographs — their kids, our kids, Bob and Kelli.
In between the frames were statues, dozens of statues, that Bob and Kelli collected and all symbolizing a couple’s embrace. This is where I found my kids and my heart splintered a little more to see their bewildered faces — grown-ups looking like children.
Tears still burned my eyes and for a split second, I felt like an interloper, but I brushed it aside. My children were here; this is where I needed to be. I cried for all of us that night: my children, their younger brother and sister, Kelli. And, me.
Remembering Earlier Days
Throughout the following days, memories snuck up on me. They showed up at rational times, when clearing my calendar for the funeral, or irrational ones, like when I was making a cup of coffee.
The years fell away and I was drawn back to the past when I was a college student in Texas in the late ‘70s. Bob and I met at a party; he lived with his brother in a rental off-campus and they held house parties every weekend. The joke was that we were attracted to each other because we both had long, blonde hair.
We didn’t date so much as immediately move in together. The decision to get married happened almost as quickly, planning a wedding for the following August, not even a year later.
Our marriage wasn’t our “first,” it was our only. Bob and I were young and endlessly optimistic, living in a rented, two-family bungalow in South Austin. Our life was idyllic at the beginning, the way that chapter of life can be.
A Painful Loss
As we became real adults (homeowners, parents and business partners), we began making mistakes, which turned into fights. The fights grew into anger and the anger became a painful silence. When we divorced, I cauterized those years. The gash of failure was too tender, the loss of our life together too painful. If I called up memories of my youth, Bob would be inextricably bound to them, so I let them be.
I wondered how the obituary would be worded, but I didn’t have to worry because it didn’t include my name. I didn’t react or respond to the exclusion; I didn’t want to cause trouble. Since I had no role in arranging a funeral, I did other things — bring bagels to Kelli’s house for her family, contact delis for food for the reception and put Tony’s mom up at our house. Any actual funeral planning was on the periphery. I wasn’t the widow.
Family Member, Outsider
And yet, there I was, just without a defined role. Kelli expected me to join them at the funeral home (“You’re family,” she told me), but I couldn’t even contribute pictures for the collages that would portray Bob’s life for the memorial; I didn’t have any. They were a casualty of our divorce. He had kept all of them.
One, a color 5-by-7 that I took, was prominent on one of the collages. It was a close-up of a young Bob holding 3-month-old Annie in his arms. Bathing her in the shower, hugging her firmly, tenderly, skin-to-skin. Their mutual adoration was tangible, at least to me.
Sudden, visceral aching flooded my body and constricted my throat. One of the most intimate moments of our life together, chosen by others, from out of my past. I wanted to snatch it down and tuck it inside my sweater, but instead I did what I was supposed to do: greet the friends who were coming to pay respects.
‘On the Fringe of Mourning’
I made myself walk across the parlor and take my place. The sadness shadowing me since the night Bob died compelled me to do my job. As people filed past, some speaking to me, some not, I stayed at the edge of the room. On the fringe of mourning.
At the post-service reception at Annie's later, friends and family talked and laughed in that rapid, slightly anxious way people have of protecting themselves from death. One of the people I didn’t recognize at the funeral home was there and I realized it was Rick, a childhood friend of Bob’s and a frequent visitor to our home in Austin.
We found a quiet corner to talk and reminisce. He showed me a picture on his phone: a white cocktail napkin from our wedding with “Bob and Cindy” written in cornflower blue. It had fallen out of a photo album he was going through before he left to drive up for the funeral. Sitting with Rick, I felt mourning was legitimate. Outside of Rick and our mutual, historic love for Bob, there was no one with whom I could mourn what had been lost — what I had lost.
An Undefined Ache
And what is this grief? A lost spouse? Lost love? Did love even still exist? My tears fall unconstrained when I’m alone, driving in the car or in the shower, but whom can I cry with? My husband? It’s awkward. My kids? I am still their mother; I’m there for them.
I’m not Bob’s wife, I wasn’t his friend. We didn’t speak for years, but I know his favorite number. Our lives were once joined and then they ruptured. I grieved once already, when we divorced. Now grief is back, with finality.
There are no answers for an ex. The etiquette books are very definite about where divorced parents sit at a wedding, but where do exes grieve?
Only a couple of sympathy cards made their way to my house. One person suggested to my face that Bob’s death might be welcome news.
Not Enemies, Not Friends
There are two extremes on the spectrum of divorced couples: At one end are the bitterly resentful exes who could never consider lamenting the loss of the other. At the opposite end are the former spouses who remain friends and integrate new lives with each other. Those roles are clear. Our relationship existed somewhere in the murky middle.
Here, at the end, I know two things about Bob: He intrepidly dealt with many struggles in his life and he deeply loved his family. But, I’ll never know how he understood our past, our present. How he understood it while he was alive, when there maybe was a chance that we could reconcile any leftover hard feelings and let some iteration of the love that once existed between us evolve into something more friendly.
But there is no maybe after someone dies. The wound that was our love will never be healed. For me, that is the greatest loss of all.