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The Impact of the Death of a Former Spouse

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Many people are surprised and confused by the grief they feel when a former spouse dies.

Q: "I have just discovered my ex husband has died. Although he was my ex I still feel as if a huge part of my life has died with him. No one bothered to tell me, or his child that he was even ill. I can't stop thinking about him and wishing I could have at least spoken a few last words to him. I hide my grief from my husband. He has no idea how I feel and would not understand as he is very jealous man. I am confused and don't know how to cope with this. When I'm on my own I watch his tribute video and cry with regret. This can't be healthy but I feel so hopeless I don't know what else to do."

We’re sad to hear about what happened and the fact that you were not told that your ex-husband was ill, and that you were robbed of the opportunity to communicate with him.

But we’re very glad you’ve written to us, because a great many people are affected by the death of their former spouses, and are often confused by the tremendous depth of feeling caused by that event.

We hope our response helps you and many others.


Are you grieving the loss of a partner or spouse? Find comfort in our grief support group.


In "The Grief Recovery Handbook," we specifically mention “death of a former spouse” as a potential major loss, since by definition, the divorce indicates that the relationship was incomplete. By that we mean, we get married with the hope of going all the way to that happy sunset together, 40, 50, or 60 years later. Divorce means that we did not get to make that dream come true, and along with that comes all the fighting and bitterness that ended in divorce.

Since most people don’t know how to complete what the divorce left emotionally unfinished for them, they somehow try to get through the worst of the pain of the divorce. Eventually, the pain naturally subsides for most people, and even though that doesn’t mean they are “complete” with their ex, they may feel ready to date and remarry.

One of the issues that causes real confusion is that in the aftermath of the divorce, there is often a feeling of relief that the fighting and other problems are over. That sense of relief creates the illusion of completion with our ex-mates, when all it is is relief about the problems. But the original dreams are broken, usually along with a breach of trust, and a fear of getting hurt again. So when we start looking for a new love, we may be dragging the emotional baggage from the prior marriage with us.

That is not to say that the new couple cannot fall in love and create a wonderful life. Many do. But many of those folks are the ones who are shocked when they discover how much emotion they have when they find out their former spouse has died.

There are two major reasons (and sometimes three) for the emotional impact of the death of the former spouse. First, that no matter how painful and awkward the ending was, at one time you loved that person and pledged to love them til the end, even though the end came sooner than you’d hoped. Second, is as we indicated above, divorce is a statement of incompleteness. And although the marriage may have ended, the feelings may not have—thus the emotional baggage we spoke of. The third possible reason is the existence of any children you may have had with your ex, who serve as a constant reminder that the marriage did not make it to that sunset.

With all that in mind, we recommend that you get a copy of "The Grief Recovery Handbook." Read it and take the actions in it to help you become emotionally complete with your former spouse who died. As you do this, things should automatically improve with your current husband. He is obviously not the person for you to share your thoughts and feelings about your ex who died. You probably want to find a trusted friend who you can talk with as you do the work about your ex.

We also recommend our other book, "Moving On," which focuses entirely on dealing with divorce and other romantic endings.

From our hearts to yours,

Russell Friedman and John James


© 2018 John W. James and The Grief Recovery Institute®. All rights reserved. For permission to reprint this and other articles please contact The Grief Recovery Institute at [email protected] or by phone, 800-334-7606.


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