What happens when a spouse dies in the middle of a divorce?
May 24, 2017 9:23 AM   Subscribe

A terrible, little club. “It’s called disenfranchised grief. It’s also referred to as the grief that has no voice, because it’s a grief that our society typically does not recognize.”
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell (28 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
 
Hmmmm, some divorces I've seen have been amicable, but in the majority, either one or both parties involved would have been pleasantly surprised if the soon-to-be ex had dropped dead suddenly. Some would have been overjoyed and celebrating, and I suspect a few were actively pursuing the use of voodoo and calling upon obliging demons.
posted by BlueHorse at 9:37 AM on May 24, 2017 [5 favorites]


.
posted by limeonaire at 9:41 AM on May 24, 2017


“It’s also referred to as the grief that has no voice, because it’s a grief that our society typically does not recognize.”

Yeah, there are many other griefs that fit this category.
posted by Melismata at 9:42 AM on May 24, 2017 [20 favorites]


This can be an awful double whammy if the marital separation already feels like a loss. At the very least, unless the divorce is super dragged out, the separation is still fairly new. It's complicated grief, but in a different way from losing a long-estranged family member. In my experience, a lot of people feel terrible when their ex-spouses die, and wish more people would acknowledge the event and ask how they are doing. And that's when the divorce was final and everyone had moved on.

I guess it's also common for financial issues to complicate our feelings about death, but if a divorce is not finalized, you may still inherit from the soon to be ex, or be responsible for expenses. That kind of thing has happened once or twice in my family and it's awful. ("Once or twice" because it's been unclear if a divorce took place.)
posted by BibiRose at 9:51 AM on May 24, 2017 [6 favorites]


Yeah, there are many other griefs that fit this category.

I agree -- and in fact came to the article expecting it to flesh out more scenarios. In a lesser way than death, life is always made up of these little interpersonal gray areas where nothing is 100% definable nor binarily good/bad.

For my own part, a few years ago my best friend and I had a love triangle with this dude, and while she 'won,' it took me years to recognize that she wasn't able to grieve with our larger group of friends about the impact on our friendship because she was the 'winner' of the black-and-white transactional event and I was the 'loser' (and therefore the one 'entitled' to the support). Not nearly as intense as a death of a former spouse, but she still firmly occupied that disenfranchised arena.
posted by knownassociate at 10:22 AM on May 24, 2017 [14 favorites]


in the majority, either one or both parties involved would have been pleasantly surprised if the soon-to-be ex had dropped dead suddenly

Sometimes, when you're angry with someone, you can think those sorts of thoughts, but then if they actually go and die during that time when you're angry with them, the feelings get much more complicated.

I lost a parent after a number of years of estrangement and during a time when I was still very angry about a lot of his life choices--I still am, arguably. It's definitely not the same, but it's enough to make me realize that the fantasy and the reality are incredibly different things in this respect.
posted by Sequence at 10:26 AM on May 24, 2017 [19 favorites]


I'm glad there is a name for this kind of grief. A few months after breaking it off with the person I had intended to marry, he was diagnosed with cancer. Because the break-up had been so recent, he was still "my person" and I was his. I stuck with him through the doctors appointments, the clinical trials, the tears, and raised hopes. My attempts to date others during this time were futile, because they eventually learned they were sharing my heart with someone else (rightfully so). We even talked about him moving back in with me so i could take care of him. We talked about quick-marrying so I could add him to my health insurance. When he passed away a year later, I was unable to call him anything, because we hadn't been engaged or married (though I had wanted it very much). In explaining the situation to others, most assumed that because we had broken up, my grief was at an order less severe than one might have as a current girlfriend/fiancee/wife. But I FELT like a widow. I still FEEL, in some ways, like one. At least the author of this piece got a label, though. I really struggled with the fact I couldn't call myself anything--what was I to him? I'm not sure even I really know. At this point when people ask, I call him a late fiance (sometimes fiance-ish, if I'm comfortable explaining), because that is what feels closest to the truth, even if it isn't. This feels like TMI to share (I'm usually a Mefi lurker), but it seems like maybe this is finally where I can air my biggest grievance about grieving.
posted by houseofleaves at 10:34 AM on May 24, 2017 [113 favorites]


My deepest condolences, houseofleaves. Thank you for sharing.
posted by Hermione Granger at 10:42 AM on May 24, 2017 [14 favorites]


houseofleaves: "In explaining the situation to others, most assumed that because we had broken up, my grief was at an order less severe than one might have as a current girlfriend/fiancee/wife."

I understand this pain all too well. With many people, there was an unstated undercurrent of "Well, you were about to get divorced, so it can't be that awful." One person (my brother) even said this aloud to me, but it was exactly that awful, if not more so, because I was grieving the end of my marriage when I suddenly had to also grieve my spouse.

This sort of reaction seems designed not to comfort the griever (it's the opposite of comforting—it's invaldiating) but rather offers grieve-ees a way to reassure themselves that things aren't really all that bad. They are.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 11:00 AM on May 24, 2017 [14 favorites]


I initiated the divorce, it was finalized three years ago and I haven't seen him since, but I imagine I'd still be grief-stricken if anything happened to him. It'd be hard to fully explain to others since I don't even like him, but I spent almost half of my adult life with him. Divorce itself felt like a death, even though I "wanted" it.

I'm surprised the article only briefly mentions in-laws. They stopped talking to me immediately when I filed for divorce and I don't know how they would have reacted if I'd had to attend his funeral. Who knows what he told them, but I guess it wasn't good.
posted by AFABulous at 11:20 AM on May 24, 2017 [7 favorites]


When my best friend died of alcoholism, we had been estranged for several months. I wasn't able to deal with her incredible neediness and unwillingness to accept my boundaries or seek help for herself in any way and I distanced myself. When she died the guilt I felt was almost unbearable and I think it compounded the grief to the point where for a long period of time I couldn't think straight. Not to mention that some of her other friends insinuated that part of the blame lay with her friends and family who had abandoned her. I don't know, but I would imagine feelings of guilt would be a factor in many cases when an ex-spouse dies. I had hoped this article would have explored that aspect in some way.
posted by hazyjane at 11:24 AM on May 24, 2017 [16 favorites]


One of the dirty little secrets of my divorce is that, some time before the separation, I was starting to fantasize about my wife dying suddenly. That's not to say that I actually wanted her dead, but that I didn't want the guilt of being the one to initiate and take the lead on the process, even with the emotional abuse that I was suffering at the time. Of course, I then felt guilt over fantasizing about her being gone; I can scarcely imagine how bad it would have been if she'd actually died during the process.
posted by Halloween Jack at 11:41 AM on May 24, 2017 [15 favorites]


It's a complicated thing. I'd imagine even the people who got most of their grieving for a relationship out of the way in a contentious divorce would still be a bit mournful of the good times.

That said, an accountant I know had a client whose separated husband died before changing the will. The glee with which she anticipated kicking the younger mistress he'd left her for out of the condo she now owned was pretty epic.
posted by BrotherCaine at 12:27 PM on May 24, 2017 [9 favorites]


I have to say I'm not sure I understand the concept of the article. I mean, yes, there are relationships that are hard to label when it comes to grieving as well as other emotions, but it seems to me to be more an individual issue of widely varying importance and emotion than something that needs to be labelled exactly.

I guess I'm not sure what the importance in trying to nail down a label for something where commonality isn't a good measure and where each person faced with the situation will have unique elements of their connected relationships to confront or be comforted by.

Is it really so difficult for people to explain their feelings to those who they feel might be able to or need to hear them in such circumstances? Most people have been through break ups, some good, some bad, and can usually seem to understand that emotions about former partners or loved ones can be complex. They might not know how to approach you at first given the uncertainty involved in knowing how your specific relationship was, or in sometimes mapping their own history on to yours, but I can't imagine friends not being able to understand you're grieving at the loss of a former spouse or understanding if you're not grieving overmuch either.

Relationships are complicated both in the moment and in our feelings about those of the past. The need to find cozy labels for all of it seems an odd approach to me and in some ways counter to the importance of recognition of our individual histories as opposed to being categorized in yet another data pool for easier understanding.
posted by gusottertrout at 12:46 PM on May 24, 2017 [5 favorites]


I can't imagine friends not being able to understand you're grieving at the loss of a former spouse or understanding if you're not grieving overmuch either.

I think you are overestimating the capacity of many people to a) understand others' emotions when they haven't directly experienced similar circumstances and b) support their friends or family who are going through things they don't relate to. It should not be that way, I agree, but it often is.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 12:58 PM on May 24, 2017 [9 favorites]


Is it really so difficult for people to explain their feelings to those who they feel might be able to or need to hear them in such circumstances?

This story is going to seem tangential, but bear with me:

My former spouse and I agonized over what we would do with our names and our children's names. We involved every friend we had. We took polls. We adjusted the polls. We asked our parents, and our living grandparents. It was a topic of wide discussion at one of my family reunions.

Eight years later, after we split up, I mentioned to a cousin that both my ex and I had been prepared for a throw-down street brawl over what our child's name would be post-divorce (we didn't have that brawl, thankfully). This cousin -- who had been at that family reunion, who is one of my closest friends, who was the second person I asked, "Hey, what do you think of this solution?" way back when we were agonizing -- said, "Wow, I never realized how important this name thing was to you guys." And they meant it, too. They legitimately did not remember how heavy the weight of this thing was on my shoulders, because it wasn't their weight.

So yeah, it can be difficult for people to explain their feelings to those who they feel might be able to or need to hear them. And it can be difficult for people to hear those feelings the way the person who's feeling them wants or needs them to be heard.
posted by Etrigan at 1:07 PM on May 24, 2017 [3 favorites]


gusottertrout: "Is it really so difficult for people to explain their feelings to those who they feel might be able to or need to hear them in such circumstances? Most people have been through break ups, some good, some bad, and can usually seem to understand that emotions about former partners or loved ones can be complex. They might not know how to approach you at first given the uncertainty involved in knowing how your specific relationship was, or in sometimes mapping their own history on to yours, but I can't imagine friends not being able to understand you're grieving at the loss of a former spouse or understanding if you're not grieving overmuch either. "

Having gone through this myself, the answer to your question is yes. People like and want and need labels to understand and make sense of things. Your spouse dies? You're a widow, that's horrid, people know how to react. Your near-divorced spouse dies? People are confused. And in your formulation, you are asking someone in the throes of terrible grief to expend emotional labor to explain themselves to people who, were the circumstances just slightly different, wouldn't need any explanation at all.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 2:40 PM on May 24, 2017 [12 favorites]


I think our language/culture could easily handle another thousand words related to grief, because we are so bad at it that we can only talk about things in the worst canned jokey way. As an example, rather than "in the majority, either one or both parties involved would have been pleasantly surprised if the soon-to-be ex had dropped dead suddenly" I would guess it actually super fucking ultra-complicatedly sucks when your children lose a parent, or when someone's hopes and dreams and plans for the future - including maybe their own career/education/family plans - collapse or get wildly complicated by a nonstandard end-of-relationship event. But divorce is only when two people hate each other and want each other dead; not allowed to be a grief event, or to be nuanced or complicated or sad.

People who are drowning in complicated grief are always expected to bear the burden of defining it, justifying it, defending their right to it. It would be so much better if people in general were more conversant with grief (and trauma as a comorbidity) and able to allow other people to have it on their own personal terms. So, I am all for as many baby-step articles as it might take to start expanding the acknowledgement of complicated, personal grief.
posted by Lyn Never at 3:10 PM on May 24, 2017 [14 favorites]


I'm barely a month into post divorce life. Getting divorced was unquestionably the best thing for us, but we went through the process collaboratively, under the guidance of two incredible lawyers. At no point before or after we signed the final papers would her death have provoked anything but the most wrenching grief on my part.

The excellent movie Moonlight Mile involves a variation on this theme.
posted by Caxton1476 at 5:04 PM on May 24, 2017 [3 favorites]


I have been separated for nearly nine years now. Where I live, you can't get a divorce until you've been separated for four years, so I imagine there are quite a few people in this position. And we haven't gotten around to divorce yet because neither of us is bothered about getting remarried (so far). (Must do that soon).

The whole legality thing does strike me from time to time - what if either of us died, that could be weird/awkward. Ex has a new partner, I don't.

I don't think a label would help in my case. "Separated spouse" or something like that would do me.
posted by Samarium at 5:17 PM on May 24, 2017 [1 favorite]


A very close friend suddenly cut me off years ago with no explanation. She just suddenly went no contact with me. I was hurt and angry for a very long time. This was someone I considered myself close friends with. We and our partners visited each other and spent holidays together often.

After about eight years, I wondered how she was doing and was enough over my anger (but not completely) to Google her. She had committed suicide three months earlier. I still think of her often, and I still have complicated, sad feelings about her. I still feel wronged by her, but I wish she was alive. I wish her life had not gotten so bad that she felt the need to take it. I wonder if maybe I should have tried harder to repair the friendship, or looked her up sooner and tried to reconcile. If I had only Googled her four months earlier....
posted by Beethoven's Sith at 5:42 PM on May 24, 2017 [8 favorites]


It's helpful and encouraging to hear some other people's stories about this. I always feel like such a weird outlier because of the circumstances of my husband's death.

I have talked about it before here, but I was weeks away from moving out. He was so neglectful and emotionally abusive after I was diagnosed with cancer that I decided I would rather deal with cancer treatment alone in a crappy apartment than with my supposed partner in our big, beautiful house. Almost no one knew what was going on, or how he escalated after I told him I was going to leave - cajoling, yelling, and crying at me constantly when I was home, not letting me leave rooms to escape the verbal/emotional onslaught, keeping me from going to sleep, holding me up in the morning so I couldn't get to work on time. I made a safety plan with my best friend in case he got physically violent.

His death was officially ruled an accident, but left a lot of disquieting questions. When the state troopers showed up at my office to tell me, I'm ashamed that my first reaction was relief that I wouldn't have to go home to several hours of harassment and manipulation that night.

What everybody saw was, "cancer patient loses husband suddenly" - how tragic! How devastated she must be! I have the official "widow" title, but a typical widow's experience is far removed from mine. There's no way for me to talk about the reality of the situation, and the tension between people's beliefs about what I must feel and what I actually feel is like a pebble in my shoe. It's just a pebble, so no big deal. But it is always there, rubbing, rubbing, rubbing.
posted by jeoc at 8:19 PM on May 24, 2017 [30 favorites]


You're a widow, that's horrid, people know how to react. Your near-divorced spouse dies? People are confused.

To be sure, I'm not questioning anyone's grieving or anything of the sort, but this, to me, points out the difficulty I have with the article.

There are bad marriages that aren't in the midst of divorce proceedings where reactions to the death of a spouse might be complicated. In divorcing couples too there are a variety of responses anyone could have based on what the marriage had been like, who initiated the divorce and why. Trying to find some label to cover those varying responses that would give people the "right" way to respond to those who've lost a spouse, by legal standards, seems unlikely at best.

The desire to categorize or name these things to be filed away for appropriate general action seems to miss the point of responding to those who may be grieving individually and accepting that sometimes grief isn't there as strongly as the category may suggest and that's fine too. There is a cost on people who aren't seem as grieving appropriately by social standards that should also warrant consideration here, where naming something creates an expectation that you will then fit that label whatever your own history might have been.

Categorizing like this also opens up an endless set of further potential categories for consideration. The loss of those who've lived together but never married, those who've dealt with the loss of a partner's ex, those who've dealt with the loss of an ex's partner, those who mourn someone they haven't thought of in forty years but once knew and those who feel nothing much at hearing of such a death. The list is endless and, for me, not better for being categorized.

If the purpose of the article is to inform people that sometimes people mourn those one might not expect, then far better to just make people more aware of the individual complexities of grieving generally so when we know of someone who may be experiencing grief we might become more circumspect in how we respond to them as friends, relatives, or associates rather than trying to find better naming methods to make the process an automatic one for us in crosschecking category with appropriate response.
posted by gusottertrout at 10:45 PM on May 24, 2017 [1 favorite]


To me, the article itself was somewhat unsatisfying. It was short and lacked detail. That the author does not seem to have grieved terribly is what the experience was to her, and I can't fault that. I get no real sense of how long they were married or what the relationship was like when it was good, if it ever was. If anything, it's interesting to me that I haven't read a bunch of better fleshed-out articles about this kind of circumstance. No, it won't be the same for everyone, but it still seems relatively uncharted. How do you feel when the lab calls and wants to know what to do with the frozen sperm, or eggs, that it turns out you still own? How do you feel when your anger about being left-- if you were left-- is now competing with your anger that this person lost their life too young? Only true in certain cases, to be sure, but I don't think that means it's not worth exploring the topic.
posted by BibiRose at 5:00 AM on May 25, 2017 [1 favorite]


No, it won't be the same for everyone, but it still seems relatively uncharted.

That's a fair point, and I too would have liked to see an article that perhaps dealt more with specifics such as that instead. That would have been something more engaging.
posted by gusottertrout at 5:56 AM on May 25, 2017


Yeah, there are many other griefs that fit this category.

The sentences that introduced this category in TFA made it clear that the category was full of other griefs that fit.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 3:48 PM on May 25, 2017 [2 favorites]


I guess for me divorce, even due to being abused was such a last resort thing that I can't relate to grief in such circumstances. I am glad people can divorce for any or no reason, but I have real trouble relating.
My ex was sometimes funny. He did rescue animals. In fact he despised people who are cruel to animals. If we were going somewhere and he saw an accident he always stopped to render aid. He helped his family members in his own country.
But other than those things, he was very cruel toward me. It did not end with the divorce. It was horrible for years.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 4:25 PM on May 25, 2017 [3 favorites]


gusottertrout: "The desire to categorize or name these things to be filed away for appropriate general action seems to miss the point of responding to those who may be grieving individually and accepting that sometimes grief isn't there as strongly as the category may suggest and that's fine too."

It really feels like you're griefsplaining. No, there will never be a word or "category" that accurately describes what I went through after my wife died the night she signed our divorce papers, but it sure as hell would have been useful, comforting, and reassuring had there been.

And anyhow, just knowing that there are other people who've experienced this utterly bizarre form of widowhood has somehow made me feel less alone, too—which is the same place the desire to categorize comes from. It feels really ticky-tack to complain about how grievers want to grieve.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 8:20 AM on June 7, 2017 [2 favorites]


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