Death of a Ex-Spouse Brings on a Grief

Well, I didn’t plan on writing about death in two posts in a row, but it seems the grim reaper has a way of showing up in your life when you get to a certain age. It may also be that as a minister, I’m regularly tuned in to people dying and their survivors’ needs. I also grew up around my family’s funeral home and spend years as a hospice chaplain. You might say that I’m a trained observer when it comes to death.

If you want to master your own faith, it helps if you build in space to handle grief, anticipated and sudden. You need a place within your psyche and soul to process difficult life events, disappointments, losses, and major transitions. Without such faith development, you will be seriously derailed when you receive “breaking news” that is personal in nature.

Phyllis Lister Brown

I found myself in such a place last week upon getting the news that my ex-wife had died at age 54 (my age) after a bout with pancreatic cancer. Though we’d been divorced for about 20 years, had no children together, and hadn’t spoken directly to each other in about 8 years, a mild form of grief came over me in the form of sadness and mixed memories. I was sad to experience a former spouse’s death and sufficiently distanced from our former relationship to reflect back on some of the good and bad of that marriage.

Our marriage was born of a fast courtship, filled with the conflict of two high-strung people used to having their way, and crashed and burned due to our lack of will to compromise and inability to walk in the other’s shoes. It was a sad and shameful ending that seemed in hindsight avoidable.

After such relationships come to an end, it is a long road back to redemption. But redemption is something that we need to learn if we are to grow in faith. It is easy to run away from such failures, promise ourselves not to make the same mistakes, and try to start over, again. It is another to face your own contribution to a dire situation and then reconstruct your way of being. That is what I tried to do after divorce.

Often when someone close to us dies, we take stock of that relationship and how we conducted ourselves in it. We need to sit with ourselves and ask a host of honest questions that help us gauge if we were the best person that we could have been with the deceased. Were we “there” for them when they needed us? Did we call enough? Did we express our love and fondness with sufficient frequency? Did we acknowledge our wrongdoings and take responsibility for them? Or did we blame the other for treating us wrongly?

In reality, asking these questions after the death is the wrong time to do it. Do it while the person is alive. Often, death is what we’re left with, though.

I imagine that is why funerals are often filled with family and friends that rarely called or came around when the deceased was alive. Something in us cries out and compels us to pay our final respects. We need that “closure,” a ritual means of saying goodbye.

A close friend who attended my ex’s funeral said that the church was standing room, only. On some level, that makes sense given she was a hometown product, a sorority sister, a devoted church member, a respected legal professional and jurist, and known for giving big parties. She inevitably touched many lives, including mine.

Death of a loved one (former or current) calls on us to live from the deepest part of faith-filled selves.  At that deep part of our faith is where compassion, love, selflessness, honesty, grace, lone suffering, and great joy reside. But to get there, we need to put aside our petty conflicts, hurts, bad attitudes, self-serving memories, and broken hearts in order to “be there” with your loss. Because despite all of those emotions and memories, our faith-filled self is called to mourn the loss of a human life.

In other words, I need to put aside the memory of coming home to a new Lexus 2-seater that she had bought without sharing her intention. It seemed to me at the time a little conversation was a reasonable expectation. I guess I was wrong because about year later, she did it, again. On the contrary, she was one of the most intuitive people I’ve ever known and helped me understand the importance of managing my career trajectory versus just letting things unfold haphazardly. It’s good to balance one’s memories. Otherwise, our brain, when in "default" mode only wants to criticize.

Of course, all losses don’t affect us the same nor should they. Recently, I’ve been reflecting on the deaths of a few of the biggest entertainers during my lifetime—Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Robin Williams, and now Prince. Each of them died from self-inflicted wounds, yet each produced work that deeply affected my emotional and spiritual development in some way.

Watching their films or listening to their recordings often left me in awe of their talent. But, I was also inspired to work harder and polish my craft. Their deaths continue to cause me pause. They each died younger than statistics say they should have and each leaves a hole in our collective hearts.

Today, we received word that the boxer, Muhammad Ali, died at age 74. He was “The Greatest” in many ways. In his youth, he stood up for his beliefs, even went to prison. In his retirement, he was a model ambassador for peace. I have a scrapbook and the first page is this magnificent ad that I clipped that pictures Ali with a young boy in boxing gloves. I have another clipping of Ali with Malcolm X.

Ali would have a thing to say about divorce and grief himself. He was married four times and one of his spouses preceded him in death. As we know, divorce is a type of death. But I would imagine that his loss of physical and cognitive ability due to Parkinson’s disease brought on a grief for him that simulated a personal death inside his living body and spirit.

His death will surely affect me differently than my ex-wife’s, but it is still occasion to acknowledge the passing of a significant person who shaped many lives and this world.

I’ve had other losses that have shaken me more deeply than my ex-wife—my father, a best friendship that caused a rift in a huge circle of friends, two mentors, two grandmothers, and other relationships. Each resulted in a new worldview for me. But for each of them, their time had come. They had done all the good that life would allow. Those who died had transformed the world in their own special way.

We survive these losses out of necessity. Yet, each changes the constitutional makeup of our faith in some way. Hopefully, the losses help us learn to master our own faith in our own special way.  Any yeah, I really am over those two Lexuses. I am!