There's a grief no one talks about. There’s no section in the card store for it and there’s no flower arrangement for it. In fact, I bet most people don’t even acknowledge the possibility of it.
It’s the grief over the death of an ex.
I first experienced this many years ago, when I learned of the death of an ex high school boyfriend. Specifically, it was a suicide two years earlier. While my grief caught me by surprise, I surmised at that time that I was merely sad for him and his family. My sadness compelled me to reach out to his mother and share stories and my affection for him. She remembered me fondly and we reminisced. It was good for both of us.
That was the last I thought about ex-grief, until now.
“Grief doesn’t just come at the loss of something present, but at the loss of something already past as well”
On May 25, 2016 my ex-husband died after a brief brutal battle with lung cancer. We were married for 23 years -- just under half my life at the time -- and we had one daughter. We suffered two miscarriages in that time as well. We’ve only been divorced 4 1/2 years, at the time of this writing. The divorce hit me hard and I grieved tremendously during the time of separation, but celebrated by the time the divorce was final. At one point he inquired about reconciliation, but that was not what was best for anyone. I mourned the loss of the illusion that our marriage had become, and the man I thought I knew with it.
As a professional, I knew grief. As someone who has suffered the death of many loved ones, I knew grief. So I knew I needed to grieve the marriage and I did. I allowed my grief to show up in whatever way it needed to and I expressed it. I was attentive to my emotional needs and I took time to really give myself care that I had neglected for years. By the time I was dating, I was putting me first and knew exactly what I wanted and needed in a relationship. It took me three years of dating before I had my first official relationship. (No relationship is officially a relationship until it lasts 3 months, in my book.) It was also my last.
I love my current husband in a new and unearthly way. We go together like H2 and O. I wouldn’t change a thing. Perhaps like others though, I tried to make sense of two significant relationships in my life, but it was pointless. Like I so often tell others, ‘We all play a part, but we don’t always get to know what that part is until it’s over.’ So it is with relationships as well, thus I just accepted ‘it is what it is.’
When I went to visit my ex in the hospital with my daughter, he made amends and I was able to express my forgiveness. It was a healing I never expected, but relished. At times during the months of his illness I found myself not knowing how to feel about it all. Wondering if the time and attention I was giving the situation was taking away from my present and if I could harm my marriage in the process. Silly ol' bear. My husband is the most supportive man I could ever ask for, and gave me room to have whatever experience I was having. Even my nephew had words of wisdom, when I said “I really don’t know how I’m supposed to be feeling.” “You’re supposed to feel, however you feel.”
“At times during the months of his illness I found myself not knowing how to feel about it all.”
The majority of time I focused on supporting my young adult daughter and step-daughter in the impending death of their father, leaving whatever feelings I was having on a back burner somewhere. It was no different when he transitioned. How are they feeling? What do they need from me? I guess it made it easy to deny my own grief… until it wasn’t anymore.
It was the memorial that got me. I began to forget the man I divorced and started remembering the man I married…and then I began to grieve him. It hit me smack dab in the gut with a sucker punch. There’s no designated place for the ex-wife at services. No place at all. Not unless someone of the immediate family consciously designates it. Subsequently, I had no place then for my grief. Months of ignoring my own feelings shot out of me like emotional food poisoning, spewing forth every emotion I ever had regarding him and ripping me open in the process. I let things bother me that wouldn’t even be a thing, on any ordinary day. Why? Because I had been denying my own grief. I was angry and sad and hurt. I grieved the happy, funny, silly, stupid and philosophical times we shared over those 23 years. I grieved the beautiful family we had with our two daughters. I grieved the friendship we once had. When the tears finally began to flow, they wouldn’t be stopped.
In some ways, I didn’t expect to grieve because I had grieved so much during the separation. After all, the signing of the final papers was a relief to me, not another cause for tears. So what was left to grieve? I realized that I had grieved the relationship when we divorced, I grieved the person when he died.
Thankfully, I had supportive people around me who weren’t as shocked as I at my grief. They held space for me and allowed what came to come, even when I wasn’t sure about allowing it.
I reminisced with friends from my old life. We shared our grief -- and my grief, having found a place, began to take a lesser shape. No more the shape of projectile emotional vomit, but instead the shape of an ocean’s high tide. Today, even lesser, it is more like low tide and I’m grateful for that. I’ve talked to him since, knowing he lives on and I have my friend back now.
There’s more than a few lessons in this for me but these three stand out:
1) Grief doesn’t just come at the loss of something present, but at the loss of something already past as well;
2) Grieving something past can never, ever, diminish anything in the present, unless you allow it to; and
3) You can stop being in love with someone, but you can never unlove them.
This post is part of Common Grief, a Healthy Living editorial initiative. Grief is an inevitable part of life, but that doesn't make navigating it any easier. The deep sorrow that accompanies the death of a loved one, the end of a marriage or even moving far away from home, is real. But while grief is universal, we all grieve differently. So we started Common Grief to help learn from each other. Let's talk about living with loss. If you have a story you'd like to share, email us at >firstname.lastname@example.org.