An Invisible Grief

By Peggy Sands 

Hushed, sombre whispers floated around the room, then sunk into the wood-panelled walls. I sat straight-backed, hands folded in my lap, ankles crossed. I wanted to look around to see if there were any recognizable faces. Instead I looked without focus. The crowded room was warm, and people had removed their winter coats and sweaters and draped them over the backs of the pews. I nestled deeper into my black wool coat and tried to escape the cold, forbidding feeling that had wrapped itself around me.

My brave youngest daughter, who had volunteered to be the MC, introduced the next speaker, her brother.

My son stepped up to the podium and began. He gave a warm, loving, and truthful tribute to his dad. I pushed back the tears scratching the inside of my throat. As he spoke, I tried to see his eyes, to gauge how he was feeling, but I couldn’t. I was too far back.

I was the ex-wife.

It’s been six years since Steve’s funeral, and for a long time I asked myself why I didn’t cry that day. Why I stifled the flow of tears and grief that rose up inside of me. Why on that day, I clutched my emotions so close, and became this stiff version of myself.

These questions often jabbed at me in the quiet stillness between night and early morning. I call them the three a.m. questions.

I had attended funerals in the past, including those of both my parents. So I was familiar with the protocol and routine. I knew my place, and understood my role.

At Steve’s funeral, there was no place or acceptable role for me. I was not the grieving widow, nor dear friend, nor relative. I was the ex-wife. An open-wound reminder to the family of the past, of youthful days gone by before sickness and death.

I was fortunate to have my sister and brother-in-law and a couple of wonderful past neighbours stand by me. I was not alone… and yet I was all alone.

For over 10 years I had been married to Steve. We had shared the joy of parenthood, the thrill and worry of our first home, my father’s death, and the comfortable drudgery of everyday married life. We shared the anger, frustration, ugliness, and pain of the breakdown of a marriage. But we had created three beautiful children together, and that was forever.

At first our separation and divorce was thorny, we were prickly to each other. But as time passed we became a bit gentler and easier on one another. One day, he called and apologized for the nastiness and pain he had caused during our married life together. And in return, I accepted his apology and apologized to him for my part. It was one of the most honest conversations we had ever had, disguised as a pleasant chat.

Steve died eight years after that conversation, and it felt right to attend the funeral to support our children and pay my respects.

But there is no manual, no clear outline for grief and mourning designed for the ex-spouse. It’s a grief no one wants to look at. An invisible grief.

Unfortunately, a little over a year later, one of those wonderful past neighbours who stood by me at Steve’s funeral went through the same thing. She wrote about her own struggle with grief in a touching article that was published in The Globe and Mail in 2010. In it, she wrote “I lost Warren when our marriage ended, and I lost him again when his life ended. With the final loss there is no more chance to clear the air and be joint parents to our kids. Those chances are gone forever.”

When I read that, my thoughts became clearer. This grief was wrapped up in the painful reliving of loss all over again. More than mourning the death of a person you once loved, and shared children with, you are mourning the death of what might have been.

I’m not talking about reconciliation, but the chance that at some time in the future the two of you could have renewed the parental love you shared for your children. The possibility of those joyful conversations rich in pride about your kids were now gone.

When you are the ex-spouse, your decision to attend the funeral is met with different reactions. In my case, the majority of friends and family thought I should go, to be support for my children. But a few shrugged their shoulders, and asked, “Why would you go?”

At the reception after the funeral, I took a sip of the coffee that had gone cold and looked at the turned backs of the “in-laws,” the family I used to belong to, and asked myself the same question. “Why did I come, was this a mistake?”

In Death after Divorce, author and lawyer Lee Bordon tells the story of a divorced woman who attended her ex-husband’s funeral, to support their teenage sons.

“I spotted her at the funeral. She stood awkwardly in one corner of the room, not quite accepted by the family, unable to leave, and uncertain as to what role to play. She felt terrible, but she wasn't allowed to grieve. Her children were clearly part of the family. They belonged. Lucy felt for them and wanted to be there to support them. But yet she wasn't really part of the family herself, so she had to keep her distance. It was a miserable experience.”

The words “but she wasn’t allowed to grieve” hit hard.

I sat on that pew, and listened to all those people speak about Steve. Friends, his family, his wife, and our children. At times, the grief would squeeze my insides so tightly I could only take shallow breaths. On that day, the belief that I was “not allowed to grieve,” was so real and powerful, I could not give myself permission to do so.

According to StatsCan, the divorce rate in Canada is approximately 43.1 percent. A fair percentage of these would be over 50. We can safely assume that a large number of people are trying to cope with the death of an ex-partner.

But we don’t offer the same kindness or support to the ex-spouse that we do to the spouse.

External and internal expectations request that we be brave, show courage for the sake of the children or family, keep our self-intact quietly. And yet there is no public discussion. We are alone in our grief.

Has our arrogance as a society become so all knowing that we now stand behind the green curtain giving orders to vulnerable people on such a private matter as grief?

As I searched the web, I found hundreds of books on how to cope with the loss of wives, husbands, siblings, parents, children, and even pets. Amongst those hundreds, there was only one that dealt with the loss of an ex-spouse.

Society believes that if you are divorced, you have little or no love for your ex. And when a divorce is fresh, or especially messy, sometimes that is true. But the belief that once you are divorced, all memories both good and bad have been erased from the heart—that the years shared as husband and wife no longer count—is not true.

In the Huffington Post article, “How Do You Mourn an Ex-Spouse?” Jill Brook writes sweetly about the difficulties faced by Joan Kennedy at the funeral of her ex-husband Senator Ted Kennedy.

“As her sister Candace McMurrey told ABC News, Joan was trying “not to intrude” at the funeral but to honor the life of her ex-husband and father of her children. Intrude? That is an interesting word. Are you an intruder as the ex? Joan was the mother of his children. And his wife for a significant part of his life.”

What a curious question, in the event of a funeral: “Are you an intruder, as the ex?”

Most funerals are open to the public, announced in the paper or online. With this open invitation to join the family, to pay your respects and say goodbye to the deceased, how then does an ex-spouse (who had since made peace with their partner) become an intruder?

Was I afraid of what people would think? That I would be mocked or stared at? That my sorrow and sadness would be looked at as false? That somehow the hollowness, and deep sense of loss I felt, was a sham? I mulled over these questions, and the answer was yes. I believed that day that my heartfelt mourning would have been looked at as a lie and with malice.

At the front of the chapel, a book created by Steve’s family sat, inviting people to look through the photos and stories of his life.

I did not go up to look through the book. There was no need; I already knew what was in it and what had been erased. But people told me in quiet shaky voices. My brother-in-law said “I don’t know how the hell those three kids got here Peg, because you never existed.”

My sister remained polite, but tight-lipped and asked me how I stood it. I told her a mother had lost her child, a brother had lost his only sibling and a woman had lost her husband, so that kind of grief must kill all the good inside a person. And I meant it, but for a time jumbled in amongst that grief, I felt hurt, insignificant and bruised.

And then about a year later, I met someone who was at that funeral. A colleague of Steve’s who we both knew. In the middle of that small fruit market, between the bananas and potatoes, he looked at me and said “We saw what they had done to you at the funeral, and we were shocked. They should be ashamed of themselves. Absolutely no class.”

Was I embarrassed to feel slightly redeemed by that comment? Yes, but for that fleeting moment I didn’t care.

My dreams are vivid and reflect troubled times. For years after my parents died, they would constantly show up in my dreams, telling me to move back to Winnipeg. After Steve died, he often appeared in a dream, usually yelling at me. Thankfully, those have stopped.

There are times when I still feel an ache, wishing he was here to see the lives our three kids have created. To see our eldest daughter get married, or to see how she jumped so easily into the role of mum when her daughter came along. To see our son strive to move forward in a new career, or our youngest go forth on her adventures. But mostly to see how these three wonderful children, the combination of our life together, have grown into tolerant, kind, and good people.

That time we shared together, those years of married life, they have meaning.

They do count.