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Grieving & Coping After Losing An Ex Spouse

How It Affects You & Your Children & Ways To Cope

Losing an ex spouse can be complicated. The feelings you may experience are often not as straightforward as they would be after losing a current spouse, or anyone else in your life. This is a tender topic, but it’s important to openly discuss it so people going through an ex spouse death can have mental and emotional support.

You and your ex’s lives were intertwined at various points, including both while you were together and when you split up. This is especially true if you had children together. With having a family comes many memories. These memories might be good, bad, or some combination of the two.

It’s important to be ready for whichever memories may come, and to fully allow yourself to process and accept whatever those memories might make you feel. If you are open to going down memory lane, it can promote a healthy grieving process.

Keep reading to find an outline of the emotions and states of mind the adult and children might experience, along with practical ways you can all try and cope throughout this type of loss.

What Type Of Emotions Can It Bring For The Adult?

First, consider the emotions you might experience following the death of an ex spouse. They are likely to be a little confusing at times. Some feelings you have may also contradict each other, and others may surprise you. After all, you had a life with this person—and maybe kids as well—once upon a time.

Although you and your ex spouse went your separate ways, this doesn’t mean you won’t have a surge of positive memories. On the other hand, it’s perfectly normal to have some negative feelings, too. Divorce can be a traumatic event in your life, so negative emotions and memories are to be expected.

FEELINGS OF SHOCK

It’s no secret that finding out someone has died can cause you shock. Unless they were ill or elderly, you never really expect someone you know to pass away.

And even in those cases, learning of their death can still cause an initial shock. When your ex spouse has passed away, this is certainly a response that you may experience.

FEELINGS OF GUILT

You might even find that you have some guilt. This can be a confusing feeling to have right now. It’s not your fault that they died—why should you feel guilty? Well, it turns out that it’s a normal thing to experience, too. Lots of people feel guilty after their ex-partner has passed away.

You may have flashbacks of when you walked out of each other’s lives. You might wonder whether this would have happened if you’d stayed together, and other similar thoughts. As crazy as you know it sounds, these ideas can still gnaw at you.

You may also find yourself ruminating on those rough patches you went through. Divorces can get ugly, and that’s no secret. Your guilt might come from the things you said and did during your lowest moments.

If you find yourself dwelling on feelings of guilt, try to remind yourself that this can be a normal part of the grieving process for many people. It’s important to not focus too much on your guilt. The less attention you give negative thoughts, the more quickly they will dissipate.

Another cause for guilt can stem from your lack of sadness. It can be worrisome for people who think they should feel sad, but don’t. Recognize that whatever you feel is okay. There is nothing that you should or shouldn’t feel in the grieving process. It can be different for everyone.

If you feel sad, give yourself the time to feel that emotion. Allow yourself to process your sadness. It might help to journal about your thoughts and feelings so you can start making sense of them. At the very least expressing them onto paper might be a good release.

It’s also perfectly okay to not know exactly what you’re feeling right now. Don’t try forcing the emotions—they will come in their own time when you’re ready for them. Give yourself space to just be without any expectations.

FEELINGS OF RELIEF

Relief is a topic people tend to avoid talking about in times of grief. Nevertheless, it might be an emotion you experience when your ex spouse has passed away. This can be for many different reasons.

According to this What’s Your Grief article, “relief is extremely common and incredibly normal in grief. Feeling relief about certain aspects of your loss in no way diminishes or minimizes your love for the person or your grief from that loss.”

Reasons you might feel relief:

  • The person who died was sick, and you felt a sense of relief when their suffering ended. You would likely feel relieved that your own suffering from watching their struggle has ended, too.
  • They were battling addiction and this took a toll on their lives as well as your family’s, so you naturally felt a sense of relief when the pain and stress ended along with their passing.
  • They were struggling with a mental illness and maybe suicide was a constant fear, so when that state of fear came to an end, you felt relief.
  • They were abusive to you and/or your relationship with them was not a healthy one. If you felt controlled and stuck, then their death may have given you a feeling of relief.

Abusive relationships can be the cause for feelings of relief when the person contributing to your abuse and pain has died. If the abuse was severe, you may actually feel relief they’ve died as a form of justice, or because you feel safer with them gone.

The most helpful thing in this case would be to talk to a counselor. They can help you navigate these complex feelings so you don’t feel too overwhelmed by it all, and so you can understand them better. Some counseling ideas might be:

  • Psychology Today has an array of qualified counselors with various experience levels and other certifications. Many of them do virtual sessions these days.
  • Better Help is another good resource—especially if you’re more comfortable messaging than talking face to face. You get matched up with a therapist based on your needs and they message you about whatever you’d like to talk about.
  • Talk Space may be another option where you can find someone; it has various methods through which you can choose to communicate with them.

Keep in mind that none of the scenarios mentioned means you wanted them to die, or that you’re a bad person. Try to avoid further negative feelings compiling—don’t let the fact that you feel relief make you feel guilty on top of that.

FEELINGS OF REGRET

Regret can arise from thoughts about the past. Maybe you wish you’d handled things differently, or refrained from saying things you said to them. You might also feel regret for things you didn’t do, such as trying harder to make the situation work.

If this feeling of regret won’t let up, it might be another situation in which talking to a therapist would benefit you. They can help you deal with it and understand it better.

Ways To Help Yourself Cope With The Loss

Now, let’s explore some of the best ways you can cope with this loss, no matter which feelings you’ve encountered so far. Coping is important for moving through a healthy grieving process for both your and your kids.

LET YOURSELF GRIEVE

Like we’ve discussed in previous sections, it’s important to give yourself the space to feel whatever it is you’re feeling after losing an ex spouse. Let whatever feelings come, come without any judgment.

GET FRESH AIR & EXERCISE

A great way to help yourself process whatever your grief might feel like would be to go for a walk, or some other exercise outside. Besides being a nice way to clear your head, getting fresh air has been proven to actually be important for mental health.

According to this Harvard article on Mind and Mood, “Research in a growing scientific field called ecotherapy has shown a strong connection between time spent in nature and reduced stress, anxiety, and depression.”

We already know exercise does wonders for improving mental clarity and wellbeing, so the combination of getting exercise while being outside serves multiple purposes.

BE OKAY WITH NOT HAVING FEELINGS ABOUT THEIR PASSING

A big part of allowing yourself to mourn is also accepting the reality of not having many real feelings about their death. You shouldn’t try to guilt yourself about it if this is the case. After all, the things you may have gone through with that person could symbolize some of the lowest points of your life.

Alternatively, you might have been on good terms with them and even enjoyed co-parenting together. Some people still do not experience feelings of grief right away, or at all. Again, everyone has their own unique journey through grief.

TAKE A TRIP SOMEWHERE

To get your mind off of the loss, it may be helpful for you and your children to go somewhere together. Consider a wholesome road trip where you can at least get a change of scenery. 

You may not do much—and that’s fine. Don’t put too much pressure on the trip. Make it a simple getaway for a week or a weekend.

You might even feel like you need a trip to yourself for a few days. This can help if you need to get your own emotions together before helping to support your kids with their grief.

Find a close family friend or family member who can watch them while you take your solo trip, but make sure it’s someone your kids feel very comfortable with.

LOOK AT OLD PHOTOS & MEMENTOS

If you feel like you need to revisit some old times you had with your ex-partner, it could help to look at old photos or other memorabilia. Take some dedicated time to remember the good times and the reasons for why you loved that person. If you have children together, it might be nice to watch old family tapes together in their memory.

TALK WITH FAMILY, FRIENDS OR PROFESSIONALS

It can be a huge relief to depend on your friends for support. Doing so can provide different perspectives on your thoughts. Close friends can also give you much-needed love and support during a potentially difficult time for your family.

If you’re religious or spiritual, a priest might be someone else you’d want to discuss your feelings with. They can often bring you clarity and a sense of peace about the feelings you are having.

You might also feel comfortable talking to a professional to see how they can help you work through the feelings you are or aren’t having. This could be your doctor, or a certified counsellor/therapist.

What Type Of Emotions Can It Bring For The Children?

If you’re a parent, you might worry about the feelings your children will experience throughout their grief. This can be difficult to handle on top of your own emotions. It’s only instinct to want to shield your child from pain or suffering, but you don’t want to get too overwhelmed in the process. First, start by learning about which emotions your kids might experience while grieving.

A FEELING OF SADNESS

Your kids might feel sad your ex spouse has died, whether they were their biological parent or not. They may feel sad even if they didn’t have the best relationship with them.

In one sense or another, they have lost a parent. Let them know that sadness is a healthy part of grieving, but remind them that they won’t be this sad forever.


A FEELING OF LONLINESS

As the result of losing a parent, your children could feel a sense of loneliness. They might have lost a unique source of support they had in your ex spouse. 

This is also a part of grieving. Your kids might even seem like they’re distancing from you while dealing with these feelings. 

Just remember that your kids still love and need you, too, even if they aren’t conveying this to you. They will eventually adjust to their “new normal”. Give them time.


A FEELING OF ABANDONMENT

Another reaction kids can have following the death of their parent is feeling abandoned. Depending on how involved your ex spouse was in their lives, they may have just lost half their support system. It’s understandable for them to feel left behind.

The best thing you can do to offset this feeling is to make sure they continue to feel your love and support. Emphasize your presence there.

Another good way to counter these negative feelings would be to memorialize your ex spouse. Personalized keepsakes such as thumbprint jewelry or photo engraved keepsakes allow children of any age a highly personal way to remember their parent.


A FEELING OF FEAR

Feeling scared is another normal feeling to have for children who are grieving. This could be their first encounter with the concept of death—especially if they are young. Death is a common source of fear for kids, and losing a parent can emphasize this fear.

Comfort them as much as you can, and try to explain that death is a natural part of life. If you follow a faith, you could use that to comfort them as well. Try to explain it in a positive light while still normalizing the grieving process.


A FEELING OF CONFUSION

Naturally, kids may be confused about their parent’s death. If they are very young, it can be a difficult thing to comprehend. Try to calmly and patiently explain to them what has happened in whichever way you see most fit. This may depend on the beliefs you wish to instill in your children’s lives.

It can be difficult handling your emotions and trying to support what your kids are going through at the same time. Remember to take care of yourself, too.

Show your children by example that grieving can be healthy, and that it’s a normal—albeit unfortunate—part of life.

What Is The Best Way To Tell Your Child A Parent Has Died?

If your kids are still young, you may not have breached the conversation of death with them yet. Since someone close to them has now died, it may seem that it’s been forced on you. For guidance, read the following sections on how to discuss death with your kids.

DON'T LIE OR AVOID IT

Lying about or avoiding the truth that someone is gone forever can leave your kids even more confused. They need to know that their parent is not coming back. You don’t want them to have false hope or unrealistic expectations, and creating such things in their minds will cause distrust in your relationship with them.

DON'T USE EUPHAMISMS

It’s important to be honest and straightforward about what has happened. It can be reflexive for a parent to try and “soften the blow” by saying things like, “They’ve gone to sleep,” or “they’ve gone away.” These kinds of sayings can only confuse and scare kids more.

This NPR article on talking to kids about death gives an example of what you should say instead. “Instead, Truglio says, be perfectly clear: ‘When you die, your heart stops, your body stops working. You don't eat. You don't breathe — to give more concrete information about what is the meaning of death’.”

GIVE THEM POSITIVITY

It’s important they don’t get swallowed up by all the grief. Fears of abandonment, amongst other things, can result from the loss of a parent. It can help to remind them of all the other people in their life who care about them and who are still here for them. Tell them about all the things you have to look forward to together. 

Make sure you remind your kids that you will all be okay, and that life will go on despite the difficult times you’re dealing with right now. Keeping hope alive is vital for children dealing with the death of a parent.

What Is The Best Way To Tell Your Child A Parent Has Died?

Keep reading to find some of the best ways to help children cope with the loss of their parent, and your ex spouse.

BE THERE FOR THEM

Firstly, be there. Make sure they know you’re around whenever they need you. If they feel like they need to talk or cry, be their shoulder they can lean on or the person they can talk to and trust.

You might feel helpless, but it makes all the difference if you’re simply present for your children. This is vital in a time when they’ve lost their other parent.

LISTEN & LET THEM TALK

Listening is another underrated way to support people when someone has died. Your kids are no different. They just need someone who will hear and understand them. Feeling understood can go a long way in times of grief.

Alternatively, they may need space and alone time. Don’t force them to talk if they don’t want to. Simply let them know you’re there to listen whenever they do want to express what they feel. Let them talk about their feelings whenever they’re ready. Grieving can’t be rushed.

GIFT THEM MEMORIAL JEWELRY

Memorial jewelry, or keepsake jewelry is a very touching way to help your children memorialize their lost parent. This will give your kids a priceless and symbolic item they can cherish forever.

You can get the deceased parent’s fingerprint engraved onto a pendant or ring - among many other things - and gift one to each of their kids. Thumbprint signature jewelry is especially unique because it captures their parent’s handwriting and their fingerprint all in one piece.

Photo engraved jewelry is another popular option for memorializing. This is a great way to give your kids a visual moment of their parent captured in a photo.

LET THEM SPEND TIME WITH OTHERS

To reaffirm the support you’ve shown and communicated to your kids, continue to remind them of all the other support and loving people they have around them by letting relatives and close friends spend time with them, too.

This might mean setting a few play dates with their cousins or your friends’ kids, which would also give you a little break. It would provide an opportunity to receive support from their parents as well.

If, however, you don’t feel like talking about it and need some alone time instead, you might use the chance for someone else to spend time with the kids for an afternoon or weekend while you do a little self-care routine.

CONSIDER PROFESSIONAL SUPPORT

If they need more support, counseling might be a good idea for them. They could even go with you if you’re both receiving help. Keep in mind that they want to talk with someone other than a family member about their grief, so let this be an option for them, too.

Are You Or Your Children Entitled To Benefits?

Next, consider some of the more tedious things that need to be handled. You’ll need to check to see whether you or your kids are entitled to any benefits. You likely will have lost a source of financial support for your kids when they passed away, so this will be important for managing your stress levels.

SOCIAL SECURITY BENEFITS

You and your children may be eligible for social security “survivor” benefits. You’ll need to check whether the divorce stipulated life insurance that would cover child support costs if the spouse died before your children were grown.

According to an AARP post, three things may qualify you for these benefits:

  • You are at least 60 (50 if you are disabled), or you are caring for a child who is under 16 or became disabled before turning 22.
  • The marriage lasted 10 or more years.
  • You are single or, if you remarried, you didn’t remarry until after you turned 60 (50 if disabled).

Should You Or Your Family Attend The Funeral?

Next, it’s time to start thinking about the funeral. There are a few different schools of thought to consider before making this decision - especially when kids are involved. Read on to see the most important questions you should ask yourself.

WHAT TYPE OF RELATIONSHIP DO YOU HAVE WITH THE FAMILY?

The first question you should ask yourself is what your relationship is like with your ex spouse’s family. If it’s decent, you’ll likely feel comfortable going to the funeral.

If it isn’t the best, however, it could present a hard choice. This is especially true when it comes to your children.

If they are young, they may need your support to go to the funeral (if they want to attend, that is). It might help to compare the costs and benefits of each option. Will your child’s need for your attendance to the funeral outweigh the awkwardness you might feel while there, for example? Or vice-versa?

WHAT ARE YOUR MAIN REASONS FOR ATTENDING?

It might help provide clarity to know exactly what your main priorities are for attending. Is it from a good, peaceful place? Is it for your children? Check yourself to make sure you aren’t struggling with negative feelings that you won’t be able to control while there.

If your reasons for attending are unsettled and more on the negative side, you should strongly consider not going. You don’t want to project any spiteful or resentful sentiments you might still harbor at an occasion where others are somberly mourning a loss.

SHOULD YOU ASK THE FAMILY IF YOU CAN ATTEND?

It’s probably a good idea to respectfully ask the family if they’re okay with you attending. The worst thing they can do is say no, and in that case, you could ask your child if they’d feel comfortable going with another adult they know and who you trust to go in your place.

Likely though, they will have compassion for the fact that your child needs your support in this situation. Regardless, try to be flexible with everyone’s needs and find a reasonable compromise.

WHAT IS THE FUNERAL ETIQUETTE IN THIS SITUATION?

The best way to act at your ex spouse’s funeral is to respectfully express sympathy, but to try not to linger unless you are still very close to your ex’s family. Even though your intentions are probably great, your presence may add stress to their widow.

Use your emotional intelligence to gauge the way everyone else feels while you’re there, while also getting whatever you need out of the experience for yourself, and for your kids’ mourning process.

Click here to know more about Wake And Funeral Etiquette

How Can I Express My Condolences To The Family?

To express your condolences, you can do a few different things. This will all depend on your relationship with them, of course. Read the below options you could explore.

SEND FLOWERS OR A SYMPATHY CARD

If you are somewhat close to your ex spouse’s family, you could consider sending flowers or a nice card to them. This is a tactful and respectful way to show your support as their ex-partner.


CONSIDER MEMORIAL JEWELRY

You might also consider getting memorial jewelry for them. This is a painful time for your ex spouse’s family; they would surely appreciate having a physical way to remember their deceased. If you feel that your relationship with the family is in good standing, this gesture would be appropriate.

You might consider similar gifts to what you get for your children, such as letter cremation jewelry or photo engraved pendants. You could give them to the family at the wake or funeral, or do so afterwards instead.


OFFER HELP

If you’re still close to them, you might consider asking the family if you can help with anything. Again, this would only be appropriate if you still have a good relationship with them.

You can help out by bringing home-cooked meals to them. This is always a nice, traditional way of showing your support and helping them through difficult times. If you know of one of their family members who is unable to drive, you could offer support by picking them up.

It would additionally make the experience a little nicer for everyone to be supporting each other on the way there. After all, funerals can be very difficult to attend.

WHEN AN EX SPOUSE DIES FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

Check out some of the most frequently asked questions on this topic below, and our answers to those queries.

Can I get compassionate leave from work for an ex spouse's funeral?

You should be able to get leave from work, but it may depend on your employer. Make sure to ask as soon as you can. It’s unlikely that you will get denied, but the sooner you ask the better.

Are you a widow or a widower if your ex spouse dies?

Technically, you are not. This term is usually used specifically for a spouse who out-lives their husband or wife.

Where does an ex-wife sit at the funeral of her ex-husband?

The most respectful thing to do when attending the funeral of your ex-husband is usually to sit in the back near the friends’ section. With kids, it can get a little more complicated. If you’re in doubt about this, and you have decent relations with the family of your ex spouse, you could ask them where you and your kids should sit.

Should an ex spouse be listed in the obituary?

Ex spouses are usually not listed in the obituaries of the deceased, since they aren’t technically considered family post-divorce.

Is it ok to ask for a small amount of my ex spouse’s ashes to put in some memorial jewelry for our children?

Yes, this should be a reasonable question to ask your ex spouse’s family. They will understand the children needing a part of their deceased parent to remember them by and to have near to them.

The Loss Of Someone You Once Loved: Grieving The Loss Of An Ex Spouse

Saying goodbye to an ex spouse is difficult because it represents a unique kind of loss. It can leave both you and your children with confusing feelings, and this can cause your grieving process to be quite overwhelming as a result. It’s crucial you take time to process your emotions, also giving your kids space to process theirs.

It can feel like a juggling routine trying to offset this impact on your kids’ lives, but it won’t be this way forever. Cover all your bases regarding the tedious, logistical steps so that your family can have time to mourn their death, and eventually adjust to this new normal.

Further reading:

Coping With Grief & Loss In A Virtual World

10 Ways To Support A Family Member Or Friend After They've Suffered A Loss

Remarrying After Loss - Falling In Love Again

March 11, 2021 by Jeri K. Augustus