When a former spouse dies, divorce is no protection against grief. That's what Linda Gravenson discovered when her ex-husband died in 2019. Although they had not lived together for 30 years, she found herself grieving his passing and the ultimate finality of their relationship. Yet as the former wife, she had no official standing in the process that followed his death, either emotionally or as a participant, except as their grown son's mother.
"I wasn't truly the widow,” says Gravenson, a freelance conceptual editor and author who, last winter, wrote an essay about her grief for The New York Times. “There was no place to go with that except internally back into my own memory.”
Gravenson's experience hit a nerve. The essay, which described how her husband's death sucked her down a hole of memories related to their relationship and the divorce, drew about 450 comments, either online or on Facebook. As she observed, there's no cultural place for her category of grief. She didn't feel comfortable, for example, joining a support group for widows.
“Did I qualify for support after 30 years of living apart?” she muses. “Can grief for loss be rekindled by final loss? I think that’s the real point of the piece.”
Acknowledge the grief
The death of a former spouse or long-term partner is a form of “disenfranchised grief,” meaning that society does not necessarily sanction it as legitimate, according to bereavement expert Kenneth J. Doka, who coined the phrase. In other words, since you are divorced, you should be immune from the grief of the loss. But experts say that the passing of an ex-spouse or partner can be intense. Gravenson, for one, had to finally let go of any hope that her husband would tell her that the 20-plus years they spent together “wasn’t nothing.” And, as Gravenson says, his death triggered grief over earlier losses.
“Bereavement really means it’s the permanent separation between you and the person that you loved or that you had an attachment [to],” says Michael Cruse, a licensed clinical social worker and the bereavement services manager at Hospice of Santa Barbara, a California nonprofit. “But in that depth, it connects that bereaved person to all the other losses in their life. And usually there’s a loss in that marriage as well, because nobody plans to get divorced when they get married.”