Mourning a Former Spouse: Disenfranchised Grief

Dear Dr. Neimeyer,

My ex-husband and I were married for 25 years, together 28. We raised four children together. He was charming, sociable, affectionate, intelligent and silly. We enjoyed numerous good times. Toward the end, however, he became abusive and I made excuses to stay. After he took out his anger on one of the children, I could no longer remain married to him. He was arrested and an acrimonious divorce followed. I subsequently remarried, had nothing to do with him and am quite content. Upon hearing that my ex died of cancer last February, I reacted viscerally which surprised my husband. I had to handle some of my ex’s legal affairs as he never remarried. Occasionally since then, I get flooded with memories of him and the good times we shared. It’s almost haunting. I am saddened he is missing the wonderful events in our children’s’ lives. Do people mourn their divorced spouses years after remarriage?


Dear Carla,

Just as you so poignantly describe, people can indeed mourn for lapsed relationships, even when we ourselves have chosen to leave them, and when our ex-partners die, we may grieve again, and more profoundly, for what may amount to a double loss. It was precisely this experience of grief over the death of a divorced partner that led my colleague, Ken Doka, to formulate the concept of “disenfranchised grief,” a form of mourning that is considered illegitimate or invalid by the larger world, and perhaps even by the mourner herself. After all, if we left the partner or he or she left us, what reason is there to mourn? Is the partner’s death even “worth” the pain? Does our grief threaten the partner’s current mate, if there is one, or our own? Such grief is therefore complicated by a variety of factors, including the incomprehension or disapproval of others, our own tendency to criticize ourselves for our feelings, or simply the “invisibility” of our grief to the social world. There are few seats reserved at funerals for ex-spouses.

And yet, viewed compassionately, such feelings as those you describe are fully understandable. There were no doubt countless moments of mutual love and joy and the enduring legacy of your shared children, however these brighter times might have darkened as the years moved forward. In my therapy with clients in your position, I encourage them to tease apart the “two spouses,” the younger one whose marriage was predominantly hopeful and positive, and the later one that came to exemplify something quite different. Then, in separate choreographed conversations in counseling, or perhaps in an AfterTalk letter to each [Click Here for AfterTalk], I prompt them to express their clear feelings of love, grief and regret to Partner 1, and their anger, disappointment and resignation to Partner 2–with the clients, of course, ultimately being the authority on what emotions, declarations and questions are appropriate to each. Finally, as ex-partners are often excluded (or exclude themselves) from memorial services, it can be useful to create a private ritual that acknowledges the loss–perhaps in the form of visiting a place once significant in the relationship for a walk-through and private reflection, or a symbolic ceremony of release witnessed by others who would understand. In either case the goal is to validate the grief as real, even if also complex, and in this way to counter the disenfranchisement that denies the legitimacy of the loss.

–Dr. Neimeyer

16 thoughts on “Mourning a Former Spouse: Disenfranchised Grief”

  1. Peggy Sapphire’s book, The Disenfranchised: Stories of Life and Grief When an Ex-Spouse Dies (Baywood, 2013), is a good resource for people who grieve the loss of a former spouse. It consists of reflections of many people who experienced this loss and their feelings and journey afterwards.

  2. Wow. You are the only person who seems to have addressed this. And thank you for addressing it. My husband and I got divorced in Feb 2014 by my choice in hopes it would convince him to get back on his bipolar medications. Instead it pushed him over the edge and he died in a single car accident in October 2014, because he was self medicating with alcohol. He was my best friend. And it killed me. But even my parents after a sorry while thought “I should be over it by now”. I searched for articles on my situation and could find none. So thank you for making me feel a little less crazy.

    1. Yes, same thing here. By my ex died from accidental drug overdose. We had only been divorced 1 year and I have 3 young daughters with him. So it’s been very difficult. I haven’t found any other resources either. This article was emailed to me by the social worker that coordinates the grief group that I attend.

      1. Same thing with me. My ex left me and our 4 kids in 2019. A little over a year after our divorce. I mourn her loss horribly during the weeks leading up to the anniversary of her death. I cannot find the exact source of the mourning. It all comes back. Although november 2 is the saddest day of my life, I look forward to it so that it can pass and so can the feelings of grief and sadness.

  3. Hey Dr.

    Most of you woman feel like you were cheated out of grief because the new wife excluded you from the funeral but in reality you excluded yourselves right after you filled for divorce.

    You see, when you filled for divorce you caused him and his family great pain. If you had kids he had to pay child support and often you talk about your ex becoming your fiend and being civil. In actually that was forced because he had to deal with you and he wanted to keep your drama to a minimum. He often talked about you behind your back as you talked about him with your friends. He disliked even picking up the phone when you called. He gritted his teeth every time you had your new husband spend time with his kids. He hated you for taking that part of his life away.

    Eventually, he probably remarried. This woman decided she wanted to spend the rest of her life with him and unlike most of you she loved him. She became his one and only and might have had a child with him.

    So, now he is dead and you feel guilt and rightly so. His family dislikes you but smiles and say they understand when actually they hope you spare them the embarrassment of having to tell you to stay away from the funeral and showing. The newer wife remembers all the stuff you pulled during the divorce and his dealing with you and she is secretly glad she doesn’t have to see you again. The only thing she wants at that moment is to be alone with her grief with the man you do not love but she will miss. His family are still hurt by your rejection and they don’t want you around.

    But, you didn’t take the hint, showed up, was treated like you were yesterdays pizza and now you feel sad, alone and rejected. HMMMMM kind of like what he felt when you filed. You new husband is scratching his head trying to figure you out. You talk about how supportive he is but really he wants to minimize your drama too.

    Moral of the story? Everything you do in life has consequences. You divorced him saying that you didn’t want to be his family anymore. He moved on, you moved on. The consequence of your decision is that you don’t get flowers or consideration. Accept it and move on.
    And yes we all do roll our eyes when we see you “grieve”

  4. I was in a domestic violence situation with 2 children, he was arrested and taken out of the Home. We were together for 28 years. 4 months ago he took his own life, it’s a confusing sad situation for us all, I can’t void 28 years, and there were in the first lot of years happy times, unfortunately drugs got to him. The last 4 years were very bad with domestic violence. It’s a hard strange way, I’m grieving him, but it’s the old him I’m grieving. It’s very confusing for myself and my children.

  5. Wow. I lost my ex husband a year ago- I wasn’t married to him for long but we where very good friends. I have struggled so much for this past year as I have had to carryon around my husband friends and family like nothing is wrong. It made me believe I didn’t have a choice and made me disregard my own emotions! Today I broke down after a year and it was a massive melt down and then I come across this article and I have as though it is a blessing because it has made me feel that my feelings are valid that I have a right to mourn with out feeling guilt and that I hold a importance

  6. I married my high school sweetheart, we dated all thru high school and were married for 13 years. We had no children but we shared many great memories, towards the end we just had different views and our love subsided. We divorced in 1998 and it was a hard divorce for both of us. It has been 24 years since our divorce and I remarried in 2000. I recently found out she passed away. It has been very hard emotionally for me, because we did share so many memories while we were married. My heart grieves. I don’t know what to do.

    1. Thank you, and it touches my soul to read these other folks painful grieving, The father of my now 2 adult children died in April, we had been separated for 20 years, he married and moved to Ireland. I felt fine in all this time. But the moment I knew of his demise, my heart broke in two, my son helped me speak to his unconcious body in hospital, by phone. Our life had been so rich in experiences, we were like Bonny and Clyde when we escaped to where I still live in the south of France, He created this beautiful lounge I am now sitting in, I am heartbroken so many memories keep flooding through ,good and bad. I struggle and have isolated myself and feel anxious that I see life through this ‘lost’ lense

  7. Just lost my former spouse today. Fifty- nine years of relationship and 22 of marriage. He was bipolar and the good times were fantastic and the bad were horrid. I have been in another relationship for 22 years, but the former and I kept in touch and he had a friendly relationship with my current partner Jerry( who also lost the mother of his grown children last year). Jerry accepts my relationship and understands the relationship with the former. It is all a part of the person I am. That is tremendous help. There are only a few family and friends who will understand my grief.
    Thanks to all of you for your helpful comments and for this article. Divorce is complicated, mental illness is complicated, and now the complication of death. I am in currently in a grief support group of loss of my sister and best friend. I intend to share this with our supportive facilitator. Hope all of you are able to feel connected through this sharing.

  8. My ex-wife passed away today. I had not seen or spoken with her in over a year due to her new husband’s wishes. I was careful to respect that, even though we welcomed our first grandchild into the world this past summer. We were married for 21 years, had four children, all of whom are now young adults, and divorced over six years ago. I am remarried and have a little one whom I love dearly. It’s confusing, because I was not part of the later stages of my ex’s illness. I was not attendant to her death, even though my adult children were. Our family shared many good years together, endured many trials together, and made memories. I have been remarried for two and a half years and am making new memories, but that doesn’t negate everything that came before the divorce. I am struggling with a wide range of emotions and a flood of memories I repressed during the divorce, which was mainly the result of my actions. I am grieving the divorce all over again—which makes me feel slightly guilty for my new family—along with the pain of my ex’s death. Grieving from a distance is very odd and awkward, as well, as it doesn’t seem real yet. Thankfully, social media will allow me to pay tribute to her life and her role as the mom of my four older children. But I’m sure will carry all this with me for some time to come. For now, I will just focus on supporting my adult children through their time of grief as best I can.

  9. Nice to hear others thoughts on this. I was married for 22 years and divorced 6 years when my ex died. No one thought to check up on me and my feelings after her death and I understand people not even thinking about this. Was tough on my daughter as her and her Mon were estranged and she has regrets.

  10. I too am grieving the loss of my ex husband. We were together 24 yrs, married for 21 years and had 4 children together. I called him my ex, however we never divorced. Like a lot of you, my ex had mental health issues, ie. Bipolar Disorder. I fell in love with his child like sense of adventure. He was so handsome and had the greatest laugh. He sold me on his grandiose ideas and plans, that always fell short. During our marriage we fought constantly about his lack of responsibility and participation with parenting, housework, etc. I worked full time, while he was in and out of work. No amount of arguing and/or threatening to leave him would make a difference. The more I pushed, the more resistance and push back I got, sometimes resulting in verbal, emotional and physical abuse. 15 years ago, in the midst of an argument, I looked at my kids and realized staying in the marriage was not healthy for any of us, I left with my kids and never went back.
    After I left him, he moved 2200 kms away to return to his hometown, to be near his family. Sadly, he progressively declined. He abused drugs and alcohol, which worsened his mental health, he was homeless for a period of time and when he did secure housing, he became a recluse. His involvement with the kids was reduced to an occasional phone call and a day visit in the summer when we would go on vacation.
    I got a call that he had passed away suddenly Aug. 22/23 and my heart sank. I realized in that moment, I still loved him. I immediately went to, oh my, what have I done!! I couldn’t help but think that if I stayed he’d still be alive. My thoughts went to: Why couldn’t I accept him unconditionally and just love him for who he was? I accepted and loved my children no matter what, why couldn’t I do it for my husband? He was sick with a mental illness, I didn’t keep my vow of in sickness and in health. I have so much guilt and regret…😔💔

  11. I have a story similar to many of you, about a man who was loving, sweet, talented, responsible. And things changed. We both played some role but he really fell apart for a few years. He seemed to be getting back on track when he died from his epilepsy. Joan Didion, in her essential book about grief after she lost her husband, wrote, “We are…so wired that when we mourn our losses we mourn, for better or worse, ourselves. As we once were. As we are no longer.” It makes perfect sense to me that we would grieve the loss of such a central, formative person in our lives- and that the grief would focus on the good old days, as we were. And that, on some level, we realize that we grieve the fact that now there will never be a second chance, no matter how much we didn’t want to try again anyway. That decision has now been made for us. Wishing you all love and a way to work past any guilt or regret. It is hard. Peace.

  12. Please I could use some guidance here. I have been dating a man for nearly 2 1/2 years. I am a very sensitive person and can see the depths in others that they often don’t see themselves. That being said, the man I’ve been dating has/had? the most beautiful soul and I fell for him hard. I’ve never loved another human (other than my children) the way that I love him and the thought of being without him has been putting me through complete agony for weeks now.

    He has been married twice before… once fresh out of high school (he’s admitted to me in the past that this marriage ended because he wasn’t ready to be married yet and wasn’t mature enough), the second was with a woman who ended up lying and cheated on him several times. He has 2 children. A 16-year-old daughter from his first marriage, and a 9-year-old daughter from his second.

    Due to his 2nd marriage, the man has commitment issues – and I don’t blame him.

    That being said, I absolutely know he loves me, but the way he responds to the idea of getting married again is pretty intense – and not in a good way.

    know I want to be married again but with the right man – not because I’m pining after marriage… I want the real deal! I was married before to a man for over 21 years and had 4 incredible children with my first husband, but the last 7 years of our marriage was completely dead in the water… I hung on as long as I could and fought to change things but, in all honesty, a wall would have responded more than he ever attempted to, and it got to a point that his lack of commitment to myself as well as our children was so neglected that my kids, too, became unstable (my son even suicidal because he thought his father hated him) so I finally said f-it, and push forward for a divorce.

    It wasn’t long after we separated that I began to date again (remember – our marriage had been fizzled out of 7 long years), and that’s when I met the man I initially mentioned in this post. After dating for about 9 months, my 16 year old son, youngest (11 year old) daughter and I ended up moving into his very small house with him and his 2 daughters (who he had living there every other week – he shared custody) It was crammed, but I was at the beginning of restarting my life at 42 and needed a chance to get on my feet so when he offered, I accepted. He’d mentioned early on (before I moved in), that he was slowly fixing up his home to eventually sell it and get a bigger place. I knew I deeply loved this man already, and had hopes that we would continue to grow and develop plans for our future together, and outside of the idea of remarrying, we spoke about it often…. Finding some land and building a house. I’ll admit, I had an issue with his negative feelings about marriage and couldn’t understand why he couldn’t see that I wasn’t his past and that since he knew that he loved me (not to mention I am a very good woman and not too shabby for my age 😉 ) why wouldn’t he want to scoop me up and make me his for the keeping! The idea excited me and I wanted it so badly with him – I was/am completely in love this man – he has such a beautiful (although damaged) soul!! I just wanted him to let his walls down and relax and knew if I could get him there, we would both be very happy together, but he just couldn’t and it began to hurt me more deeply as time went on and so we struggled… and struggled. While living at his tiny place, most of my items remained packed away and I was pretty much living out of the corner of his bedroom. Between that and his commitment issues, the stressors became greater. We even took a break – I stayed at my friends house while she went out of town because he said he wasn’t sure how he felt about us and needed to think. After a week, I came home to him – he said he knew he loved me and wanted to be with me (in the future – the house we were in was still not a good spot for us), but he’d agreed to and began going to counseling – supposedly about his commitment issues to try to work through them. Eventually, when I got my finances solid (a year after moving in), I ended buying a place of my own. He wasn’t ready to commit to anything (marriage or selling) and we both knew it just wasn’t working at his place. It was leave and save the relationship or stay… and then leave with no relationship. – I didn’t want to leave him though – the idea of sleeping away from him made me feel sick. He truly was my comfort; my rock. Forced to grow accustomed to the idea, I told myself it would still be alright… he only had his girls every other week so he’d be able to come stay at my place pretty regularly… it’d be fine!!!

    I was still living with him while we were fixing some things at my new place but was planning my move within a month or so.

    Then it happened…..

    One fateful morning, 5 days before Christmas, I received a phone call from him while at work. He was distraught; voice trembling, he muttered out that his first wife, the mother of his 16-year-old daughter, was dead. She had some underlying health issues and was staying at her mother’s recovering from a surgery and had some very unexpected complications. Just like that she was gone and our world was turned completely upside down.
    He wasn’t super close with his ex – they really only spoke when they had to about their daughter and would often bicker. I didn’t have issues with her – we got along just fine when we were around each other and honestly, I’d do my best to try to keep the two of them from fighting over stupid little things for the sake of their daughter. I loved his girls like my own.

    I knew it was time – I had to go. Although I wasn’t ready (still fixing the new house, not packed, days before Christmas), his daughter was now moving in full time. Neither she, nor he, seemed to be processing things well. She was acting as if everything was fine and he was beside himself. His grief was like someone took all the stages, threw them in a blender, and it spewed out everywhere. I knew they needed space… so I packed what I could and got the hell of out there.

    I was very distraught myself. I wasn’t ready for this…. not any of this and we were all in shock… I didn’t feel real.

    He was becoming a totally different man. He’d barely speak to me and when he did, I felt like garbage. He’d speak to me like I was just an irritation to him and said he needed space – which I tried to give, but it was difficult being that it was the holidays, we had kids in the middle of it all, and a funeral.

    It all felt so stressful and awkward. I was in a unique spot because he and I weren’t doing well, I was very worried for his daughter and wanted her to know I was there for her and loved her, but being her dad’s gf, also didn’t want to overstep my bounds or make her feel like I would EVER try to take the place of her mother.

    I asked if he wanted me to go to the funeral with them and he said yes. We went… his daughter ended up sitting with her friends (which was good – it was away from the casket and they were good support for her), but he told me to sit with his family and he went and sat at the front, in front of the casket, with his ex-wife’s mother and her spouse. My heart sank but I just said ok. I went to go sit with his family – no seats left in their isle, so I sat a row behind them… alone. I sat and watched photos scroll of his ex’s life memories – many of their wedding. Then, when they asked if anyone wanted to come up to the podium to say something about her, he went up and I listened as he spoke about her… their lives together and the good things he’d remembered. And I listened to him choke up, crying his way back to his seat as I cried in mine at the helplessness of wanting to comfort him… be his rock.. except he’d pushed me away. I can’t begin to express the amount of pain I was feeling in this moment from so many different things happening. I was shattered but did my best to hold it together, especially for his daughter’s sake.

    Since then, he’s been a different man… not the man I know. He’s been having dinner regularly with his ex-mother in law (never inviting me) and telling me he needs his space. He’s been angry, irrational, withdrawn, and especially moody with me.

    In one day, (about 2 weeks ago) he told me he loved me and promised he knew he wanted to be with me, then later on the phone when I was talking to him about how he’d been treating me, he told me he was “still in love with her”, that I’d never be his wife, knew he never wanted to marry again, said “if’s all too much” and that he was going to just “rip off the bandaid” and broke up with me, saying that he didn’t want to hurt me more by giving me false hope and that he needed space to figure out how he felt.

    We are still broken up but have seen each other a few times (our younger daughters are in competitive sports together) and his emotions are all over the place – he kisses and hugs me, says he loves me but still says he doesn’t know what he wants. I am in so much pain I can hardly bear it. I’m not sleeping well, almost constantly nauseous, chest pounding, face is flush and completely heartbroken. His change is changing me and beginning to change the way I feel about him – only he’s not him. It’s like the man I knew died but he’s still standing in front of me. I told him that what he was doing is killing me and therefore killing us… that I may not be there once he “figures things out” because I can’t take it. He lovingly told me that he understands and that he knows he needs to work on things. Then that he was tired and to have a good night and great day tomorrow. Then he said he loved me and goodbye.

    I’ve been trying to find information about grief like mine to help me get through it, but I haven’t been about to find anything. I can find info on grief for almost anything else, but not much in the grief and stressors placed on the partner of someone who isn’t coping well with the grief they’re carrying from the death an ex spouse or the stain it can add to a relationship when someone isn’t processing things properly. I believe I lot if it is stemming from the fact that he feels guilty for not being a good husband to her because he was too young at the time and immature and possibly even thinks that maybe if he were a better husband then that she wouldn’t have been so unhealthy as to end up in the path that led to her death. Not sure if I’m correct, but it sure seems that way… like he’s punishing himself – his future – his happiness and our happiness because of his past.

    If you’ve read this whole thing, thank you so very, very much. It’s long, I know, but it’s very complicated and I haven’t found anyone who can help. I do still love him very much and just want him to come back to himself and to me.

  13. Last week, I found out that my ex-wife had died.
    We were married 4 years and had a son. She took our son and disappeared. I remarried and have been blessed with a loving wife and family for over 50 years.
    Why am I experiencing such grief over my ex-wife’s passing? Disenfranchised grief? or sorrow for my prodigal son and those she left behind.

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