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

12 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. 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.

  4. 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

  5. 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

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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…😔💔

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