Huffpost Divorce
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Jill Brooke Headshot

How Do You Mourn An Ex-Spouse?

Posted: Updated:

I don't know why but I'm riveted by the fact that John Edwards was by his ex-wife's bedside.

Before Elizabeth Edwards died, did she say, "Promise not to marry Rielle Hunter?" pointing out that there is historical precedent to this request since Thomas Jefferson's wife asked her husband never to remarry upon her death. Did Elizabeth say, "I forgive you ?" Could she?

Did he say, which I'm privately hoping, "I'm really sorry and I loved you more than anyone else."

As the author of "Don't Let Death Ruin Your Life," I have seen how most people on their deathbed want closure in their relationships. In the past, people have sought it mostly from blood relatives--mothers, fathers even siblings--but more and more these days it is with ex-spouses.

There are no solid numbers addressing this trend, but if you do the math and calculate that at least a million people get divorced each year since the 1970s, it stands to reason that more and more exes will want to attend funerals--and more significantly--will grieve the loss.

Although they were technically separated and never divorced, John Edwards became persona non grata in Elizabeth Edwards' household (infidelity and a child out of wedlock will do that). Yet both most likely wanted to honor what they did have. When one faces mortality, it is often easier for the couple to airbrush the blemishes of a relationship and focus on the parts that brought joy, laughter and love and not dwell on what caused pain and disappointment--especially when there are children involved.

At least at the funeral, John will not have to face any new spouse, which for many exes can be difficult terrain to navigate. Where do they sit? Should they come to the house after the funeral? Do you send condolence cards to them?

I can never forget how heartbreaking it was for me to observe how marginalized Joan Kennedy was by the media at the funeral of Senator Ted Kennedy. All the accolades and support were channeled to his second wife, Victoria, and hardly anyone mentioned the mother of his three children who quietly attended the funeral.

How difficult it must have been for her to hear how Victoria was the love of Ted Kennedy's life? Joan had spent 25 years with him, shared wedding china, holiday vacations, school recitals, medical hardships and campaign victories. They fell out of love but that didn't mean that there hadn't been love. Ted was also the only husband she ever had.

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.

In a refreshingly honest article, Lee Borden from the Alabama Law Center shared how difficult it is for the ex-spouse at the funeral of a loved one. "Even in the stormiest, most destructive divorce, there are still feelings there for the person who used to share your bed and your life," he wrote. "And in the midst of grieving over the loss of my divorced spouse, I'm also grieving over the relationship as I wish it could have been."

Borden goes on to suggest that the loss of an ex-spouse hurts more because "I'm forced to go back and relive the cruddy experience of my divorce and the unhappiness that led up to it." Yes, there is bitter and sweet.

Nor does the ex-spouse usually get calls from friends, bouquets of flowers or a smorgasbord of food as the community arrives to pay respect to your loss. Usually it's silence and you grieve alone. A part of your history has died.

Because even if you are remarried, it is not a subject to bring up with the new spouse since why stir up jealousy or create problems or comparisons?

Of course, you can say that you are grieving for your children.

Even those with horrible divorces are surprised by the emotions that surface following the death of a spouse. Sometimes hate can also connect them and that thread has been permanently cut.

One of my favorites stories is how my friend Julie's parents handled this situation. "My father held my mother's hand as she passed and my stepmom was outside the hospital room," she told me. In that household, where the divorce was amicable and all had moved on, love was elastic and respectful. I know I will have that grace and understanding because my husband's ex-wife is a part of my family after all these years. She is like an aunt to my son and I am the stepmother to her two daughters.

Of course, the ex-wife should honor their place in the family dynamic and not upstage the present wife. Cher's performance at Sono Bono's funeral was a textbook case of what not to do.

People may think they're breaking free of marriage when they leave but history has a way of putting invisible handcuffs on you and tying you to that relationship forever when you have children. Because when you break up you are simultaneously building a new family format and you realize that no one will take as much interest in your children as each other.

Elizabeth Edwards tried valiantly to keep her marriage together because John Edwards was the love of her life. He was not the husband she may have wanted but he was the one she had. Now he will be left raising her children. Perhaps he is a better father than husband, which often is the case. For many women, this is a cruel irony.

Like many people who know that they are about to die, Elizabeth wrote letters to her three children offering maternal advice and love.

Maybe she wrote about how flawed people can be and how even if life is unfair you still just have to go on. Maybe she wrote to Cate about how there are good times and bad times but don't love someone who doesn't love you back. Maybe she wrote to her son Jack about the importance of being honest and honoring vows and commitments because this endless shortsighted pursuit for momentary personal happiness often ends up destroying family trust, respect and your relationship with your clan. Maybe she also gave them the gift of reminding her children that people are flawed and disappoint but it is part of the human experience.

John Edwards will not be speaking at the funeral. Instead she chose her daughter Cate and two friends. I understand this impulse. John Edwards' behavior didn't earn him the right to speak at the podium. In a way, I'm happy about this outcome. We need to see more consequences for bad behavior. But I also think he should be there.

His presence at the funeral and her bedside is a way of paying respect to their history.

I have no doubt that he will miss her.