04/06/2012 01:00 pm ET | Updated Jun 06, 2012

When the Ex is Seriously Ill

What is one's moral obligation when the ex is seriously ill? For a variety of reasons, former spouses will react with sadness, remorse, guilt, bitterness, and, dare I say, relief that the end is in sight.

Take the former wife who included this postscript in her get-well note: "I'd like you to make provisions I get the furniture and paintings we divided in the divorce settlement. "

Clearly, dredging up empathy and compassion toward an ailing ex has a lot to do with the couple's relationship prior to and post divorce. Sadly, one may bury the body but not the hatchet.

Generosity of spirit is more likely if there are children. This was played out in a recent episode of "Mad Men". There's a scene where Betty learns she has a suspicious lump in her thyroid. What does she do? She immediately calls her husband, and when she doesn't reach him, she calls Don, her ex. From Don's reaction, it's pretty obvious he would move heaven and earth to help Betty, assuming she has cancer (she doesn't.) After all, Betty is the mother of his children.
Don waits to tell Megan, his current wife. What's he afraid of? Megan will tell him to turn his back on Betty? Is he afraid to face the reality he and the children may lose Betty?

The death of a former spouse surfaces many emotions because there's all that history -- both good and bad.

Don finally tells Megan. He's surprised and a little taken aback by her genuine concern. Megan is prepared to take the children when the time comes. She upbraids Don for not telling her sooner. Again, why was he holding out?

I was thinking about Don and Megan's reaction, wondering how other couples might react, when, oddly enough, a student in my writing class shared the following journal entry with me:

My husband's ex-wife B. contracted M.S. many years ago after their divorce. Both my husband and I felt for her. I could tell B. was struggling to cope with her disease. She'd just had a baby with her new husband, and now that happy time was heartbreaking ... I didn't know how to reach out to her. She was my husband's ex-wife, after all. I wasn't supposed to do that kind of a thing, right? But I did -- I became rule breaker extraordinaire! I called B., supported her, and hugged her. I brought her gifts of books on encouragement and God's love for her, candles and a beautiful card. Seems so trivial now but it was pure in heart. It wasn't nearly enough, was it? I couldn't give her what she wanted, health and for this to be a bad dream. I wish I could have. We became even closer because of my reaching out. She saw my genuine concern for her. [Because my husband travels so much he couldn't be there for her so I stood in for him.] B. and I began attending all the children's events together and really enjoyed each other's company.

Notice the writer calls herself a rule-breaker. I'm curious how others have behaved in similar circumstances. What exactly is breaking the rules when someone you once cared about is at risk?