Grieving for an Ex Isn't Wrong
Accept your emotions for what they are and steer clear of people who don’t think you have a right to grieve.
My sister heard the news from her son. His dad, her ex-husband, had died. Since she and her ex had been divorced for more than a decade, she was stunned by the extent of her grief.
Part it was sorrow for her children. But another part, the emotion that surprised her, was her own sadness. She hadn’t loved her ex for a long time. Bitterness replaced love, and eventually bitterness faded to indifference. She had managed to suppress the emotional baggage that comes with a breakup and to move on with her life.
But now those emotions came rushing back, broadsiding her with their intensity. Like deadened nerve endings coming to life, they jabbed her with a fresh onslaught of pain. My sister experienced a gamut of emotions, including memories of the best and worst aspects of their relationship. They had loved, they had fought, they had divorced, and their lives had diverged. But some pain had never been resolved, and now it never would be.
“He never made amends,” my sister said. “All I’ve done is cry.”
Some people harbor the slim hope of one day reuniting with an ex. Others long for an end to bitterness, an apology, or an acknowledgement of their pain. When an ex-partner dies, it’s final. There’s no possibility of resolution; no closure.
My sister wouldn’t be welcome at the funeral. She wouldn’t be swamped with sympathy cards. Her children, so caught up in their own loss, relived the trauma of divorce and there was little chance they would share a mutual grief with the remaining parent.
It took my sister a long time to get over the divorce, and now those emotions were reactivated. She experienced all over again the blame, anger, loss and regret. Yet she felt her emotions were somehow illegitimate. Why should she react so strongly? Why should she grieve the loss of a man she no longer loved? It was natural for her children to grieve the death of their father. Everybody expected his current wife to grieve. But his ex-wife? Where did she fit into the picture?
But no grief is illegitimate. There’s no right or wrong way to grieve. An ex who has moved on can still experience grief for how things might have been. When long-suppressed emotions come flooding back, those feelings can seem new all over again. Ex partners might not be welcomed at the funeral or expected to contact family members, yet they still need an outlet for their grief.
There’s nothing wrong with experiencing grief, confusion and strong emotions when an ex dies. As Victor Frankl said in Man’s Search for Meaning, “There is no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bear witness that a person has the greatest of courage, which is the courage to suffer.”
But it’s important to find a safe place to shed those tears and vent those emotions. My sister discovered she couldn’t be open with everyone. Some people questioned her right to grieve and thought she was being overly dramatic.
“You haven’t talked to him in ages,” one person said. Another person commented, “Why are you so upset? He remarried long ago.”
It’s important to steer clear of people who negate our emotions or criticize us for expressing them. Fortunately, my sister had a close-knit group of friends who understood and accepted the legitimacy of her feelings. They were perceptive enough to know she needed to grieve, and they didn’t question or confront her about it.
No two people will respond the same way to the death of an ex, because no two relationships are alike.
Unlike my sister, my sister-in-law didn’t experience any strong emotion when her ex died. She didn’t even find out about it until a couple of years later. Then her only emotion was surprise.
“You’d think I would have felt some kind of intuition when he died,” she said. “I’m surprised I didn’t feel anything at all.” She had been married to another partner for 25 years, and her relationship with her ex was part of the long-ago past.
When my ex-boyfriend died, I didn’t experience overwhelming grief, but I felt sadness and regret. Although he wasn’t a spouse, I had been with him for four years. Everybody expected us to marry, we talked about it, and we even planned where we were going to live. But there was something missing in our relationship, and we eventually broke it off.
When he died at 39, I felt sorrow and regret that he had died so young. But I was married with three children by then. There was no residue of emotional baggage and no lingering love. My grief stemmed from the fact that he never reached his career aspirations or lived the life he had imagined. I remembered how he had wanted to be a pharmacist and live on his family’s farm. Neither one of those things ever happened. That was incredibly sad.
Our breakup had been mutual. We had gone our separate ways. But despite the fact that I hadn’t seen him in years, he was someone I had been close to; a kind, caring person who thought he had his whole life in front of him.
All these different reactions to the death of an ex are legitimate. We should never need to explain our emotions or feel guilty about them. If someone was part of your life and is now gone, there is no right or wrong way to feel. Accept your emotions for what they are and steer clear of people who don’t think you have a right to grieve. Lean toward supportive, compassionate friends who are there for you without judging.
Getting through the grief process is part of keeping the past in perspective and moving on with your life. Whether you grieve a lot, a little, or not at all, there is nothing wrong with your response.