When it's time to bury the hatchet
Roger Dobson ponders the etiquette surrounding the death of an ex-husband or wife
Sunday 27 September 1998
The etiquette of how to deal with the death of a former partner is a problem that is confronting a growing number of couples as the divorce and separation rates continue to soar, but there are no easy solutions. And, as yet, there are no self-help books.
It was a problem that this week faced Major Ron Ferguson who was, we are told, helped through his grief at the death of his ex-wife, 61-year- old Susan Barrantes, by his two daughters, Sarah and Jane. And earlier this year Caroline Aherne spoke about her feelings when her former boyfriend Matt Bower died of cancer. She says she chose not go to his funeral because she did not want to turn it into a media circus.
According to Manchester University psychologist Professor Cary Cooper, the problem of dealing with the dead Ex is something that many divorced couples are having to face, and there's no quick solution. Decision-making is complicated by children, new partners on both sides, and by past in- laws who will inevitably blame you for the divorce and all that has happened to your former partner including his/her death.
"If the divorce was hostile, and an angry and blaming experience, people would not expect the Ex to get involved," says Professor Cooper. "But if the break-up was agreed with a minimum amount of conflict, it is acceptable to show a certain amount of grief and even turn up for the funeral."
Most people, however, restrict themselves to sending a card, although even here there are tricky dilemmas, like whose name appears on it. Do you and your new partner both sign it, do the names of the shared and/or new children go down, or should you alone sign?
Flowers are another potential minefield, and there have been cases reported of floral tributes from a past partner being thrown way by the new family. In one reported case in Utah the wreath was burnt outside the chapel of rest and the ashes stamped upon by the second husband and his brother. There have been reports, too, of inter-family fights when the Ex has turned up.
"It's all very complicated," sighs chartered psychologist Simon Gelthorpe who deals with relationships. "What you do depends on whether you have stayed in touch, what relationships have been like with the relatives, and so on. It may also depend on whether you were left or whether you did the leaving, and we know that the nature of the grieving is often dependent on the nature of the relationship."
But decisions over flowers and cards are minor events compared to the big one - do you attend the funeral and risk the anger of relatives, or do you stay at home and spend the rest of your life wishing you'd gone?
"If you turned up it might offend them, and you are the isolated one in family terms, the nasty one who at some time in the past has abandoned their loved one. The surviving partner is frequently going to be seen as the villain whatever really happened," says Professor Cooper.
A further complication is the length of time since the divorce. If it is only a short period, the Ex is more likely to attend, and also more likely to be vilified by former in-laws who have been known to resort to violence at the graveside. Several years ago in Turin, one grieving family tried to turn their daughter's funeral into a double event by burying her ex-husband as well. The only problem was that he wasn't dead, and had simply turned up to pay his last respects.
For those who want to attend, going to the funeral can be made easier if there are children from the old relationship: "If the children are grieving and want you to go with them, that's fine, their wishes really override everything else: you go," says Professor Cooper.
He says that there are some cultural differences in accepted behaviour involving other relationships: "In France when President Mitterand died, both his wife and mistress were at the funeral. That is something that, it seems to me, is far more acceptable over there than it would be here."
Actors too, he points out, are another special case. "They get married so often that going to another funeral of another Ex is just another media event, a bit like going to a film premiere."
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