Last month, my sons, both in their early 20s, went to visit their father and found him dead. What has happened since has been a lesson for me.
You might imagine that the death of an ex would be a non-event or even a dream come true. In my experience, it's not.
The death of someone with whom you had intended to share a life is traumatic, even when the dream of a life together ended many years before. And where children are involved, it should be obvious that what affects our children affects us.
I lost Warren when our marriage ended, and I lost him again when his life ended. With the final loss there is no more chance to clear the air and be joint parents to our kids. Those chances are gone forever.
At the funeral home, the mother of one of my son's friends said it must be hard for me to know what my role was as an ex-spouse. "No, it's not at all," I said before walking away. I hope that was my least gracious moment of the ordeal.
The truth is that before Warren's death I might have asked the same thing. I might have wondered whether I would even be welcome at the funeral, and whether it would be difficult to figure out how I fit in. It was not.
From the minute Warren's body was discovered, my role was obvious. My sons and stepdaughter (his daughter from his first marriage) had lost their father. My kids, who had been doing all they could to help their dad fight a lethal drug addiction, now faced his loss of that battle, and faced life without him. My role was to be there for them in any way they needed.
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The days following a death are busy and emotionally exhausting. There are people to inform, a funeral to organize, clothes to prepare, meals to cook, questions to answer - many questions to answer.
The kids did an amazing job under difficult circumstances. They were warm, wise and compassionate, and made it easy for me to take care of them. Nick wrote and delivered a poignant eulogy that his father would have liked. Drew arranged pallbearers. Sarah made lists and checked off the seemingly endless to-do's effectively.
For a few days my living room and dining room were filled with photo albums as Sarah, Nick and Drew chose enough pictures to fill five poster boards for the funeral home. I hadn't opened these albums for a decade. Albums filled with photos taken by a mother who had a darkroom in her basement and thought her kids were the cutest ever - hundreds and hundreds of photos of much happier times. The pictures were a bright spot in the midst of our grief that made us laugh, smile and sigh, and reminded me of what I'd lost.
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Warren and I were married in 1984. In 1985, we bought and renovated a home that we planned to stay in until our sons grew up and away. We had plans for retirement that involved carpentry, horses, sailboats and lots of wilderness.
We quietly established traditions - all-season trips to the cottage near Tobermory, Ont., apple picking in the fall, splashing in puddles in the rain, hand-sewing Halloween costumes. Most Mother's Days, I'd spend the morning prepping my spring garden, and the afternoon with the family at a Blue Jays game. On Mother's Day, 1998, Warren gave me a basketball net to go on our new garage so I could shoot hoops with the kids, the way I used to with my brothers. Warren and I were focused on our kids, on hard work and on fun.
When he was 7, my younger son Drew announced that there were two kinds of marriages, "The kind where you can get divorced and the kind where you can't." He confidently announced, "You and Dad have the kind where you can't." I agreed with him.
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Seven years later things changed. Huge rifts appeared in our marriage, chief among them a drug addiction. Things escalated until we could no longer live safely under the same roof. It was heartbreaking for all of us.
In January, Warren called to invite me for coffee. He wanted to talk. He gave me back pieces of artwork that he had bought for me during our marriage and had kept when we separated. He confessed that he was embarrassed by some of the things he had said and done during our marriage, and that he was glad we were now able to talk.
At the time I thought it was part of his 12-step program. In retrospect, I think he was saying goodbye.
The day after Warren's body was found, I called my rabbi to ask her about saying Kaddish, a Jewish prayer recited daily for 30 days in a synagogue, for an ex-spouse who was not Jewish. The conversation is a bit of a blur, but I have found great comfort in saying Kaddish for Warren. Mourning is complex, with many layers and many stages.
Ten years ago Drew and I both learned that there are not two kinds of marriage. This year I learned that the death of an ex is harder than I imagined, and I am deeply grateful to all those who knew this without needing to experience it and offered me their comfort and support.
Debra Bennett lives in Toronto.