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The death of an ex-spouse raises wrenching questions

Anxiety filled Courtney Nyren when she attended her ex-husband's funeral.

The couple had been married for six years and divorced for two when he was killed fighting in Iraq.

Although the couple had a 12-year-old daughter, Ms. Nyren felt a coldness from his family at the funeral, "especially his new wife."

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"At the funeral I did not sit up front. I let my daughter go with her Nana and I stayed further back," said Ms. Nyren, a Virginia-based administration supervisor.

But, she said, "I was also holding my head up: We had been married and in love at one point. We also had a daughter who needed me at her side."

The death of an ex-spouse raises wrenching questions. Do you attend the funeral for closure, or stay at home out of respect for the current partner? What is the proper condolence? And how do you cope with what experts term "double death": As a former lover passes, so does the hope of rescinding past hurts for reconciliation.

"These issues become so complicated on so many levels, and there's not really a protocol," said Harold Ivan Smith, a former funeral director and thanatologist at Saint Luke's Hospital in Kansas City, Mo.

Unfinished business was the story with Michael Jackson's mourning exes, whose expressions of grief seemed as divergent as the women.

One day after the pop star's death, Mr. Jackson's first ex-wife, Lisa Marie Presley, posted a rambling, confessional blog entry on her MySpace page.

In the post, called "He Knew," Ms. Presley agonized over her ex-husband's apparent death wish and her inability to save him. She described the unusual marriage as her "biggest failure to date," but also lashed out at those who called it a "sham."

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Mostly, she regretted her own bitterness: "All of my indifference and detachment that I worked so hard to achieve over the years has just gone into the bowels of hell and right now I am gutted," she wrote.

Displaying little of that ardour, Mr. Jackson's second ex-wife Debbie Rowe opted for a self-possessed statement delivered through her lawyer. Refusing to become an "unnecessary distraction," the surrogate of Mr. Jackson's first two children announced she would not attend the memorial, but would "celebrate Michael's memory privately."

(In the end, paparazzi caught Ms. Rowe watching the memorial on television from her California ranch, and captured her sobbing as daughter Paris Jackson took the mike at the end of the service.)

"People grieve in different ways," said Hendrie Weisinger, a psychologist who spent years counselling in Los Angeles and recently authored The Genius of Instinct .

"When you are in a genuine and authentic mode of grieving over the loss of a loved one, the reality is you don't care about what anybody else is thinking."

That doesn't preclude others from making their own judgments.

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When it comes to attending the funeral, "You're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't," Mr. Smith said. "You're damned if you don't show up, or judged to have not been sincere."

The vitriol lobbed at Ms. Rowe for her no-show speaks to the challenging position grieving exes find themselves in.

"It's disenfranchised grief. If you're an ex, you just don't get fully recognized as a griever, regardless of how the relationship ended," Mr. Smith said.

Ann B., a benefits co-ordinator at a Seattle college who did not want her full name used, worried she'd be disavowed of her grieving process after her ex-husband died while awaiting a liver transplant in 2004.

Although she phoned and e-mailed her ex-husband for two decades after the divorce, Ann found herself filling with dread as she flew to his funeral.

The relationship had ended because her husband was gay; in Ann's mind, not only was she now the ex, she was also now the woman.

"I feared that his gay friends might be offended by my presence," she said.

Although none of her fears materialized - the man's friends "embraced and practically adopted" her - Ann said the ex in mourning remains highly misunderstood.

"Many people seem to assume that if you're divorced, you no longer care about your ex. I cried every day for two years after he died."

As Ms. Presley can attest, emotions can sometimes get "rebooted" after the death of an ex, Dr. Smith said.

His advice for those contemplating attending an ex's funeral is to ask themselves: "Will my presence contribute to the ritual or will my presence distract?"

He added that the prevalence of post-divorce families means that exes will become an increasingly common sight at funerals.

"There are current spouses and exes who have an ability to negotiate a safe place between them, often for the benefit of a child. But that takes a lot of work to get that."

Mr. Smith recalled one funeral in London, Ont., where an ex-wife and new girlfriend walked down the church aisle behind the man's casket, holding hands.

"That could not have happened 10 years ago."

Paying your respects

For exes, there are other ways to "ritual your loss" than throwing yourself on his casket, said Harold Ivan Smith, a former funeral director and member of the Connecticut-based Association for Death Education and Counselling.

"There's the option of going late, sitting in the back and leaving before the service is over. There will be people who will say you paid your respects, you were there. Or, go sign the guestbook, express your condolences and then leave."

If relations are frosty, Mr. Smith recommends mourning alone, "with candles, or some kind of litany, or readings."

Most of all, Mr. Smith said, consider the children watching.

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