Q. My friend’s ex-husband just died, and I feel awkward about what to say to her and her children. I’m also concerned about talking to her ex’s family at the funeral. I met the in-laws a few times during the marriage. Do you have any suggestions?
A. It can get very complicated when someone’s ex-spouse dies. The surviving ex-wife or -husband may feel deep sorrow. For a time, the couple did share a life together. There can be good memories as well as bad, and ambivalent feelings about the deceased, whether the divorce was amicable or a bitter battle.
In general, try to show as much support for your friend as possible. You can ask, “How are you holding up?” or “How are you taking this?” Then listen quietly and well any time your friend expresses feelings—positive or negative. You can also say, “This must be very difficult,” because it is. Regardless of the circumstances, your friend is likely to be seeing the ex’s family and friends at the funeral or memorial service, perhaps for the first time in many years.
If there are children from the marriage, they have lost a father, and they are grieving. Recognize their loss, and don’t forget to talk to them and/or give them a hug. The gesture can mean a great deal to youngsters. If you knew their father, you can talk about a fond memory of him that involved them, as in, “Your father cried with joy when you were born,” or, “Your father always talked about your volunteering to tutor disadvantaged kids.” If true, a statement like, “Your dad was always so proud of you (or loved you so much),” is always appreciated—even by an adult child. If the father had an impact on you, you might try something like, “Joe was such a great carpenter. I remember the time he taught me how to use power tools. I was not handy.”
You can approach the deceased’s family members with, “I’m so sorry.” Since you know some of them, add, if you wish, a positive reminiscence such as “Joe’s jokes always made me laugh.” This is a simple, gracious thing to do, even if you haven’t met the people before.
Keep in mind that just showing up at the funeral is a solace for your friend and others touched by this death. Your presence speaks volumes.
If you have a question for Florence, please email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Florence Isaacs is the author of several books on etiquette, including My Deepest Sympathies: Meaningful Sentiments for Condolence Notes a.... She writes two advice blogs for Legacy.com: Sincere Condolences and Widow in the World, a new blog for bereaved spouses and partners.
Image: Flickr Creative Commons / Daquella manera