I recently received an email from a friend with a link to an obituary. As an obit writer with a deep-but- not-dark interest in both people – dead and alive – and death (until it happens to me), I get these emails all the time. Many of them I’ve written about on a variety of legacy.com pages.
This one however, was unique to me: It was about a former husband of mine who had just died in Houston.
I was not shocked exactly, as I knew he had been in poor health for at least a decade. Ours had not been a good match and lasted less than a year. A brilliant, creative and mercurial journalist, he would have done better to hire me, not marry me. We divorced coolly and did not maintain a relationship of any kind although I was, from time to time, in touch with a mutual friend or two.
So, aside from whatever feelings I had, I wondered: What is the protocol for the death of an ex-spouse?
“Do what’s in your heart,” my younger-but-wiser sister advised.
My heart always says: Communicate! Write it down! So I did – in a short note to the woman he married after me, who is now his widow.
But thinking about that process got me to thinking about how often in this blended-family world of ours, different ways an ex-spouse might react or recoil on a former spouse’s death.
Many obits you read in which a second wife is the surviving widow do not even mention the woman – or women – who came before her. Survivors will generally include: current wife, children and grandchildren.
More amiable familial arrangements will allow for something along these lines: He is survived by Jane Doe, the mother of his children (or John, the father of his children); she is survived by her first husband, John Doe, who introduced her to European travel; he is survived by his childhood sweetheart, Jane Doe, and his wife, Julie Doe. One obituary I noted mentioned a surviving fiancé and a loyal, longtime girlfriend.
But no obituary I’ve read shows as much grace and affection as the one for Frances “Frannie” Dittmer. Frannie’s ex-husband’s current wife, Frances Schultz -- who was also a friend -- wrote Dittmer’s obit for The New York Times. http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/nytimes/obituary.aspx?pid=169657784 The ex-husband, the father of her children, played a warm and substantial role in the obituary.
In her blog about Frannie’s death, Frances Schultz wrote: “Some of you know Frannie as my affectionately-referred-to ‘wife-in-law,’ my husband’s first wife and mother of his children. We called each other F-1 and F-2. She was a welcome (and popular!) guest at our wedding. She was also, to state the obvious, my friend.” http://www.francesschultz.com/9702
Frannie Dittmer was killed in a small plane crash in Mexico in February. Schultz went on in her blog: “If you want to read about one amazing, smart, talented, funny, art-connoisseur-ing, football-passing-gal – and I’m not just saying that … read her obituary, which I was privileged to write.”
We should all be so privileged to have a writer of Schultz’s skills commemorate our lives. But even in less-capable hands, why not mention a spouse who was meaningful even if that meaning did not endure until death? Many obits include sibling survivors even if the siblings have been estranged for years. True that’s a blood, not marital, connection but still an indicator not to leave someone out just because they are no longer legally bound.
If you are faced with not knowing exactly what to do, just do something: a note, an email, a phone call.
People do not have to be listed among survivors to warrant a word of sympathy. We all appreciate the gesture and the support, even if not directly related by law. An old guy-pal-almost-boyfriend of mine died years ago, divorced and distanced from many old friends. But I did write to one of his close friends to say I was sorry for his loss. I recently learned, a decade later, that he still has my note in a desk drawer. That’s all the motivation I need to keep doing what’s in my heart: communicate; write it down.
Susan Soper is the founder and author of ObitKit™, A Guide to Celebrating Your Life. A lifelong journalist, she was formerly the Features Editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she launched a series called "Living with Grief" shortly after her father died. Susan lives in Atlanta with her husband.