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Sympathy For The Late Man’s Ex-Wife

I don’t have an example of a faux pas yet — I just want to avoid one. I just received news that one of my uncles has passed away. He was married to my Aunt (Father’s sister) for many years, and they had 4 children, 3 of whom are still living. Growing up I was quite close to the older cousins (the youngest was born shortly before I went to college). My Aunt and Uncle divorced a few years after the youngest child was born, and he remarried. I still keep in touch with my Aunt, but haven’t seen her ex since their youngest daughter’s wedding. I always got along fine with him, and I feel badly for my cousins who lost a loving father.

I am planning on going to the calling hours to show support for my cousins. My dilemma has to do with whether to send my Aunt a sympathy card. She wasn’t mentioned in the obituary (which is sometimes standard with an ex-wife?). I don’t really know the details of their divorce, but as far as I know they remained civil since their youngest was still very young when they split. Would it be better to send a “thinking of you” card to my aunt? My sister thinks it would be weird to send a card, but I feel weird doing nothing.   Suggestions appreciated! 0113-17

If I were you, I’d be inclined to call or make a point to chat with Aunt if she happens to be at the funeral and ask her, “How are you doing?”   Based on that answer, I’d make my decision as to whether to send a bereavement card to the ex-wife of the deceased.


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  • lkb January 16, 2017, 6:46 am

    This is a tough one. A lot depends on the OPs relationship with the aunt. If the OP and the aunt were particularly close, then the Admin’s advice about a phone call is fine. However, the OP says he or she doesn’t know the details of the divorce, then a phone call might not be wise and may even come up as trolling for information or reopening old wounds.

    As I write this, I’m now leaning toward waiting and seeing what happens at the funeral. The OP can always say, “I’m sorry for all you have been enduring.” (The aunt can take that how she wants.) (May the ex rest in peace.)

  • Mustard January 16, 2017, 7:34 am

    I don’t think I would send a card, but would do as admin suggests and chat at the funeral. I would send cards to the cousins though.

  • ALM January 16, 2017, 8:42 am

    Just send a ‘thinking of you’ card. Don’t overthink it.

    Even if your aunt is not actively grieving for her ex-husband, her children are and that may well be causing pain and stress. (Unless she has some sort of personality disorder that prevents her from caring about her adult children).

    This isn’t rocket science. You don’t need to pre-determine your aunt’s level of grief before showing her you care.

    • Goldie January 16, 2017, 11:41 am

      That was what I thought too. Aunt’s children lost their father, so of course she would be affected.

    • AppleEye January 16, 2017, 12:39 pm

      I think is the the perfect solution. Add to it @Mustard’s suggestion of sending sympathy cards to the cousins, and you’ve covered your bases.

    • AthenaC January 27, 2017, 9:22 am

      I agree – even when there’s a nasty divorce, it can still hit a person like a ton of bricks when their ex-spouse dies. Eve though you’re not married anymore, in the back of your mind you’re operating on the presumption that they are at least alive. My aunt had a rough time when her ex-husband committed suicide a couple years after their divorce.

  • Just4Kicks January 16, 2017, 9:17 am

    We have (well, had…they’ve all passed) extended family in Philly.
    We would go to weddings, showers, funerals you name it.
    One of my distant uncles was a “serial” divorced, very nice man, I adored him.
    Anyway, I’m about ten and we head off for a cousin’s wedding.
    We are making the rounds at the reception, and run into Uncle and his wife.
    I give him a big hug and kiss hello, then say “Hi, Aunt Rose!”
    “Uhhh….I’m not Rose.”
    “Oh my gosh!!! I’m so sorry, Aunt Lily! How are you?!?”
    “I’m SUZANNE!!!”
    I felt awful, and of course my folks were horribly embarrassed, mumbled something about shutting my mouth with wedding cake and hustled me away.
    On the way home, I wake up from dozing and the argument between my folks about it.
    “She’s only ten….how was I supposed to know she’d remember all those names!!! I SURE AS HELL DON’T!!!”

    • Just4Kicks January 16, 2017, 9:18 am

      ….serial DIVORCER….that should say….

  • clairedelune January 16, 2017, 9:22 am

    I think your instinct is right on, OP, and I think your sister is maybe letting some misplaced social sensitivities make her feel ungenerous. I would just write a very simple note to your aunt (it needn’t even be a card) to say, as you suggest, “thinking of you,” and maybe focus on the wonderful children that he and your aunt shared. Even if their post-divorce relationship was less amicable than you realize, all you’re doing is recognizing her as an important part of his life story, and acknowledging that, even if nothing else, she is now helping her children through a very sad loss.

    • Dee January 16, 2017, 11:56 am

      clairedelune – I agree with you. It is custom to not put exes into obituaries and aunt may not even attend the funeral, for various reasons, and this suggestion of yours covers in the event aunt doesn’t attend. There’s nothing wrong with saying that you care how someone is feeling. I think Aunt would appreciate it.

  • LR January 16, 2017, 9:30 am

    I don’t think it’s ever inappropriate to send “Thinking of You” or “Sympathy” card following a death. In fact, I think it’s very thoughtful. Even if your Aunt is not still married or in a relationship with the deceased, they were important in each others’ lives and it’s still a loss.

    • Daniotra January 16, 2017, 12:22 pm

      I agree with this. Your uncle was a major part of your aunt’s life for many years, and he was the father of her children. A “thinking of you” card may be most appropriate as a “sorry for your loss” type card doesn’t quite fit. Let her know that your cousins are in your heart right now, and you are hoping/praying for them to have comfort during this difficult time.

  • Willynilly January 16, 2017, 10:02 am

    I think, considering your intentions, reaching out is nothing short of appropriate and warrented. Worse case she isn’t mourning and just feels touched by your concern. But honestly, her children are no doubt mourning and regardless of her feeling towards her ex, she is probably hurting simply for her children – [most] mothers don’t want their kids to hurt.

    • Lomita Momcat January 17, 2017, 1:45 am

      Worst case is offering her condolences on the death of her ex is like squeezing lemon juice on an open wound. I know some divorced spouses who would happily dance a jig on their ex’s grave and would regard any expression of “I’m sorry for your loss, I hope you’re feeling okay,” as either an insult, sarcasm, meddling into private issues, or a huge joke in very bad taste.

      If you’re not sure about how the ex feels about his/her dear departed former spouse, tread lightly with condolences about the “loss.” A more general “thinking of you” is wiser.

  • mark January 16, 2017, 10:15 am

    If possible I would express any sympathy in person. If she is at the funeral that is the best place. Then I wouldn’t worry about a card. And if she isn’t at the funeral, you’ve got your answer on whether to send a card or not.

  • saucygirl January 16, 2017, 11:27 am

    I would wait to see your aunt at the funeral, and see if you think she considers herself in mourning.

    A few years ago my uncle (my dads brother) passed away. I was not close to him at all, and to be honest, was not that phased by his death. I did send a sympathy card to my aunt, though, as I really liked her. And that was pretty much it for me. A few weeks later, though, my father commented to me that he was surprised that he hadn’t received a sympathy card from my in laws. I told him that I hadn’t told them about my uncles death. He was outraged with me, as he felt all family (which apparently includes my in laws, who had only met my dad a handful of times and hadn’t met my uncle at all) should have been told so that they could offer him condolences. To this day I am still mystified by the fact that he felt he should have received a card from my in laws.

  • Just4Kicks January 16, 2017, 11:45 am

    I went off the rails a bit upthread, sorry.

    I think it’s a shame your Aunt wasn’t mentioned in the obituary, she is the mother of his children.
    One of my mom’s friend’s was left off the obituary, and my mom said she thought it was tacky that she (mom’s friend/first wife) wasn’t mentioned.
    Mom’s friend said they didn’t have any kids together, so she wasn’t really surprised.

    I think a thinking of you card, and/or phone call would be very nice.
    If you’re really stuck, and still close with the cousins, maybe ask how Mom is doing with all this and go by their answer.

    • Huh January 16, 2017, 12:58 pm

      If I drop dead today, I DO NOT want my ex-husband to be listed in the obituary. If he drops dead today, I DO NOT want to be listed in the obituary. I’m not surprised at all that your mom’s friend wasn’t mentioned in an obituary for her ex. I don’t recall ever seeing a “survived by his first wife” in an obit.

    • Ergala January 16, 2017, 1:53 pm

      My sister and I weren’t mentioned in my father’s obituary. It really REALLY hurt. A lot.

      • Just4Kicks January 16, 2017, 7:34 pm

        Wow. That’s awful, what a crappy thing to do to you both.
        Shame on whoever was responsible for that.

    • Dyan January 16, 2017, 2:28 pm

      Just 4 I always love what you post…either you make me laugh or smile..so thank you!!!

      • Just4Kicks January 16, 2017, 7:29 pm

        @Dyan: That’s the nicest thing anyone has to me in a while, you made my day…Thanks! 🙂

        • Just4Kicks January 16, 2017, 7:34 pm

          ….said to me….sheesh.

    • at work January 16, 2017, 4:31 pm

      How to, or whether to, mention ex-spouses in obituaries must be difficult. My dad’s obit, written by his widow, mentioned his first wife (who had predeceased him and with whom he had two children) and it mentioned his third wife (the widow), and it mentioned his other three children (I’m one of them), but no hint of our mom, who he was married to for 14 years… it made us feel like the bastard children of “John Smith.” I am wondering how other families handle it. I wish stepmom had had the grace and imagination to at least mention he had been married to our mom. After all, that was my life!

      • Just4Kicks January 16, 2017, 7:31 pm

        I am my husband’s 3rd wife.
        He doesn’t “count” his first marriage as they were both very young and had it annulled after six months.
        His second wife and he have one child together.
        When he goes, if I’m still around, I will definitely mention second wife and their daughter.
        The first wife? Nope. She won’t make it in.

      • Dee January 16, 2017, 8:06 pm

        Exes are generally not mentioned in obituaries. Ex wives, ex daughter/son in-laws, ex mother-in-laws, etc. Spouses, children and in-laws that predeceased the late person are usually mentioned. In that context, it makes sense that your father’s first and third wives were mentioned but not his second, your mother. I don’t think etiquette has quite caught up with the now frequent dissolution of relationships and how to handle that in obituaries but the general rule is – no exes.

        • Just4Kicks January 17, 2017, 7:02 am

          I reverse some of my statement, you are correct.
          While my step daughter would most definitely be mentioned, there really is no reason to mention his ex wife by name….unless he dumps me and remarries her!

        • at work January 17, 2017, 7:36 am

          Understood. If it’s an etiquette thing, well, there it is.

      • Lomita Momcat January 17, 2017, 9:56 pm

        Family issues can get complicated.

        A horse trainer I worked with had this family situation:

        Her mom and dad got divorced not long after she was born.

        Her mom married another man, who had a child from a previous relationship. Her mom and this man had a daughter together, then divorced. This man got into a relationship with another woman, who had two kids from other relationships with two different men, and had a child with her.

        Her mom then married a third man, who had two children with his first wife. She didn’t have any children with him.

        Meanwhile, my horse trainer’s biological father, her biological mother’s first wife, married again and had two kids with this woman. They divorced, and this woman, his second wife and second ex, married another man and and had a child with him.

        Trainer’s bio father married another woman, who had a child from a previous relationship. Bio father ventually adopted his third wife’s child.

        When horse trainer was explaining all this, my head was swimming.

        I’ll be damned if I could figure out the etiquette of things like obituaries and condolences in a family with this many complications!

  • doodlemor January 16, 2017, 1:01 pm

    I think that a little handwritten note would be appropriate for this occasion. She could get a blank card, or just use notepaper.

    OP could say that she has fond memories of her former uncle, and share some of these memories with aunt. She could say that she is sorry for aunt’s and her [adult] children’s loss, and that she knows that aunt will be a huge support to her children in the coming months.

    She could then finish with a bit of family news, or upcoming plans.

    • Lomita Momcat January 17, 2017, 1:23 am

      Sharing fond memories of the deceased ex with his former spouse is really unwise if OP doesn’t know how those memories will be received by the aunt.

      If OP isn’t sure what to say, a general “thinking of you” statement and family news should be safe and a good start for a dialogue.

      My experience is that a willingness to listen nonjudgmentally is the most important message to convey.

  • PWH January 16, 2017, 2:31 pm

    Hi OP, I agree with Admin and other responses on this. Once you get a chance to see your Aunt at the funeral you can gauge how best to proceed. I would reach out to your cousins, though, to express your condolences to them on the loss of their father.

    These types of situations are always very difficult. Quite a few people mentioned the lack of inclusion of the Ex-wife’s name (mother of children) in the obituary. It is not common-place. I think it depends on a number of things – the relationship between the Exes and the relationship between the wife and the ex-wife. It would be the current wife compiling the obituary, hopefully with some assistance from the children. I know my Mom has mentioned that she doesn’t want my father’s name listed in her obituary. Yes, they are still in contact and are cordial to one another, but she is remarried and has other children. She no longer considers him family.

  • Cat January 16, 2017, 2:39 pm

    I’d write a short, personal note and mention my memories of their family.

  • Nina J. Hodgson January 16, 2017, 4:23 pm

    I make it a point to never ask anyone, especially a bereaved person, “how are you doing?” What is she supposed to say? “I am about to throw myself on the funeral pyre?” Which might indeed be her inclination, but ninety-nine times out of one hundred, she will say, “Oh, fine” when she really means “Jesus Christ on roller-skates, how could you ask that.”

    So what do you say? I have been thinking of you, you are in my heart, lets’s do lunch, do you want to have a heart-to-heart. But never, “how are you doing,”

  • Lomita Momcat January 16, 2017, 7:30 pm

    Experience with aunts/uncles in my family and their situations post-divorce taught me one thing: proceed with extreme caution when an ex passes away and you’re dealing with the survivor of that marriage, ESPECIALLY if you don’t know the details of the relationship and what led up to the split. Things may not be the way you thought they were. One of my aunts had what everyone thought was an amicable break-up with her husband. She seemed to live a reasonably content life after the divorce but never talked about her ex.

    When her ex passed away, my father (her brother) made the mistake of offering condolences in a very mild way.

    This triggered a long tirade from my aunt that amounted to a wish that he’d burn in hell and that she sincerely hoped that at some time in the future, she’d have the chance to make a biological deposit (not her exact words) on his grave.

    This was rather flabbergasting, considering her reticence about him while he was alive, but we found out later from her kids that she regarded his divorce, which did not involve another woman, as a particular insult to her.

    Proceed with extreme caution and be prepared to be surprised if you decide to “go there” with condolences about an ex.

  • Goldie January 17, 2017, 10:20 am

    What’s the etiquette of attending or not attending an ex-spouse’s funeral? Does anybody know? I hope for my ex’s sake that I do not outlive him, but if I do, I’ll be pretty confused as to whether to attend or not, and will probably just go along with whatever our children’s wishes are. He’s welcome to come to mine, or not come to mine, whatever he’s more comfortable with. We have a very civil, cordial even, relationship, so I think things will go well in either situation. Neither of us plan to remarry though, which makes things easier. I imagine it may cause some awkwardness with the new spouse if the deceased spouse’s ex comes to a funeral, or am I mistaken?

    We had a weird thing happen when my dad passed away three years after my divorce. The funeral home employee who worked with me and my mom on the arrangements, happened to be one of my ex’s large group of friends, that I didn’t have contact with after the divorce. She offered to text everyone in the group and have them come to my father’s funeral “to pay their respects”. My dad didn’t know most of these people when he was alive, and didn’t get along with the few that he did know! What on earth? We said no thanks, but she continued pushing and would not stop insisting on inviting these people, until my mom and I pretty much both told her that my dad would not have wanted them there. And even then she was very reluctant to give this idea up.

    I also had a relative pass away and his ex-wife came to the funeral and all was good during the ceremony. But apparently the family got together after the ceremony to remember the deceased over food and drinks, which my sons and I didn’t get the invite to, didn’t know the gathering was happening, and so weren’t there, and missed the screaming match between the ex-wife and the rest of the family. They apparently insisted on knowing why she’d left him, and she told them why and didn’t really hold anything back. Not something I would want to happen at my funeral or my ex’s!

    I guess the point I’m trying to make here is, can we even advise OP to speak to Aunt at the funeral, when we don’t know if Aunt is going to be there? Or will she definitely?

  • Library Diva January 17, 2017, 10:41 am

    I would send a “thinking of you” card. I was with my aunt the day after her first husband died. He was, by all accounts, an awful man. He was an alcoholic who was physically abusive towards her, and none of the three kids she had with him maintained any kind of relationship with him, by their own choice. She had been divorced from him for a very long time (at least 25 years) when he died. She was still sort of upset by the news. It brought up the past, and lots of memories. I talked to her for a few hours that day and she ultimately said that she wound up feeling sorry for him because he died relatively young after a miserable life, and died with nothing in his life. I think she was glad to have someone to talk to about all of that stuff.

    I’m sharing this little story to point out that regardless of the relationship and what happened during the divorce, OP’s aunt is still probably going to have some emotions to contend with, especially since her children have lost their father. Also, I don’t think anyone would ever be upset or offended by a “thinking of you” card. You could just write that you know the family is going through a rough time and everyone is in your thoughts.

  • mlg January 17, 2017, 1:10 pm

    Wow. When my husband passed away, I named his ex-wife in his obituary as she is a fine woman and the mother of his children. I listed her as the first wife and myself as the last wife.

  • Diane913 January 17, 2017, 11:16 pm

    Twenty years ago. My ex-husband suddenly passed away at the age of 43. Our son was only 3 months shy of 13. My ex was remarried and his widow took care of arrangements. I attended the funeral and neither the widow or the ex’s family had an issue with that fact.
    My son and his father and me are/were Jewish, while the widow was not. For a number of days after the funeral my son observed the Jewish custom of Shiva at our home. We had people over the house every evening during that time.
    I mourned his loss , having known him 1/2 my life, and we were also on amicable terms. I was able to accept the support and condolences that came my way.
    I have to tell you that having my son’s Bar Mitzvah so soon after was a challenging experience. But we all got through it and were able to celebrate an occasion that his dad had been looking forward to.