An overdue look at a complicated subject
The Disenfranchised, Stories of Life and Grief When an Ex-spouse Dies, edited by Peggy Sapphire. Baywood Publishing Company, Inc., Amityville, New York. Paperback. 217 pages. $49.95.
Reviewed by Tena Starr
Some time ago a friend called to say that her ex-husband had died. It was startling, it was sad, of course, and it was unfamiliar ground.
How, I wondered, did she experience her ex-husband’s death? Obviously she grieved on behalf of her children, but what about herself?
How exactly does one feel about the death of a person once beloved enough that the plan was to spend the rest of life together, but years later is maybe no more than an acquaintance, perhaps even disliked — but still connected through children and mutual history?
These are the questions Peggy Sapphire, a counselor and poet from Craftsbury, sets out to answer in this fascinating book, an anthology of heartfelt, first-person stories written by people who have experienced the death of a former partner.
The Disenfranchised tackles a complex and overlooked subject, one that many will find themselves grappling with as divorce rates climb and the population ages. As a former spouse, you’re likely not expected to deal with funeral arrangements, burial, or all the other important and, in some ways soothing, rituals that go with death. If your ex has remarried, perhaps you’re not expected to make more than a perfunctory appearance, maybe none at all. Personal grief could be slight, or it could be overwhelming.
But in either event, the surviving spouse is often “disenfranchised,” maybe not expected to mourn at all.
“The writers whose work you are about to read were largely left to their own devices as they sought solace or needed compassion as they stood apart — the ‘ex,’” Ms. Sapphire wrote in the preface to the book. “A few tell of compassionate friends and family, and in one case, an exquisitely sensitive clergyman. But for most, no such condolence was forthcoming.”
Judging from the stories told in this book, there’s nothing simple about dealing with the death of a former spouse. The men and women who responded to Ms. Sapphire’s request for their stories tell complicated ones jumbled by a whole stew of emotions: grief, anger, resentment, relief, guilt, and regret.
There’s Rosemary, for instance, who felt anger at the timing of her ex-husband’s death and its effect on their children — even in death he had managed to disrupt the lives of his children, she said.
She also expressed relief. “After his death, I just kept telling myself, ‘thank God it’s over,’” she wrote. “Finally there would be no more havoc wreaked by this man. There would be aftermath, yes, but nothing freshly complicating coming at us.”
Many of these stories are harsh. No one goes through divorce unscathed. Through necessity the essayists here take a look at the marriage itself and the reasons why it died, in many cases an explanation for how the surviving spouse responds to the subsequent death of a former partner.
If there’s any common thread, it’s maybe best illustrated by Elizabeth, who tells the story of her first marriage, the unexpected death of her ex-husband, and the equally unexpected feelings of loss that accompanied it.
They were married young, in the early 1970s, both considering themselves, in their ways, a part of the counterculture of that time.
“He wanted to be a radical, and I wanted to be a hippie,” Elizabeth wrote. “I saw him as a way to get revenge on my conservative grandparents; he viewed my trust fund with desire. We played a lot of Scrabble, smoked a lot of dope, and went to college. Reality set in when our daughter was born in 1975. It was time to grow up and get jobs, which I did.”
They divorced, went their ways, and changed enough that the once radical young husband was in the process of trying to get his early marriage annulled — infuriating Elizabeth — in order to become a better Catholic, when he suddenly died.
“When I answered the phone and heard my daughter say, “Dad’s dead,’ I actually said, ‘You’re kidding.’”
Elizabeth had hoped for some sort of reconciliation as time passed; now it was too late, and the depth of her grief took her aback.
“Even though you were divorced, there’s a lot of history there,” she wrote. “The more I let myself feel the more I realized the loss. There was no one else who remembered when I worked for The Galloping Gourmet. He was the one who helped me with the first awkwardness of motherhood.
“An entire clump of my life had just disappeared. It wasn’t until he was gone that I understand how important he’d been to me.”
To complicate matters, no one else grasped how important he’d been either. The support of family and friends, who would help mourn the death of a spouse, was largely absent in the case of an ex-spouse.
“No friends seemed to understand how the death of someone I’d never even mentioned could hurt so much,” Elizabeth wrote.
Ms. Sapphire is not, herself, dealing with the death of a former spouse, but her ex-husband has been diagnosed with a terminal illness, she said, and chances are good that she will be one of the disenfranchised.
Referring to her children, she wrote, “With their father’s death will come the death of my only companion and witness to the intimacies and circumstances of 17 years of marriage, begun when I was 20 and he was 23…the first marriage for each of us, two pregnancies, first birthings, first parenting anxieties, early poverty, first professional positions, first home and mortgage, first credit card debt, first and continuous arguments about money, first and fatal disenchantments. These are the thoughts that led to my decision to seek the stories you’ll find here.”
Each of those stories is followed with commentary by Shirley Scott, a grief counselor who takes a look at how and why the essayists here feel the way they do. The book also notes that a recent report indicates that 78 percent of those who survived the death of a former spouse reported feeling grief.
What a complex subject Peggy Sapphire has so beautifully tackled. The stories, and the poetry, in this book are deeply personal, well written, often painful, and always enlightening.
contact Tena Starr at [email protected]