You're gone and that's it.
November 12, 2011 8:12 PM   Subscribe

My estranged ex-husband committed suicide a month ago. I am unsure about whether I need grief counseling or not or how much good it's going to do me.

I was married from 1997-1999. The dating itself was awesome, but shortly after we married things turned hellish to the point where I had to remove myself from the situation. Time passed and we were at no contact, save for a 15 minute conversation and a card in 2008. In that card was just enough crazy that I felt at the time that no contact was the way to maintain things. I found out thirdhand a month ago that he had shot himself over a job loss. What's awful to me is that I was actually going to reach out to him next year because I thought enough time had passed that we could possibly have a civil conversation about the marriage and maybe continue on as acquaintances.

I did love him dearly when things were good. I mean it, however, no one from his family has contacted me about his death and I'm unsure as to whether to send a card or donate to the charity in his memory that they specified.

Suddenly I've found myself romanticizing our life in mid to late 90s and digging through mementos and wondering a lot of what if, what if I had maintained contact throughout, what if I had pursued a more in depth conversation 3 years ago? It's eating me up. I realize that no matter what I feel or do, he's still dead and I don't know what grief counseling will do other than assure me that it isn't my fault and it would have happened anyway.

There was a note. I got the copy of the police report and the note on my own digging, and it shed no light on anything.
posted by asockpuppet to Human Relations (22 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Have you had any kind of therapy in the past? Did you have therapy with your ex husband? I'm wondering why you think therapy would be unhelpful or what conception you now have of therapy.
posted by sweetkid at 8:16 PM on November 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yep, some time with a therapist might be useful.

But, let me tell you a bit about the "what if" game.

My son died in a motorcycle accident when he was twenty, the circumstances were such that, had I taken some actions, ridden with him or engaged him a few more minutes in conversation, it probably wouldn't have happened. I spent years playing "what if" about that.... but the bottom line is that, we never have any way of knowing what the results of our actions or lack of action will have on the course of events....

It's a senseless game...don't do that to yourself.
posted by HuronBob at 8:28 PM on November 12, 2011 [32 favorites]

You should speak to someone, if only a couple of times (but probably a couple more). This is a very big deal, and you should give yourself some space to unburden yourself just a little bit. I'm not saying that you had any affect, positive or negative, on the ultimate circumstance, but you need to give yourself space to react in the way that you feel is appropriate.
posted by Gilbert at 8:32 PM on November 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Ugh, that should read *effect*
posted by Gilbert at 8:34 PM on November 12, 2011

Sent you MeMail.
posted by decathecting at 9:17 PM on November 12, 2011

sounds like therapy would help. Also, if you were still technically married to the guy, you might also want to talk to a lawyer. You could be entitled (legally, anyway) to some insurance or estate proceeds, although it sounds like you may not be interested in receiving any of this. At any rate, you might have some responsibilities on the legal side.
posted by Salvatorparadise at 9:34 PM on November 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

I realize that no matter what I feel or do, he's still dead and I don't know what grief counseling will do other than assure me that it isn't my fault and it would have happened anyway.

Sounds like even if that's all you could gain, it'd still be something you need.
posted by moxiedoll at 9:35 PM on November 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

what grief counseling will do other than assure me that it isn't my fault and it would have happened anyway.

What more do you want from this situation than that? Regardless of how much traction you can get with his family or others that knew him, you're still going to have to come to a place of acceptance and forgiveness* of himself and yourself if you're going to move on. And you need to move on. There's nothing more to be done for him now, so get talking with those who can help you find a place where you're more comfortable* with the past and with your ongoing present.

My more brusque response is that there's no use in "what ifs" regarding contacting him or getting more involved. That time has passed and the extremely hard work of finding peace* with your past together and since is all you have to do. His being alive may have let you put off processing the marriage and that time, as it may have developed a coda. Now, however, the chapter is closed. You are here, and you need to accomodate this data into your life history in a way that you find suitable.

* All these are weasel words... they are very inaccurate approximations of what happens after you've integrated the grief and loss of a person into a normal working life. Regardless of the cause of death, you're never going to be completely OK with someone not being there. But there's a state, ineffable perhaps, that is attainable with counseling, or just by going forward, bravely. Personally, given the emotional response to suicide in survivors, it may very well help to talk to someone and normalize what you're feeling. Dwelling on the mid-nineties, however, does not help bring you past this.
posted by Cold Lurkey at 9:39 PM on November 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have often wondered how I will feel if when I discover my ex-husband has died and no one has told me. Your question has helped me reflect a bit more. I think I would do all the things you suggest: send a card to my exes kids, donate to an aligned charity, and find a talk-mate.

My talk-mate would most likely not be a qualified therapist because what will grief counseling will do other than assure me that it isn't my fault and it would have happened anyway? Instead they would probably be a wise friend or relative or a Tibetan Buddhist priest/nun (ex-husband Buddhist); someone to help me talk through my confusing feelings rather than just try to ameliorate my grief. I know how to grieve, and I know it takes time and processing, I don't need to schedule paid appointments for someone to tell me that.

The other thing I would do which you have not mentioned is, at some point, I would go and talk to my ex-husband. I would find his grave or the place his ashes were interred/scattered, or some other place that connected the two of us. And then I would talk. I'd say everything I needed to say, and all the unsaid stuff, and the unknown stuff that needed to be said but I didn't know was in me. All of it. And then I'd say GoodBye.
posted by Kerasia at 10:12 PM on November 12, 2011 [3 favorites]

It is valid for you to grieve....and if you were on good terms with his family during the relationship I think expressing your condolences would be much appreciated.
posted by brujita at 10:21 PM on November 12, 2011

Sometimes, someone can just say something that makes you see things differently. Or it helps you make sense of things, or it helps you be okay with something. It doesn't have to be a particularly profound statement, sometimes it can just be something really small or offhand. So, I'd try the grief counseling, because you never know. I'm so sorry you are going through this, asockpuppet.
posted by cairdeas at 10:27 PM on November 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

the therapist might be good as a proxy - a silent wall to hear the things you wish you had said or want to say. and then after the wall part is over they can talk you through the romanticizing and how much of that is healthy, and how much needs to be put in perspective.
posted by nadawi at 11:13 PM on November 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

You say, "I don't know what grief counseling will do other than assure me that it isn't my fault and it would have happened anyway."

Well, regular counseling will do those things, too. It sounds like you know them rationally but you're in need of some perspective and some affirmation. You might consider some general short-term therapy, not necessarily grief counseling. Not that what you're going through isn't grief! But worth it to explore general therapy, not just grief therapy.

I'm sorry about your loss. Don't let the fact that his family didn't notify you make it any less your loss.
posted by juniperesque at 11:41 PM on November 12, 2011

First of all, I'm sorry for your loss. And you have experienced a loss, even if you might not characterize it that way, since it seems pretty clear that things weren't 100% resolved with your ex, and now, to an extent, they can't ever be.

If therapy is something that's accessible to you, why not give it a shot? There are only two negative outcomes that I can foresee, and neither is any big deal—either you go a couple times and find that therapy itself is unhelpful to you in your particular situation, or you go a couple of times and find that your particular situation doesn't necessitate therapy. Even in those situations, you'll get the chance to hash everything out with a (presumably) objective third party, whose job it is to listen to you and whose training centers on how to help people in situations similar to yours. I don't see how that can do anything but help, even if it doesn't help in the ways you might imagine. The fact of "paying someone to care" is offensive and counterproductive for some people, but others (and I count myself among this camp) find it liberating, letting them unload or unpack events and feelings in a way that they might not feel comfortable doing with a friend or loved one.

… I don't know what grief counseling will do other than assure me that it isn't my fault and it would have happened anyway.

There's a whiff of "I'm too smart/self-aware/on top of things for therapy to be useful" here. Maybe that's the case, but you might be surprised at how little you find you really know once you start trying to put your experience into words.
posted by wreckingball at 12:24 AM on November 13, 2011

When my brother was alive I clearly saw (and felt annoyed by) his flaws. Immediately after I learned he was killed, however, I became completely incapable of thinking even one bad thing about him. Even now I can only remember the great things about him (knowing "intellectually" that he was a very angry, negative and difficult person). I have no idea why we elevate people into sainthood when they leave us. It's pretty nice though, that this happens (that the best memories are all we can come up with) and this is a "typical" response.
Go out to a beautiful dinner with your best friend; call it an evening in honor of (his name).. share pictures and say some words about him, lift a glass to him. (And tell your friend that they are "obligated" to hear you out!) Do all that in lieu of the therapist idea...and see if that isn't enough. I think you just need a "funeral" and the special evening with your friend would serve as one.
posted by naplesyellow at 1:22 AM on November 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

Instead they would probably be a wise friend or relative or a Tibetan Buddhist priest/nun (ex-husband Buddhist); someone to help me talk through my confusing feelings rather than just try to ameliorate my grief.

I'd be interested in hearing your views of therapy too, OP, just in case they resemble this.

A good therapist does not "just try to ameliorate [your] grief". They do, in fact, "help talk through confusing feelings". Wise friends and trusted mentors do this too, but just so you know, if a therapist would be more accessible to you (perhaps you'd feel uncomfortable telling friends, for whatever reason, for instance), then rest assured that they're not dispensers of happiness, the good ones are there to help you process your feelings, in your context.
posted by fraula at 2:41 AM on November 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

I've been in your shoes, including the parents' failure to notify. My ex's suicide was... dramatic enough to make the news, so they may have assumed I'd hear about it despite living 3000 miles away. Two thoughts for you re: your questions.

On sending a note.... Suicide as a means of death can overshadow the rest of a life. That, plus people's awkwardness around the situation, can deny the survivors the ability to consider the departed's whole life and its meaning, which often comes via the memories and insights people who knew him in other contexts share. That impedes healing, which is difficult enough anyway. I chose to send my ex's parents a condolence letter because I could provide specific and loving memories of him as an adult; he put his parents everyone through so much during his last few years that I suspected most condolence notes they received were more like "he was a lovely boy." I thought it might be nice for them to receive a letter from someone he made happy. It was also, IMHO, the correct thing to do from an etiquette perspective. However, I made sure to feature my name/address prominently on the envelope in case they wanted to discard my letter without reading or put it aside until another time.

On the "what ifs..." In the throes of similar feelings, I called someone who spent a lot of time with my ex in the week before his suicide, preparing for a concert that took place one day earlier. This person happens to be in one of the helping professions, so I thought it would be ok. What I discovered was that he--and the other musicians--were all struggling with the same "what if" feelings as me, including beating themselves up for errant notes during the concert and other minutia. I was able to tell my contact a few things that showed that this outcome was a long time coming (and gave him permission to pass the info along to the group). And he was able to tell me a few things that let me know I wouldn't have seen it coming at the specific time it did. We were both comforted. In short, you might reach out to other people with more contemporary interactions with your ex because it could help you both.

Finally, I know it's weird discussing this with people now (no easy-to-grok grief status as widow or even current friend, yet deeply affected all the same), but be prepared for many somewhat awkward exchanges. You'll process this tragedy and move on, but the news will still shock others.

New Friend: And what became of your first husband?
You: He killed himself.
NF: OMG!! That's awful!!
You, feeling like you don't deserve this shocked sympathy: No, it's ok; we'd been divorced for over ten years when it happened. It's fine, really.

And New Friend stares at you with confusion while you wonder how they're judging you. My tip for this situation is to either sidestep it ("We fell out of touch and then I heard from friends that he died") or pre-empt it by saying something like, "it was hard news to hear, but we'd been out of touch for over a decade which softened the blow." You'll find your own way through this thicket.

I am sorry for your loss and empathize with your situation.
posted by carmicha at 7:58 AM on November 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

People rarely regret going to therapy. Obviously there are bad therapists out there, but you're in a position to recognize that and have the power to move on should it happen.

I'm pretty sure nobody has ever said, "I can't believe I spent three months working out my feelings over my ex-husband's suicide, man that was dumb!"

And grief - no matter how simple or complicated - is a shock and shock is best treated fresh. Would you rather see a therapist six times now or for months if you find out later you can't move on and stop thinking about it? What therapy does is help you reframe big (or big-feeling, it doesn't have to be actually real-world big) concepts into digestible chunks for your head to wrap around. It teaches you tools for dealing with the kinds of feelings that come in the wake of something very sad and hard like this. Therapy is not what's in cartoons or tv shows, and it's not something your friends are trained to do no matter how understanding they are.

It's worth a try. Don't keep doing it if you don't feel like it's useful, but don't declare it useless without knowing what it will be like for you.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:04 AM on November 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

It's quite possible that he had a personality disorder or other mental health issues that contributed to the end of the relationship. Now, sadly, he made the decision to end his life. Even after all these years, suicide is still traumatic to the people left behind. Here's an article that I have found incredibly meaningful (and that I've linked here a lot).

Does your employer heave an Employee Assistance Program (EAP)? You should talk to somebody, just to sort it through, then decide if therapy would be helpful.
posted by theora55 at 9:10 AM on November 13, 2011

I don't know that you need therapy. You're grieving and a large part of that means thinking about the person and doing what ifs. People often wish they'd been nicer, kinder, more this, less that. It's human nature. The thing about death is there are no do overs. Give yourself some time and if in six months you're still struggling, then seek help. And keep in mind, certain feelings/regrets may never completely go away. Grief takes time.
posted by shoesietart at 10:09 AM on November 13, 2011

In general, for the average person, research shows that therapy for grief is actually not very effective, and that makes sense because in the immediate moment nothing is going to effectively improve the emotional impact of the actual, physical loss of a loved one. So most people who are going through grief and loss tend not to benefit much from therapy when compared to just engaging with other social supports, making use of the ways they can talk about the loss and feelings of grief. For some people, it is most helpful to treat loss as a natural part of the human experience, and not to stigmatize it as something they need to get over in some specific length of time (for example, you would be shocked at how short workplace bereavement leave is, if it exists at all). Going to a therapist, for some people, may contribute to an internal idea that they 1) need to get over it quickly, and 2) need professional help to get over it.

But as you might be able to imagine, people who experience sudden losses, untimely losses (a child), or loss by suicide can really benefit from therapy because the goal is to help you to work through the complex feelings that come from surviving very complex losses like those. This is not to say that any loss is more or less than another--but certain types of losses, such as suicide, can inspire a lot more maladaptive thinking than others ("if only I had just called my friend last week, maybe he would not have killed himself" versus "if only I had gone to medical school and learned how to prevent my 87-year-old grandma from dying of kidney failure, maybe she would have lived to be 89"). Therapists have solid, research-validated ways of working with those kinds of thoughts and helping you to pull yourself out of the place where those thoughts are mercilessly pounding you into the ground. If it feels like you're being eaten up with thoughts like that, I don't think it would hurt at all to try talking to a therapist, because that situation is not like the one where you might be the person who unwittingly stigmatizes the death even more by seeking help in dealing with it. If you're already thinking the thoughts, you're in a position to be able to benefit greatly from some support.

Additionally, if you feel that what you're experiencing is significantly impacting your ability to perform your work and take care of other important but basic life tasks (eating, showering, sleeping), definitely talk to a therapist. If you feel that it would be really helpful to be able to talk to someone, but are afraid to be completely honest about your "maybe if I had just..." thoughts with your friends/family, definitely talk to a therapist. If you find that you are becoming more and more consumed by the "what ifs" rather than being able to talk yourself out of them, definitely see a therapist. If you feel like you can get any benefit out of talking to a therapist, there is little reason not to try it and see how it goes.
posted by so_gracefully at 12:18 PM on November 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

"what if I had pursued a more in depth conversation 3 years ago? It's eating me up. "

This is the reason why people often go to therapy. You need to look after yourself - even if you hadn't spoken to him for a while and you didn't have the greatest of relationships and you were no longer married - you still have to deal with those feelings.

Certainly, you can do it on your own - but your question is about whether therapy would be helpful and one of the ways you can get off the 'what if' loop is to see a therapist.
posted by mleigh at 12:36 AM on November 15, 2011

« Older T-Shirt Hunt   |   I've made a huge tiny mistake Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.