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“A message to everyone who said I wasn’t allowed to grieve my ex-husband’s death”

When Catherine Renton’s ex-husband died, she was consumed with grief – but her friends and family dismissed her feelings. Here, she explains why it’s valid to feel disenfranchised grief, and shares some advice on how to cope.

The landline rang on a Saturday afternoon in early 2016 when I was lying on the couch, trying to shake an epic hangover. No good news is ever delivered via the landline. 

But I already knew, I’d seen the news online. I held my mobile in my hand with my Twitter feed open as I picked up the receiver. It was my sister-in-law: “Have you heard?” A small groan escaped from my lips. “Ronnie died this morning, are you OK?” 

She was talking about my ex-husband. The answer was no, I was far from OK.

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The tears started immediately and continued long into the night. Years of long-forgotten feelings poured out of me. Shock, sadness, anger, pain and confusion. Why was I so upset? I had no claim to him. We hadn’t shared a home, a life or a surname for eight years and he had a new wife and a son. I just couldn’t understand. I knew he was ill; he’d had medical issues from adolescence. But dead? It just didn’t make sense.

coping with grief
Coping with grief: disenfranchised grief is the phenomenon of mourning a loss that falls outside of societal norms.

I was with my dad when I heard the news. He was sympathetic at first but quickly grew tired of my sobs and told me to calm down. That was the first sign I had that grieving Ronnie’s death would be complicated. No one ever talks about how the death of an ex will feel. The assumption is, once the person is out of your life then you no longer have the right to be upset. But there’s a term for the phenomenon of mourning a loss that falls outside of societal norms – disenfranchised grief.

Disenfranchised grief encompasses losses such as the death of a former spouse, the loss of a partner you were engaged in an extra-marital affair with or non-death losses including infertility or the end of a friendship. As Andy Langford, chief operating officer at Cruse Bereavement Care, explains: “It’s essentially someone feeling forbidden to grieve. Mourners can feel pushed away from the people that they would usually turn to for support or feel that their grief isn’t being acknowledged.”

wedding day
Coping with grief: Catherine and Ronnie on their wedding day in March 2004.

I was overwhelmed by the news and my brain was flooded with memories of our time together. We married in March 2004, when I was 22 and he was 29. We separated in April 2007. We both experienced massive personal and professional change during the marriage and it became clear that we wanted different things from life. He wanted children while kids were never a part of my plan. I wanted to party every weekend and he was a happy homebody.

Because we had no children or shared assets, we were entitled to a “quickie divorce”. The split was finalised without fanfare in November 2008, with the decree arriving in an ordinary brown envelope, an anti-climactic way to end the most momentous period of my life. 

We may have split, but ties weren’t completely severed. Ronnie remained friends with my brother and sister-in-law, and I would often see his face pop up on my social media timeline. He remarried and had a much longed-for baby and I was genuinely happy for him. I dated but struggled to make a relationship last longer than a few months and realised I was happier single.

Ronnie died awaiting a kidney transplant, after years of complex health issues which began with a type 1 diabetes diagnosis at age 17. I found it odd to witness reactions to his death on social media. When the story of his life was told I’d been written out of the narrative, even though I was grieving too. Reading tributes from the best man at our wedding – who wouldn’t even acknowledge my existence – really hurt, however selfish and insignificant that may seem. 

When I posted about his death on social media, I often received messages from friends who told me my mourning was “inappropriate” or “over the top”. I scoured the internet for people who would understand my grief and found forums full of people whose pain had been minimised by society. People who’d been estranged for decades but still ached from the loss of a former partner. I was comforted to know I wasn’t alone, but saddened at the scale of mourning still taking place in private.

Because I didn’t feel comfortable talking about my grief with some of my friends, I began self-medicating with alcohol to cope with the pain. I ended up going to see my GP, who could see I was struggling mentally and gave me the details of a local grief charity. Speaking to a trained counsellor, without fear of judgement, was the best thing that happened during that period of early grief. I was able to laugh, cry and share memories of my lost love. I never felt my pain wasn’t valid, which was a welcome relief after some of the harsh words I’d received.

coping with loss
Coping with grief: if you’re struggling with a grief that’s not recognised by friends or family, know that you are not alone

If you’re struggling with a grief that’s not recognised by friends or family, know that you are not alone and there are support services out there for every type of loss. Cruse Bereavement Care is a great place to start and you can find local grief services by entering your postcode into this gov.uk form. I spend a lot of time on the Sue Ryder Online Community and have made real life friends through the site. 

Sometimes you won’t receive the support you need from loved ones and it often doesn’t come from a place of malice, but ignorance. People may dismiss your feelings based on their own personal prejudices but just because they wouldn’t mourn the loss of an ex, doesn’t mean you are not allowed to. 

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