I’ve known several widows and widowers. When your spouse dies, there’s a commonly-shared thread linking them together. No matter the gender, each carried a look on their faces. It read, “I lived through losing half of me.”

Until you’re there, gripped by the swampy muck of grief and sorrow, it’s unbelievable. Death of a spouse isn’t just a one-time-and-now-it’s-over thing. It lingers. When your spouse dies, it reminds you of your own mortality.

Others, who lose their spouses while going through the divorce process to suddenly find it no longer necessary,  still have to deal with the finality of it all. All marriages will end, either by death or divorce. There are things you need to know about grief, family, and finances that will help you get through it when your spouse dies before the divorce is final.

Grieving the Wife You Were Divorcing

The death of a spouse is traumatic. Dealing with the death of someone you were once close to is already tough, and your reaction will be even more complicated by the timing and cause of death. Death may end a marriage after a long illness, or abruptly through accident, illness, or suicide.

When Your Spouse Dies After Prolonged Illness

It’s Gonna Hurt

There are bound to be strong emotions when your spouse passes away, even if your pending divorce was “civil”. It is way more difficult to handle the death of someone with whom you have a rocky or difficult relationship.

If you and your wife are no longer on speaking terms, although not yet formally divorced, you will be surprised by your strong feelings about her pending death, even if there is no love remaining in your marriage.

You might have had a hard time deciding if you should go see her, or she may have made it clear she wants nothing to do with you.

When your wife has been sick for a long time, watching her decline will take its toll on family members, even from a distance. When death comes, it is common to feel some relief.

You can be relieved that she isn’t struggling or in pain, but you might also be relieved that it’s finally over. That sense of relief may be followed by guilt. It can be easy to feel guilty about your relief that your wife is gone. However, it is best to acknowledge that twinge of guilt, and just let it go. Your feelings are perfectly normal and understandable.

If you are consumed by guilt, especially if you are second-guessing your role in the final weeks and months of her life, it is important for you to get perspective on the events leading to your wife’s death.  

It is normal to wish and even pray for everything to just be over in the final days, but your thoughts did not “rush” her death. Speak to your wife’s doctor, a counselor, or your pastor about your questions. They will respect your concerns and provide reassurance that you did not cause or hasten her death.

You Hate Her Guts and She’s Dying – What Do you Tell the Kids?

If you are separated from your wife in a contentious split, and there are children involved, your stress and anger will be through the roof.

Take a deep breath and hold back. Your kids need you to protect them, even if it means protecting them from your feelings about their mother.

Grief counseling is always a good idea for kids losing a parent, but in a situation where you hate their mom, you should get professional help on how to guide and support your children through the loss of their mother.  

You can get help through social services, pastoral care, or your local hospice organization. Hospice services for grief and bereavement counseling are generally available to anyone who is facing a pending death or grieving a loss that has already occurred.

Hospice services may be available to you for free, even if your spouse is not a hospice patient, or if she is a patient in a hospice program in another community.

When children are involved, don’t wait until there are behavioral problems.  Be proactive and get the counseling support you’ll need to help them before and after your spouse dies.

When Your Wife Dies Unexpectedly

Whether from an acute illness, accident or suicide, the unexpected death of a spouse will rock your world.  Even if you were separated, you may be involved in making final arrangements for burial or cremation and a funeral. The initial days following an unexpected death may go by in a fog. Let your family and friends help you, especially if you have children.

There is no right or wrong about the way you will feel. Take your time and understand that profound sadness or anger may come in waves. Crying is normal, and the necessary component to bereavement. Even the strongest man sheds tears of grief. There is no timeline, and often you’ll find there’s no rhyme or reason to the things that can trigger a wave of grief.

When a Marriage is Ended by Suicide

The confusion, guilt, and grief that follows the suicide of a spouse can be totally overwhelming. The emotions that you feel in the situation surrounding the suicide may be especially complicated if you and your spouse were separated at the time of her suicide.

The majority of suicides are the result of severe depression or related mental health issues. You may be slammed with all the emotions of any other grieving person, with the added burden of wondering if you or other family members somehow failed to recognize the symptoms or prevent the suicide.

Custody of Your Kids if Your Wife Dies

In a lot of states, the custodial right – meaning who the children will live with – automatically goes to the surviving parent. But that is not every state, and you may have to go to court if you want to have permanent custodial rights over your children, especially if your wife had full custody before she died.

Your settlement or legal custody plans will be important for the court to consider if there are any challenges to you having the primary custody of your kids, but will not make it a slam dunk.

For example, in Georgia, the law provides for children to go to the other parent after death, but in this case it happened differently. The dad was the parent who had custody of the child. In the separation agreement and divorce decree, it was spelled out that both parents wanted the child to go to the aunt if the father died. After he died, the mother tried to get full custody and so did the aunt. The courts ultimately determined that the aunt should have custody, not because of the divorce decree, but because the mother was found to be unfit due to addiction problems.    

Property and Financial Issues When Death Ends the Marriage

Don’t assume that your wife’s property and assets automatically go to you if she dies without a will. There are some states where a pending divorce action causes the state to holds onto the deceased spouse’s property until a decision is made on distribution to her estate or otherwise.

If there is a will, a trust, or probate must be opened, you should consult an attorney. Remember that attorneys are specialized, just like doctors. Start with the attorney representing you in the pending divorce for relevant clauses that may be in your separation agreement. For probate questions, your best bet is to talk to an experienced estate attorney in your area.

Even if your wife had no children, and she didn’t have real estate or valuable belongings, there may still be valuable assets to consider. Did she have life insurance through her employer? Did she have a 401K or other type of retirement or pension plan? Some types of plans may have spousal benefits after death.

Tell Us Your Story

Do you have questions or knowledge about marriages ending in death?  Please share your story in the comments below.

For related Guyvorce articles on death, grieving, wills, and estate issues check out Defining Beneficiaries In Your Post-Divorce Will And Estate Plans and The 5 Stages of Grieving a Relationship after Divorce.

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