The Heartbreak of Bereavement in the Wake of Divorce

The man I’ve come to adore and know as Grandpa Gerry for the last 13 years of my life passed away last week. He was the kindest, gentlest, most hilarious 89-year-old Army veteran I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. He had a habit of calling his most favorite granddaughters “Suzie” and the first time he said it to me, I about melted — then promptly started referring back to him as “George.” He had endless stories about his service in the Army, most notably serving as part of General Douglas MacArthur’s Honor Guard. And I will never forget shortly after his 80th birthday when I asked how he stayed so spry, his response involved push-ups every morning. When I scoffed, he dropped and gave me ten. With one hand behind his back. Losing a grandparent, while expected as we age, is still sad. But losing a grandparent after losing that side of the family to divorce is a new level of pain.

My husband had an affair. He also pursued a divorce in order to marry his mistress and keep some semblance of membership in our church. And while the last couple of years of therapy have brought me to a place of understanding, acceptance, and inner peace concerning the dissolution of my marriage and the loss of my partner, I have yet to find any comfort or understanding in regards to the loss of his family.

Many women struggle with in-law relationships. There is a reason everybody loved Debra on “Everybody Loves Raymond” and commiserated with her—because her mother-in-law situation was all too real. I, however, didn’t experience that. My mother-in-law was one of my best friends for a very long time. She helped me get ready in the bridal suite the day of my wedding. She was in the room for the births of two of my three kids (she would have been there for the first one if he hadn’t delayed his grand entrance to 41+3). She was my first call when my husband and I would argue. My go-to for parenting advice. My go-to for just about any advice.

My relationships with my ex’s siblings varied (there are eight of them, after all). But I was undoubtedly closest to his youngest sister. She was only three when we started dating and she literally doesn’t remember life without me. I would often be the one to tuck her in at night. I was her special guest at her school’s “Thankful Feast.” I’ve never missed a play or musical she has been in. I was even her youth group leader at church for three years.

Yet, as ideal as our relationships were, all of this has changed. Friendships adjust and transform as time goes on, regardless of circumstances. But when the trauma of divorce fractures a family, even the strongest of relationships suffer. So when my mother-in-law sent me a text (not the family group text, mind you– I’ve been kicked out of that one for well over a year) to let me know that Grandpa Gerry had a stroke and things weren’t looking good, I was devastated.

I thought back to the trip I took my kids on last summer to visit their great grandma and great grandpa. How I wanted to ensure those family connections were still strong and present, even if I was no longer married to their grandson. How grateful I am that I made that trip.

The text eventually came that Grandpa Gerry had passed away. On top of the typical grief one might feel after the loss of a family member, I was plagued with overwhelming, somewhat selfish thoughts. Will I be included in the family service after the viewing? Will I be welcome at the funeral? Will I be expected—no, will I even be invited—to family gatherings as all the siblings make their way home from various parts across the country? These questions have inundated my mind for the last week as arrangements have been made. The pain and effects of divorce have once again reached me in ways I didn’t anticipate.

Obviously, I’m invited to the funeral. Especially since I will be taking my children, his great grandchildren, to celebrate his life. But the family things? I’m not so sure. On one hand, he was my grandpa. He was family. And I would like to consider all of that side as my family, still. I didn’t want or ask for the divorce. I didn’t ask to be left out of group texts, birthday celebrations, Christmas gift exchanges, family reunions, or funerals. I don’t want my children seeing us as two separate families. I don’t want to be treated like a stranger on the outside, always looking in.

So what is holding me up from being all-in and remaining part of the family? The mistress. The woman who contributed to the end of my marriage. The woman who never once met Grandpa Gerry. Who will never know his loving embrace or hear one of his terribly painful jokes. Who will never have to be “rescued” by a fellow grandchild from an hour-long story about making a beer run in Japan when he didn’t even drink. A woman who never had the opportunity to be a “Suzie,” and probably wouldn’t have earned that distinction anyway.

Maybe I will be extended an invitation to the family gatherings, maybe I won’t. But I suppose the important thing is that Grandpa Gerry was my family. And those bonds, those memories, and all those things I learned from him? Those can’t be taken from me, even in the fracturing and finality of divorce.