Navigating the Death of an Ex

Several years after her death, I visited the grave sites of my ex and our daughter


I have been with my parents during their final hours. I have witnessed my daughter take her last tortured breaths. I am watching old friends die almost monthly. Still, I’ve never felt such a mix of emotions as I did when I stumbled across my ex-wife’s obituary in the newspaper.

Happily remarried for thirty years, I’d had no contact with her since our daughter’s death four years after the divorce. Since that time, I seldom thought of my first marriage except as a twenty-year mistake, most of the mistakes being hers.

But now I felt weak. I found myself thinking, if only we’d stayed in our first house instead of moving back to her hometown, we might have made the marriage work. If only we’d seen a marriage counselor. If only I’d gone for a PhD and become a college professor instead of remaining a high school English teacher…

Then I thought, if my ex and I had stayed married, I wouldn’t be with Mary Lee, who showed me what marriage can be, who was the reason I didn’t drink myself to death when Laurie died, who makes me believe God really does exist. There’s no way I could be happier than I am now.

For weeks, I felt like a racquetball, caroming off walls of shock, relief, regret, and gratitude.

But there was no one to talk with about how I felt. No action I could take. When my mother and father died, my brother, sister, and I shared memories. We purchased another stone for the family cemetery to decorate on Memorial Day. After Laurie died, I found groups like Compassionate Friends with whom I could talk. I made contributions for cancer research. I counseled other grieving parents.

But I couldn’t put a memorial stone for my ex-wife in our family lot. And while Mary Lee was sympathetic—she’d spent an afternoon listening to a friend describe her conflicted feelings after her ex died—I couldn’t talk to her about the “if onlys” and the “what ifs” of my first marriage, the experiences only my ex and I shared, especially with our daughter. I was now the only one alive to remember Laurie’s first steps as she stumbled between her mother and me, or my sitting with her mother during our daughter’s first piano recital, or the three of us decorating the Christmas tree.

First steps.

Add loneliness to the emotional cesspool in which I swam.

Then, during a meeting of the 12-step program to which I belong, when my emotions about my ex-wife’s death swarmed like black flies, I shared that when I’d gone away to college, I anticipated getting away from my dysfunctional family, but that my mother’s shame and my father’s angry resentments had come with me. My grades were lousy. I sat alone in the back of the college den, bitterly envious of the laughing fraternity brothers and sorority sisters I saw at the front tables yet afraid to make conversation with anyone around me for fear they would reject me for being the loser I thought I was.

Driving home after the meeting, I realized how being a child of alcoholism had drawn me into marrying the only child from a closely knit family with strong Yankee values who seemed confident and strong, who, I thought, would offer me the stability I craved.

 I started to realize how being that child had also contributed to the breakup of my marriage. How, to keep feeling safe and secure, I never expressed any of my own needs. How I used sarcasm or said, “I’m sorry” without meaning it to avoid arguments. How I worked long hours at school to gain respect from my students and to avoid problems at home. How I built up resentments like building blocks until they finally came crashing down around us.

I found myself feeling not only more compassion for my ex, but also for the marriage itself. We did remain married for twenty years. At least ten of them were pretty good. Most important, we created an intelligent, beautiful, compassionate daughter, who, although she died at eighteen, continues to inspire me every day. There’s no way in the world I could wish Laurie had never happened.

With the help of my 12-step sponsor, I began to see the best way—maybe the only way—for me to grieve my ex’s death was to honor the good times in our marriage and learn from the mistakes I made and not repeat them.

I wrote a letter to my sarcasm, thanking him for helping me get through some ugly times, but saying his services were no longer needed and it was time for him to retire to a condo in Florida.

I worked to become more honest, more open in my relationships with others. Probably because of our struggles to understand each other after Laurie’s death, Mary Lee and I had usually been able to speak openly with each other, but I made even more of an effort. With other people, I tried to listen more, wait (a 12-step acronym, by the way, for “Why Am I Talking?) before reacting, and focus on “I” statements—“I feel…” “I see it this way…”—rather than “you” statements—“You’re wrong…” “You don’t understand…” “You need to …”—when I did respond. (Which has also helped me talk with Mary Lee, come to think of it.)

Since the advent of COVID—and now with the events in Ukraine—I’m learning another lesson from my first marriage. I was drawn to my ex because she made me feel strong and secure. As she and I discovered, however, the world is not a safe place: I brought my dysfunctional family behavior into our marriage; both she and I underwent major surgeries; our daughter died of a rare cancer. Mary Lee and I are in our seventies and although we’re vaccinated and still mask, we’re at risk. I’ve had more surgery; she’s prone to pneumonia. I’m watching more and more friends die from other causes—cancer of the jaw, Parkinson’s, heart disease—and I find myself wanting to hunker down, stay home, or perhaps sell our house and move into a continuing care facility as some other friends are doing because they feel they’ll have more security.

But looking at the failure of my first marriage helps me see real strength comes not from trying to avoid risk, but from living with curiosity, honesty, and love, both for my family and for myself.

Which is why at the beginning of last summer, Mary Lee and I found a window between the waves of pandemic to take a European cruise. I’ve called a contractor to do some remodeling of our house. We both volunteered to facilitate adult programs.

On the Rhine

And in the years to come? I can’t know, of course. I expect that my family’s history of heart disease and cancer will hunt me down. Grieving my ex-wife’s death, however, has helped me see that I can’t let the desire for stability dictate the way I live my life.

Been there. Done that. Didn’t work.

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The Geriatric Pilgrim: Traveling the Landscape of Faith and Grief


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November 30, 2015


Going on a pilgrimage and going on retreat are for me interlaced, like one of those Celtic knots. Both have a spiritual component, both involve both external and interior journeys, and both carry the risks and rewards of renewal.

My first retreat came 25 years ago this December, on the second anniversary of my daughter’s death from cancer: at a time when I was angry with myself for somehow causing Laurie’s death, angry with the world for ignoring my grief, and angry with God for being a Super Saddist getting kicks torturing innocent eighteen-year-olds.

But the previous fall, I’d attended a program on “Meditation as Part of the Christian Tradition,” led by the Reverend Cynthia Bourgeault, now a nationally recognized retreat leader and author of a number of neat books on the spiritual life, who that evening introduced my wife and me to Centering Prayer, a form of Christian meditation. While I wasn’t sure how I felt about Centering Prayer—part of me thought it was absurd, while another part wondered if, after swearing at God for two years, I at least ought to shut up and listen to what God had to say—I grew interested when Cynthia said she was going to lead a retreat in December on Swan’s Island in Maine’s Penobscot Bay. The idea of spending the anniversary of Laurie’s death on an island made a hell of lot more sense to me than what I’d done on the first anniversary: namely, drink myself into oblivion.

I thought a “retreat” would mean withdrawing from the world to a sanctuary, a safe place. That weekend was anything but. As I got out of the car to catch the ferry, my back felt as if someone had suddenly shoved a hot iron into my spine. The fog shut in for two days, so as far as scenic views were concerned, the farmhouse in which we met might as well have been encased in garbage bags. My meditations were filled with surrealistic, frightening images: huge teeth which turned into tentacles that I could feel squeezing me until I couldn’t breathe, a vision of climbing into a biplane piloted by your quintessential WWI flying ace, another image of someone who may or may not have been Jesus in a trench coat and fedora, vivid memories of Laurie’s last tortured breaths. The sound of a teakettle softly steaming on the woodstove became a deafening wind. Sitting in the softest chair in the room felt like sitting on broken glass.

Saturday afternoon, during our free time, my small 3rd floor bedroom turned into an asylum for the insane (which, I’ve since learned, is one of the definitions of the word “retreat”). Instead of the nap I’d planned on, the grief—the sorrow and the anger and the pain and the guilt and the shame—which I’d suppressed (usually with booze) for the past two years erupted in molten spasms. I remember doubling over, as racking sobs tore into my stomach. Of sliding or falling off the bed on to the floor. Of holding on to the iron bedpost with one hand and punching the bed with my other hand, driving my fist into the mattress. Then I grabbed the bed with both hands, raised myself onto my knees and slammed my head into the mattress. I drew back and slammed my head into the mattress again. Again. All the while making yelping noises and kicking the floor until, exhausted, I fell asleep.

The next day, however, I left the retreat feeling less angry, less guilty, and more serene than I had since Laurie died. The feeling didn’t last of course, but it was never as bad as it had been. Looking back, I see myself broken open, which, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen, was how the light got in. Even before Laurie’s death, good New England male that I am, I’d always keep my feelings hidden, even from myself. Feeling grief—really down and dirty and covered with shit grief—would ironically make it possible for me later to feel joy.

My wife and I attended more of Cynthia’s retreats on various Maine Islands. Later, after becoming Members of the Fellowship of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, we started going to their monastery in Cambridge and their retreat house in West Newbury, Massachusetts. These days, we also try to travel at least once a year to somewhere we’ve never been before, such as the Desert House of Prayer outside Tucson, the New Camaldoli Heritage at Big Sur in California, the Norbertine Retreat Hermitage in New Mexico, the islands of Iona and Lindisfarne in Great Britain.


I’ve often asked myself—usually after seeing my American Express bill—if I need to go so far away for these retreats. Can’t I just put my phone on airplane mode, lock the door, and walk in the woods behind my house?

I do and it’s helpful, but the only way to completely pull the plug on all those radio stations playing in my head is to get out of Dodge. Physical and spiritual withdrawal are as entwined for me as pilgrimage and retreat.

And learning to see the world as interwoven has been one of the greatest gifts of going on retreat. Like most Westerners, I tend toward a dualistic view of the world. I grew up learning to distinguish between “us” and “them”: white hats and black hats, Commies and Red Blooded Americans, Maine residents and flatlanders, good and bad, smart and stupid, strong and weak. “You can’t have it both ways,” my mother would tell me. It’s taken me over 70 years to learn that most things are not “either …or” but “both … and.” Such as when I’m on retreat: both “withdrawing” and “confronting,” both in solitude and in community, both in continued grief over Laurie’s death and in gratitude for the gifts that continually grace me.


November 16, 2015


I think the first time I ever thought about the word “pilgrimage” was just before the trip my wife and I took to Israel. Before we left, I happened to read a magazine article in which the author distinguished between pilgrims and tourists. Tourists, she wrote, go out from the center of their worlds, their homes, in order to vacation; pilgrims, on the other hand, seek to travel from the edges of their lives to their center, their homes. Well, that sounded like a pretty good distinction to me. Faithful Christians that we are, ML and I were, I thought, going “home” to the origin of our faith.

However, while ML had a great time, my trip felt like being exiled to the furnace of fire Jesus talks about in the Gospel of Matthew, “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth,” Or in my case, the gnashing of bowels.

Every day the temperature soared to well over 90°. Within two days I picked up an intestinal bug and was popping Lomotil like sunflower seeds. From the moment we arrived, we were lost. The first day we wandered for three hours through the labyrinth of streets and alleyways of the old city looking for a way back to St. George’s Cathedral Guest House and its friendly hollyhocks and familiar Evensong. The next day we found ourselves locked in the Garden of Gethsemane and wandering blindly on the backside of the Mount of Olives.


On Friday, we joined the Franciscan Friars on their Walk of Devotion up the Via Dolorosa to The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built where tradition says Jesus was crucified and buried. Walk of Agony was more like it. If you’ve never been to the old city of Jerusalem, know that every one of those damned cobblestone streets rises at least 45°. Every twenty steps my stomach felt as if one of the ubiquitous Israeli soldiers had kicked it with a combat boot. Swarms of young boys tried to pull us into booths featuring five-foot posters of baby Jesus and the Virgin, baskets of wooden rosaries, and passages of scripture woven on dishtowels.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was a sauna. My intestines twisted as ML and I were funneled into a room where Jesus hung on a cross, wearing what looked like a tin diaper, his head covered from ear to ear with a semi-circle of silver. Cameras flashed. Voices babbled. Smells of incense, body odor, and stale cigarettes.

Downstairs, the Holy Sepulchre looked like a block of dirty cement. Some kind of priest in a tall black hat berated a woman for having bare shoulders. More cramps as people pushed me through a doorway into damp sour air, candles, aluminum icons and Jesus wearing another tin hat.

The place felt about as holy as a sardine factory.



And then three days later, I sat in the Garden Tomb, the alternative site of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial. Yellow and red roses covered the stones and cool, shaded paths wound under cypress, palm, and pine trees to a large platform with wooden benches looking out over “Skull Hill,” whose crumbling stones and small caves make a face in the side of a cliff. Earlier, our guide told us that in 1882, General Charles Gordon, Bible student and British soldier, decided this was the true Golgotha, or Place of the Skull.

Our guide also showed us a burial spot in the side of an adjacent hill. Inside, the rock was smooth and looked as if you could lie down on it and get a good night’s sleep. He pointed to a hole cut above the entrance through which light shone into the cave. “The first spot light of the world,” he said in his charming British voice.

I inhaled the fragrance of the flowers and the trees, watched swallows swoop through the leaves. Now I was home.

And that’s why I knew this was the wrong place for Jesus’ crucifixion and burial. If your message is that love of God and love of your neighbor are the greatest of all the commandments, the only way to prove it is by seeing this teaching tested in the worst possible conditions: heat and crowds of conflicting nationalities, soldiers and souvenir sellers, physical pain and taunting ridicule. I thought of ten years earlier, when each day I walked what I realized was my own Via Dolorosa from the Ronald McDonald House to the Eastern Maine Medical Center, where my daughter lay dying from a rare cancer diagnosed only months earlier. I’d felt exiled from my wife and stepson to a living hell of doctors and CT scans and catheters and—most of all—hopelessness. During those endless frustrating days, I needed to know that someone had cried out as I did, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and yet had overcome death. I needed to believe that Laurie would enter into eternal life.

And I think it was at that point, sitting under the trees in the Garden Tomb, that my exile became pilgrimage, not in the sense of experiencing the beauty of the sun rising through the fog over Maine waters, but of having an emotional and physical encounter that deepened my understanding of what holy means.

Even if it did take two more weeks before I could eat solid food.


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