Dying former spouse deserves to expect some space

Q: We have a difficult situation.

It started years ago when our son and his high school sweetheart graduated from high school together.

They got married shortly afterward, had two very fine boys and tried to settle into life in our little town. But they were too young and the marriage did not work out. They got a divorce, and worse still, fell into a fair amount of acrimony when they were trying to figure out how best to share raising their children and what to do with the small estate they had acquired.

Time passed. Eventually both of them remarried and for both of them their new starts have been great. Both are supporting their sons who are studying at university, each has a wonderful house to call home and both appear to be committed to their new relationships.

But here is where we have a problem. My son’s high school sweetheart is ill. Her oncologist told her the other day that she should start putting her house in order and preparing herself and her family for her ultimate end.

My son does not know what to do, and I do not know how to advise him. Should he stop over to visit with his former wife? Or should he respect her territory and back off entirely? What about their sons? Should he make a point of reaching out to them in light of what is going on with their mom or should he let her and her family work that out?

I just don’t know. What do you think?

A: This is indeed a difficult time for all of you.

If we lived in an ideal world the answer to all of your questions would be easy. Your son and his first wife should get together for a few moments to “clear the air.”

Most of our relationships have unfinished business. Probably that is more true in those relationships that ended in difficult divorces. Things were said and done back then for which each of them likely has regrets, but it has not been forgotten.

I suspect that the sting of the pain for what happened then is still around and will be there until rightful apologies manage to capture a moment between the two of them.

Unfortunately, few of us live in that ideal world.

That being so, what is important for you and your son is that you recognize and respect the personal territory protecting his first wife. If she specifically asks to speak to him then, of course, we would expect him to spend some time with her. But if she doesn’t, then perhaps it would be best if he left her alone and figured out some other way to work through those regrets he will feel when his first wife finally dies.

It would be wrong for him to count on her to forgive him for whatever was his part in the separation. But it would not be wrong for him to forgive himself.

If he cannot do that with your help maybe he could talk to a counsellor familiar with the process of grief and work through some of that unfinished business on his own.

That counsellor might want to work with their sons, with the blessing and permission from their mom.

This must be difficult for them. They should have an opportunity to search out the appropriate support.

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