Bereavement With Your Name On It: The ‘Unbereaved Bereaved’

In the totally bizarre way in which the world–and bereavement–works, sometimes you’re in the right (or should I say wrong?) place, at the right time, to be a mourner you don’t feel yourself to be, in a role you never wanted to play.

Of course this is uncommon–and there is no literature on it to confirm or deny, no studies asking these personal details–but I hope readers won’t be offended to encounter here a situation that does occur.  Try to imagine and sympathize with the fate of the ‘unbereaved bereaved.’  It is the fate of one who is the designated mourner, despite previous efforts to escape it–and has no choice but to play his part.

Neither Jeff* nor Judy* was a marital villain–but neither was a Prince or Princess Charming either on that front–and, as neither was willing to work any more past a certain point, we all concluded that it seemed divorce was the way best forward.

Jeff had himself packed up and out so fast it made Judy wonder where all that motivation had been for the last 10 years of the marriage. Relations remained fairly cordial, and the two seemed open to the idea of mediation, which Judy said she’d pursue. Jeff himself spent hours arranging and re-arranging his new place, free of Judy’s controlling ways, and growing more and more confident that the single life, with child responsibilities only on Saturdays and Tuesday nights–was what he’d really needed for years  He imagined dating several women at a time, but committing to none, and once again learning to call the shots in his own life.

Judy remarked how glad she was that this process had begun, although she’d been worried about losing Jeff at first–she’d had crippling headaches for months, now, so bad she had to pull over if she was driving, or sit down if she was standing, and she was certain they were due to the stress of a dissolving marriage.

And that’s where our divorce story takes an ugly turn.

As her headaches rapidly became more debilitating,  Judy managed to see her internist who ordered an MRI ASAP   She was no longer capable of driving the children’s carpools, of helping with their homework, or of following up on her health issues.  She needed help–and she called the person she’d relied upon for the past 15 years of her life.

Jeff drove and sat with her to receive the results from the MRI: she had a brain tumor, probably a metastasis. They could treat it with radiation, but needed to quickly find out  where the problem originated. Jeff started coming over every morning to pack the kids’ lunches and get them off to school, and was there every afternoon to check up on Judy and to work with kids on homework. He sat side by side with Judy as she awaited and then received the results of her workup–metastatic lung cancer–and moved back in the following night.

Jeff would spend the next 5 months caring for, attending to, and comforting a woman he had ceased to love months–if not years–ago. Jeff drove her to every treatment, argued with the insurance when they wouldn’t cover her oxygen tank, upgraded at his own expense the wheelchair she needed, worked with the home health care aid to clean up the messes, listened to Judy’s protestations that she’d never smoked, that she couldn’t die with such young children, that it just wasn’t fair.

When she finally had a stroke he sat by her for days in the hospital, taking a leave of absence from work, and, ultimately, arranged for hospice to care for her in the home. He held her hand when she would open her eyes, and told her he was there, he knew what she wanted to say and it was okay that she couldn’t speak, and it would all be alright, and he would always care for her and the children.

And he made the funeral arrangements, burying her, as had originally been planned, before the divorce decree that never happened, in the plot he had bought for her and himself.

At the funeral, friends praised his dedication and caregiving, and those less connected spoke about how he and Judy had  been a model couple. They said his grief at losing his life partner must be terrible.

And Jeff, who had tried to leave, but returned because it was the right thing to do, let them think his grief was overwhelming–because it was the final step in the process.  This was a bereavement that had called to him and claimed him, although by rights, he thought, he should have had no piece of it. It was simply a bereavement that had his name on it–and thus he would have to go through the steps as if, indeed, bereaved. It was his duty.


Sharon*–clever and ambitious, but forever underselling herself due to her issues with weight–was both an appealing client, and a terrible judge of men.

Her first husband was what is best described by the Yiddish phrase schlemiel, which means, basically, a terrible bungler, or a dolt. Unable to keep down a job, seemingly incapable of putting together an outfit in which all the parts went together, hopelessly dependent on Sharon, Sol* didn’t lift up a foot without asking Sharon which one it should be, and how high.

She supported him as he was fired again and again from bit-teaching jobs, and when she encouraged him to tutor he spent so much time telling the tutee that he wasn’t sure he’d be good at the task that, of course, he had no repeat business.

Sharon eventually left him–after losing most of her small savings to the care and feeding of Sol–and, with two children, tried to replace some of the squandered money, and re-establish some family esteem in the Jewish community in which they lived.

Her attraction to Simon* was readily understandable. He stood tall, well-dressed, as he proclaimed lectures of profound intricacy, one after another. The community was enamored with his brilliance, and he was held in high esteem.  Sharon was smitten with him, and even tried once more to manage her chronically ballooning weight.

But heavy or no, Sharon soon became one of Simon’s top date choices–and then the only date. And Simon knew what he wanted. Almost before Sharon could get her feet firmly on the ground, Simon had proposed, she had accepted, and they had set a date for marriage one month away. Simon said–and she saw his logic–they were not young, they were both on second marriages–why throw a big extravaganza, better just to move on.

So within 9 weeks of meeting Simon, he had taken up residence in Sharon’s home as her husband.

And then regret set in. Simon did not, as it had seemed, overlook Sharon’s weight. It was a source of irritation to him, and he needled Sharon. Each meal became a means of humiliation and denigration, and he turned from her in bed. Her children, whom he had treated kindly at first, grew to bother him.  He criticized the boy’s shyness until the child stuttered when speaking and the girl’s outspokenness until she gave up talking at all at home. He made Sharon the butt of jokes when they had company and insisted on a protocol of personal service.

“Sharon, get me my book.” “Sharon, bring me a coffee.” “Sharon, I’ve asked you twice now to peel and slice an apple for me. What in God’s name are you doing that takes so long?”

Beaten down, defeated, and with no hope in sight, Sharon believed she couldn’t leave because she was nothing without him. So, needless to say, we began some serious work, and I also appealed to her desire for her children’s well-being.

With the strength remaining from her last shred of her belief in herself, Sharon filed for divorce, quietly, contacting a lawyer, telling no one.

It was ugly. Simon said he’d never agree to it. He said he’d never leave–she’d be nothing. He’d destroy her and her pathetic children. And best of luck to her getting a divorce decree through–she could sue him for one and see what happened.

And with his line drawn in the sand, Simon proceeded–for once, most agreeably–to drop dead, probably of a heart defect that had always been there. (Sharon said she knewhe had something horribly wrong with his heart, why didn’t they just ask her?)

The Jewish laws of shiva, the 7-day mourning period for relatives, are strict, requiring the bereaved to merely sit in the home, not working, not doing house work, not attending to daily needs, and talk about the deceased with the visitors who come to comfort them. Usually it is a process that holds tremendous healing powers, as the mourner re-lives with the community her happy memories of the deceased. It is, in essence, a labor of love.

So Sharon, observant of her faith as always, and still, unfortunately, the wife of Simon, sat on a low stool for 7 days as neighbors brought in pastries and veggie trays and cooked her lasagna or meatball dinners, so she could focus, as was expected, on processing  and mourning her loss.

Neighbor after neighbor came to discuss Simon’s brilliance, the way he had turned around the school, his uncanny ability to speak on an old topic, and make it fresh and vibrant–and this wasn’t even to mention his obvious kindness to her children, treating them just like a father, the neighbors said. They came to say they were sorry for her loss, which must be devastating. They came to tell her it was okay to cry.

And for 7 days, Sharon sat, hour after hour, holding a secret that was hers alone. She thanked those who came for their kind words, asked for more stories of Simon’s successes, nodded her head as others spoke of his fine mind–and played the role of the bereaved widow, as her last kindness to Simon, so none should ever know how different this narrative should have been.

Neighbors commented on her strength, on how she held back her tears, on what a credit she was to the life she and Simon had only begun to build–and the hours crawled by in praise of her dead husband, as Sharon sat on–the unbereaved bereaved.


*There are no real people named Judy, Jeff, Sharon, Sol, or Simon, whose names have been changed to protect their privacy.  These are instead teaching examples, composed of bits and pieces from real life, modified to make them more lively and, hopefully, more educational.


I help adults and adolescents through the particular struggles of our time: tension between couples, parenting frustration, blending new families, separation and divorce, (un)employment, cancer, and loss. When relationships come to an impasse, I use mediation techniques to try to ensure that each party will have his/her needs heard and accounted for in a dignified way. In addition to talking, listening, and reframing, I utilizes the tools of metaphor, active teaching, role-playing, visualization, and hypnotherapy.for families and businesses, as well as in cases of divorce.

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