Who knew when I got divorced I would be faced with my ex-husband, the father of my two children being gravely ill and dying. I figured he would grow old and be in their lives forever. What did I know.
Although I no longer loved nor wanted to be married to this man, my children loved and wanted a relationship with him. So I began the intricate dance of supporting my children in their quest without over stepping the new boundaries of the divorce relationship. That was 15 years ago.
Life took a new twist when my ex was diagnosed with a rare but aggressive from of cancer. By the time it was discovered he had minimal time to live. Our young children were now young adults. Their grief was overwhelming.
Over the years my son and daughter worked very hard to maintain a relationship with their father. There were many missed opportunities with unspoken feelings. They loved their dad, their dad loved them but life, personalities, family dynamics got in the way. This prevailed until the day he was diagnosed. He changed, they changed and everything else changed.
I was thrust into a new role with a unique set of circumstances. How do I support my children when their dad is gravely ill and dying? There was no rules or a handbook to follow. It was learn as you go.
We were both remarried. He had a young son. There were ex-inlaws, ex-family, ex-friends. It was a mindfield, each step certain to trigger an unwanted explosion. I made a promise to myself to avoid that at all costs.
It was a simpler for me because my ex and I had made peace many years prior. There was communcication, mutual understanding and our current spouses never felt threatened by it. Still, it was a huge challenge.
There are a few key pointers that I can share to help you if you are in this situation.
- Listen: This is so important. Even if it means taping your mouth shut. Being a sounding board of comfort and understanding helps a challenging situation become just a bit easier.
Listen without judgment. Check your emotional stuff at the door. That means no bashing, no deragatory or nasty comments. The last thing your children need is to hear that.
Acknowledge and validate their feelings. Acknowledging means you hear what your children our saying. You do this by paraphrasing what you heard. Validation means you recognize their feelings. It is affirming that their experience is their reality. This does not mean that you agree with it. It just means you see and hear them. This eases the pain just a little bit. Both my son and daughter genuinely appreciated this simple act.
- Help: It is exactly what it means. Aid or assist in things to create comfort and ease. All the pettiness goes out the door. This can mean driving your kids to the hospital when they are to emotional to drive themselves. Cook a meal, or send snacks. It even means offering help to the current spouse while letting them know that you respect all boundaries.
While my ex was in the hospital there was no-one around to help with the two dogs they had at home. I offered to take the dogs out. It lessened the burden and just plained helped. This act truly builds bridges.
- Be Human: A tricky one. This requires you to have compassion or at least work very hard to show compassion. Either or it is essential. Regardless of how you feel or felt about your ex, or how awful he may be, your children are still suffering.
I would often say during this time, Dad did the best he can, and he loves you. I sent a meaningful message in a simple way. So have empathy, show care and be kind. You would certainly want that done for you.
Besides these three suggestions, I highly recommend that you shut your ears to all of the unhelpful and unwanted suggestions that others may send your way. That is their agenda not yours, so create a healthy boundary around yourself.
Lastly I asked people very nicely to keep their negative comments or judgments to themselves. If they couldn’t do that, I used the wonderful invention of caller ID. It was an easy way to filter out the unwanted chatter. I screened calls, text messages, and email just deleting them when necessary. I kept my focus on what was important not on what others thought or felt.
No one expects an ex-spouse to have a catastrophic illness or die. It does happen. I really didn’t know what do. I just knew that whatever I did I was going to show my care, compassion and empathy. In the end I helped my kids see what it really means to be a human being in a painful and life changing experience.
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