Complicated Grief at My Almost-Ex-Husband’s Funeral


Complicated Grief at My Almost-Ex-Husband’s Funeral

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In the midst of divorce, suicide rocks a family

What do you say?

The Memorial Service of Robert Nelson was on a Friday afternoon in April. Walking down the aisle with my children, moments seemed frozen. Methodists don’t call it a funeral. We call it a memorial service. We choose to focus on the loved one’s life and be positive.

Let’s gloss over the empty spaces left behind, shall we? The tragedy. The loss. The pain. The broken pieces of a family trying to find a new true north. The complicated grief that coats everything with a fine dust of guilt and regret.

What do you say?

Bob was my almost-ex-husband who disappeared for five months—to the day—before we found out he’d killed himself. To his children, he was simply “Dad.” After 18 years of struggle, aka marriage, I’d finally found the courage to ask for a divorce. The reasons were deep and wide and unique to us, as are anyone’s who has reached this conclusion—and they were no one else’s business. Yet some of the bodies that filled the pews that day thought they knew our story. They felt they had the self-righteous right to judge me. Sideways glances, stares, whispers, and even blatant snubs to my face were part of my walk down the aisle on one of the worst days in the life of my family: the Memorial Service for Robert Nelson on a Friday afternoon in April.

What do you say?

As we sat in the front pew listening to the eulogy his brother gave, interrupted several times by his mother, involving funny stories so emotion could explode in an “appropriate” way, we were angry. Not the appropriate “poor me” anger at the unfairness of it all and the price of sorrow: we were pissed-off angry that my almost-ex-husband and their forever dad left. We were pissed-off angry at the weirdness and unknown and fear we’d lived through the last five months. We were pissed-off angry that he took a gun and killed himself. We were pissed-off angry that he would never be in that church as the father of the bride or groom. We were pissed-off angry that we were pissed off-angry. Period.

What do you say?

Pews packed with bodies, each braided with Bob somehow. Bodies that had been connected to both of us, our couple friends, floated on the edges. Divorce is its own hardness. But this? This permanent absence and reality was bigger. Way bigger. Brave bodies came through the line to hug and stand in the awkwardness with me. Other bodies chose the other line. The usual condolences didn’t fit anymore. Yes, I wanted a divorce. But not a death. And certainly not a suicide.

As closure for the five-month odyssey we all traveled together, this day was almost anticlimactic. A necessary and respectful conclusion for a life ended too soon in an unimaginable way. Bodies hungry for words of comfort and assurance from me that we were going to be OK. And by we, I really meant ALL of us. The saga had an end now, and we all had permission to move on. To move through the stages of grief past disbelief now. It was real and tragic and over.

For my children and me, it was just the beginning of a forever trek. One life was over. Many more lives were rerouted through uncharted territory. A path that never ends and part of us now, just as Robert Nelson was part of us then. Before the Memorial Service of Robert Nelson on a Friday afternoon in April.

What do you say?


A certified professional life coach and professional singer, Nancy Jo Nelson lives in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. Her nest is emptying, as her daughter, Jillian, lives in the city and attends North Park University. Her son, Sam, still lives at home, along with Winnie the Wonder Mutt and Bolt the Mighty Chihuahua. Her first book, Lessons from the Ledge, is available on Amazon.

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