Dear Family Advisor

My ex-husband is dying, and my kids want me to play wife again.

Last updated:

August 10, 2010

My ex-husband is dying, and our two young adult children want me to be more involved: sit with him, help out with hospice, and help make funeral plans. (He doesn't have other family.) I'm remarried and I don't want my new husband to feel uncomfortable. I don't even think I want to do it "“- but I can't seem to sort out my feelings because the kids are so upset. I feel myself being swept along by their emotions.

I'm not angry at my ex anymore (which is a miracle considering how nasty the divorce was ten years ago), and I want to be a good person, but I also feel hypocritical. If he weren't dying, I doubt we'd all be acting like this "one big happy family" the way my kids want.

As much as your children are pressing you to reach out to their dad, they're also asking you to be there for them. They're anxious and scared, and that's part of why they want you involved.

Don't care for your ex because your children think you should. This is a personal choice, and one that you should give much thought. Whatever you do, however much or little -- do it willingly. While it can be difficult, you can set the limits in a way that works for you.

There's a wonderful scene in the movie Marvin's Room in which Meryl Streep's character says that relationships are like a bowl of fishhooks -- we can't pick up one without a whole mess of them coming in tow (loose translation). You're certainly dealing with a lot of fishhooks! You have to sort through your own feelings and then balance them with the needs of each child, your spouse, and possibly even your ex. Each may care about you in his or her own way, but none of them can fathom what you're experiencing.

First, talk to your spouse. Share your conflicting emotions and emphasize how much you care about him and are committed to your relationship. Ask him to be patient and understand what you and your children are going through. If you do decide to directly participate in your ex's care, be sure to also spend quality time with your husband in the coming weeks and months. He'll be much more supportive if he feels that you two are partners in all this, even if he isn't involved beyond being your strength and comfort. And while it's important that you discuss this with your husband, try not to let his preferences (or your children's) determine your decisions. As you'll certainly be considerate of their feelings, they also must respect yours.

Spend time with your children. You represent safety for them because you've always "fixed" things before, and you have some wisdom and experience that they may not have yet. Listen to their fears, let them rehearse something they might need to say to their father, or let them gripe about their long and frustrating day. I bet that the more you're there for them, the less they'll be focused on you being there for your ex.

In dealing with your ex, go slow and do what feels right. It's better not to "ride in with the cavalry" only to realize later that you've somehow become the primary caregiver and you have no idea how it got to this point. Keep healthy boundaries -- by that I mean, figure out where you draw the line and do only what you're completely comfortable with. Stay aware of your own feelings; it's easy to fall back into familiar patterns, even if they weren't great ones to start with.

Life takes some crazy turns. As long as you go in aware (and a tad cautious), stay open to the possibility that this could actually be a special time of healing and closure for all of you. Your children need to walk this final journey with their father -- and to be a part of that with them, however you choose to define it, might just turn out to be good thing.