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8 Takeaways After My Ex Husband Died

Last Friday evening, my ex husband died of a heart attack. Although Jose and I had divorced in 2006, we remained good friends and celebrated holidays and family birthdays together.

He loved our son and my daughter very much. This photo was taken last Easter, after we all enjoyed brunch together — as was our annual tradition.

Note: This post was originally published on February 18, 2016, and updated August 6, 2023

Jose Luis Castaneda and his children.

If you’ve ever gone through something like this, you may have discovered that even in the midst of your grief you will be called upon to do impossible tasks.

Our son has already had to spend hours going through things at his dad’s house. He’s had to make a staggering number of decisions while grieving, and he’s only 14 years old. But we have no choice; the apartment has to be vacant by month’s end.

When your sweet son lost his dad six days ago and he wants to bring a lot of his things into the house, the only answer is “Yes, of course.” In a matter of days, our house has become a very full house … and that’s okay.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the minimalist lifestyle this week, and realizing that those decluttering concepts about which I often write are all relative.

I’ve expanded my definition of ‘simple living‘ to include sensitivity and comfort and gentleness, and letting go of perfectionism.

These are some of my other thoughts after this week’s sad events:

1. Minimize regrets. 

Many people expressed sorrow that Jose was gone so young, and talked of plans they’d had to reach out to him.

The takeaway for me is to do all I can to express love to the important people in my life, and act on those urges to get in touch.

2. Being amicable exes is worth the effort.

We were ex-spouses, but now I am so very grateful for how Jose and I worked hard to communicate and have a friendly relationship.

We all got to share important family occasions and major holidays together, and the kids and I will always cherish those special memories with Jose.

3. Comfort in.

I’ve reconnected with Jose’s family this month, and wanted to be a comfort without being awkward.

Fortunately I recently read a very practical article in the Los Angeles Times, “How Not To Say the Wrong Thing.” The advice is simple to remember, and so helpful during a time of crisis.

4. Pray for grace.

Along with all of the grief and emotion that accompanies a death, there are a multitude of hard things to discuss and decisions to make. Abundant grace is the only way through the difficult path.

5. Check on the strong ones.

Jose’s siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins were rocks this week. I felt prompted to check in with them and see how they were doing, and was glad they could talk privately about their feelings.

In a time of crisis, the strong people need support, too.

6. Don’t underestimate the stepparent relationship.

Jose was an involved and loving stepfather to my daughter, helping her move numerous times, sending her funny e-mails, and always bragging about her accomplishments.

She is grateful to those who have acknowledged her loss and supported her in this tough time.

7. Organize papers.

Jose kept his papers in tidy, neatly labeled files. Even so, it’s been challenging for his siblings to figure out some things. Of all the organizational tasks we can undertake, I’ve come to realize that this one is the most important.

Clothes and furniture can be packed up and given away, but no one else can decipher our paperwork. If I passed, could someone figure out what bills I owe and find my will and other crucial documents? I’ll be working on this task in the days to come.

8. Let’s not feel guilty about our stuff.

Sometimes having special objects around helps us feel connected to people we love. Real life isn’t a magazine spread, and sometimes we just have to do the best we can and let go of impossible ideals.

A sudden, unexpected death brings sharp, narrow focus to what’s really important.

I know we will learn more lessons in the coming days, but I’ll leave you with this: Life is short, so live today to the fullest.

Reach out today to someone you love.

No regrets.

About Eliza Cross

Eliza Cross is the author of 17 books, including Small Bites and 101 Things To Do With Bacon. She shares ideas to simplify cooking, gardening, time and money. She is also the owner of Cross Media, Inc. and founder of the BENSA Bacon Lovers Society.

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18 thoughts on “8 Takeaways After My Ex Husband Died”

  1. What an incredible woman and writer you are to write something so eloquently after such a difficult even in you life. Sending healing thoughts your way.

  2. To dear Eliza,
    I’m sending love and peace your way today. May this time of loss also be a special time of recalling memories, even as you reconnect with those still here. Special hugs also for your wonderful son. I also thank you for somehow finding time to write this beautiful tribute to Jose, filled with many wonderful life lessons. Foremost, as you say, we should reach out when we’re prompted. Such a wonderful and wise reminder. With sincere condolences, much friendship and love, Patricia

  3. Oh Eliza, I am so so sorry for your loss and for what you and your family are going through.

    My mother passed suddenly a few years ago, and aside from the whole emotional part of it, just dealing with the logistics of it all was incredibly difficult. My mother was a bit of a hermit and had communicated bits and pieces of things to various people, but none of us knew the truth about her health situation, and to say that her papers and affairs were not in order would be a very large understatement. In the end we were left with a huge mess, and so many unanswered questions about a multitude of things. For me it all underscored the importance of honest and open communication with the ones you love.

    Please know that I’m thinking about you, and wishing only the best for you and yours during this very difficult time.

  4. Beautifully said, Eliza. And you’re so right about step-parents. My stepdad raised me, and he was more of a father to me than my birth father. In our house, there was no such thing as “step.” We were family, plain and simple.

    Sudden loss is a powerful eye-opener. The world never looks like same again. After such a tragedy, you begin to realize what’s important and what’s not. I know your family is hurting, the wounds are so fresh, so I won’t tell you it’ll get better; I won’t tell you time heals all wounds. Because honestly, I don’t know if we ever truly heal. Life does continue, but we carry our scars with us. We also carry the love that our special person shared. During this difficult time, hang onto the love so the scars won’t wear you down. If you need anything, you know where to find me. *hugs*

  5. Eliza, I am so sorry for your loss and for your children’s pain. I can only imagine how hard having to go through his father’s things is for your son who is so young.

    I applaud you for allowing your son to bring back as many items he feels he needs at this time of his fathers. In some ways I did much the same when I lost my grandfather, who raised me in 2001. I felt the loss of a sense of home almost as much as I felt his loss and needed to feel a connection to the home I grew up in. Over time, that loss faded some and I no longer needed those mementos and passed most of them on to others who needed them more. As I did I recalled a Native American tradition of carrying a memento for a year to allow one to grieve properly and at the end of the year they burned it. While burning may be too drastic you may notice in time your son will begin to pare down what he’s saved as the grief lessens.

  6. Well written! I hope many of my online friends and relatives read this – you’ve touched on so many issues here, with your usual sensitivity and aplomb.

    Grieving is such a personal experience – we each grieve in our own way, and sometimes differently for particular people. I am so glad you and your family communicate your love for one another. I hope you and yours experience love’s soothing balm as you navigate the heart-aching times.

    I am here for you; feel free to call anytime.

  7. Eliza your gracious words at such a difficult time are admirable. I only wish my ex-husband (such an awful expression) and I had been able to remain close. Sending you all loving thoughts in the weeks to come. Page

  8. Eliza: I am so very sorry for your loss. Your relationship with your ex-husband and your care for his family, too, is inspiriting. You are full of grace, indeed.

  9. I’m so sorry about your loss; you are in my thoughts and prayers. May God bless and comfort ALL of you as you continue to support one another. (Your sensitive, caring words of support to your son were so wise and understanding.) Carolyn

  10. Is times like these we are reminded of whats truly important, and how precious our lives truly are, condolences to you and your family

  11. Dear Eliza, I loved your post. You amaze with your ability to take something so tragic, and turn it into a such a valuable life lesson for the rest of us. Please let Gracie and Michael know how sorry we are for their loss. Having lost a step parent myself, who was so very special to me for so long, I realize how strong that bond can be, and also how it can sometimes be overlooked. Thinking of you all. Love, Betsy

  12. I am so sorry for your family’s loss. Thank you for taking time to express the importance of support to all during the beginning of this time of grief.

  13. All our love and thoughts to you, Michael and Gracie. What an incredible strength you’re already been for each other. How wonderful and important too that you kept your relationship so positive, we hope your love for each other and the happy memories you can share will help each of you through this difficult time. With love xxx

  14. Dear Eliza:

    I am Jose’s (Pepe) cousin and even though I have never met you, I thank you for posting this blog. Am so glad Michael has you in his life and that you are also keeping him involved with Pepe’s side of the family.

    We all should definitely live life to the fullest, keep in touch more often with our loved ones and friends and get our important papers organized.

    Thanks again for writing this blog during this difficult time.

  15. Dear Eliza,

    This is Jose’s cousin Edward ( Eduardo) in Okinawa. Thank you so much for your post about Pepe!
    We send our love and prayers to you, Michael and Grazie.


  16. Sorry to hear this news. It sounds like you have done a tremendous job over the years making sure that the kids come first, and this is a time that they need that and will appreciate you for it and remember their dad well as their memories solidify.


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