When Your Ex Gets Sick


“I’m scared I’m going to die,” my daughter’s mother* told me through tears.

That morning she had gone in for a CT scan after complaining to her family doctor about headaches. As she had suffered severe head trauma as a teen, her doctor was inclined to take her seriously. It was the same family doctor who telephoned to inform her the scan revealed a “large mass” on her brain. She got the call as she was returning to work from the hospital and was advised to return immediately and that a neuro team was standing by to meet her.

Neither of us had any idea what that really meant. Was there a risk of rupture? Was it cancerous? Would she be rushed into an operating room right away? And if so, was there a risk of lasting neurological damage or that she would die in surgery?

I had a friend in Texas have something similar happen. He was operated on the same day the tumor was discovered and had only hours to get his affairs in order. Though he survived, it still meant many years of recovery afterward.

I did my best to assure her of her toughness, that she would get through it, and that I would provide anything she needed. Lastly, we agreed we wouldn’t tell our daughter anything until we better understood what the situation was.

Back at the hospital, her neurosurgeon confirmed it was a tumor about the size of a small orange. Though there was a low likelihood it was cancerous, they needed to do an MRI and a few other tests to get a better idea of what they were dealing with.

While she waited, I checked in regularly and gave her updates on our daughter. It was an odd place to be. As we hadn’t been together for just under a decade, I wasn’t sure what my role was. I knew I had to support my daughter come-what-may, but what about my ex?

Our relationship finished in the chaos and upset that normally come at the end with plenty of hurt feelings and things that would have been better left unsaid. It was several years before we were able to consistently talk without getting into an argument and several more before we were able to be genuinely happy for each other’s successes.

I had often said everything I had ever done for my ex had been for the good of our daughter, but I was starting to question if it was more significant than that. This woman I shared my life with for a time was responsible for giving me the greatest gift I had ever received in my only child. Past hurts aside, surely that warranted more than only focusing on my daughter’s well-being.

You can still feel love for a past partner that emanates from a place of gratitude. That’s not to say you have to forget what happened or reignite anything romantic.

Having a genuinely loving and supportive dynamic with a co-parent you’re no longer with will be one of the most unusual, challenging, and worthy things you commit to.

This dynamic was made clear several days later when, as she was still waiting on her MRI, we had to have one of the most difficult conversations of my life.

After we split ten years ago, I had my will changed right away. She never did. As there was still a question mark around whether she could go into surgery at any moment due to a negative MRI or rupture, there wouldn’t be time for a lawyer’s visit.

Approaching the subject as tenderly as possible, I asked her what she wanted if she were to die.

The content of what she said is personal and not to be shared here. Knowing she was struggling, I tried my hardest to keep it together, but I couldn’t. I broke down over the phone.

Though I didn’t share them out loud, all I could think about were thoughts of my daughter growing up without her mother. Images of her high school graduation, marriage, and the birth of her own children whizzed through my mind. And there I was beside her for all these beautiful moments, her mother's absence a gaping void for us both.

She assured me my tears were okay; this was hard for us all. A kind offering from someone who was the one facing their own mortality.

Days later she would receive her operation, and it would go exceptionally well. The tumor was removed without incident, and she is presently speeding through her recovery.

I feel immense gratitude that she’s okay. I feel even more appreciation for how this unfortunate event revealed to me the strength of our bond. Regardless of the past, when the chips are down, we’re able to show up and support one another in a way that transcends even our love for our daughter.

There are those of you reading this that are having your own struggles with maintaining a positive dynamic with your ex for the sake of your kids. I would challenge you to open yourself up to the thought that eventually, you may be able to show up for your ex in a way that honors the wonderful thing you created together.

As my daughter’s mom reminded me during this crisis, “We’ll always be family.”

*Note: This article was written and shared with her permission.

Chaz ThorneComment