Losing a spouse is already overwhelming, isolating, and permanently life-altering. It doesn’t help that the English language doesn’t provide many options for talking about the death of a spouse. In television, movies, or books, you might see a deceased partner referred to as an “ex-husband,” “ex-wife,” or “former spouse."
But in real life, describing your departed spouse as your “ex” or even “former” isn’t accurate, and it can feel like a betrayal. After all, neither party broke up with the other, and the marriage relationship was never nullified. So what is the proper way to refer to your deceased spouse?
Although there aren’t a surplus of options when it comes to talking about a deceased partner, you do have a few terms to choose from.
Tip: Grief and the loss of a spouse are complicated. If you're dealing with the death of a spouse, our post-loss checklist may help answer some of your questions.
1. “My late spouse.”
The technically-correct way to refer to a spouse who passed away is as your “late husband” or “late wife." the term “late” is euphemistic, and it comes from an Old English phrase, “of late." In the original Old English, “of late” refers to a person who was recently, but is not presently, alive.
Because it refers to a person who died recently, the term “late” is more applicable for spouses who passed away in the recent past. But in modern usage, the phrase applies to spouses who have passed away at any point in the past.
2. “My spouse who passed away.”
If you’re speaking to someone about your deceased spouse for the first time, you can use the more descriptive phrase, “my spouse who passed away." This gives the person an exact idea of who you’re talking about, and it’s a good alternative to “late spouse." This is especially true when you’re talking to younger generations, who might not know what “late” means.
However, if you’re talking to someone close to you, who’s well aware of your spouse and their passing, you may want to go with something more familiar.
3. “My spouse.”
You don’t always have to refer to the fact that your spouse has passed away. Especially if the death is very recent, it’s often all right to just omit that piece of information in social settings. Instead of saying, “my late husband,” or “my late wife,” you can simply say, “my husband,” “my wife,” or “my partner."
Many people who experience the death of a spouse choose to continue referring to the departed as their husband or wife. After all, death doesn’t put an end to your relationship with your partner. You more than likely still feel the feelings of love and devotion that you had when they were alive. You might still wear your wedding ring after your spouse dies, and you might maintain many of your other marital traditions.
If the person You’re speaking with knows you well, they’ll know who you’re talking about. And if it’s someone who doesn’t know about your spouse’s death, you can clarify as you see fit.
4. “My first spouse.”
Even if you remarry after your spouse passes away, the term “ex-husband” or “ex-wife” still isn’t accurate. You can be happily married to your current spouse while understanding that your previous marriage only ended due to death. In such a situation, you still never willingly ended your relationship with your deceased spouse.
If you’re remarried, you can refer to your spouse who passed away as your “first husband,” “first wife,” or “first partner." Or, if the deceased wasn’t your first spouse, you can refer to them as your second spouse, etc.
5. “My deceased spouse.”
Simply saying, “my deceased spouse” might be too straightforward for many social situations. But if you’re trying to find the words to describe your deceased spouse in a technical situation, like a doctor’s appointment or government form, sometimes straightforward is best.
Another time it’s acceptable to use such direct phraseology is if you’re in therapy and speaking about the death of your spouse. You might be part of a widows’ support group, where speaking about your deceased spouse is the form. In these situations, there’s no reason to sugarcoat the truth.
However, referring to a deceased spouse as simply “my deceased spouse” can take an emotional toll on you, too. If speaking so blatantly about the death of your spouse makes you uncomfortable, it’s always all right to go with something more euphemistic.
6. “My departed spouse.”
If “deceased spouse” doesn’t feel right, but you still want to use direct terminology, “my departed spouse” may be a better option for you. “Departed” is a widely understood euphemism for death, depicted the deceased as simply “departing” this life.
If you use the phrase, “my departed spouse,” nearly everyone will understand what you mean, and you can avoid more unembellished language like “deceased." And if you want to use even more sentimental phrasing, you can say, “My dear departed spouse.”
7. “My spouse, who died in..."
A more descriptive version of, “my spouse who passed away,” lets you provide the date your spouse passed away. This can help if you’re talking to someone about your departed spouse for the very first time.
They might not know whether the death is recent or if it occurred a long time ago. It can also help in many other situations where you want to provide more information about your spouse’s death.
7. “My spouse, may he rest in peace."
With this option, you still refer to your spouse as your “spouse,” or as your “husband,” “wife,” or “partner." But, at the same time, you let the person or people you’re speaking with know that your spouse is deceased.
A phrase like this can sound overly formal casual conversation, but you may find it helpful if you’re writing about your deceased spouse.
As an alternative to “rest in peace,” you can also use phrases like “rest easy,” or “rest his soul,” depending on what you find most applicable and meaningful.
8. “My previously passed away spouse.”
With this phrase, you convey the same message as something like, “my spouse who passed away." But the phrase, “My previously passed away spouse,” may be easier to use in many situations.
You can use this phrase in daily conversation, whether it’s with someone you know well or someone you don’t know well at all. You can use it in writing, as well as in formal situations, as well.
9. “My children’s father/mother."
If you had children together with your spouse before they passed away, you can refer to them as the parent of your children. This method might not fully paint a picture of your relationship with your departed spouse, but it’s accurate.
Often using a phrase like “my children’s father” will lead the person you’re talking with to ask further questions. So if you refer to your deceased spouse as the father or mother of your children, be prepared to field questions like, “Are you two still married?” and, “Are you still close?”
10. The name of the deceased.
Finally, one of the best options for referring to a deceased spouse is to just use the person’s name. Of course, this option works best if the person you’re talking to already knows about your deceased spouse and knows their name.
But you can refer to your spouse by their name even if the person you’re talking to isn’t aware of the situation. If they have any questions, they can always ask is who it is you’re talking about.
Talking About Your Deceased Spouse
When someone close to you passes away, it can be extremely difficult to describe them as “deceased." You’re faced with the grief of losing your spouse in everyday life, and talking about the person as “deceased” can bring up even more emotions.
When you’ve lost a spouse, it can be helpful to decide how you’ll refer to you’re departed partner when the topic comes up. That way, you can express your emotions more easily, without worrying about choosing your words in the moment.
The above are the most common ways people refer to their deceased spouses, but you might come up with your own phrase or version of one of the phrases provided. Ultimately, the way you refer to your deceased spouse is up to you, and it depends on what you find most accurate and comfortable.