Last year, my ex-boyfriend died. He wasn’t old or sick or suffering. One day he just died. And I found out because I was Facebook stalking him.
He and I didn’t have the best relationship, and we had dated years ago. We weren’t linked on social media. We had no mutual friends in real life. In fact, none of my current friends had ever met him. Most of them knew him simply as that ex. And we all have one of those, right?
Well, mine died.
When someone you love dies, you surround yourself with their memories, with your loved ones, with their loved ones. You go to the funeral, you bring food to the family, or you eat the food that some other grieving soul has brought you. But what happens when there isn’t any of that?
Let’s say you’ve moved states or you’ve never met his family or maybe you’ve had to trash talk him so much to convince yourself to break up with him in the first place that all your friends basically think he’s terrible and don’t even understand why you’re upset. I mean, hypothetically, I’m sure that could happen to someone.
When my ex died, I was on an island of grief. Battling the waves of you don’t deserve to feel so sad. But once, long ago, he was mine. And we had that kind of head-over-heels, toxic, terrifying, captivating, addicting, die-for-each-other love.
I remember how he smelled when he woke up. I remember the way his eyes would gleam when he talked about the stars. We would share a cigarette, pass it back and forth in the midnight hours, and feel like we were the only people alive. I remember the curve of his arm — it’s been seven years and it’s all perfectly clear.
So where do I put that grief? Where do I share it? How much is appropriate for me? I wasn’t a relative, a best friend, a classmate who saw him every day. Is there even space for me in all this sadness?
What do you do with grief that isn’t yours?
You watch others grieve him on social media.
You wait for late nights and try to find that old book of his you must still have somewhere.
You pore over old photos — you’ve been meaning to do that anyway.
You talk about him in passing to your friends. Remember my ex that died? He used to love The Simpsons. They are polite and say, ah, that’s nice.
But mostly you talk to him in the car. Remember the green tea ice cream? Remember stealing cactus? Remember planning days full of activities to try and outdo each other? Remember our fights that lasted until 5 a.m. and ended in the driveway screaming? I’m still mad at you.
Somewhere in my brain, rattling around in there, is the knowledge that whoever you are, and whatever your current relationship, you have the right to grieve fully and deeply for someone you once loved. A piece of him, of her is still yours.
Most days pass the same way. But every once in a while still, I think I see my ex — that ex — in a crowd and my heart is in my throat. My eyes are full. I’ve forgotten how to breathe.
Emily Michele Warchot is a human person who cares about other human people. She owns a creative agency in Portland, Oregon. She has a dog named Charlie.