There are a hundred thousand articles, lists, and guides for how to get over an ex. And fewer, but still some, about how to deal with the death of a loved one. But when I tell people about my dead ex-boyfriend, I’m usually met with a blank stare—the one where the person I’m talking to secretly wishes that I hadn’t brought it up.
It’s because no one knows how to console someone about the death of someone they no longer love.
I wasn’t sure what to feel. The shock of losing someone I knew at such a young age was present, but to make meaning of his death and to fit it together with the importance he once held in my life didn’t quite add up. No one offered me condolences. No one was there to hold my hand as I cried. My sadness didn’t really mean anything because I’d declared to the world that I no longer loved this person.
But that didn’t mean that Sean wasn’t fundamental to the person I am today. And that didn’t mean that his death wasn’t shocking and made me question ideas and beliefs I held about myself.
I was completely over Sean when I found out he died. Years had gone by and my life was distinctly different than when we were together. And yet, when I found out he died, I was thrown right back into it. I doubted all the decisions I made — how distant I became after we broke up, how circumspect I was about anything he told me, even the break up in general.
I thought of the last time we talked; he promised he’d be back in New York soon, and I, as I always did, brushed him off. I couldn’t get over the incredible guilt I felt that perhaps, maybe, if I hadn’t left him, he’d still somehow be alive.
I also felt immense guilt towards his family. I felt like I should do something for them, but I was the girl who broke their son’s heart. His father was the one who informed me of his passing, and I couldn’t offer him anything that felt right. But it felt wrong for him not to know Sean the way I did.
Reading his obituary felt like an incomplete telling of his incredibly dynamic and sometimes caustic life, but it also felt out of place for me to actually do anything about it.
Was I supposed to go to the funeral? Should I send my condolences to his family, who I’ve spent Christmases with years ago? I teetered on the verge of wanting to do more and tell his story but being fearful that I would overstep my boundaries.
When I first found out, I ran through all my memories of him, trying to find that moment where everything switched, and thinking that maybe if I had done differently, he’d still be here. For so long, I continuously reminded myself of the bad moments, reaffirming that I was right to leave him. But after he died, I was consumed by the amazing moments we shared, and sometimes had trouble remembering why I left.
As time wore on, I realized that both of these things could exist in my heart. My focus switched from reminding myself why I didn’t want to be with this person to honoring his life and carving a permanent space for him in myself.
Now, I try to surround myself in the stories of him, both good and bad. And I have lots of them. Sean was magnetic and affable, and the best way I can preserve his memory is by sharing these stories. They’re the way I keep him alive. He was an artist and a creator, and I try to think of ways to create things that preserve him. This is one way—I write his stories and recapture my memories of him and try to share them with others.
However, I don’t mean this to be a cure-all for getting over an ex, and maybe that’s why there’s no quick guide or list to getting over someone who has passed. I’ve accepted his death, but I’m in no way over it.
Sometimes there are movies where old lovers imagine what their lives would be like if they had ended up together (I’m thinking of La La Land in the only tolerable twenty minutes where Emma Stone dreams up what her life would have looked like if she ended up with Ryan Gosling). I used to imagine what would have happened if Sean and I were still together—but I don’t anymore. I can’t. The guilt of thinking he might not be dead if I didn’t push him aside is too much, and the guilt has never quite gone away. But I have no regrets.
For as formative and important as Sean was in my life, I was right to end things.
Instead, I try to reflect on how he’s shaped the person I am. It may be cheesy, but sometimes I imagine him looking down on me and seeing the girl I am today and I wonder if he’d be proud. I try to recapture his spirit by reading books by authors he loved and listening to records he collected.
When we were together, it was impossible for me to see how much he changed me and made me better. But I see it now. I’m kinder and more thoughtful. I’m more sensitive and resilient and self sufficient because of him. I try to always remember that, and hope he knows it.
As long as I’m still this person, he remains with me.