I got the call at 11:25am on Sunday morning, February 24, 2019. There had been a terrible hit-and-run accident in Fort Myers, Florida last night, and it didn’t look like my old boyfriend Patrick was going to make it. I remember sitting there on the telephone listening to some of our close mutual friends cry and talk about him in the past tense. It was weird. I cried a little bit too, but mostly, I just felt numb. I hadn’t heard some of those voices coming through the speaker in years, and yet there they all were, together again, saying some of the most unbelievable things. This wasn’t real, I told myself. There is no way he could just…die. I hadn’t even returned his phone call from last month yet…
The next day, the most unthinkable thing happened. I got word from his best friend that Patrick had been pronounced braindead earlier that morning. The hospital was now keeping his body alive only until they were able to harvest all of his organs, and then he would be cremated. Upon hearing this news, the all-consuming numbness that had swallowed me whole the day before began to give way to the most intense feeling of sorrow. Momentarily, this sorrow was punctuated by flecks of jealousy (why do other people get to live when he can’t?), contentment (but parts of him will still be alive…) and pride (even in death he is still giving others the very best parts of himself), but they soon sank back into the gloomy abyss where I remained, struggling to keep my head above the water.
Although Patrick’s death was not the first loss of human life that I had experienced, this and my many other emotional responses to it have still taken me very much by surprise. While I expected and even welcomed the sorrow that enveloped me following the news of his death, the jealousy, contentment, and pride I also felt that day were both confusing and embarrassing. How could I be calm or find anything to feel good about right now? What would other people think about me if they knew?
Additionally, even though I was already familiar with the five stages of grief, I never anticipated cycling through them so many times in a single day, at such varying speeds or in such unpredictable orders. The morning of his death, for example, I went for a run immediately after hanging up the phone, and over that thirty minute period I must have bounced back and forth between disbelief, acceptance, tears, and rage at least half a dozen times. It was exhausting. When I got back home, even though I hadn't actually run that great a distance, I ultimately had to lie down and take a two-hour nap before I could even gather enough energy to trudge on through the rest of my day.
In part, this unpredictability in the emotional processing of my grief has no doubt been prompted by my awareness that I am now suddenly surrounded by his memory. I’ll be in a store minding my own business and a song will start playing that reminds me of him, and the next thing I know tears are streaming down my face and the lady at the checkout counter is asking me if I am okay. Or perhaps I glance at a calendar and recall something significant that happened with him on the day’s date many years ago (like our first kiss, which happened on Mardi Gras 2003, that you see captured in the image), and then for the rest of the day I find myself carrying that memory around with me, crushed by the weight of my sadness in recognizing the impossibility of me ever being able to get that time back.
In all cases, however, what has surprised me most in this experience of grief is the overwhelming sense of guilt that seems to hover over everything. Guilt that I didn’t feel more sadness on the phone with my friends when I first heard about the accident. Guilt that I am now doing my best to carry on with life even though his had ended. Guilt that I can’t seem to feel his presence around me now or recognize any signs he might be trying to give me from the afterlife. Guilt that I still haven’t really sorted out whether or not I even believe in all that afterlife stuff anyway. And since nobody told me that part of the grieving process would involve so much self-loathing and shame, of course, I also end up feeling guilty about that too, as if somehow, in the midst of everything, I am even failing to get this whole grieving thing right.
Piled on top of all these rather generic (and, what I’m discovering are “normal”) feelings of guilt, I have also been struggling with the very unique forms that are shaped by the specter of our relationship. Patrick and I had a special connection, pretty much from the first moment we saw each other. He became my best friend during the two years before we got together, and in the three years that followed, when we cohabited as boyfriend and girlfriend, we got to know each other better than I have ever known or been known by anyone else in my life. We did everything together—we lived together, we worked together, we celebrated together, and we cried together. We shared all of the same friends, and we got to know each other’s families. He was even the person who made me really fall in love with hip hop, and he was also the first to person to convince me that I was smart and to follow my dreams.
Unfortunately, though, as we continued to evolve, I started to have dreams that didn’t include him. I wanted to be an iron woman, to become a college professor, and hopefully also someday, to travel the world. At first, I imagined him right there beside me on all of these adventures, but I later found that he was less invested than me in getting these or any of his own dreams off the ground. Consequently, I felt myself growing increasingly resentful of him, until I finally decided to end our relationship, in the fall of 2006.
For a long time after that, Patrick seemed pretty much heartbroken by my decision. We still worked together and shared practically all of the same friendships, so I had plenty of time and ample opportunity to witness, firsthand, the pain and suffering I had inflicted upon him. The look in his eyes crushed me every time he saw me with another man, and even after I moved out of state in 2009, I knew that a piece of his heart would always belong to me. Thus, over the years, I continued to keep in touch with Patrick, but always made sure that I never got too close because I wanted him to find happiness and love again, and worried that I would be a distraction. So I mostly kept my distance, and got used to living in a world without him.
The guilt that emerged in the wake of his death has thus also been deeply rooted in this reality. At the time, I thought I was doing the right thing by giving him space to live his life, but now that he is gone I am filled with regret and shame about our separation. I feel guilty for breaking his heart back then, and for squandering so many good opportunities for a closer friendship with him since. Mostly I think I just miss his laughter and company, and I wish I would have done a better job of telling him how much he has meant to me.
I also feel guilty because, as I said, I had already gotten used to a world without him in it. So why am I now suddenly feeling so much sadness and loss surrounding his absence? What right do I have to get all in my feelings about him not being here now, when I had already decided so many years ago not to be there for him? How presumptuous of me to think that after all of my mistakes he would somehow still want to try and give me a sign.
The truth is that I don't have answers to any of these questions. I am still swimming through the dark waters of my grief. Ironically, I feel much closer to Patrick now than I had felt for many years before his death, and yet, at the same time, I also feel so much further away. In this manner, I once again find myself caught in a sort of in-betweeness surrounding his death, because the permanence of his absence has changed both nothing and everything in my life. I had already gotten used to a day-to-day world that didn’t have him in it, but I could always pick up the phone or send a random text and instantly reignite that connection. Now, however, I must get used to living in a different kind of world without him, where he only exists in the minds and hearts of the people, like me, who knew him. In this way, it is now up to us to keep him present in this world, which we can do by simply sharing with others our favorite memories of him.