On grieving and coping when an ex dies

Last month, after 28 days in the hospital, my ex-boyfriend died of heart failure. I was stunned by the mix of grief, love and anger that hit me. He hadn’t been a part of my daily life for more than two years. So why was it so hard to get through the day without breaking down?

I felt unsure of what my role should be during my ex’s dying process. I wanted to do all the usual things people do to offer their support—bring over casseroles, spend shifts with him in the ICU—but I didn’t know if my presence was wanted. I was no longer close to his family, though they were once like part of my own. I felt alone with my grief, outside the support system of the friends and family who were closest to him.

Since then, I’ve talked to friends who have lost their exes and learned I am not the only one to struggle with these issues. Here is the advice I’d give to anyone in this difficult situation.

Your ex’s death may hit you harder than you think

I naively thought that since we were broken up, I would not be strongly affected by my ex’s death. I was wrong. Although relationships end, that doesn’t mean the feelings go away, too. Watching my ex’s courage, humor and grace in the face of death, I was reminded of why I fell in love with him in the first place. To cheesily quote Patrick Swayze in Ghost: “It’s amazing, Molly. The love inside — you take it with you.”

It could bring up bad parts of the relationship

My ex’s hospitalization resurrected the feelings of rejection I’d had after he broke up with me. “Everyone he asked to see has visited,” his stepfather casually remarked after I paid a visit to the ICU. Meaning: My ex hadn’t asked to see me. I couldn’t help but feel rejected…and in the next second, selfish for making his death about me. Add grief to the equation, and you have a very complex, bitter brew of emotions to deal with.

My friend Angela had a similar experience. There was a lot of anger and resentment when her relationship ended, which she hoped to reconcile. “I wanted to talk to him and make things right, but lots of people told me to stay away,” Angela said. “And then when I heard of his passing, I felt like I lost my chance.”

Do what you need to get closure

For me, this meant going to the hospital. I needed to tell my ex I was grateful for the time we spent together and that I would always love him. I am so glad I went, even though I wasn’t sure it was the right thing to do at the time.

Angela wasn’t able to talk to her ex before he died, but she did go to his funeral. “I’m not an impulsive person, but I ended up buying a plane ticket to Miami to attend his funeral and I’m glad I did,” she says. “When I introduced myself to his parents, they were so caring and welcoming. His father just thanked me for understanding his son. It wasn’t how I thought I’d get closure, but it sufficed.”

Friends and family might think you’re being overly dramatic, but it’s OK to be sad

It’s likely your own friends and family won’t understand what you’re going through unless they have experienced it themselves. “People just told me, ‘Everything happens for a reason,’ or ‘Think of his family — they are in worse pain than you,’” Angela says. Personally, I didn’t expect a sympathy card or bereavement leave, but I did hope some of my coworkers would acknowledge my ex’s life to me when he passed. This didn’t happen. Most people won’t think to offer support to an ex, and so that responsibility falls to you.

Seek out support

I found it helpful to talk to friends who knew my ex. In some cases, this meant reviving old friendships and reaching out to people with whom I was not especially close. And it meant calling up a therapist I hadn’t seen in years. As a result, I became closer to people I hadn’t known that well and renewed friendships that had languished.

This essay also is part of my grieving process. As a writer, I process emotions by writing about them. In the immediate aftermath of my ex’s death, I blogged about my loss. If I hadn’t done that, Angela wouldn’t have reached out to me with her own story. Don’t be afraid to share your experience. It will help you heal, and hopefully, help others heal as well.

Missy Wilkinson is a proud Louisiana native and resident of New Orleans’ 9th ward, where she enjoys writing, running on the levees and playing with her two kittens. Her debut young adult novel, Destroying Angel,is forthcoming from Torquere Press in July.

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