When Gabriel, my boyfriend of nearly three years died, the first thing I did was Google “What do you do when your boyfriend dies?”
I couldn’t find the answer I was looking for, so I went to the county library, and through boogers and tears, told the librarian what had happened and asked her for a book on grief.
The librarian gave me a list and I checked out every book on it. When I got home and began paging through them, I realized none of them were going to help me. All of them assumed my boyfriend and I had a physical connection, and we didn’t. We had never even met in person.
I didn’t have life insurance to deal with, or a death certificate to retrieve, or a casket to pick out. I didn’t have a toothbrush to throw out, or laundry to pick through or belongings to donate. There was no hospital bill I was responsible for. I wouldn’t even be attending his funeral.
Instead, I had a long string of Skype messages, some mementos I received in the mail, a few thousand digital photos and a set of emails and passwords.
I met Gabe through Reddit in 2016. We clicked right away over our mutual love for blue frozen drinks and indie rock music. He immediately disclosed he was disabled, in a wheelchair, and likely to never walk, move or even breathe on his own due to a muscular disease called Duchenne muscular dystrophy.
This wasn’t a problem for me. I was looking for company online while I transitioned to college as a shy student who had trouble making friends. All that mattered was that he could type a message and make me laugh. He was in Texas, I was in New Jersey.
I was a dedicated friend-turned-lover, and I was completely smitten. I woke up early to send him good morning messages before classes, recorded air kisses, and fell asleep talking to him on Skype. I took photos and videos of everyday things Gabe wouldn’t be able to experience because he was bed-bound and I shared them with him.
I encouraged him to paint, make music and move while he could, and he encouraged me to study hard, finish my degree and challenge myself professionally. I bought tickets and went to an Arcade Fire concert, where I then video-chatted him the entire show since he couldn’t attend live. He was the first person to send me flowers on my birthday and encouraged me to break out of my shell and stand up to my parents. Our relationship taught me love isn’t about physical proximity, but the things you do and feel for one another.
Through 2017 and 2018, our bond grew while his health declined. I put off meeting him because my parents disapproved of me being in a long-distance relationship. We would talk from sun-up to sundown, chatting about the day we would finally meet. We decided to meet as soon as I was financially independent from my parents ― hopefully by 2020 when I’d be out of school.
But before 2019 had even arrived, Gabe died suddenly from congestive heart failure. When traditional support systems failed to console me, I turned to the very place I’d met him: the internet.
I knew how to find dates online. It wasn’t difficult: Make a post and wait for the responses to flood in. But finding a way to deal with grief ― specifically the grief that comes with losing a person you’ve never met? I soon discovered that wasn’t so easy.
I began by posting on long-distance relationship (LDR) forums and was greeted with empathy and sorrow but no real understanding of how Gabe’s death was affecting me. My posts were flooded with comments like “I’m so sorry! I can’t imagine this happening!” and “I don’t know what I would do if I were you.” I appreciated the responses and the well-wishes, but no one really seemed to understand the gravity of my loss.
I posted on Facebook groups for widows, and the responses were less empathetic. Messages like, “I think you’re overreacting. You’re not a widow,” and “You don’t know how we feel. I was married for 10 years ― your grief doesn’t compare,” echoed in my head for days. I felt like I was taking up a space I hadn’t “earned” and didn’t deserve.
No, Gabe and I weren’t married. We didn’t have children. We didn’t live together. I had never even touched him. Of course our relationship was different than a 40-something widow who had lost her husband of 20 years. But what did that really mean?
I struggled with this. I questioned if our relationship was even real. Maybe I was being dramatic and selfish? Had this all been in my head?
No. Of course not. I was grief-stricken, just like those other widows. I couldn’t eat, drink or go on living my life, just like them. I spent my days and nights hugging the keepsakes I had received from him, crying and wishing for Gabe to be back with me. The fact that our relationship wasn’t a physical one didn’t change any of that.
I realized I had to come to terms with the fact that my grief is not the same as anyone else’s. My loss is still a loss ― a deep, radically transformative one ― and nothing can change that. Not a widow on Facebook telling me my relationship wasn’t real because we didn’t touch, not my mother telling me we weren’t even really together, and not me trying to convince myself I shouldn’t feel the way I feel.
I posted excerpts from my journal online in hopes that it would let me compare my experiences with individuals who were dealing with the loss of a physical relationship. I reasoned I was never going to heal if I didn’t allow myself into healing spaces and I wanted to share what I had been through in case others might be going through something similar.
December 14, 2018: My boyfriend passed away. Not sure what to do next.
My boyfriend and I were together for 2.5 years and he passed away this morning.
He was ill the entire time we were together. He went to the hospital Wednesday and was supposed to come home Saturday. We did not expect him to pass so suddenly.
I never got the chance to meet him or say goodbye properly. I am not really sure where to go and what to do. We planned to get married after I graduated from college. I have lost my best friend and my future. The only person I would go to for comfort in a situation like this is gone.
December 18, 2018: Everything hurts.
Last Tuesday was the last real time I got to talk to Gabe without anything being “wrong.” I only got to be on the phone with him for a short while when he got to the hospital.
My heart hurts. My tummy hurts. My head hurts. Even my bones hurt.
I can’t listen to music. I can’t draw. I can’t read. I can’t do anything because everything reminds me of him and what we did together.
February 20, 2019: Faking it ’til you make it (crying in the shower and other bad ideas).
Somewhere in the back of my head, I knew that our relationship could end at any moment if something happened to Gabe. I just wish I had done more to prepare myself for it. We never actually talked about how he would die before me. We just pretended it wouldn’t happen.
May 21, 2019: It’s been almost six months.
I haven’t posted here in a while. I think I’ve been coping well. So much has changed. Sometimes I even feel happy. When I do, I feel so guilty for it and for moving forward with my life. Then I think it shouldn’t be like this ― he shouldn’t have died. He should still be with me.
October 19, 2019: Grief has changed me into a completely different person.
I’d do anything to go back in time but I also know that Gabe was so sick and in so much pain all of the time and, in some ways, his passing was a blessing because he no longer was in misery.
I am still insecure and unmotivated and miserable much of the time. I stew and I grump and I cry. There are times when nothing and no one can make me feel better. But if Gabe were to magically come back, I would also be upset because I know how badly he was hurting and I wouldn’t want him to feel that pain ever again.
January 14, 2020: I still have to be reminded it gets easier.
Over a year later, I’m still not very far out in the grand scheme of things. But life is easier now than it was the first week, the first month, or even the first six months. The first everything is the hardest.
Grief can take a lot of different forms. It can affect us mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually ― virtually any way you can imagine. But grief is not a contest. It’s not a see-who-has-it-the-worst type of thing. I took me a long time to understand and believe that my loss is real ― it exists ― and, what’s more, it’s valid.
As with so many other people’s losses, it took a lot for me to accept that there was nothing I could have done to prevent Gabe’s death. His disease was cruel, and he would have died whether or not I had met him and we had been a part of each other’s lives. It took a lot for me to accept that my love for him mattered even if we never were in the same room together ― it mattered just much as the love that other people share ― and my grief matters just as much, too.
After a while, my grief was accompanied by guilt. My guilt made my grief even harder to deal with. I felt guilty for not meeting Gabe when he was still here, for not doing more for him, for trying to join ― and daring to take up space in ― a community of people that were dealing with losses different from mine.
Then I felt guilty for trying to move forward with my life ― even though moving forward was the best thing I could have done for myself. I felt especially guilty for wanting to meet new people. It felt like the ultimate betrayal of everything I told myself while I was grieving, namely that Gabe was the love of my life and the only one for me. I was afraid that if I met someone new, Gabe would disappear from this planet without a trace.
Little by little, I began to move forward. It took time: time to learn and believe that there was nothing to be gained by staying frozen in place. Time to learn and believe that my loneliness wasn’t doing me or Gabe any good. And time to trust myself and what I felt: that if the situation were reversed, I would want Gabe to love again. I would.
Gabe showed me love isn’t just about physical displays of affection. It’s about the time you spend together and the effort you put into getting to know someone. I felt more vulnerable with this person I had never met than with people I saw every day. He loved me in ways that were deeper and more intimate than anyone else I’ve known.
From the outside looking in, our relationship might have seemed unorthodox. But I lost the person who knew me best. I lost the person I loved the most. And I lost the future I had so desperately been wanting and planning for.
I don’t think anyone goes into a long-distance relationship planning to never meet their partner. I certainly didn’t. I never thought any of this would happen. But because it did, I want to talk about it in hopes that it might mean something to someone else. Maybe if and when they’re going through this, they’ll find this piece and they’ll feel less alone than I did when I did that Google search two and a half years ago. And, on a larger scale, I hope that we all might consider the need to reexamine our understanding and expectations of grief and love and how they relate to one another.
It’s also important to acknowledge that there are lots of different reasons that people grieve ― from the loss of a loved one to the ending of your favorite TV show. Grief can be a constant, heavy, unbearable weight on your shoulders, but it can also be a small ache in your heart or a fleeting thought that reminds you something or someone isn’t with you anymore. Whether that’s a person you met or not, that grief is legitimate, and you don’t need to justify that to anyone ― not even yourself.
Every day, I get farther and farther away from where I thought I would be in December of 2018. I have a new job. I’m in a new city. There’s a new man in my life. But Gabe is still very much a part of everything I do. Photos of him hang next to photos of my new love. His camera sits on display in my home. The music he loved still fills my rooms. I talk about him freely and often. He changed my life. He’s a part of who I am ― and he always will be ― and no matter what anyone thinks about our love.
Meghan Schiereck is an award-winning photojournalist, retired prom queen and proud New Jerseyean living in New York City. She is a graduate of Shippensburg University. You can find her picking up rocks on the side of the road, crying to old music or sometimes writing. You can also find her on Twitter @rhursday.
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