This week it would’ve been my ex-boyfriend’s birthday. As you can see by my use of ‘would’ve’, he’s no longer with us – he died in a fire in 2012. I thought I would write a post about the challenges and dilemmas of having a late ex-partner in the 2010s – what it’s like to be bereaved when you’re a STOTBAM (Slightly Too Old To Be A Millenial).
Every so often, I get an email from him. It usually says ‘Hi’ and then the long version of my first name (which no one ever calls me) and then has a link to a website selling something like ‘Optimum Food Products’. I’m fairly certain that if he was going to contact me from beyond the grave, those wouldn’t be his first words.
It’s not great, being contacted by a spammer pretending to be your dead ex, but in a weird way I kind of like it. It’s nice to hear from him. He used to like calling me by the long version of my first name. It’s nice to be called that by him again. Or at least, a robot pretending to be him.
Timehop and Facebook On this Day
You’re on the train to work, with a stressful day ahead, and looking at various things on your phone. Bang! The train carriage around you starts to blur, when you see Timehop has a montage of photos of you and the dead person together, urging you to ‘celebrate your friendship’. Thanks Timehop, for that boot to the stomach.
At least with Timehop, you kind of know there’s a risk that the time it hops to could be a tear-jerker. You can avoid checking it until you’re in the right frame of mind. Or not have the app.
But Facebook’s ‘On This Day’ feature is even worse. It seems a bit random whether it’s there or not, so you’re unprepared. You’ve got a notification (probably a stranger wrote ‘Congratulations’ underneath the ‘congratulations’ you wrote an acquaintance’s post about getting engaged, but you have high hopes) so you open the app to see what is, and bang. “Hey, remember the last time you went on holiday with him before he died? Here it is! Have fun at work today! We care about you.”
Social media flashbacks take on a new meaning, when the memories were shared with someone who has died.
I like looking at old photos of him, but it can make me feel a range of emotions. It can make me happy, when I’m reminded of wonderful memories, or mundane memories of wonderful everyday things, but it can make me feel lots of sadness and regret as well. In an ideal world, I’d like only to see those photos when I’ve chosen to and I’m prepared.
Not being married
You could argue that this is moot, since we split up right before he died (for reasons I can’t remember now, but they seemed important at the time), but I think one of the things that’s hard about having a partner who died in modern times, is not necessarily being married. Lots of couples don’t get married these days, and it feels like society’s perspective on marriage is changing, but our rules and laws about what happens when someone dies, have not caught up.
We weren’t married. I wanted to get married, he didn’t. I think it was partly because his parents had a difficult divorce, partly because he wasn’t religious and couldn’t see the point, and partly because he didn’t want to have a day where he was the centre of attention. We were together from when I was 23 to when I was 27. I think if we’d stayed together for longer, marriage would’ve become more of an issue and we probably would’ve found a compromise. One of the last times I saw him before he died, he said “I should’ve married you”.
I was the first person that the police told about his death, because they couldn’t work out who his next of kin were, but they could see he was connected to me because he was still insured to drive my car. But after I gave them his next of kin’s contact details, I never got any more information from the police. To be fair to the police, there probably was a window of time where they would have told me things if I’d contacted them to ask, but I was in too much shock and denial initially, and by the time I was ready to find out information that could be devastating to hear, that window had closed.
There was an investigation into what caused the fire, and it was important to me because I was worried it was my fault, but I didn’t know when the inquest was and had to write grovelling letters to the coroner.
I didn’t get any say in what his funeral was like. Although his family did try and include me in some things, and let me speak at his funeral, I think it’s fair to say we had a tricky relationship the year after his death.
It seems unfair that someone’s next of kin is not necessarily someone they were particularly close to, but of course I can’t think of a better way of organising things.
It’s also hard that there isn’t a word for who I am in relation to him. If we’d been married, I guess even if we’d separated right before he died, I’d be his widow. It feels like this is the single incident that has had the biggest impact on who I am today, but there isn’t even a word for it, for having a partner who died (having an ex who died right after you split up – that’s a topic for a whole blog post in itself. Or a book in itself. Or years of therapy in itself). It’s weird that there is a word for being jilted, but I’m sure that statistically happens less often than having a partner who you weren’t married to, who died.
Their use of obselete media
I have a shoebox of tapes he made years before we met. He dug them out when I bought my car, which has a tape deck. It’s silly but for a long time I didn’t listen to them. We disagreed on whether Radiohead are better pre- or post-Kid A, and for some reason we both came away with the idea that we didn’t have the same taste in music.
But one time, on a long car journey where radio 1 was being too young and annoying, and radio 2 was being too old fogeyish, and my ipod battery had run out, I put one of his tapes on and absolutely loved it. It was tune after tune of songs I liked, or songs I didn’t know but loved. On subsequent journeys I kept trying to use Shazam as safely as possible whilst driving, to identify the songs I didn’t know.
The tape deck in my car is the last way I have to play tapes. My car is from 2001. However much I dream about, one day, having a car that has central locking or electric windows, I won’t get a new car until I absolutely have to, because how will I play the tapes then? When that car breathes its last breath, you’ll have to prise me out of its cold, dead hands.
Them not knowing about modern things
He never had a smartphone or a Fitbit. He never had a Netflix account or used an Uber. He never found himself pronouncing ‘WhatsApp’ like a perplexed elderly person, like I do (I would never say ‘what’s up’ to someone, so for some reason I think I have to pronounce the ‘What’s’ and the ‘App’ as two very distinct, separate words).
OK, so this isn’t the stuff that keeps me awake at night, but I wish he’d been able to see the London 2012 Olympics. I wish I could’ve talked to him about Jeremy Corbyn. I know he would’ve made some hilarious observations about Donald Trump. Pig-gate happened on his birthday last year. He would’ve loved that.
When the world moves on and changes, it makes the time we had together seem further away.
What to do with the sex memories
We had some cracking sex, over the years. But should I still think about it now? It feels wrong and taboo to reminisce about sex you had with a dead person, but it also seems really sad, and almost an insult to him, to confine those memories to some rusty, dusty filing cabinet in my brain, never to be opened again.
It’s one thing when you’re having some special time on your own, and deciding whether to open that filing cabinet or not, but it’s something else when one of those memories pops into your head unexpectedly, and you have to decide whether to carry on with what you were doing or stop. Especially if you were doing it with someone else.
Of course, if he was reading this, he’d be much less concerned about what I’m doing with the sex memories; he’d be too distracted by a) feeling horribly embarrassed that I’m writing about him at all, and b) even more gut-wrenchingly embarrassed that I’m writing about our sex life.
Sorry. I’ll stop writing about it now. But I still don’t know what to do with that filing cabinet.
I think one of the hardest things about having a massive bereavement in your 20s, is the loneliness of it. Of course, most people will have experienced some loss and grief by the time they’re in their 20s, and every bereavement is devastating. I’m not trying to suggest I’ve won some sort of loss competition.
But losing one of the key-players in your life, like a parent or a partner, the kind of loss where it changes your everyday life, and your plans for the future, and changes you as a person, I think it’s lonely in your 20s.
For some reason, the other day, I was suddenly reminded how much time I spent hanging out in pub toilets, the year after he died. When I was with my close friends, who would patiently listen to me ramble on endlessly about death (thanks guys) it was OK, but when I was with people I didn’t know so well, sometimes I just felt overwhelmed. I felt like I was from a slightly different species, and would scuttle off to the toilets and hang out there for a bit and take some deep breaths.
When you’ve suddenly been made aware how fragile life is, and how we could all just easily die, just like that, it’s really hard to unrealise it and stop thinking about it. But if this is the sort of thing that you’re spending a lot of time thinking about, it makes you much less fun at parties and things.
In Harry Potter, there are mythical animals called Thestrals, which you can only see if you’ve seen someone die, and I feel like that’s a great metaphor for what it’s like to lose someone, and suddenly feel like you’re always going to see the world a bit differently to your peers. It’s weird to have experienced a life event that your parents (thank god) haven’t experienced yet.
Congratulations if you’ve made it to the end of this post. There’s a theory that one thing is always taboo in a society, either sex or death. In Victorian times, sex was obviously much more taboo than it is, when piano legs supposedly had to be kept covered up, in case they were too provocative. But back then, illnesses like TB and cholera meant no one thought they were going to live forever or took it for granted they’d live to 90, and I think death was less taboo. Now, we think we’re really modern and liberal as we can sit around in pubs talking about fisting and space-docking, but nothing clears a table quicker than a funeral anecdote.
I thought I’d address this in my blog by spending most of the time inflicting anecdotes about my vagina on people, but then throwing in the odd musing about death, just to keep you on your toes.