My two late partners knew me as Ashley: a deep in thought writer whose artistic, old soul loved loving on others. In my world, there was always a bright side. How could there not be?
People knew me as an encourager, and in my very imperfect world, I still managed to rediscover glimmers of hope.
But then, the boyfriend I knew I’d marry died.
The few days preceding his passing left tension between us. We weren’t in a rough patch, but I can think of better terms for us to have been on before he died. His sudden death didn’t allow me to say goodbye or have any last conversations.
Guilt overwhelmed me and all the bright sides of life bubbled up into a disappearing vapor.
Forget it. I had a better chance of resuscitating him.
Finding resources for a grieving girlfriend was nearly impossible.
That doesn’t include facing all the “fun” and not-so-comforting platitudes people offered. You know, words such as, “You’re young. You can find someone else . . .”
Or, “At least he was just a boyfriend.” (I thought this is how all married couples started out; he could have been more than that one day.)
The whole “we weren’t married yet” notion made me question if I could be a “widow.” I later learned that in losing a partner – dating, engaged, or married – most of us share common feelings.
Two weeks to the day of losing my treasured boyfriend, I said my last goodbyes to my uncle. My great-aunt died two months later, and we buried my grandmother within that same six-month time span.
These losses were laid on top of other hardships: The company I relocated 600 miles for laid me off two weeks after starting. I’ll never forget because it was my late boyfriend’s birthday.
Financial overwhelm and loss hit me hard. I remember sitting on my apartment’s kitchen floor next to the garbage can crying, void of life and hope, while my mental, physical and emotional health suffered.
I don’t know everything about grief, but when you talk to me about it, I understand.
Eventually, after years of adjusting, navigating through my previous loss, going through the hardest of grief waves, and bouncing back happily, my best friend and I reconnected. He and I fell in love, and we embraced every moment together.
We traveled a ton – twenty-five places in one year – survived living long distance, relocated twice, came close to launching a business, created recipes, and loved life together. He even encouraged me to keep pictures of my late boyfriend.
Our relationship wasn’t perfect, as none are, but it sure was close.
But then it happened.
Eleven days before the anniversary of my late boyfriend’s passing, my fiancé died.
He was young, vivacious, and funny; and I sat outside on a rainy, winter night speaking to detectives and paramedics who were as bewildered as I was, wondering how a man who had no signs of death dropped dead on our kitchen floor, dying within seconds.
They called the loss “sad.” Marked it as “natural causes.” And I cried, grieving the loss of my long-time best friend, greatest confidant, and soulmate.
Life After Death
With this surreal and unfathomable loss, I remembered what previously helped me cope. I also recalled how society often fails grievers. Because of this, I received intensive, professional training and am now a death doula and grief specialist.
Offering personal one-on-one sessions and facilitating educational events has been life-changing. I’ve watched people come to me saying, “I’m not excited to live anymore or know how to be” and leave feeling renewed and at peace.
Grief survivors can become the heroes of their story, gain useful coping skills, and support others if they choose. I know this because I’ve seen smiles return and confidence restored.
Mixing Life with Death
Moving into the next phases of life as you grieve someone who held meaning to you is challenging. And while it’s not the life you thought you’d have, a reimagined life is possible.
Among many others I’ve buried, Jason is dead. So is Michael. However, through it, I have a pretty good life. I think of them daily, yes; the tears show up through the passing years. Yet it’s important to recognize that losing the most significant piece of your life doesn’t mean you’ve lost your life.
Hope is fragile but exists, and happiness and grief can surprisingly coexist. People told me this years ago, and I hated it.
“You don’t understand,” I said to them, angry and upset.
But you see, this loss that you feel, or the loss that the person you love feels, will always be there. That love will never fade. Missing them will continue. And while it’s uncertain if grief gets better, it does become different.
My heart for you is to hang in there and courageously lean into the pain. You will make it through, I promise. Those who are wanting and willing to always do. It may not seem like it today, tomorrow, or years from now, but it’ll happen.
Please know that I’m here for you. Many of us in the grief community are. So, join us. Let us walk this long road together.
Ashley Olivia Nelson