When my boyfriend of nearly three years, Gabriel, 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, explained what had happened and asked for a book on grief
When I got home and started paging through them, I realized none of them were going to help me. They all assumed my boyfriend and I had a physical
connection, which we didn't; we had never even met in person.
I didn't have to deal
with life insurance
, a death
certificate, or a casket; I didn't have a toothbrush to throw away, laundry to sort through, or belongings to donate; there was no hospital bill I had to pay; and I wouldn't even be attending his funeral.
Instead, I had a long string of Skype messages, some mail mementos, a few thousand digital photos
, and a set of emails and passwords.
Gabe and I met on Reddit in 2016 and instantly connected over our mutual love of blue frozen drinks and indie rock music
, but he quickly revealed that he was disabled, in a wheelchair, and would likely never walk, move, or even breathe on his own due to a muscular disease called Duchenne muscular dystrophy.
This wasn't an issue for me because I was looking for company online as a shy student struggling to make friends
in college, and all that mattered was that he could type a message and make me laugh. He was in Texas
, and I was in New Jersey
I was a dedicated friend-turned-lover who was completely smitten. I woke up early to send him good morning messages before classes, recorded air kisses, and fell asleep on Skype talking to him. I took photos and videos of everyday things Gabe wouldn't be able to experience because he was bed-bound and 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, which I then video-chatted him the entire show because he couldn't attend in person. 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 bullies.
We would talk from sun-up to sun-down, 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.
Gabe died suddenly from congestive heart failure before the year had even begun, and when traditional support systems failed to console me, I turned to the very place where 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 pour in. But finding a way to deal with grief, specifically the grief that comes with losing someone you've never met? That proved more difficult.
I started by posting on long-distance relationship (LDR) forums, where I was met with sympathy 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 well-wishes, but no one seemed to understand the gratitude.
I posted in widows' Facebook
groups, and the responses were less sympathetic. 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 occupying a space
I hadn't "earned" or deserved.
Gabe and I were not married, we didn't have children
, we didn't live together, and I had never even touched him. Of course, our relationship was not the same as that of a 40-something widow who had lost her husband of 20 years, but what did that really mean?
I struggled with this, wondering if our relationship was even real; was I being dramatic and self-centered? Was it all in my head?
No, of course not. I was bereaved, just like the other widows, and I couldn't eat, drink, or go about my daily life. I spent my days and nights hugging the keepsakes I'd received from him, crying, and wishing Gabe was back with me. The fact that our relationship wasn't physical didn't change any of that.
I realized I needed to accept 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 together, and not me trying to convince myself I shouldn't feel the way I do.
Our relationship taught me that love is defined by the things you do and feel for one another, not by your physical proximity.
I posted excerpts from my journal online in the hopes of comparing my experiences with others dealing with the loss of a physical relationship. I reasoned that if I didn't allow myself into healing spaces, I would never heal, and I wanted to share what I had been through in case others were going through something similar.
My boyfriend died on December 14, 2018, and I don't know what to do now.
My boyfriend and I had been together for 2.5 years before he died this morning.
He was ill the entire time we were together; he was admitted to the hospital on Wednesday and was scheduled to return home on Saturday; we did not expect him to die so suddenly.
I never got to meet him or properly say goodbye, and I'm not sure where to go or what to do now that we were supposed to marry after I graduated from college. I've lost my best friend and my future, and the only person I'd turn to for comfort in a situation like this is no longer alive.
Everything is hurting on December 18, 2018.
Last Tuesday was the last time I got to talk to Gabe without something going "wrong," and I only got to talk to him on the phone for a few minutes when he arrived at the hospital.
My heart hurts, as do my tummy, head, and bones.
I can't listen to music, draw, or read because it reminds me of him and what we did together.
February 20, 2019: Fake it 'til you make it (crying in the shower, among other bad ideas).
I knew in the back of my mind that if something happened to Gabe, our relationship could end at any moment; I just wish I had done more to prepare myself for it. We never discussed how he would die before me; we just pretended it wouldn't happen.
It's almost six months later, on May 21, 2019.
I haven't posted in a while. I think I've been coping well. So much has changed, and sometimes I even feel happy. When I do, I feel so guilty for being happy and moving
on with my life, and I think it shouldn't be like this; he shouldn't have died; he should still be with me.
Grief has transformed me into a completely different person, as of October 19, 2019.
I'd do anything to go back in time, but I also know Gabe was sick and in pain all the time, and his death was a blessing in some ways because he was no longer miserable.
I'm still insecure
, unmotivated, and unhappy most of the time. I stew, grump, and cry. There are times when nothing and no one can make me feel better. But if Gabe returned, I'd be upset because I know how badly he was hurting and I don't want him to feel that pain again.
January 14, 2020: I keep having to remind myself that it gets easier.
Over a year later, I'm still not very far out, but life is easier now than it was the first week, month, or even six months.
My love for him mattered even if we were never in the same room together; it mattered as much as the love that other people
share, and my grief is equally important.
Grief can manifest itself in a variety of ways, affecting us mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually in virtually every way imaginable. However, grief is not a competition. It is not a competition to see who has it the worst. It took me a long time to understand and believe that my loss is real, that it exists, and that it is valid.
It took a long time for me to accept, as with so many other people's losses, 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 long time for me to accept that my love for him mattered even if we were never in the same room together.
After a while, my grief was accompanied by guilt, which made my grief even more difficult to bear
. I felt guilty for not meeting Gabe while he was still here, for not doing more for him, for attempting to join and daring to take up space in a community of people dealing with losses that were not the same as mine.
Then I felt guilty for trying to move forward with my life, despite the fact that moving forward was the best thing I could have done for myself. I felt especially guilty for wanting to meet new people, which felt like the ultimate betrayal of everything I told myself while grieving, namely that Gabe was the love of my life and the only one for me.
Little by little, I began to move forward. It took time: time to learn and believe that there was nothing to be gained by remaining frozen in place; time to learn and believe that my loneliness was not benefiting either me or Gabe; and time to trust myself and what I felt: that if the situation were reversed, I would want Gabe to love again.
Gabe demonstrated that love is more than just physical displays of affection; it is also 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, and he loved me in ways that were deeper and more intimate than anyone else I'd known.
Our relationship may have appeared unconventional from the outside, but I lost the person who knew me best, the person I loved the most, and the future I had so desperately desired and planned for.
I don't think anyone enters a long-distance relationship expecting to never meet their partner. I certainly didn't. But because it did, I want to talk about it in the hopes that it will mean something to someone else. Maybe if and when they're going through this, they'll find this piece and feel less alone than I did when I did that Google search tw
It's also important to recognize that people grieve for a variety of reasons, from the loss of a loved one to the end 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 that something or someone isn't with you anymore, whether that's a person you met or a person you knew.
Every day, I move further away from where I expected to be in December of 2018. I have a new job, I live in a new city, and I have 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 is on display in my home. The music he loved still fills my rooms. I talk about him openly and frequently.
Meghan Schiereck is an award-winning photojournalist, retired prom
queen, and proud New Jerseyean living in New York City
. She graduated from Shippensburg University and can be found picking up rocks on the side of the road, crying to old music, or occasionally writing. You can follow her on Twitter
Do you have a compelling personal story that you'd like to see published on Stardia? Find out what we're looking for here, and then send us a pitch!