Grieving the death of an almost boyfriend

"Can you give me more time?" he asked me.

"Why?" I replied.

I did not know this conversation would be our last, that in two weeks, he would be gone, having exited not just my life, but this world too.

I did not know in mere days, his heart would fail in the middle of the night. I did not know the trail of sadness that would be left in his wake.

He was 52. There should have been decades yet to come.

I did not know his death would thrust me into amorphous grief.

Every religion and culture has rituals for loved ones of the deceased. But there are no guidelines for mourning someone you dated for a relatively short time.

It had been eight months since Matt entered my life, reopening a door to adult companionship that closed when I became a single mother at 40, three years prior.

I liked his dry humour and quick mind, his devotion to his son.

From the beginning, we had an easy rapport. He awakened in me a dormant desire and brought lightness back into my life.

We both juggled demanding jobs, young kids and close-knit circles of friends. But he filled a void I had not realised existed.

When we were together, the endless responsibilities of parenting solo could recede into the background, if only for a bit.

Our burgeoning relationship provided space in which I could breathe, become the person I had not been for some time. The person I sometimes doubted still existed.

It felt easy, we told each other. Until it became less so. As the six-month mark crept by, I began to raise questions I thought were befitting the stage. Would we take things to the next level? Begin spending time together with our boys?

The conversations seemed to go smoothly. But neither of us offered any grand pronouncements of love.

If pressed, I suspect we both would have admitted to doubts about our long-term potential.

I was open to exploring if something more would develop.

But he began to pull back.

In our final weeks together, his calls became less frequent, his texts more sparing.

He had recently, I noted with concern, begun drinking more heavily.

He was stressed, I knew. Burnt out and longing for a simpler life.

For months, he had complained off-handedly of chest pain, yet demurred when I pressed him to go to the doctor, cracking dark jokes I never found funny.

Of the many injustices of his passing, the most aggrieved is that his appointment was scheduled for four days after his death.

In hindsight, everything takes on new meaning.

A doctor friend explained to me how an overtaxed heart can cause exhaustion, irritability and depression; how stress and fatigue can, in turn, weaken one's heart.

I replayed our last conversation in my head, searching for clues.

When I told him that night how much I resented his withdrawal, he sounded resigned.

"I just need some space," he said.

"Can you give me more time?"

Every religion and culture has rituals for loved ones of the deceased. But there are no guidelines for mourning someone you dated for a relatively short time.

To much of the outside world, my life appeared unchanged.

Yet, internally, I was shattered.

Each expression of grief was complicated by the fact that I did not feel entitled to it.

Was it greedy for me to mourn him? Death also lays our fears bare: fear of the fragility of life, of course.

But his death forced me to confront something deeper - the loss of a quieter, more companionate version of love.

A version I had hoped might be enough. One that perhaps he had too, but ultimately found lacking.

A version that for a short while made me feel less alone in the world. Or maybe just less frightened of reaching the end of my own life without someone to claim me as his.

I write these words to claim him.

Not because he belonged to me or because I occupied any more significant role in his life than I did.

But simply because he mattered to me. We mattered.

WASHINGTON POST

• The writer is a senior vice-president at Democracy Alliance, a network of donors.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 07, 2018, with the headline 'Grieving the death of an almost boyfriend'. Print Edition | Subscribe