“Why get in the car when you know you’re going to crash?” Bereavement, men and might-have-beens

“Was he your boyfriend?”

“Do you wish he’d been your boyfriend?” 

“Do you think he was in love with you?” 

“So did you two ever…?” 

“So how come you two never…?”

“Never? Not even once?”  

“Do you think he stopped you from having relationships?” 

“I know it’s sad he’s gone but it’s not like he was your boyfriend…” 

It’s three years this week since my dear friend T. (alias Lobster) took his own life. In previous years I’ve used this time and space to talk about him, bereavement in general, and how grateful I have been for people’s support. At the risk of seeming selfish, this time I want to take the opportunity to get something off my chest…

Since his death, I have heard the above questions and statements many times: From friends, relatives, Twitter-strangers, work acquaintances, counsellors. I understand they’re not badly meant: they’re just filling conversational space, or trying to understand. And it’s difficult, because the last thing I want to do is put people off for fear of saying The Wrong Thing. But when I bring up bereavement, often in passing, and people immediately jump to ask about the status of our relationship, it can seem like an immediate and uncomfortable obligation to justify my feelings. That someone needs to hear we slept together in order for my grief to be valid. Yes, of course, sometimes context like this matters. Your feelings towards people you’ve met once or twice will depend on what was said in the meetings. But if you’ve been someone’s friend for eight years, their death is a big loss to you regardless, and should be treated that way. A few times, I’ve mentioned the event and been told my semantics are wrong because only a partner or relative should talk about someone like that. Yes, apparently, we live in a world where Joan Collins can appear in a national newspaper answering the question: “What is your greatest regret?” with “Several husbands” but I’m not allowed to miss someone too much because he was “only” my friend. What’s more, he died at a point when we were absolutely clear and content about the status of our relationship – and were getting involved with other people – and now I find myself continually having to recount why we weren’t together.

“No but really, why weren’t you?” 

Well, for a start, I spent much of my teens and early 20s fretting over how to explain myself to people who didn’t really care rather than getting any action. And lo, here we are. Hahaha. But really, because of a mixture of vulnerability on both sides, and wanting different things. The more you think about it, the harder it gets, so to speak. Honesty is good, too much honesty is stifling. We knew each others’ histories in somewhat excruciating detail: the doomed romances, the unrequited crushes, the early fumbles. Though he was nearly 40 and wise beyond both our years, he was essentially frozen in time: still dressing like a 20-year-old, still ruminating over events from that part of his life. We both needed someone who would feel like a step forward, not keep us harking back. He was also teetotal because of early drink problems. Given how often alcohol has a hand in ambivalent couples getting down to it (ahem, I’m told, a fair few getting through their wedding ceremonies…), that may well explain a lot too. Above all, we had different priorities. He’d reached a point of contentment with his work and surroundings which I was sure he wasn’t prepared to compromise for anyone. For me, being with him would have meant giving up any prospect of ever having children (he didn’t have or want any), and living somewhere remote which would damage my already-limited career prospects. Us being in a relationship would have been like driving through countryside on a summer’s day in a broken Audi. A beautiful outing, but why get in a car when you know you’re going to crash?

I don’t feel guilt or sadness because I loved him, or because I didn’t love him. I feel sad because he was an extraordinary and lovely person who found being alive too painful. And I feel guilty because in the run up to his death, I’d been enjoying the most contended, carefree, seize-the-day attitude to life I’d ever had. I was a happy, boozy, newly-freelance journalist, too busy swanning around London like a paid undergraduate to look for any signs of distress, and I burdened him with gratuitous details of a silly (potentially very serious) situation I’d got into. It was a burden he didn’t need, and I’m pretty sure resented to some extent. I uncovered said guilt during a short spell of counselling last year and am currently on the hunt for somewhere free or cheap where I can do long-term therapy for other things. If anything remotely positive at all has arisen from this – and from a subsequent relationship, in the boyfriend sense  – it’s that I’ve reflected on what being “frozen in time” can do to someone, and am desperate to do whatever I can now to avoid being it. In another ten years, I don’t want to be the 40 year-old still endlessly chewing back over things that happened in my teens and 20s. I want to be one of the survivors, one of the “It Gets Better’s”; to have found a place, whatever form that finding may take. I wrote this post just because I got tired of giving stumbling answers to the big questions. And to move forward another inch…

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4 thoughts on ““Why get in the car when you know you’re going to crash?” Bereavement, men and might-have-beens

  1. I sometimes think that being only children gives us a particular insight into the value of friendship, and its steadfastness, and how it can be everything in itself. Perhaps most people have never examined it from this angle. And of course, there’s still the old stereotype about men and women and platonic friendship, which is so stifling. People can be criminally lacking in imagination. Even so, my jaw dropped at the insensitivity you record here – unfortunately, when it comes to matters like bereavement, people are always capable of surprising me. And, well, after the last couple of weeks you know my feelings on semantics and grief…

    The awful truth is that none of us knew to look. I won’t tell you not to feel guilty, because we both know you shouldn’t, yet we also both know it’s futile to say. My particular guilt is the catch-up email I kept meaning to send; my curmudgeonly slowness to appreciate the value of Twitter, which he’d embraced, and thus be more connected to him day-to-day. And yet, he understood “curmudgeonly”. And he understood, I truly hope and believe he did, that we were there for him, and if he didn’t then it was because depression is an unspeakably cruel illness that shows you all the worst-case scenarios about life and calls them the truth. It’s nothing that we can take responsibility for, but I think we feel a deep urge to because it’s easier to believe we had some sort of ultimate control over life which we abdicated through carelessness. I think in his better days, he would have said that part of life is accepting that we can’t control everything…

    …though I bloody wish we could. ❤

    • My gosh, this is such a beautiful response, I wish I could have it framed. Thank you so, so much. And once again, I’m so glad we found each other, even though it was in such sad circs. ❤

    • Thank you very much, and thank you for the recommendation. Charlotte and I seem to have lots in common and I think she would be a great professional contact so first off I may hold fire on arranging therapy for a bit and just see if she knows anyone else. But it’s great to see a therapist with her background. It’s quite difficult to find anything beyond really rigid CBT or Freudian-based “tell me about your mother” stuff.

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