Grieving My Boyfriend’s Death… with His Ex-Boyfriend

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Being gay can feel isolating. So can loss. Conquer both, together.

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It’s never easy meeting your boyfriend’s exes, but it’s even harder when it’s at your partner’s funeral. So it was that I first met Donal, the love of Simon’s life. Handsome and charming, eloquent in his grief, I hated him before I even gave myself the chance to know him. While we got on fine at the wake, I had every intention of that being the only time we ever spoke.

This was made a lot harder by my decision to run the London marathon in our Simon’s name. As soon as the torrent of sweaty finish line selfies hit Facebook, Donal knew exactly why I had just run 26.2 miles, even though I’d done everything in my power not to bring his attention to what I was doing. It was about my pain, not anyone else’s.

“I wish we could have been better friends,” Donal messaged me.

“Well, we’re not the ones who are dead yet mate,” I wrote back. “So let’s Skype?”

We agreed to talk a few days later. Donal was immediately the most charming man I’d ever met. He was pleasant, complimentary, truthful, funny, and open about the fact he had felt just as alienated at Simon’s funeral as I had.

“What do you miss most about him?” he asked.

“His eyes,” I said. Donal nodded and smiled.

“I miss that ass, frankly.”

He paused, and then told me that I was the only other person who truly understood how he felt about Simon. I felt the same way: to speak to the only other person who had slept next to Simon was, perhaps, the most liberating thing in the world. Like the first time you make a Sean Cody joke with a new gay friend and realize that, for once, you’re speaking to someone who gets your shorthand.

We were both incredibly similar people—and both equally unaware of the chemsex and meth epidemic in London before meeting Simon—and both of us were trying to respond to his loss proactively. I wrote a play, he was making a film. He was helping support people he met who were in recovery, and I’d just run across half of London for Stonewall.

As we sat there, talking about our experiences with the same man, he started to cry as he told me that he wished he’d fought more for Simon to move out with him and get help in California, where the community was a lot better than it was in London.

This was not the first time Donal had told me this. At the wake, I had seen this as the most selfish opinion in the world: Didn’t I have a right to have met Simon too? This time round, less salty than I was when recently bereaved, I told him to stop being a fucking hero. Neither of us could have saved him, and we’d be arrogant to think otherwise. He smiled and told me he understood exactly why Simon fell for me.

We pledged to speak more, and we do. When Donal was back in England recently, we even popped into the bar where Simon and me—and Donal and me—had first met. Donal introduced me to the manager behind the counter, a man who I had bought pints from many times, knowing that we both had the same loss in our hearts, but had never spoken to.

“You won’t believe it,” said Donal, “but David here ran the marathon for Simon.”

The manager turned to look at me. He shook my hand. All three of us were choked up.

“Well then you’re not paying for those drinks,” he said.

Fran Leibowitz said in “The Impact of AIDS on the Artistic Community” that the crisis killed off the greatest audience for art New York had ever seen. For me, it also seems to have decimated a generation of mentors. Not just because of the body count, of course, but because of ageism in the gay community, a lack of social spaces that aren’t for clubbing, and because I’m sure we, as a generation younger, can seem uncomfortably ignorant of the defining moments of the gay liberation movement in the 20th century. Before Donal I had met nobody who could say certainly that what I was experiencing was not entirely new, and could confidently tell me when what I was feeling was important or when I was being a fucking idiot.

And this is as true for bereavement as it is for homosexuality. Both can feel incredibly isolating: many experience it, but it’s almost like everyone is speaking a different language when they try and share their stories. What Donal and I give each other as Simon’s partners is also what I was desperately in need of as a gay man: A confidante. Much-needed perspective. And an understanding that we are all part of something tough and beautiful together. And, I hope, I will give somebody else that when I’m older.

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