The Moment I Fully Realized My Own Mortality
And why I told no one about it. Until now.
“I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but your ex-husband is dead.”
I stared at my monitor, willing my brain to process the words in the email. I had been divorced for 13 years and hadn’t seen my ex in nearly 15. To say our marriage ended badly was an understatement. He was abusive, almost from the start.
In 15 years, not one month passed where I didn’t have a nightmare that I was still married to him or that he’d managed to find me. I’d look over my shoulder in airports and public places. I’d panic if I saw an unfamiliar number on my phone.
In 2002, we lived separately in the small town where we’d married. Steve kept tabs on me and made sure I knew. He’d drive by my house, training his eye on the corner of the kitchen window where I’d crouch when I wanted to peek out at the street. Coincidence, he said lightly, when I suggested his behavior was inappropriate.
Once, I found a stack of porn magazines under my couch cushions. He had moved out months before and the magazines hadn’t been there the week before when I’d rearranged my furniture, which meant he had sweet-talked the cleaner into letting him in or somehow gotten hold of a key. I changed the locks and explained things to the cleaning service … again. I tried not to picture his glee thinking about me realizing he’d invaded my space. The message was: “I’m always here.”
I quietly hired a lawyer who understood my need for privacy, and I left town on a holiday weekend. I moved three more times, restarted my life and eventually remarried. The nightmares and looking over my shoulder didn’t completely stop, but things got better. Steve was never successful in contacting me, but the lingering worry that he might brewed under the surface.
The email, sent by a former coworker who knew Steve’s family, contained little detail. I don’t know how he died. Was it cancer or a car accident? I’ll never know. I blocked the person who’d emailed. She had sent it in a benign, thought-you’d-want-to-know manner and probably expected me to respond with questions.
Steve’s death and slicing the remaining thread connecting us felt final. It felt good. I struggled to process Steve’s death. I didn’t feel sadness. I felt vague curiosity about the details and mild regret over not asking questions. Next came relief, followed by guilt for being relieved. Was I happy over someone’s death, and if so, what did that say about me? I thought about how I’d be a widow if we hadn’t divorced and wondered what it would be like to tell people I was a widow. Even though I haven’t been to church in years, I thought about being able to take communion again. I didn’t try to remember happy moments because those had long been eclipsed by violence and horrible things menacingly whispered.
I told no one about Steve’s death, mostly because there was no one to tell. Like many abused women, I’d been fairly isolated. Once I achieved distance from that relationship and began to form new bonds, I found I didn’t want to share that piece of my past. My husband knows the broad strokes and I eventually told him about Steve’s passing, but I hung on to the news for a while, trying to process it in my own headspace.
Learning of my ex’s death made me hyper aware of other women of my generation who’d lost partners and former partners. There’s no cultural norm for how to process the death of an ex. Although I didn’t grieve his passing, I realize my feelings toward him are on the extreme end of the spectrum and that other women may have more balanced memories of an ex.
I’m in the season of life where I find myself examining my mortality more often or differently than I did in those bulletproof 20s and 30s. While the deaths of people who once meant something to us is part of life, the privilege of aging sometimes feels weird and disconcerting. I didn’t mourn Steve’s passing, but it triggered some angst over what my life with him had been and regret for the years spent with him. I mentally relived some of the trauma.
When someone once important to us dies, emotions are revisited — no matter what those emotions are. Our families and current partners might not understand those feelings, and that’s OK. We’re entitled to support in whatever way feels right to us. Figuring out what that support looks like is the hard part. I’m not sure if everyone has that moment where they fully realize their own mortality, but this was mine. I don’t have words or a label for what I feel or don’t feel, and I’ve decided that’s all right.
Not all feelings have to be defined and categorized. That email came five years ago. I don’t look over my shoulder anymore, and unfamiliar phone numbers aren’t cause for panic. I still have the dreams sometimes. I’ve released the guilt over feeling relief about Steve’s passing.
Figuring out how to validate our feelings and receive support looks different for everyone. From deciding if a grief group feels appropriate to navigating communications with family when there’s a new surviving partner, this is yet another scenario where we wish life came with instructions.