#1250: How do I support my (very-recently) ex-partner through his complex grief?

Content note: Mention of suicide

Dear Captain Awkward

2 weeks ago my boyfriend (he/him/his) of 2 years made the decision to break up with me (cis/female). I moved out of our shared house and back with my parents and sister. I did not want the relationship to end and I hoped we could have worked on our issues (he felt rejected by my less frequent interest in being intimate + I withdrew somewhat from attending social things in general ). We did break up on good terms but I REALLY haven’t been coping and have not completely adjusted. (I also regularly see a therapist that always gives the advice of taking care of my needs first)

Three days ago he messaged “Dads dead” to me. I immediately called him and he gulped back tears in saying his father died by suicide and he found his fathers body while he was at the scene.

He has been surrounded by his big group of friends and family. I have been checking in on him through text/call but I feel on the outer-edge. I stayed over last night to comfort him, be a non-judgemental space for him and a shoulder to cry on. I love him and want to make sure he’s okay but I also feel so distressed over our break up and now not knowing what to do to take care of myself during this painful time.

I acknowledge he is not in the right state of mind to make decisions right now. I told him I can’t continue to stay over and have that level of closeness and intimacy while knowing we aren’t a couple anymore. He responded with “I think there is still a chance for us” and “He probably won’t be okay if I’m not there for him.” I’m SO confused and my emotional mind wants to keep being there in every way I can for him. But my logical mind is telling me to predict and minimize any future rejection or heartbreak. I don’t know if I should distance myself to heal from this heartbreak or continue being a familiar support for him. I feel so broken and conflicted in wanting to cling to him while he is going through this incredibly difficult time.

Feel like an awkward clingy nervous wreck. Would love to hear your perspective on this predicament.

Hello, I’m so sorry your ex is dealing with this horrible grief and I am so sorry that it is sending aftershocks to your already-shaky emotional ground.

I do not judge your ex for texting you – someone he knows loves him and who will be kind – in a moment of extreme crisis. Nor do I fault him for questioning everything about his life right now, or for wanting to feel comfort and connection and safety and stumbling toward their last known address. You did a kind, loving thing when you responded to your ex-partner’s obvious need for support, and a kind, loving thing for yourself when you told him that you can’t continue to stay over. Trust that instinct, please.

I’m less generous about the thing where you have to support/comfort (sleep over with) him or “he probably won’t be okay,” and especially the fact that he held out the prospect of another chance to be together in order to get his way. Let’s go with the kindest possible explanation, that he’s not his best self right now and would not do this kind of desperate manipulation if he weren’t grieving. Okay? When he was on solid emotional footing, he broke up with you because he didn’t think you had sex often enough. You lost your relationship and also your housing situation less than a month ago. You are broken up.  You are grieving, too, and I don’t want to get into a ranking competition with “obvious hellish trauma of dead parent” vs. “breakup of important relationship,” but your grief and hurt feelings and sadness about the end of the relationship are still real and you get to feel them.

His grief is not your extended girlfriend re-audition process. If he wants to get back together, let him come find you when he’s sure. If you want to spend time with him with or without hooking up (which I leave entirely to you, sex and death are old friends, ex-sex is a thing sometimes, I do not judge) you can, but you are still broken up, and I think the best thing for you is to make all decisions about your life as a whole and your interactions with  him through the lens of “We are broken up and will most likely stay that way.” I mean, what happens to you when you help him through his grief and then he feels better and realizes he still doesn’t want to be with you? That’s a very real question.

You parted friends, and if it feels good to you to do what a very good friend would do for this person that you still love while his loss is fresh, then do that. Show up for the funeral. Say soothing words, think about a gift card to a grocery or food delivery service so he can feed himself without thinking about it too much (death & food, classic pairing), and return his calls and texts within reason.*

If you find yourself putting off decisions about taking care of your future (career, education, money, housing, etc.) because you can’t make these decisions while the prospect of getting back together is still present, I think a very good question to keep asking yourself is “What would make me most happy if he wasn’t in the picture?” Say you do get back together: Hold onto your money, adopt no pets jointly, and make no babies for at least one year.

If staying in touch makes you feel bad, and especially if he tries to make you feel guilty for not doing enough or doing exactly what he wants when he wants it in terms of “being there” for him, then do what you need to take care of yourself. If you say “I’m so sorry but the breakup is so painful and fresh, I really can’t be the person you lean on right now” you are not being selfish. The well-being of a guy who dumped you is not your sole responsibility.

Fortunately, he is surrounded by his big group of friends and family who can sit up with him and give him nonjudgmental love without grating their feelings like fine parmesan in the process. And you got a therapist, probably he can get one too. In fact, that’s one kind of concrete support you could show: Ask your therapist if they know anybody good with grief who is taking new patients right now, and collect a few numbers. “Talking to my therapist has really helped me, if you think it would help you I had my person pull together some recommendations.” 

*Some post-breakup “let’s not grow back together like a badly set bone” communications hygiene protocols to consider:

  • You say you’ve been checking in on him via text & call but you “feel
    on the outer edge.” What if you stopped checking or at least let more time pass between checks? He knows how to reach you if he needs to, he’s got other people around, you can put down this job.
  • Break yourself of habits like picking up the phone on the first ring and texting back right away. You can call him back later. You don’t have to respond immediately. He’s got other people around.
  • Think about turning your phone completely off when you do relaxing, fun, comforting things for yourself like watching movies, reading, spending time with your family and friends. “But what if he needs me?” Then he’ll leave a message and then if it’s urgent he will call someone else. Especially don’t spend the time your people spend taking care of and pampering you with your phone in your hand so you can take care of him.
  • Think about putting your phone in another room when you go to sleep at night. That bedtime “hey are you still awake?” text has a STRONG ex-ward pull. It’s a time of day when you’re cozy and your guard is down and it would just be so nice if the person you missed were here and oh look they texted…If this is one of your downfall temptations, help yourself and make it harder to reach you.
  • If he says something about “not being okay without you” (which is not the same as “I want you”) again, ask him what he means. Often people who are thinking about self-harm will answer honestly if you ask them outright, “are you thinking about hurting yourself?” If they lie or hide it, that’s not because you did something wrong when you asked; comments like that sort of demand a response. If he were to say that he is having suicidal impulses, you have many options about what to do about that, one being asking him what he thinks would help him, another being calling someone from that big group of supportive people in his life for backup. (“[Ex] is in a bad way and could use someone to sit with him tonight, can you come?”) There is no mental health diagnosis that is treated by exactly one person in the whole world never leaving one’s side and complying with precisely everything one wants at any cost, no matter what the vampire novels tell you.

I wish everybody in this letter all the healing and love in the world.