First Act - Part 2, Love and Loss
Updated: Jul 14, 2021
"He's kinda cute. Too bad he's shorter than me."
That was pretty much my assessment of my partner Jeff when I first met him. (For the purposes of this blog, I've changed his name in order to protect the privacy of his family.)
We both had dogs and he approached me one day in the dog park near my home. I guess we made some small talk before he got around to asking me out. I was 34 at the time and he was 36.
We set our date a few days later for New Year's Day in 2002. He came to my condo lobby to meet me, and on the way out, he held the door and when I walked through, he smacked my butt! I couldn't believe he did that, considering we just met. But I thought it was funny because of that. I didn't know it then, but it was typical of him.
I don't remember what we talked about on our date. Jeff projected this kind of confidence and had a great sense of humour. He didn't seem to be concerned a lot about what others thought of him.
That's probably why he thought nothing of inviting me to help his friend move as our second meeting - not your typical date.
I remember showing up and all his friends were naturally inquisitive about me. But they were all very friendly and said that Jeff was a great guy and I was lucky.
After that, we were seeing each other almost every day. He lived a few blocks away from me and soon gave me his house key. Less than a month later that he asked me to go to New York with him and a friend for a quick weekend getaway. I thought it was WAY too early, but when I told my friends, they all encouraged me to be bold and go.
We had a great time... I hadn't been to New York since I was a kid and it was nice to go as an adult. Jeff talked to strangers all the time -- in restaurants, in line-ups -- making jokes and they all responded positively to his energy.
One night back home as we were walking the dogs, Jeff seemed distracted. I asked him if everything was ok. He said to me, "I thought about it and thought about it and thought about it. And I wanted to say that I love you." Of course, I had already fallen in love with him too.
Things happened very fast with Jeff and we became a part of each other's lives quickly. I only remember good times with him. We went to Wonderland together with my friends, we took a road trip in the summer... we even went white water rafting in the Ottawa valley, something I never thought I'd do, because I can't even swim.
I don't recall ever having a fight in our time together.
He laid out plans for us in the coming years - we would live together in a condo he had purchased in the gay village which would be completed in a few years. Somehow, he persuaded me to sell my car and together, we bought an SUV - his reasoning being that we had two dogs and it would be good to have a bigger car.
It was a dream come true for me - a fantastic partner who was loving, giving, funny and smart.
That's why it was such a shock to lose him after only 10 months.
I was at work when the office manager of his business called me to ask if I knew where Jeff was as he hadn't shown up to work yet. It was almost 10 a.m.
I assured her that he probably just slept in as I just saw him the night before. It wasn't too uncommon for him to be late now and then. "I'm sure he's still in bed," I said. "I'll go over and get him up."
I asked my boss if I could quickly run out to check on Jeff and I took a 10-minute cab ride to his place. I let myself in. His dog was there to greet me, but there was no response when I called out.
Jeff was in bed. But he was dead.
I remember some moments of this trauma very clearly, while others, I have completely forgotten about. I remember calling 911 and, while quite hysterical, I was able to tell them I had to report a suicide and gave them the address. Then I frantically called my closest friends as I didn't even know what to do. Soon, one after another showed up at his place - I don't remember who was first, but I do remember just hysterically crying in their arms. Everyone was in shock and disbelief.
But the brain somehow is able to take over. Things needed to be done. Calls to be made. Who else needed to know? Does anyone know their number? When's the funeral? Where would it be? Who's going to take care of his dog?
Thank goodness I had already met his family. We made sure each other was ok during all this. I will forever be grateful for that.
The challenge was that I had no legal standing. Jeff and I had not been living together, and even if we did, were weren't considered common-law until after two years of cohabitating. In many people's eyes, we were just boyfriends. But to me, this was the man I was going to spend the rest of my life with. If they wanted to, Jeff's family could have excluded me from all the funeral planning and everything else after that. I am glad that they didn't.
Not being a family member also meant I could not find out the actual cause of death. And at the time, I didn't feel right asking his family about it. To this day, I still don't know how he did it - but I guess it isn't important anymore.
If you're lucky to not yet have experienced the loss of a loved one, the situation is surreal to say the least - at least to me. As I said, you go back and forth between crying and being completely high-functioning. That day at Jeff's place, it was like a party, but for sad people. Once they had commiserated or shared whatever needed to be shared, they would slowly trickle out the door. I would have been running on pure adrenaline that day. I'm sure someone thought about lunch and eating. Among all the mayhem, someone also must have taken Jeff's dog out, who I guessed went a whole 12 hours without a pee break.
By late afternoon, I was cognizant that my own dog at home needed to be let out. A couple of friends went home with me. Again, someone might have ordered dinner, but I don't remember eating. My best friend stayed the night with me. I guess I must have been exhausted because I did manage to sleep.
I remember the funeral pretty clearly. I was going to give the eulogy but nothing I had written so far worked. It felt awkward and too formal. Hours before the funeral, I looked at my draft again and threw it away. Instead of a speech, I wrote a "letter" to Jeff, telling him how I felt, how much I missed him, how much the things we did together meant to me. And I read that instead.
In the days and weeks after the funeral, some of his friends and I stayed in touch. But without Jeff there as the link, I knew that contact would soon drop off as we resumed our regular lives again.
Because he had so many friends, we also decided to have a wake in his condo's rooftop. I remember one of Jeff's friends - let's call him Paul - was there. Paul adored Jeff, even though they couldn't be more different. I gathered that Jeff was a source of strength for Paul when he came out. At the wake, Paul had a little too much to drink. I remember seeing him attempt to gather his thoughts at a table where we left a large, blank journal. Instead of a guestbook where people just left their names and contact info, I asked people to write about their fondest memory of Jeff. Paul tried, but he was so overcome with grief that he couldn't, he just doubled over and sobbed like there was no tomorrow. That was hard for me to see - Jeff really did touch a lot of people's lives and I wasn't the only one desperately missing him.
Before I can tell you how I coped after all this, I have to tell you something else that happened that summer.
It was June of that year when Jeff went for an HIV test. It had come back positive. So I had a test too. It also came back positive. It was highly unlikely that I contracted it before Jeff. I never blamed him though. And if I did take the risk of unsafe activities, I wasn't going to punish myself over it. I already had enough emotions to deal with. Mostly, I was concerned about him because his tests showed that he had had the virus for a while and it was already affecting his body. He would have had to start treatment sooner rather than later.
Soon after our diagnosis, we reached out to the AIDS Committee of Toronto, an agency that provides services to people living HIV/AIDS. We had one counselling session together before Jeff died. After the funeral, I made an appointment to see a counsellor there. I continued to see her for the next several years as she was the one who helped me grieve over Jeff. I had considered other bereavement groups, but I couldn't tell if they were gay positive which was something "mainstream" groups had not yet really considered back then. (I'm also proud to say that I am entering my eighth year volunteering as a board member at the AIDS Committee of Toronto. It is my way of giving back.)
Most people have heard about the stages of grief and loss: shock, denial, bargaining, etc. But sadly, they don't occur in any kind of order. You feel these feelings as you feel them... sometimes more than one emotion at a time. And they can come up at the most inopportune time. Like when I went to see a movie with a couple of friends months later and I wasn't aware that one of the characters was going to die at the end. I had a complete meltdown in the theatre as everyone else got up to leave after the movie. I was so embarrassed.
Coping with the aftermath of his death was exhausting. And because it was suicide, there were many more questions than answers. I definitely felt anger more than if the death had been natural or from an accident. After all, he decided to do this. He must have taken the time to think about it and plan for it. He must have known I would be left alone! And not just me, but lots of other close friends who were so much a part of his life. How could he bail on us? And what about our plans for the future? And what the hell was I going to do with a giant, gas-guzzling SUV by myself? But I will never understand his decision. The note he left behind didn't really make much sense. It was as if it was an entirely different person had written it. He sounded desperate and fed up, even though on the outside he still seemed to be a happy, confident man. None of us - not even his family - knew what was going on inside.
The night before Jeff died, I was walking my dog for the night and decided to drop in to see him. He was quieter than usual and I could tell he was a little sad. He said he was feeling down and wasn't sure what to do about it. In our time together, Jeff only talked once about feeling depressed and at the time, I thought he was saying he was just feeling down or had "the blues." I had no idea how severe his depression was. I remember saying to him that night, that we would make an appointment to see his doctor and start from there, and maybe we'll go back to see the counsellor at ACT. We kissed each other goodnight and that was the last time I saw him alive.
I don't know about other survivors of suicide, but it took me years to "get over" Jeff's death. Whenever I felt like I recovered somewhat, something else would come along and tear open the wound again. This repeated over and over again for me. It was a long time before I could say I found some peace. I am still affected to this day as I believe his sudden death was one of the causes of my depression.
Another major reason would take place two years later.