My partner of five years drowned on a beautiful, ordinary summer day in 2009. Matt was strong, fit, healthy — and needed regular doses of the river and the woods to keep himself sane. We used to joke that he was half mountain goat, able to scale the face of waterfalls if need be.
On that day, the first sunny day after several weeks of rain, we went out to the Presumpscot River, our usual place. Matt went in for a swim while I stayed in the woods with our dog. When he called out for help, I turned to see him let go of the tree he was clinging to, swept away by a flood-swollen current. The dog and I ran in after him, trying to save him, but we were carried two miles downriver by the same unusually fast current. Matt’s body was found by search teams three hours later.
Just that morning we had been planning our move from Maine to Florida. By that evening, the condolences were coming in:
“You’re young and pretty! You’ll find someone else. I promise, it’s going to be okay.”
“My deepest hope for you is that you meet someone new right away, and put all of this behind you.”
It was a few days before I began overhearing other conversations, the first at his funeral: “I didn’t even know he had a girlfriend, so it can’t have been that serious.”
“It’s not like they were married for 30 years.”
I worked hard to ignore the “well-wishes.” A lot of them came from people in my parents’ generation, for whom being officially married was seen as a cultural requirement. It was easier for me to reject the suggestions that I just “meet someone new,” as though that would solve anything. Defining my life by my romantic relationship was never my thing. We didn’t live together full time. We didn’t have kids and didn’t plan to. Those admonishments to find someone new simply reinforced my feelings of being outside the expected norms.
But that erasure — those judgments about the validity of our relationship — were much harder to endure. To hear, over and over, from people on the periphery of our life together, that our partnership had never really mattered or existed was deeply distressing.
As I later learned, my experience with this is not unique. I see it over and over in students’ writing and in readers’ letters: Having your young, unmarried partner die is somehow easier, less serious, more of a temporary setback than it would be if your legal spouse died.
As one young woman told me after her partner died at 33 from a brain aneurysm: “It would be so handy to be able to describe myself in one word: ‘widow.’ That word wouldn’t require qualifiers or descriptions of how long we’d been together or if we lived together. … I knew so much more about him than other members of his family did, knew more about his personal life and his financial matters, but all I could do was hand that over. I wasn’t his wife.”
Even without outside assessment, when the person you love disappears in an instant, it can make you question everything. You lose the echo of your life. You can no longer do those reality checks we all do or reach out to your partner for reassurance. There is only you and your memory and the artifacts of your life. To have your relationship constantly questioned and dismissed adds a bizarre dimension to it.
I survived those early weeks and months by largely keeping my own counsel. I leaned on friends and family who witnessed my life with Matt, who knew what was real and what was not. I leaned on what I knew of myself and what I’d learned in my psychotherapy practice. I spent large swaths of time alone in the woods with our dog. In the end, it was true what so many of my friends told me in the early days — the sting of judgment and the suggestions to “swap a new person in” would fade.
As hard as it was back then, as much as it hurt, our relationship survived in a sense: What Matt and I had, and what I lived, belongs to me. Nothing can change that — not the opinions of the outside world and not the new life that has grown up alongside his absence.
I’m not married, not engaged, not seeing anyone special right now. It was years before I stopped feeling nauseated at the thought of dating at all. Now it’s benign — dating is fun and weird and annoying — as it is for many people, whether they come with a dead partner. I’m open to being in relationships. I miss being loved like that. I miss being part of a team. I don’t see that desire for partnership (or relationship in many forms) as “replacing” Matt in any way. If anything, love is an additive process, not a replacement. I come with Matt’s love in my history, and it’s in my daily life in many ways.
In the years since Matt died, I moved across the country, our dog died after a good long life, and most other markers of our life have disappeared. He’s here, though: in the rivers he never saw, in the ways I show up in the world, in the ways I love.
This time of year, that last day of Matt’s life echoes in my dreams and thoughts. How easily an ordinary, fine summer day can become extraordinary. How all of your best plans can evaporate in an instant. How the outside world can judge your life from what they see on the outside but can never take away what’s true: the love you shared and life you built together. Owning that truth can be the best medicine for grief.
Megan Devine is a psychotherapist and the author of “It’s OK That You’re Not OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture that Doesn’t Understand.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the location where Megan Devine was living at the time of Matt’s death. It has been corrected.