Death of Their Ex- Thinking about your needs in the vicarious trauma of suicide

“I loved her more than anyone!” he cried out, sobbing, shaking in my arms as we lay in bed. Whilst I felt sad that I could not ease his pain, I also wondered whether he would ever say or feel that, about me….

Death of Their Ex is for people whose current partners ex- boyfriends/ girlfriends/ husbands/ wives  have chosen to end their life. You may be drawn to this page for other reasons but this site is not aimed at harming others. I set it up partly out of catharsis, but mostly because I recognised that what I went through was kind of rare and at the time I could have done with a page like this to explore my emotions and have validation that my experiences were ok. I hope it is of some help and comfort to you. And of course, everyone’s experiences are individual. It’s not to say that what I felt will be your experience. This will depend on how long you and your partner have been together and some other key factors, which I will explore.

I’m coming at this from both a personal and professional stance; I am a mental health professional specialising in trauma, and as a then girlfriend, who started seeing someone. Quite soon into our relationship, his ex- girlfriend killed herself, from what I later found out, after making threats to do so. If you’re here, then the chances are that this has happened to you. Suicide happens, and whilst I don’t agree that people suffer from mental ‘illness’ which causes people to do it, my experience both personally and professionally leads me to believe that (in addition to an original childhood trauma) attachment, meaning, loss and blurred endings often seem to play a big part in why people end their lives. Love hurts. Loss hurts. Sometimes the urge to merge is so great that nothing in this whole world can soothe that deep primal longing. The ultimate revenge in a sea of suffering. Sometimes people just want to go.

This page is a space to think about your needs in what I call, the vicarious trauma of suicide- vicarious being defined as “a result of watching, listening to, or reading about the activities of other people, rather than by doing the activities yourself’. Ok so you might not have known the person, what have you go to be upset about? Well a lot really. Suicide ripples. It is going to seep into your relationship somehow. Grief by proxy. “Who am I in relation to the dead?”

And whilst I don’t doubt there is a place for you to support and care for your partner (should you choose to stay involved), this page is not about supporting them,  there’s plenty of other sites to aid this process. Here it’s about you, quite simply and selfishly. Because your needs are important. And if you forget them or lose yourself, the chances are there’ll be trouble and pain.

I hope it can become a space for sharing really difficult feelings. Feelings which at times are hard and insufferable. Feelings which don’t get heard by friends or family. The darkness that can linger, the ghost that hovers above and between you and your partner. Derrida describes somewhat arbitrarily that ghosts can live inside us, and that their unconscious works into our own.  

Below I have tried to set out the length of your relationship which may apply to you and think about what could help. I would welcome comments from your experiences, either past or present, which I can then select and add to the sections below. This is really not an easy place to find yourself in life, so welcome.

You’ve not long been together

This was my experience and I would imagine a fairly common one in this sad situation, because many people end their lives due to break-ups. It was like she somehow sensed he’d moved on and it worsened her pain. Looking back I guess I didn’t see how his grief appeared. I became the distraction, intensely, quickly. I never really got the details ever. What did he do that was so awful that it would drive her to end her life? What am I letting myself in for? How can someone cause someone so much pain? It’s not right to label them as the ‘crazy ex’ or think that it doesn’t need talking about. This is a time for thinking carefully because you are starting out and all sorts of fantasies can emerge.

Can you handle this? Watch for your tendencies to rescue partners. Where are you in your life? Have you been happily single a while? Hoping to grow with someone? I was too. The reality was he wasn’t in the place to do this. So ask yourself – What’s going on underneath? Your partner may seem fine, and you may rush into hedonistic ecstasy but think…what are they masking? The early days are fuelled by both crisis and passion, it brings people closer. You’re needed. But are you dating the ‘real’ them?

Get to know where your partner has been. Are you a rebound (as I was after the dead ex), has your partner got a history of relationship after relationship with people who usually are let down in some way eg. by their inability to commit? What makes you think you’ll be different? What else baggage needs to be sorted that isn’t being addressed? OK so I’m not saying analyse the fun out of it all but the chances are you’re beginning something with someone who is wounded, damaged, grieving and may be unable to open up and be vulnerable with you on top of all sorts of unprocessed shit. Are you on the same page? A few times I suggested we end so he could heal, he said he didn’t want to. Apparently he didn’t believe me and thought I wanted to ‘trap’ him. It was this checking in with him that lead me to believe that we were more or less starting out on the same page. An openness and willingness to explore, despite the more than unusual circumstances.

You don’t have to stick around. Think about your needs and whether they can be met right now. Can you see potential, like I did? That sometimes underneath the ruins, the light shone through. It’s a big asking. The chances are you’ll be letting yourself in for a rollercoaster of complex and inconsistent feelings. What can your partner give to you in this moment? Crises are such opportunities for growth and change, but they also place people in liminal modes, with times when they are very needy and want so much love and care. It will oscillate. Are you prepared to take the risk? Might you end up just being used? Can you keep it as a casual thing or no strings attached? This I would imagine not a great place to be, some form of objectified grief response. Sex being an obvious distraction.


 Been together a little while

So you either stayed involved (like me) or the suicide happens if you’ve been together a little while; possibly when your relationship is growing, you’re having a lot of fun getting to know each other, trying to build a bit of trust and connection, or so I thought. And then it happens and it’s like a torpedo, straight into your relationship. You may have known the ex or heard a little about them, they may have heard about you and this may have caused problems. It’s a shock either way. It is a huge communication, a big fuck you. The ex has placed themselves forever in your partners’ mind and in their life. Frozen still in time, into memory, the violent act of stopping pain and punishing the person they feel has caused it all. You may be thinking; How dare they? Who do they think they are? Why now and why to us? What shall we do now?

Keep talking Even if it’s hard and they say you are not the person to open up to. Perhaps there’s not enough trust there initially for your partner to express their feelings but if they don’t you are going to be constantly guessing and wondering what is going on in their mind. Don’t give them an easy ride because they are now ‘victims’; you deserve to know where you stand and to reflect back how your partners actions are affecting you. This is totally ok. Yes there’s room for sensitivity and going gentle for a while but this needs to be balanced with your own needs – of being heard and listened to, of being with someone who is emotionally mature enough to be honest with you.

Be prepared for doubt Quite a few of my then partner’s friends are likely to say now that they ‘saw it coming’. That once again ‘he’ rushed into a relationship with me and that now is a really bad time. That it won’t last. You’re likely to be met with some suspicion and doubt, even if you and your partner are getting on fine considering. At times it felt like they were really just seeing me as another woman subjected to my then partners misogynistic urges. One in a line of many. My regret was to not ask what they thought and this may have been more helpful for further down the line.

Buckle up Expect the rollercoaster of emotions and ensure that you stay supported by friends. You are going to be placed in a position of being needed and loved but also times where you’ll be easily rejected and need to give them space, sometimes with no warning. How will you negotiate the boundaries of this? How much are you willing to put up with? There’s likely to be bad behaviour – possible aggression or violence, sudden mood swings, flirting with others (my then partner gave his name to another woman on a dance floor in front of me!- hard to say if this was the grief or a mid-life crisis/ predatory urges), isolating and not wanting to come out with your friends much or try new things to help continue to grow your relationship. Just because someone is hurting isn’t a reason to excuse poor communication or unstable actions – your partner also has responsibilities now with you, they should be choosing to try to be present despite the difficulties of the loss. If you are also adapting your true self to meet his demands then you’re not being congruent and your partner’s not actually seeing the real you. He also found it hard to be vulnerable and make love; often the sex seemed distant and porn-like and on occasion we had to stop altogether as he seemed to have some sort of weird flashback, again I wasn’t able to hear what this was about so I was left feeling really rejected.

Give you and them space Looking back we spent way too much time together and part of this was because he didn’t have many other people around him. I would certainly not have dedicated so much time in other relationships quite early on but again the loss seemed to activate the caring, nurturing part of me, in the hope that what I was putting in, I would also at some point receive further down the line, when we’d come through it. Spending too much time together is not good for anyone. Your partner will be a tapestry of contradictions that you will have to try to read. I remember he would find things to nitpick about me; ways to reject me such as wondering if I’d washed my hands before sex. They might not be able to see this at the time but it’s unfair for you to take this low-level abuse. Demand honesty and apologies. You’re doing a lot for them right now and deserve some respect. Be honest if they do something that hurts you and think about what’s underpinning it. If they’re trying to push you away; pull up that behaviour and ask what’s going on. 

The seeping in My then partner seemingly had some sort of errand list to do for his ex, whether this was asked in her suicide note I never found out, but he had to sort things for her and sell off some of her belongings. This will make you feel weird. And remind you of the connection still present. He had to take calls from the ex’s family members. He never really told me why they ended or what really happened and I don’t feel that this was down to me being untrustworthy or the ‘wrong person’; listening is after all what I do for a living! The ex will seep in through other means, your dreams, items, and photos; I ended up seeing intimate photos of them in his laptop once. It was horrible, in that he’d kept them and was probably still looking at them but also that I was jealous of a dead woman, looking at a body no longer in existence yet greedily taking up so much between us. I ended up comparing myself to her and feeling insecure about my body (he seemed to have some teenage like obsession with ‘booty’). When is enough actually enough? Are you prepared to face this presence of the ex and are you strong enough to do it? I can imagine by this point it would have sent a lot of people towards the exit. But I stuck around, with hope in my heart.

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Together a long time and/or married

So although this wasn’t my experience (we broke up, obviously) I still think that this will be difficult no matter how long you’ve been together. I can imagine that having a stronger bond and way more trust and love between you, means you’ll both be in a better position to deal with it and for you to assert and express your own needs sooner. I would hazard a guess that many of the above pointers also apply to your situation now, though perhaps easier to navigate if you have a ‘good enough’ bond and a healthy relationship.

I’m reminded of a film I saw recently called ’45 years’, a wrenching and beautifully captured film about a married couple in their 60’s, living a seemingly peaceful life in the Norfolk countryside. Then out of the blue, Kate’s husband Geoff receives a letter stating the body of his ex- girlfriend from 50 years ago had been found. She had died due to falling into a crevasse whilst out hiking with Geoff, and her body was never recovered. The film portrays the emotions that this situation provokes; retrospective jealousy, hidden secrets, feeling second best, the shattering misplacement of a previous love and the creeping realisation that even the steadiest of foundations need questioning. Although not a suicide, the film does well to portray vicarious trauma of a death of the ex and the emergence of ghosts thought to be long left behind. See here:

Don’t minimise Although it may not feel like a big issue given that your partner and their ex were together a long time ago, nonetheless the effects are still likely to take hold. We can all grieve for the past. And just because the feelings between them aren’t fresh and  on the surface, doesn’t mean that they won’t blow up in a myriad of unexpected ways. Not only will your partner have to navigate the grief through ancient, more distant memories but be reminded of the passing of time and the steady decline of ageing.

Check in The chances are you’ll have more questions than your partner. It’ll depend on what their relationship was like back then, how if at all your partner feels responsible or connected (more unlikely given the lack of recent contact) and whether your partner /husband/wife needs some time alone. They may behave differently or be more distant, you may not be getting the fully story. It’s important you find out what you think you need to know and how it may take effect now in your relationship. The re-emergence of any ex regardless of whether they have died or not is hard to manage without clear and honest communication.

  • As this wasn’t my experience, I’d be particularly interested in hearing from others about what helped them during this time in the comments below. Thanks!

blake fallen

Breaking up and moving on

Some of you out there will ride it out, some of you won’t. A huge well done if you have and your relationship is all the stronger and loving for it. Tragedy and sadness have the ability to provide a shared sense of meaning and connection, but it’s hard to say how many could come through this successfully, especially if it happened in the early days and then further compounded by old baggage and poor communication. My experience was horrendous; my then partner broke up with me completely out of the blue and then left the country for six weeks; leaving me to deal with it all alone. How someone leaves you says a lot about them. What was most crushing was the steady realisation that the man I loved turned out to be a very different man indeed. His intentions were never clear and I felt very used and rejected, despite giving so much and being there during his darkest, bleakest days. This is a time for batten down the hatches and serious self-care. A time to check the boundaries and be extremely strong because not only are you going to have to deal with ‘ordinary’ break up feelings but also be caught up by proxy with the mirroring of the trauma and all sorts of unwitting projections coming from your now ex-partner. Love is a losing game.

Demand as much time as you need I’m guessing you’re going to be feeling abysmal, cast out beyond recognition into a void of confusion and complete shock. You may feel like you have just given up so much of your life and your reality is going to be feeling pretty shattered. Guess you weren’t on the same page. Demand that you both have time to talk about what has happened, even though feelings will be strong. It is not fair to let your now ex disappear conveniently while your left to deal with all the shit. You have a right to express how you feel, and over time to continue to do so, especially if you are getting mixed messages (which I did for 10 months following). There’s no getting away from the fact that people, the ones that you think love you and are most loyal turn out to be the ones who hurt you the most.

Death becomes her Your own natural sadness, grief and rage and the sheer disbelief at the complete disregard for your feelings along with possible mixed messages is going to be fucking intense and beyond painful. You may feel like I did, that suddenly you have become their ex, your ex has now re-created the situation again with you, you too are grieving for the loss of a relationship and trying to understand where the hell you stand and what is going on in your ex’s head. There were times in the early days where I would be lying in bed, thinking this is what the dead ex was probably thinking and feeling, that you can really empathise and relate to what was going on for them. Remind yourself this is your pain and try to separate it out if you can.

You have a right to grieve Now this is where it gets really messy. I felt I didn’t have a right to fully grieve, I was always trying to adapt and minimise my grief so that it wouldn’t traumatise my ex further (because he was essentially going through two breaks up/ one suicide). I felt like I couldn’t fully express my feelings for fear of making it worse for him. This is madness. And if you are feeling like this, please know that you are not responsible for the softer landing of such feelings on your ex. You are totally within your rights to howl, scream, shout, demand and re-assert how much you feel they’ve fucked you over, big time. Trying to limit your experience of being collateral damage in a deeply traumatic and complex event is only going to lead to a much deeper pain, because you are hurting and betraying your true self and prolonging your own grief.

You have a right to die Without sounding too dramatic but recognising the importance of naming the dark-side; you still have a right to end your life. I’m not by any means advocating suicide is the way to stop your current grief (though at your darkest times it may feel like the only option) but if you’re a bit like me – a deep thinker, a deep feeler, an intelligent, complex person who may like knowing that in the back of your mind, there is comfort in having an escape route, then in the bleakest moments it may appeal. Not that you would probably ever do it but because now you are part of this ‘menage a suicide’, you may feel like I did, that you couldn’t possibly do this for fear of completely breaking your ex. But still don’t suffer alone in these thoughts. You do still have a choice/ free will and your needs are way more important than not hurting your ex. It’s ok to feel like this, you are not going mad. Many people feel this way after being broken up with. But if you find this thought lingers and you become very distressed by it, (I felt very trapped that ironically, the thought of not being able to end my life made me actually ruminate on it more) Please seek an experienced psychotherapist. It’ll pass. 

The dance where no-one knows the steps ‘Nuff respect if you can both spend enough time talking and ending well but it’s possible that after you break up, there’ll be a dance. Did you end because they needed to heal? Were there other issues going on that you or they needed to work through? Will you ever really know the truth? What if you still love each other? How long are you prepared to wait? I got the message that the possibilities were open and that I was still loved but looking at this now, I was being kept on a back burner until something ‘better’ came along. Your ex is likely to continue this dance because he is replaying exactly what happened before; reliving the trauma of trying to break up with someone and then wading through post-contact avoidance of pain infliction.

Seek professional help What I and probably you are going through is rare (thankfully) but sometimes there’s a downside to uncommon traumatic issues in life because it’s then really hard to find someone who really gets it. You may be feeling very angry towards a dead person, your ex, the world. It’s all going to feel messed up and hopeless. I went to some very dark places, and survived. People grieve and heal in different ways, but I would recommend seeking an experienced counsellor or therapist to work through some of the above issues particularly if it’s holding you back from moving on and living your life more fully. Trauma gets trapped in the body, so of course do things that will help you connect with your physical (and spiritual!) self too. It’ll help to try to understand what drew you to the relationship in the first place and look for patterns in your life, maybe from childhood. If you’re married and still together you may also wish to have couples counselling, and/or individual as it’s also recommended that your partner get help as soon as possible and not block it out. But ultimately, your needs are important; don’t ever forget that. 

As mentioned please leave comments on your own experiences and I will try to edit them into the main piece. I hope this page has been of some use to you and I wish you all well on your healing journeys and hope that your love can prevail, if you remain together. T xx


Copyright Images top to bottom: William Blake-  ‘The Wood of the Self-Murderers: The Harpies and the Suicides’; Unknown; Unknown (part of Angela Carter exhibition, please feel free to tell me who it is!); William Blake- Urizen is cast out from Eternity; Film still from Andrie Tarkovsky’s ‘Solaris’ (1972).

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