Deciding if I should stay or go was one of the hardest decisions of my life.
Less than two months into my relationship my boyfriend returned to his home from dropping me off to find his 19-year-old daughter lifeless.
The phone call came as my own 20-year-old daughter and I had just enjoyed a lovely evening of dinner and theater.
"It's dire," he said. "She passed away."
I grabbed my own child, holding on for dear life for fear that something might happen to her. We couldn't speak.
At dinner I had told her about the new man in my life.
He has a daughter your age, I explained, but she had to drop out of school because of some issues. Since my daughter was a Psychology major, I felt comfortable explaining that his daughter was depressed and had shown signs of being suicidal. It was though I was talking about some story I'd read.
He brought me Godiva chocolate on our first date. Truffles no less!
As a self-professed chocoholic — I knew it meant he had read my profile carefully.
He had a quiet way about him, and I had to keep asking him to speak louder. His touch was soft. He seemed kind and generous.
My boyfriend explained to me that his daughter had recently come to live with him after taking a break from college. She was having trouble coping, and there had been signs something big was brewing since a year prior.
He took off time from work, found her the best help he could, and felt comfortable that she was on the right path to recovery.
He wanted me to meet her.
Wasn't it a bit early?
He explained that she was a big part of his life and that it was important to him.
Within just a few weeks I was going to family events. The way they interacted and supported each other was what I had wished for in my own family. Grandma shuffled between her two sons' homes helping with the grandchildren. My boyfriend was the patriarch, taking care of everyone when they needed it.
We went to concerts, rode our bikes, and ate at good restaurants. He said he was looking for a "partner," not just a girlfriend. He offered me business advice and listened to my concerns about my own aging mother who lived far away.
It was hard to slow down.
After so much time alone I took comfort in having him around. I knew my weekends would be busy, that I’d have someone to share my stories with. Someone who loved the outdoors like me biking and hiking. He loved food and cooking. Much like me he never wanted to sit still. Things were looking up.
It all happened so quickly.
Just as we were getting into a rhythm, things began to change. His daughter lost her job and began spiraling out of control. He kept a lot from me, not to hide it, but to spare me as I had begun to worry about her.
One Saturday night after we had gone to sleep, the doorbell rang.
The police had received a disturbing photograph that insinuated his daughter was thinking about suicide.
The next morning, he offered me an out. “Are you sure you want to stick around? I'll understand if you don’t."
I responded nonchalantly, “It’s too late now. I like you." I was sure I could handle any drama ahead.
He became more protective of his daughter and I obliged, figuring she would grow out of whatever she was going through. My heart opened more. She joined us for dinner, came with us to visit friends, and was part of my thinking when planning our weekends.
I knew that dating again in middle age meant that everyone had "baggage." I wasn’t expecting the perfect partner. Just like I had an ex-husband and grown children, I knew someone else would too.
I’d been on enough dates to know that there were some crazy ex-wives (not to mention the crazy ex-husbands I was dating), that therapy was a good thing for a man to have experienced, that there were going to be financial obligations and dating limitations. I resolved to expect to compromise.
My marriage hadn’t lasted a lifetime, but I truly believed my next relationship would. I had analyzed all our failings and figured out my part in the dissolution.
I work with people going through divorce and imagined I had seen or heard it all: the narcissistic ex, the even worse sociopathic ex, the good for nothing, the horrible father/mother, the abandoner, the sexual predator. I’d been on enough dates to feel reasonably secure in my ability to make good decisions about who to continue pursuing.
How could this strong, ambitious, fun man with beautiful, baby blue eyes have anything in his life that would throw me?
After she died, I decided not to go to the wake or the funeral, and to keep my distance.
As much as I wanted to hold his hand through this horrible trauma, it didn’t feel right. His ex-wife and younger daughter were going to be there and I knew I had to be mindful of their feelings too.
I also didn’t know if I could handle all of it.
After all, we barely knew each other. Would it be okay for him to fall apart in front of me?
It would be five excruciatingly long days before I would see him, which also coincided with the July 4th weekend.
There was barely a soul in town. I rode my bike, wandered aimlessly around the city, binge-watched my favorite drama, and checked my phone regularly for his calls.
I had no idea whether I would ever hear from him again, or if he would be needy and clingy going forward.
I questioned myself constantly.
Was I doing the right thing?
Should I just walk away?
What if he became morose and fell apart completely?
Could I in good conscience disappear under those circumstances?
Why was I getting so involved?
What kind of person was I if I walked away in a situation like this?
Wouldn’t anyone understand that I needed to take care of myself? After all, I had ended a 25-year marriage just 2 ½ years before we met.
The devil and the angel on my shoulders battled it out all weekend. I spoke to friends and asked for advice, but each person had a different opinion.
At the end of the day, the only person I had to answer to was myself.
My heart and soul were telling me I needed to be here for this man. Whether or not this relationship was going to go the distance, I knew he was put in my path — and I in his — for a reason.
Was this the reason? I had no idea but I knew how I would coach my clients, and so I coached myself.
I stayed true to my values and followed my heart. I knew this was someone who, under any other circumstance, I would want to be with, so I stuck around.
I researched more about suicide and the grief surrounding it. I asked experts I knew what was "normal." I found resources for him, and bombarded him with them. I spoke to his family and friends.
Mostly, I was there whenever he needed me. And I soon realized that I needed him too.
I’ve learned that I can’t predict the future, and worrying about what might happen between us only diminishes what is happening now.
I hold his hand when he falls apart, and maybe because of — or despite — this situation, we have fun together.
We talk about his daughter.
Could he have done anything differently? Were there signs he missed? What was going through her mind? And more recently, what he will miss in the future, like watching her marry.
Although we will never be able to explain what went through this young girl’s mind on that day, I know for certain that she is at peace.
My boyfriend has his moments, and sometimes they’re longer than others, but at the end of the day, he is incredibly resilient.
Our relationship is solid for now. We continue to enjoy each other’s company. One can never know what lies ahead, only what is in front of us right now.
I try a lot harder to live in the moment and not take anything for granted.
If you or someone you know is considering suicide please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24/7 at http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/ or 1-800-273-8255. You can also visit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention for additional information and resources.
Karen Bigman is the Founder & President of TheDivorcierge.com. She works with individuals transitioning through the difficult process of divorce. By sorting through the overwhelm of emotions and getting organized for the process, clients can move forward with their lives rather than staying stuck and defeated.