I Flew Home With My Ex In An Urn

His spirit was with me and he said goodbye.

Woman honoring ex after he passed PSzabo, max-kegfire, pixelshot | Canva

When I boarded the plane in Bangkok, the flight attendant tried to take the porcelain urn away from me and I burst into tears.

Of course, the beautiful cream-colored urn with gold inlay was in a long box, stamped with permissions and passports and Khmer script.

The flight attendant knew.

Without many words, the stewardess ushered me to the front of the plane. She put my ex — his box — in the middle seat. I was near the aisle.


When Ken drowned in the Tonle Sap River in Phnom Penh in 2016, I flew back. I wanted to investigate his death, and felt like part of the story was being hidden. It was.

The friend who called reported he’d fallen off a gangplank leading from ship to dock, but that wasn’t true.

My ex stepped from one small yacht to another. The second boat had a gangplank attached. Owing to my ex’s horrible vision and bad ankles, he probably didn’t notice the railing around the deck of the other boat and tripped.

He didn’t make it to the gangplank. Not at all.

He plummeted down, down, down into the murky waters of the river.


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That’s what I decided had happened.

I’ll never know for sure, and I have a realistic grasp of how wrong I can be.

My imagination is nothing in comparison to the realities of accidents in Phnom Penh at night. If you’ve read my memoir, you know what happened to Big John. Let’s just say they found him with something stuffed in his mouth that shouldn’t have been there.

My husband Jay picked me up at the airport. I carried the box, and Jay took it from me and we hugged long and hard.

“I got you something,” he said. Inside a small box was a blue sapphire ring.


He didn’t know I looked at one just like it in Phnom Penh, where I lived with my ex for nearly a decade. Jay knows me well, and I slipped the beautiful ring on my finger.

At home, we had a meal together and went to bed.

It had been a long nine days away, full of Cambodia funeral services, distraught friends, and time with my ex’s young children and girlfriend.

I tried to get the publishing company my ex and I established on track before I left — but who was I kidding? The gambling girlfriend would soon destroy the business.

I knew it then, I watched it happen, and I breathed deeply and let it go. Years of my life, and my ex’s, were ruined in colorful dinging machines and little gambling tickets. Screamed Karaoke songs and clapping along. Cheers nonstop. Parties.


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A few days after I got home, I sat on my bed with the urn and took the lid off. The house was quiet. Jay was outside working.

I knew what I was about to do was odd. I couldn’t stop myself.

Pulling out the gauze wrapping, I carefully unwound it.

One small bone, slightly rounded, appeared and I knew it was part of his skull. I know this must sound very strange. I’ve been through much with my ex, and we were very close.

This is despite the fact that he broke my heart. Cheated. Lied. Took up with another woman under my nose, and treated me like a servant while I was losing his babies in the worst possible miscarriages.


But the bones.

The remains were speaking to me. I unwrapped the gauze as if in a dream.

“I’m here,” he seemed to say. “I’m here, and I’m sorry.”

Was I imagining this? Was I so exhausted, so traumatized, so jet-lagged I was hallucinating?

I wasn’t hallucinating a week earlier when we put most of the remains in the river, from the boat my ex had fallen from. While I took a video with my phone, I saw a friend of his choose a fragment and swallow it. Now that, I admit, was a bridge too far.

I held the small bleached white remnant to my forehead and closed my eyes.

A shock of energy coursed through my brain and I felt like I’d been stunned. I took a deep breath and opened my eyes.


And tried to do it again. The energy had been released. It never happened again. And I tried, pressing it again and again to my forehead.

I made a small altar with incense and flowers like we did for loved ones in Cambodia. (To clarify, my ex and I are white Americans. My ex and I did as the Cambodians did after a number of years. We honored their customs.)

That night, I went to bed around 10 p.m. I stared with my eyes closed toward the middle of my forehead, the third eye.

My aunt Sylvia taught me this trick back in the ’80s when I was distraught having lost other family members.

“Breathe deeply and look with both eyes toward the center of your forehead,” she told me, “Not with your eyes open. Eyes closed.”


​RELATED: 3 Steps To Mourn The Death Of A Loved One Who Hurt You

Aunt Sylvia, who made sure I knew I was Virgo with Libra rising, was right.

I found that technique helpful that night again. I fell asleep nearly immediately.


Around 2 a.m. I woke up and felt arms around me, in a lover’s embrace. It was a feeling of pure love and generosity. I couldn’t even tense. It was the best feeling.

I took a deep breath and felt great happiness. I opened my eyes a little.

Was I dreaming? I felt an energy I’d never experienced.

I knew whose arms were around me. I talked to him in my mind, and I let him be with me. He was there.

I’ve never written about this, and I hesitated to do so. I have to confess to occasionally rolling my eyes at similar stories, but I know what I know. My ex comforted me and let me know he loved me, even in death.

In time, I wrapped up the urn and sent it, along with many items, to my ex’s family. I took care of business and have no regrets. I’ll always be glad I helped bring him home, and he said his goodbyes to me too.


I will never forget his spirit’s embrace.

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Debra Groves Harman is a creative non-fiction memoirist who's been published in myriad magazines.