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Grief, Hope and My Dead Ex-Boyfriend’s Suits

My failed relationship’s greatest success: helping unemployed strangers


Twenty-eight suits.

That’s how many my former boyfriend Michael had owned, I learned as I organized his clothing in my basement following his death. Why did a schoolteacher need 28 business suits? No matter; I vowed to find a home for his recently orphaned wardrobe.

Two years earlier, I’d fallen for Michael, an inner-city high-school teacher who was between jobs, recovering from injuries he’d sustained while stopping a fight in his classroom. He was so passionate about teaching, he’d applied for jobs constantly, although his injuries hadn’t fully healed. Whenever Michael got an interview, he donned a favored brown suit and gave it his best shot. No offers materialized.

While his career languished, our relationship blossomed. After a few months, things felt serious enough for us to talk hypothetically about living together. I reasoned that it might happen in several years; Michael wanted it sooner. I needed him to be patient. When we were ready, it would be worth the wait.

Instead, Michael’s move was a hurried mess.

A Sudden Illness

A year into our relationship, Michael collapsed due to a medication error coupled with undiagnosed pneumonia and asthma. When I called 911, he wasn’t breathing. I stood hopefully at his hospital bedside for hours, whispering soothing words in his ear, urging him to regain consciousness. Eventually, his eyes fluttered open, and he spent nearly a week in the ICU. He was too weak to reach his second-floor walk-up after being released from the hospital, so I took him in.

A month later, Michael couldn’t afford his apartment anymore, so he became my roommate by default. Before he lost his lease, we crammed most of his belongings into cardboard boxes and stuffed his wardrobe into large, black garbage bags. We unceremoniously tossed the bags downstairs to the moving van, then stashed them in my basement.

Over the next six months, Michael’s health gradually improved, but our relationship slowly deteriorated. We wanted different things. In the moment, being together felt good, but long-term, Michael and I weren’t well-suited.

We stopped dating, and Michael became a close friend, my everyday companion. He stayed in my home for several more months, job-hunting and apartment-hunting, so he could move on and move out.

Grief in the Next Chapter

Eventually, Michael found a place. I helped him pack the evening before his move.

The next morning, I found his body.

A man whom I’d let into my heart and my home was now a dead body.

Just 42, he’d died in his sleep of respiratory problems related to the issues discovered during his hospitalization the year before. That time, I’d gotten him help. This time, Michael was ice-cold to the touch, and he looked so small and vulnerable lying motionless.

I was devastated. But as the hours and days passed, I wasn’t sure how to mourn. Although we’d been living together, Michael wasn’t my boyfriend anymore, yet he was more than a friend. Our limbo status left me feeling like an almost-widow in some moments and an impostor who didn’t deserve to grieve at other times.

What Michael Left Behind

To give my grief some purpose, I offered to donate things that Michael’s family didn’t want, like clothing.

It took weeks to sift through Michael’s wardrobe. He’d never unpacked the garbage bags, so everything that emerged — including two dozen suits — was unfamiliar to me. Other garments that he’d worn regularly still smelled faintly like him. Whenever I picked up a familiar shirt, I impulsively pressed the fabric to my face, closed my eyes and inhaled deeply to see if there was any essence of Michael left.

I set aside his suits, ties and dress shirts, then found a nonprofit that trains unemployed men for the workforce and outfits them for job interviews; they needed businesswear. Had Michael known that his suits would help dozens of men seek work, he’d have been immensely pleased.

Carefully, I packed everything into the trunk of my car, trying not to crease the clothing that hung on felt-coated hangers. It had belonged to someone precious.

After making the donation, I told a woman at the nonprofit about Michael, his teaching career and his fashion sense, and showed her his photo. Suddenly, I realized that I was crying, and I didn’t know how long I’d been doing it. I apologized, composed myself and drove home.

A Thank-You

The next day, the woman e-mailed, offering me the unthinkable: A photo, if she could get it, of a young man wearing one of Michael’s suits.

I’d never considered the idea before, but suddenly, I wanted very badly to see such a picture. I’d heard about people donating a loved one’s organs posthumously, then seeking the transplant recipient to hear the relative’s heart beating once again. I instantly felt guilty for comparing clothing donation to organ donation, but I knew that seeing someone trying to improve his life while wearing Michael’s suit might bring me peace.

For months, I speculated about the man who’d pose for such a photo. Would he shave his head, like Michael had? Would he ace his job interview? My desire for a happy outcome for this stranger consoled me.

Too much time passed. Surely the woman at the nonprofit had forgotten. Then, she e-mailed a photo. She’d purposely blurred the man’s face to protect his privacy, although he’d agreed to pose.

‘Really Gone’

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing: I’d donated 28 suits in a variety of colors, and the one in the photo was Michael’s best brown suit. It was haunting, yet comforting, to see a stranger with Michael’s physique filling out his favorite outfit. The longer I stared at the picture, with a blanked-out face staring back, the more I realized Michael was really gone.

Some days, it’s hard to believe that nothing’s left of Michael except memories and photos. Then I remember some men have more than that: They have his suits. His ties. His sense of style. And hopefully, his sense of determination.

Michael tried to succeed, but his health stopped him. I hope that the men with his wardrobe have futures with great potential. As I heal, I find it comforting to envision a small army of blurry-faced men, well-dressed in Michael’s suits, smiling, ready for new challenges.

By Lisa Fields
Lisa Fields is a writer who covers psychology and health matters as they relate to the workplace. She publishes frequently in WebMD and Reader’s Digest.

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