Dear Diary, My Boyfriend is Dead

This is a text I wrote 4 months after I saw my boyfriend suffer and pass away. It’s been 2 years and 1 month. I’m starting to feel okay.

Laura Nhem
16 min readAug 25, 2020


His last birthday cake was a bad pun.

List of memories, scatology, illness, difficult conversations, soap opera, extracts from recent readings. A narcissistic text describing moments in the past and the present to help me walk toward my future. A text made public to face my fear of becoming vulnerable to life again.

“If time measures one thing, it’s wounds. I believe I have no more, no less than any human being; hence, many. Far from weakening me, this common lot has exposed my heart.”
- Personal translation of La nostalgie heureuse, Amélie Nothomb, 2013.

Last week I told a stranger about my year. He asked me questions without filter, without shame and I answered without filter and without shame. It did us good. I don’t remember going through what I went through like I did with him. Here I am. With no order, no intention, no message other than: here is my truth.

When I wake up, when I go to bed, when I drive, when I cook, it’s heartache. I don’t understand why I’m alive. Sometimes I think about the people I love, hoping that it will help me keep going … but it does nothing. For four months, I’ve learned to function, but I haven’t felt better since July. Everyone’s lives go on and sometimes I envy them.

My partner, Koko, I got to know him during the summer of 2012 in a set building shop where I was a scenic painter and he was a carpenter. I still remember the first time I saw him. He looked confused and I went to introduce myself. I quickly liked him, I found him endearing. I said to myself “I want to be with someone just like him, but who doesn’t smoke”. I never thought it would be him since he was married. I quit that job and we lost contact. I would hear about him sporadically from a mutual friend and the same for him. I learned years later that our short friendship had affected him, that during all these years, his face lit up when someone talked about me. We could say that life is poorly made… but with his ex-wife, they created a wonderful little being. If I could go back in time, I wouldn’t change a thing. I cannot imagine a world in which this child does not exist.

Our relationship wasn’t perfect. It took a while to adjust our expectations and get used to the distance. There were also the effects of the trauma he experienced during his separation from his ex-wife. He had to take the time to mend himself while adjusting to a life alone with a part-time son. He was never mean to his ex, that would have been understandable. He kept the peace for their son. With me, he was never jealous, he always trusted me. This is the strength of his character. A strength that I don’t have. I don’t know if it’s by ego or because of my “intolerance to mediocrity” (as Koko would say) or my “low tolerance for bullshit” (as several friends have told me in my life). We had at least one fight per month. At first, these arguments called our relationship into question. After that, they were just arguments. What I liked about those moments was our ability to tell each other our truths, the absence of a grudge afterward, the closeness that it brought. I had never experienced that before. We never asked the other to change. Talking to him about something that bothered me helped me accept it, and he changed if he wanted to.

When I asked him what attracted him to me, he replied “first your face and your smile, but above all I found you wild”. By “wild” he meant that I wasn’t tamed, that I was free. What I liked when I met him was the sincerity of his smile. He was easy to get to know, a little gullible, cheerful, easily amazed, an independent thinker, curious, interested in everyone, intelligent and hyper cultivated. Looking at how my sweetheart was during his illness, I’m in awe by how beautiful of a human being he was. I barely noticed how much he had changed physically. He had become so thin that I could lie down comfortably next to him in the small hospital bed. When I was 22, I decided that the only thing I needed to accomplish in life was to be a good friend. I have never been afraid of dying and I have often wanted to… I already feel that I’ve accomplished what I need to accomplish in life. I hope to be as brave and good hearted as he was when it’s my turn to leave this earth.

The first time he got mad at me was at work. He had cut out a tulip in cardboard for me and I left it lying around. The last time was because I wasn’t adjusting the TV screen that I had moved by bumping into it. My head was hurting and I was mad at the TV for being there. He got angry because it embarrassed him to have to admit that he had nothing to do in his hospital room, that he was developing a little obsessive side, that he needed the angle of the TV to be perfect. I replaced it of course. One day, when he had visitors, I looked Koko in the eyes and shifted the screen before leaving. At the hospital, he criticized me for something (really stupid) in front of his brother and I had to apologize…I immediately texted him saying “Not really sorry”. We used to make discreet little jokes like that in front of people. The day after he told me I was beautiful and that he liked that I was always natural, I arrived at work wearing lipstick. He would sometimes create a context for a joke he had thought of. For example, after spending two days together, he calls me asking what I did during my weekend. I answer by making compliments about him and finish by asking him “and you, what did you do?”, He replies “I f***ed a b***h”. He once wrote me a cute little poem, probably just because he wanted to finish it with “Laura, I love your ass”. I thought no one noticed our little jokes to each other, but turns out his father did. He once referred to them as “humourous jousts”.

On March 6th 2018, Koko went to the emergency room for a stomach ache. We knew straight away that it was bad. We had only been together for 11 months. It took three weeks before we knew it was cancer… a type so rare that he had to undergo three weeks of examinations, prescribed by all specialists in the hospital, to eliminate the more likely possibilities. It was then that the discussions that no one want to have began. He gave me the right to leave him if I found it too difficult. I told him that his illness was not going to change the fact that I was going to spend my life with him. We decided to go on a road trip to see Niagara Falls and visit Toronto. I pushed him in a wheelchair in Ripley’s Aquarium. His cancer was blocking the circulation in his legs and he would get short of breath. He couldn’t walk for very long. On our return, we had the second meeting with the oncologist surgeon. We learned that he would need to have his vena cava removed, a kidney removed, possibly the 2nd kidney removed to clean it and re-transplant it. That day was the first time I lost control, the first time I wasn’t able to stop myself from crying. The operation was on Friday April 13th. I wasn’t prepared for how he was going to be afterward. His body was no longer functioning. He had a machine to pump his lungs, another to run his digestive system, another to pee. He would wake up in panic and pain. I slept in an armchair in his room for 3 nights in a row so I could be there during those moments. I have never seen so much fear in someone’s eyes. It will be three nights out of several that I spent in the hospital.

Having a sick partner …
- is to miss him even when you’re together because sometimes he doesn’t have enough strength to talk to you;
- is to be in the impossible position of being his ally, to give him compassion but also to try to detach yourself enough to push him, to motivate him to do things that he needs to do to get better;
- is sleeping at the hospital;
- is to receive lots of suggestions from all the people who love him and not know who to listen to, to be afraid of making mistakes by not following the advice of others;
- is to reassure people and your partner;
- is to see him suffer, cry in pain and not be able to do anything about it;
- is to know that he will die before you;
- is to try not to spend all your time crying, because he needs to know you are strong;
- is to have the strength to give everything and hope for the best;
- is to decide with him that, after his recovery, you will build a common life even if his life expectancy is 5 years.

The 4 months of illness was a roller coaster ride. Days empty of physical suffering were rare as well as good news. Fear was everywhere, but not for Koko. He had no regrets and stayed himself until the very end. In May, during his post-surgery recovery at my place, I told Koko that I was afraid he would let himself die. He promised me that he wouldn’t, that he felt his body needed rest and that I had to trust him. I stopped being afraid, I ignored the advice of those around me and started listening again. During his illness, he faked two spikes of pain. The first was for me to come and cuddle with him. The second time around, I raced in the hospital bathroom and faced a container full of poo that he had to give to staff for analysis. He hadn’t lost his sense of humor and kept trying to make me laugh. I didn’t lose myself during those months, I don’t think so. I stopped working when we needed it, I resumed when we needed it, I went out to see friends when I needed it. You’d think I should’ve let it all go, but that wasn’t what was best for both of us. Koko needed to see me continue, to see that I wasn’t alone, that I would feed myself elsewhere to come back to him with new energy. We decided together what was best for us… not doing that would be like letting the cancer win.

To distract ourselves, we decided to watch Deadpool, an entertaining and violent movie that we had already seen …. do you remember that before becoming Deadpool, the character has incurable cancer? There is a super sad 15 minute segment on this. We had forgotten that part of the film. Later, we decided to watch the cartoon Coco without knowing what it was about, it’s about the afterlife … Deadpool and Coco. Our last sexual relations were at the hospital. Nothing exciting, just very funny.

Before I even knew he liked me, my boyfriend asked me to marry him after seeing me use a bandsaw. After that, he proposed so many times that I got angry. I didn’t want to be told that lightly, I wanted him to propose when he really meant it. He told me he did. He sometimes told me how he imagined our wedding: all you can eat tables of Breton pancakes and imperial rolls, me wearing a flower patterned yellow dress. He told me I love you through Whatsapp while I was traveling alone for three weeks in Kyrgystan. He woke me up regularly in the middle of the night to tell me that he was happy to be with me, that he loved me. “Laura, are you sleeping? Laura. Laura. Laura. Are you sleeping?” He had insomnia and reflected a lot at night. With him, there was no good or bad time to say something. His words came straight from his heart and that’s what I admired the most about him. The first time we had sex, I warned Koko that I wasn’t taking contraception, that I would keep the baby if I got pregnant. He replied that he would be happy to have a baby with me. After his surgery, in April, the surgeon-oncologist told us the odds: 75% die within 5 years. Koko offered to get his sperm frozen for me. I wasn’t able to answer. He also tried to leave me because he didn’t want me to “waste” years of my life on a dying man. I was not able to answer either. He regretted it a few hours later, there’s no way that was happening.

He hated the idea of ​​karma passionately. In the spring of 2017, on the first warm evenings in Montreal, he spent ten minutes bitching about people who believe in karma saying it’s horrible to think that some people go through awful events because they deserve it, that people who think like that are idiots. We were going to get ice cream and I let him finish. Then I replied, “Honey, I have only heard people use the concept of karma, saying “karma will take care of it”, to console themselves that a bad person exists. Nobody really thinks about that concept thoroughly… you just spent ten minutes complaining about people who don’t even exist ”. He burst out laughing. When he laughed, it wasn’t just because he found me funny, but also because he was happy that I made him laugh. His laugh was so pure. During the illness, he told me “if karma exists, I think I have cancer because I haven’t been very nice to some cats”. I called him an moron.

Koko was scato and always wanted to show me his stools. Personally, I don’t care if we talk to each other when one is on the bowl, but I’m not interested in the result. We pissed in the shower together during the first week of our relationship. The last laughs we had were all thanks to scatological situations: a desire to poop during a moment of caress, a description of poop to the doctor, a bowl of poop for an analysis, his farts due to the fact that he could easily eat 1L of ice cream at a time. He loved the strawberry flavored Coaticook ice cream too much.

The last time he took a bath, I gave it to him. Afterward, as I was cutting his toe nails, he said: “I imagine us growing old together.” The next day was the World Cup and France won. Ten days later he passed away. July 25th 2018.

I never wanted to see how close he was to the end until he passed away. It was too hard a reality to swallow. I have mourned his death with him a couple of times. I’d be the only one crying as he consoled me. I still feel his hand in my hair, his hand stroking my face when I cry. He consoled me the very morning of his death, I had spent the night in the hospital. I left him at the end of the morning to go home and eat, rest and especially in a mindset of denial. Several people said goodbye to him that afternoon. When I came back I laid down next to him and he passed away after a few breaths. I almost missed his passing, maybe he waited for me. I was able to stay by his side and left when I was ready.

After the funeral, I was not ready to live without him so I decided to follow his family on the plane to France … to surround myself with people who love him so that I can feel his presence through them. I would have loved to see him with them, to see him swimming in Corsica, laughing in Rennes, laughing in Rouen, laughing in Landeda, pulling lobster cages in Le Havre. Was he a nomad or was he just looking for the environment in which he would thrive? A place to call home. Being in France with his family, my family, his friends and my friends has done me good. But there were times when I found it too hard to see the loss in other people’s eyes. In Normandy, I watched “Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis” and “The Bodyguard”. I don’t understand how you can fall in love with Kevin Costner in that movie. He’s cold, has no personality, distant, nothing very attractive.

The return, the ghost of our many weekends watching movies, of the days and nights during which I heard him scream in pain, of our arguments, of our “I love you”, of the discussions we had about our future … returning to Montreal was to experience the void that his death left in my life. The anxiety of going back to work. Back to work: crying at Gascon, crying at Téléciné, working in the very studio where we fell in love and where we spent a few nights, crying in the car, feeling bad, hearing about cancer, having nothing to share with people, being asked questions that remind me of what I’ve been through.

Numb, anesthetized. I don’t feel any anger, injustice, or confusion about his death. I’m not questioning my spiritual beliefs either. What I feel is sadness. And so, the only question I ask myself is how to live with my pain and this huge hole that it created inside of me. I remember the day of the funeral. I didn’t think I would go for the simple reason that it wasn’t going to ease my pain. I still tried. I got up, got dressed, I even went with Koko’s family. That day, I wore my floral yellow summer dress. Seeing the coffin with a photo of Koko on it, I didn’t feel anything. It could have been any other object. His body was only a vessel to me, his soul had left it. So I went to the bathroom to get away from this strange scene. There, I saw a toilet plunger placed in a Coaticook ice cream pot. I burst out laughing, it was as if Koko was winking at me and I decided that it would be a good day. I left before the ceremony started. With some friends, we went to a little store to buy toys that make bubbles. I laid down on the grass as people made bubbles above me. I watched them fly away into the sky. It was perfect.

When a person dies, the memory of their life is in the hands of others. Then, the most insecure people (or/and selfish) will have the audacity to take the place which they think is due to them. They will have the same approach when it comes to the division of property and inheritance. You will notice that those people stick together. They have an unofficial agreement to always support each other in their illusions, to never call each other out on their shit. I’ve always made an effort not to judge people by their mistakes, to try to be compassionate and forgiving. A wise friend told me that people don’t really change and that’s what I believe now too. A person who has once been able to deeply hurt someone during their adult life is able to do it again. Their narcissism and lack of empathy will allow them to continue without worrying about the damage, without actually learning. This person may show guilt … but it will be caused by the reflection of themselves in the eyes of others. An “I feel bad because people think badly of me” and not “I feel bad because I have done something wrong”. The slightly egocentric friend you keep in your life, often very charming, will let you down during this difficult times. We have to think about our standards in friendship and let go of those who are not up to the task … Should we always act with kindness? should we always forgive? I do not know

“But any number of times I’ve seen people who say they’re easily hurt hurt other people for no apparent reason. Self-styled honest and open people, without realizing what they’re doing, blithely use some self-serving excuse to get what they want. And those “good at sensing others’ true feelings” are duped by the most transparent flattery. It’s enough to make me ask the question: How well do we really know ourselves?”
-Sputnik Sweetheart, Haruki Murakami, 2002.

Various things people have told me that I keep in mind to help me live:
“I love you as much as I loved Koko”
“You’re awesome Nhem, never forget”
“I never got a chance to meet your boyfriend but I am sure he was an amazing person. Just the fact that he captured your heart is enough for me to know he was special.”
“Tragedy feels twofold when it falls upon somebody who has an unrivalled goodness about them.”
“Don’t listen to people who tell you to get over it. It’s bullshit. You don’t have to do that until you feel ready.”

While traveling I’ve experienced moments so perfect that I couldn’t understand how I could deserve them. Sometimes I wanted to throw a cigarette butt on the ground just to have some imperfection. It’s the same thing when it’s too horrible, you have to add beauty, laughter. My friend brought me to Bennie’s the night Koko died. I remember telling him “This is the first time I eat at Bennie’s after my boyfriend has passed away. Usually my boyfriend’s not dead.” Or knowing that some friends were coming to see me, I texted one of them to ask him to dress up in a costume. When I learned that there were only a few months left to live, Koko said to me “Laura, just because your partner is going to die doesn’t mean you need to cry”. I sobbed even more and he consoled me. When it’s too ugly, we bring humor. When it’s too perfect, we throw cigarette butts.

This year I should’ve been happy, but my boyfriend got cancer and passed away. Go back to go forward. I don’t isolate myself and I ask for help, I spend time with people who make me feel good. I am the godmother of three girls. During the last few months, I sometimes didn’t feel love when I looked at them. I had desensitized myself to my feelings so that I could function … I was glad to see them, but I didn’t feel love, as if I didn’t have any to give. Distracting myself by working, distracting myself from my pain by giving to others, but not by giving to myself. The return to work was necessary for the return to everyday life, but it’s also a distraction like any other. Desensitizing myself by watching all the Netflix series, grateful that my life isn’t as horrible as The Punisher’s. The scent of orange blossom drowns the memory of Koko’s musky scent. Ordering Chinese food at 11pm, either to self-destruct or satisfy munchies. What do I need today? Am I mourning the memories or the person? It’s weird to love a person who no longer exists. I don’t know if it’s real or a dream… like fantasizing about a life with Devon Sawa when I was 14 years old.

“Tarrou had “lost the match,” as he put it. But what had he, Rieux, won? No more than the experience of having known plague and remembering it, of having known friendship and remembering it, of knowing affection and being destined one day to remember it. So all a man could win in the conflict between plague and life was knowledge and memories.” - The plague, Albert Camus, 1947.



Laura Nhem

2nd Gen Canadian. Decorator in the Montreal tv & film industry. One-time podcaster. Life is absurd.