Saturday, July 4, 2015

The first decade

Ten years ago today I received a phone call from my mum. She told me that my brother Dylan, had killed himself. Here's what I wrote in my journal the following day:

My brother committed suicide on Friday. It hasn't sunk in yet, and all family and friends are being really good about it. I've never lost anyone close before and I don't know how bad things will get or how long it will take to get through it, but the next couple of months are going to be difficult. It seems very odd that a week ago there were four or us and now there are only three of us.

I think is the last photo of all four of us together. It's a shame the colour is a bit off.

Finding a meaningful sense of time was important. As you can see from the quote above, at first I was thinking about a few weeks or months at a time. As things got worse it would be days at a time. Since this was such a huge change in my life I'd occasionally think about years, or even decades at a time. I always told myself that the first decade would be the hardest. I'm in my early 30s, and if I'm lucky I've got another five decades left in me. Looking back at what I've done and where I've been in that time it's been an excellent decade, all things considered. I moved abroad to give myself time and space to come to terms with the loss. That was a long time ago, and for the past few months I've been thinking about moving back to the UK and getting back to "normal", whatever that means. Losing Moritz three months ago sped up that process quite a lot.

After ten years I've moved on from the loss and found new motivations in my life. Occasionally I still wake up thinking that Dylan is still alive, and that I'll see him again. Old memories of Dylan still resurface from time to time. Every now and then I remember that 40 years from now it will just be me and my two sisters, and one of the closest people I thought would always be there for me is gone forever.

On holiday in Wales.

The first decade without Dylan has passed. Losing him was hard. Losing him to suicide made it even harder. The experience has left me more resilient, more daring, and more outgoing, but at the same time it has left me a bit colder than before in some respects. I've always preferred deep friendships over relationships, and losing Dylan reinforced that feeling. I just don't feel comfortable being that close to someone. Seeing parent divorce, then Dylan choosing to die, moving country every few years, and brilliant friends coming and going for over a decade has left me with the impression that nothing is permanent or secure. Looking far in the future can be scary. Losing Dylan has changed me forever and feels as though I've had a shadow cast over some of the best years of my life. Even so I've managed to have a lot of fun and I like to think that Dylan would be happy to see me now and proud of what I've achieved. He would have loved to visit me in California or Geneva or Brussels, but he chose not to. He decided that whatever future lay ahead of him wasn't worth having. If the next decade is the same as the last in terms of opportunities, friendships, work, and travel, then that's definitely something I want to be a part of. I've rebuilt my life, and I'm just getting started. Today's a tough day, but that just gives me more strength to go on.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Moritz's funeral

It's been over a week since Moritz's funeral and I've had very mixed feelings (and not much time to blog about them) ever since. The day itself was very intense, and the days after were also very rough. Rather than rewrite what I've already written I thought I'd share some things that's I've written to some friends before and since the funeral. On the day itself I had intended to talk about Moritz and had prepared some text to read out. However in the end I didn't speak up for a few reasons. First of all much of what I wanted to say had already been said and I didn't want to talk for the sake of talking. The second reason was that being at the funeral brought up some very difficult feelings about Dylan, so it feel completely "safe" (or completely polite) to talk about my feelings. Thirdly I'd already sent a message which had been shared publicly, so I had already said something. Finally, while going over all this in my head, I hesitated too long and missed the opportunity. I'm still in two minds about whether I did the right thing in staying quiet. Here is what I had planned to say:

I first met Moritz in California. It was a bright, sunny day, and we were walking back from the main control room of the BaBar experiment. Moritz is the only person I've ever met whose eyes would actually light up, especially when the sun was shining. However it was only when we were both at CERN together that we became very close. My older brother died very suddenly and if was alive today he would be about Moritz's age. I think this is why we got along so well.

As soon as Moritz arrived in Geneva he started making friends and joining in activities wherever he could. From DVD nights, to hiking in the Jura, to evenings in Geneva and cocktail parties in Saint Genis, Moritz was always very sociable and always brought a lot of joy into the room. Life at CERN can be tough- the work is hard and people come and go so quickly. When you find a good friend it can make a huge difference, and you will often be lifelong friends. I thought with Moritz I would have a friendship that would last decades. He was more than just a friend to me, he was an ally, he'd tease me with jokes and make fun of how seriously we take things in Geneva. We would go to the gym together and afterwards sit in the sauna, talking about life, and work, and our hopes for the future, until it got too hot for me and I had to leave. We'd go out to bars with groups of friends in Geneva and since I organised the evenings I'd spend most of the night introducing people, making them feel welcome. When this got too tiring I'd sneak outside with Moritz to smoke a cigarette. I don't normally smoke, and in fact this was the only time I ever smoked a cigarette. But it gave me a chance to spend some time with Moritz, an old ally from our student days, in another foreign and strange country.

But Moritz was also spontaneous and I think that's what I will miss the most. I remember one time I saw him at the end of the day when I was working late, about to go home. Instead he caught my eye and asked me if I'd like to join him and a friend for some whiskey tasting. That simple and spontaneous act of generosity brightened up my day, and that wasn't the only time. Another time he asked if I wanted to hike up the reculet in the Jura mountains with him. A few hours later we were at the top, overlooking the Geneva valley in all its glory on one side and the sunset on the other. He took me away from the chaos of the lab and showed me how much natural beauty there was just waiting to be discovered, because he loved the outdoors so much.

Although Moritz had a short life, he had a very full life. In 35 years he managed to achieve more than most of us will ever achieve. He had travelled the world, taken part in the world class research, he made friends wherever he went and of course he loved to climb, and to make the most of everything around him. He had a brilliant sense of humour and could find the fun in anything. At one point one of the CERN experiments made its data public, so I decided to analyse it and put the results online to show people what could be done. Whenever we do this there's always a fear that someone inexperienced but optimistic will make a simple mistake and think that they have found a new particle that hundreds of scientists somehow missed. It was only a few hours before Moritz had taken my results and edited them to put add a false peak discovery in the data, and put it on facebook saying "Hobby researchers already found a strong unexpected signal!" I would have been angry, except it was very funny and at that point I was living in Brussels and already missing Moritz.

Earlier I said that he took part in world class research, but that's not quite true. He lead world class research, and only last month his work was presented at the very prestigious Moriond conference. It was Moritz's insight that lead to an important breakthrough, and without him there's no way to know how long it would take to make that step. His loss to the physics community is huge and will be felt for a very long time. He wasn't just a leader in research, he also lead in teaching. He took part in Master Classes, where the students' responses were overwhelmingly positive. He spoke with people both inside and outside of physics, of all ages. Many colleagues and friends have told me how much they enjoyed chatting with Moritz over beer or coffee [and as we have heard from Marco, his conversations inspired others]. The path to becoming a physicist is a long and difficult one, and it is through these kinds of conversations that inspire people and give them the courage to continue. Moritz may be gone, but his legacy will live on for many years. Decades from now there will be physicists who still will remember his kind words and sense of humour as the moment when they realised that they could follow the same path. They won't even know that he has passed away, and they will carry on the work he started.

I think that although Moritz died so young, there is some comfort that he enjoyed his life so much. His career was very successful. He was loved by many people all over the world. He loved his work and he loved his hobbies. From the time I met him to his final day he loved life and every day celebrated it with those around him. And for that I'm very grateful. I'll never forget him, and even though I miss him deeply, I am also very happy to have shared the time we had together.

After the funeral we got some gourmet food on the banks of the river Moselle.

I went to the funeral with a mutual friend, Marco. Not everyone could go to the funeral, so I wrote a summary of the day for a friend who could not make it. Here is what I told him:

Moritz's funeral was, as you would expect, a very intense experience. The service itself was entirely secular, lead by friends and family. People lit candles and left flowers at the church, there was guitar music and readings from friends and colleagues. We then went to the grave to bury the urn, then to a hotel for a reception. At the reception many people spoke about their memories of Moritz and there were many stories, photos and articles that people had shared. There were also copies of the LHCb document and some toys and school projects from his childhood. It was rather strange seeing these, because we don't often think about a person's childhood when you know them first as colleagues. People spoke about their memories (including Marco and Florian) and was very ambivalent about this, and in the end didn't speak up. I'd already shared some very personal reflections and felt that there was little I could add without repeating what had already been said.

After that Marco and I went to a restaurant and then drove back, but the rest of the physicists (about 12-15) went to a local bar and had beers in Moritz's memory. If we'd have known that was the plan we probably would have stayed another day in Trier. It was a very tough day for me and Marco. As well as losing Moritz, it brought back many painful memories of when my brother died and how hard the following years were.

The weekend after the funeral was spent mostly in my apartment feeling quite sad about everything. I had learned some more about the accident and it sounds like it was very fast and it was the result of Moritz either taking a risk or making a mistake, or both. That means right unti his final minutes he was very happy, and that nobody else has to feel any responsibility over the accident. That should have made me feel better, but I still very intensely sad about the loss, and a deep longing. I kept remembering him and imagining him laughing and joking. His family's words were "We are endlessly sad". I spent some time with some friends in Brussels to take my mind off things, and to talk about the future. That helped a lot, and right now I am in a much better place for it. I can see a bright future ahead of me, even if one my most talented and ambitious friends won't be there for it. There's no doubt in my mind that Moritz would have been an excellent professor, but as I tried to explain at the funeral (and probably did not succeed) I think I prefer to remember him young, brilliant, thirsty for more challenges and full of so much potential. I find that inspiring, motivating, and I'm going to use my memories of Moritz to push me to keep trying new things and keep moving forward with my life. The transition from a morose weekend after the funeral to where I am today (in the UK visiting old and new friends and planning out the next arc of my life) was not easy, but it was quite fast, and I'm grateful for that

Things are still a bit complicated by the grief over Dylan. The more I thought about how Moritz was happy right until the end the more I realised that Dylan wasn't. He was alone and afraid for a very long time. If he'd have contacted someone who could have stayed up with him all night and talked things over he could still be here now. For the first time in my life, after nearly a decade, I realised why my dad was so upset that he couldn't have helped Dylan. There's a fundamental difference between realising that nobody could help him (which was my own understanding at the time) and that a single pserson couldn't help him (which is how my dad felt, and then later on I felt.) The second feeling is one of immense pity, regret, and some sense of failure. By a large margin, that was the worst feeling I had at the funeral and that was the main reason I didn't stand up to speak. Marco did, and he was very brave to do so. I felt very proud to be with him when he spoke, and that compounded my own feelings of insecurity, as if I had failed Moritz and his family by not speaking up. Even so a safe space is a safe space, and I just didn't feel safe in that frame of mind.

Here are some rambling thoughts I sent to a friend on the matter:

I wanted to make sure that there was someone at the funeral who could talk about how much he'd be missed at CERN, but that was already said by someone else so I didn't feel so much of a need to say all this. I also didn't want to mess anything up- my feelings were very complicated that day, especially since I couldn't help comparing Moritz to Dylan and didn't want to end up saying anything inappropriate or insensitive. I think I made the right decision not speaking, but even so it feels like I failed in a way.

Dylan and I weren't very close towards the end, unfortunately. We didn't fall out or anything- he'd been living in Australia for a couple of years and returned to the UK 6 months before he killed himself. That was the final two terms of my final year as an undergrad at Oxford, and you know how hard I work, so as far as I can remember we didn't see each other face to face in that time. The last time I spoke to him was on the phone. I called my dad and Dylan picked up. I invited them both to visit me in Oxford when my exams were over and Dylan said he'd like that. A couple of weeks later he died and he never came to visit. It can't have been long after that phone call that he decided to kill himself. Obviously I'd have like to have seen him, and probably should have made more of an effort to see him in those 6 months, but I am glad that so close to the end he knew that I cared about him and wanted to see him again. I'm not sure how I'd have felt if I hadn't had that conversation with him. I think I still have quite a few emails from him that I never replied to, because I kept putting it off indefinitely.

To some extent I think that's why things were very hard with Moritz's death. I keep thinking to myself that I should have made more of an effort to spend time with him because I've always had the attitude that work is more important than keeping in touch with people, and that they'll always be there when I want to spend time with them. Obviously that's not the case, but we can't spend our lives trying to spend as much time with everyone as possible, we'd never get anything done. It's hard not have a lot of regrets, for both Dylan and Moritz. They both had short and brilliant lives, and with Moritz I could not think of a better way for him to have gone- he was happy right up to the last minute and died doing what he loved. It's much harder dealing with their deaths than those of older people. I lost three of my grandparents in the years following Dylan's death, and a very inspiring teacher a few years before, all after long periods of declining health. I was sad to lose them, but it was nowhere near as tough as it was with Dylan or Moritz.

Instead of focusing on how I should have spent more time with Moritz I'm trying to see it like this: One day he was alive and loving life, and the next he wasn't. For him there was very little pain or regret or fear. The next day we heard about the news and have to go on with our lives, so although we're sad for our own losses it's better to be happier for the life that Moritz had. Things are diferent for Dylan, as he chose to die and it was only when I became angry at him that I started to come to terms with his death and start to move on. After struggling to make sense of Moritz's death I finally had to confront Dylan's state of mind. He must have been very afraid for a very long time. He drank around a litre of vodka before he died, and wrote a note. He knew that his death woud have a terrible effect on everyone else (although he had no idea how much and for how long the aftermath would last.) If he'd reached out to just one person who could have stayed up talking to him all night he might not have chosen to die. Even then I probably would have rolled my eyes at how melodramatic he'd been. It's strange that dying makes us feel a way that almost dying never can. If Moritz had broken his back and had to spend the rest of life in a wheelchair I'd feel nowhere near as crushed as I have done, even though for him it would probably be a much greater loss. That puts a lot of things in perspective and helps clarify a lot of thoughts, although it doesn't really make me feel any better.

I've been through a lot in the past couple of weeks and it's helping a lot to write it all down, so thanks for giving me the impetus to do that. I got a group email today from Moirtz's family, and the only phot they used was one of mine. It's from a hike in the Reculét, Moritz looks very happy, and for once it didn't make me feel sad to see it again, instead I'm glad I could help his family in some very small way. So things are getting better.

There are still some more things I need to write down before I can move on. Moritz's absence on LHCb is still being felt quite keenly. Visits to see various friends have helped in many different ways and I should explain how. I started my career in particle physics because I lost Dylan and needed time alone to rebuild my life. I don't want to end my career in the field just because Moritz died. To have such a wonderful time of life bookended by tragedies would be terrible. I've got a lot of hope for the next years, so I need to find a way to make that change that doesn't feel as though my life is being dictated by how I react to losing people.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Weekend trip

This week I'm coming back to the UK for three days to deal with the fallout from Moritz's death and how it relates to Dylan's death. The way things have turned out I'll be going back in time with a four (now five) pronged approach. First I'll spend time with Lee, who I don't think new Moritz, but was a pillar of support for me when I was at CERN. Then I'll spend time with Tom and Eugenia, who knew of Moritz of California, in his former glory days. Then I'll move on to Tim and Graham who were also out in California at the same time. Then on to Jamie and Debbie who helped me when I was in Oxford, and whom I have no problem being completely open and honest with. Finally there's a friend who's very recently found out about a loss, so we'll be spending the day together. It's going to be cathartic, and although it feels as though I'm most of the way to being okay again, there's always space for a bit more healing before coming back to the real world.

Speeding through the English countryside to the next destination.

The first day is done and I've spent most of that time talking about the future. That's a very important part of grief. When you can think about the future with optimism then that's a good sign that you're healing .

The house of cards

Perhaps one of the worst feelings I've experienced in the past week is that nothing has changed. I felt the same as I had when I was first in California, that I had no plan for the future. I felt like everything had fallen away from me and that I was alone again, struggling to find my place, struggling to find the strength to care about anything. It felt as though nothing I had accomplished in the past decade had meant anything. It took me a long time to get to a point where I was happy, and confident, and where I loved life. That was the state I was in when I was at CERN, and when I was spending time with (among other people) Moritz. I felt all that evaporate as if everything I had done was just a house of cards I'd constructed to make myself feel better. If I end up alone, grieving, finding it hard to care or focus on anything the had I really gained anything in the past decade?

It turns out that I've gained a lot. Having been through a more intense and long lived bereavement I have all the experience and tools I need to get through this bereavement, no matter how much it reminds of my loss of Dylan. In the course of a week I seem to have gone through most of the main phases of grief already, and I'm now planning for the future again. I've almost accepted Moritz's death now, with only occasionally having to remind myself that he's gone. Acceptance is much more important than happiness.

Small details bring big comfort

When someone dies unexpectedly there's a tendency to want to know more information. When Dylan died my first question was "How?" When Moritz died I was in shock for the first few days, but as I found out more about the accident the shock became easier to handle. It wasn't just me, a mutual friend was also keen to find out more. What we know is that Moritz suffered a climbing accident, that the conditions were perfect and the equipment in good order. It took me a while to realise what this meant, which is that it was the result of human error. We also know he died on the scene, so it was probably fast. I still want to know more, but I don't think it would be appropriate or helpful to to do so. For days I've been imagining how the accident happened, and its immediate aftermath. Those are the kinds of thoughts I can't seem to turn off, but they're fading away as I come to accept what happened. Right now any small amount of information about Moritz helps. Talking about him in the past tense helps. Learning more about the accident helps. Anything that makes this seem more real helps.

Introverted grieving

The weekend following Moritz's death gave me a sobering reminder of just how much of an introvert I am. To avoid confusion I'll describe what I think an introvert is. An introvert is someone who feels emotionally tired after extended social interaction. (Okay, I'm just one person and this is my own experience. Other introverts may have different experiences, mileages may vary etc.) It's a purposefully vague description, but what I mean is that I can't relax when there are people constantly demanding my attention. I have to prepare myself for social interaction, which goes unnoticed most of the time. However when times are tough, or I'm tired from work I find that social interaction can make me very irritable. There have been occasions when I've stayed up until 3am simply to find time to myself.

For two days after hearing about Moritz's death I had to be the CMS Shift Leader for eight hours each day. This means taking responsibility for decisions made in the Control Room and working with four other shifters who usually need some level of "babysitting". At the same time I was receiving a barrage of condolence messages and offers of support. After each shift I did my best to escape and be alone. As I wrote this I was at the lab in Brussels and not in the office. Rather than interact with people and their seemingly inane topics (seminars don't matter to me this week) I was sitting under a tree in the sun, writing a blog post.

The last place I want to be when I'm grieving.

The problem is that if social interaction comes at some emotional cost then the social interaction has to be worth that cost, and when you're having a tough time it's hard to justify. On top of this there are many things people try to say or do that don't even help. Most people's responses to being told of a death are to fall over themselves trying to sound sorry, and offering help that won't actually help. When this happens it's hard not to think that the other person is doing it for their sake rather than yours, or that they think being polite is more important than being sincere. What is more helpful is to give the grieving person some space and control over how to approach things. When I'm grieving I pick and choose who I spend time with very carefully. Most people simply don't exercise (or have) the social skills that are needed. Among the best choices are the people who have been bereaved themselves. Other good choices are those people who don't feel constrained by social convention or don't rely on etiquette, because to be blunt a lot of the stuff you say when you're trying to cope with loss can sound a little crazy or even crass. What you need is someone who can listen to that and not get caught up trying to work out what a socially acceptable response is (because there isn't one.)

What not to say to a griever

One the strange parts about interacting with people when you're grieving is that everyone seems keen to say something, but nobody seems to know what to say. That can be frustrating for everyone involved. In the first day or two the griever faces a wall of condolences, many of which don't actually say anything helpful, followed by silence. It's hard to find the right words, I understand that, but it's not impossible, and most of the time it's not actually that important.

It's perfectly acceptable to say nothing at all, especially if you planned to send a message. If you can't find anything to say then say nothing. Sometimes that's an appropriate response. Remember that the griever probably already has dozens of messages stacking up anyway.
"I'm sorry."
This is a very simple response and that's the beauty of it. If you're genuinely sorry that this happened then say so.
"If you want to talk, I'm here."
Expect the response to be "No" and don't be offended if it is. Most people need to talk about their loss, but it's usually something so personal that there are very few people they are willing to talk to about it.
"If you want to talk, now or in the future, I'm here."
In my experience this is perhaps the best response. In the first few days after a death there is a barrage of messages and it can be hard to even keep up to date with them. As the weeks and months pass by people's interest fades away, but the loss doesn't. If you are honestly interested in the long term wellbeing of your friend, and are willing to help in the future then offer to do so. Many griving people feel embarrassed or akward asking for help later on, so offer that help now, they'll remember it.
"My thoughts/prayers are with you."
A bit cheesy to say in person, but in a message this can bring a lot of comfort. (I have a problem with people praying for the sick, but praying for the grieving is fine.)
"Let me know if I can help in any way."
You would not believe the amount of tedious stuff you have to deal with when a death happens. A lot of people want to do something and want to keep some sense of control, so there are some things they won't let you do. At the same time maybe they forgot to go shopping and have nothing to eat, or maybe they need a lift somewhere. Small practical helps means a great deal, don't underestimate how much a little task will do to help someone out.

Notice that nothing in this list is intrusive, and most of these responses are invitations. They let the introverted griever decide what is best and gives them their own space to respond.

Now here are some things to not say:

"I don't know what to say..."
This sounds a lot like "I realise I can't make you feel better, so I want to say something to make myself feel better." And if you say it to someone like me then they might feel bad about making you feel awkward. That discourages people from talking in the future, which probably isn't what you want.
"Look on the bright side..."
This one really annoys people. It trivialises the loss and also suggests that you think the griever simply has the wrong attitude. You might well have something good to say after this opening, so just skip the opening.
Anything with a sexual innuendo
Yes, I've had this from a few friends. Don't do it. Let the griever be the first one to crack a joke.
"I wish I could make things better/change things."
Well obviously. So does the griever. But pointing out the problem so bluntly doesn't help someone to deal with it.
"If only they hadn't..."
There are lots of "if onlys" involved with death. Going over them again and again doesn't help. It's what often happens to people and it's quite a painful experience.

If you know the person quite well then you can go a little further, but be prepared for people to ask you to stop talking:

"My X died of...", "I was your age when my X died."
It really depends on the person you're talking to if they want to relate to you or not. They may not be ready to talk to you, or they may be relieved to hear that they're not the only one who has to deal with loss. It very much depends on your friendship and their state of mind.
That sucks.
I like this one. It's simple, it's not wrapped up in etiquette and it does nothing except express sympathy. Don't try it with a stranger, but with a friend I find this helps a lot.
"I know it sounds trite/a cliché but..."
The end of this sentence is almost never pointless, so just forget the first bit. Instead of saying "I know it sounds trite, but it'll take time." just say "It'll take time." Say something meaningful without preceding it with an apology.

One of the important things is that grief goes far beyond the first day. Talk to people afterwards. If they've lost someone very close then weeks or months later you can do a lot worse than occasionally ask "Are you holding up okay?". If you know the person well then asking "How long has it been since X passed away?" can work too. That helps put distance between them and their loss, and gives them a chance to talk, while acknowledging that's okay to need help a long time later, and that it's also okay to have moved on.

There aren't many hard and fast rules about this. Everyone's different, and every bereavement is different, not just from day to day, but hour to hour. Grieving people are usually hurting. When they don't want to talk they really don't want to talk. Try to pick up on the signs as best you can and don't be offended if they don't want to talk. Don't take it personally, because they may not be ready to talk to anyone yet. They may want to talk about something completely unrelated, and that's okay as well. Be there when they need you, and bear in mind that only they can decide when that is. Finally, never talk to a grieving person to make yourself feel better, because that almost never works for either of you.

Whirlwind tour of emotions

This week has been a bit of a hurricane of emotions and thoughts. There are so many different things that I want to say, so I'll make a few tiny blog posts about each. In this post I'll talk a bit more about my friendship with Moritz.

As usual I have a lot of thoughts about not spending enough time with Moritz, and regret that I never took some opportunities, always busy with work and turning down invitations. This was worse with Dylan, where there many more messages I never replied to and meetups I missed. So I went back through my messages with Moritz to see how our friendship unfolded, and what I saw made me quite happy. From his very first days at CERN I was inviting him to my place for food and to join in with beers. As time went on we got closer and more informal, and as those who knew him will know, he had a wicked sense of humour. Looking back at this made me realise that although now I wish I could spend more time with him, we already spent plenty of time together. There will always be those times when I said I was too busy and missed out, but there will also be those times when I wasn't. Going back through the archive of messages was a big comfort and helped ease the pain a lot.

It also made me realise a big difference between Moritz and Dylan. Moritz loved life and right to the last minute he was doing what he loved to do. His death was an honest accident that was the result of bad luck. With Dylan it was different. He chose to die. No matter how much he enjoyed life, he decided to die, and realising that difference helped me cope with Moritz's death.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Day off

Yesterday I took a day off. A day off from work, and a day off from grief. It's not possible turn off the thoughts and feelings that keep ebbing back, of course, but it is possible to change the way we act about them. So I took up a friend's (Alex's) offer for a fun day in Geneva, and after my last shift was over we headed off. It's important to pick the right person for this kind of thing and to define a few ground rules. The rules were that we wouldn't talk about work, we wouldn't talk about grief or Moritz or Dylan, and Alex wouldn't worry about what he said to me. We'd just have a day out in Geneva, nothing else. With these ground rules, and with someone I can trust not to talk about the boring parts of work, and most importantly someone who is not trying to make me feel better for their own sake, or out of a sense of politeness, there was a good chance I'd get the space I needed.

A particularly glorious day in Geneva.

This is something I tried many years ago when I was still raw over the shock of losing Dylan. I spent a few weeks travelling between Oxford where I worked, and Crewe, my family home where Dylan died, with both being stressful and emotionally draining. At that time I didn't know what to do. So I turned to a friend in Liverpool to take a day off. Rach offered to listen to me talk about Dylan for as long as I wanted, but in the end I didn't talk about him much at all. We simply walked around Liverpool looking at interesting things and talking about nothing in particular. I think afterwards Rach felt she hadn't done enough when in reality she'd helped me out in a way that nobody else was doing at the time. Grief's exhausting. Just getting used to the idea of never seeing someone walk into the room again takes time and each time you're reminded of this is a bit grating and the only thing leads to acceptance is time. One of the weirdest feelings I had was being simultaneously happy and sad, being able to joke while my heart was still breaking. Having a fun day out can't remove the grief, no matter how hard I try, but it does give some relief.

Being silly with Rach, as usual, providing a much needed break from all the serious at a time when the seriousness was too heavy to handle.

Yesterday, while I avoided talking about Moritz or Dylan, I did think about them from time to time. In the evening we headed back to Alex's for dinner. Preparing dinner with Alex reminded me of my student days when I was at Oxford. There aren't many ways to make me feel more welcome than to ask me over for dinner and to help prepare for food, and that's something I've been missing in recent months. I was already feeling nostalgic immediately before I heard about Moritz's death, so doing something "normal" for once instead of something as an expat or a postdoc was a welcome change. Having had a delightful day out followed by a simple home made meal we finished the day off with some whiskey. Moritz loved whiskey tasting (and often got it wrong when he tried to guess which was which) so this reminded me of when I bumped into him and we sampled some very nice whiskey in Restaurant 1. Being reminded of him in such a pleasant environment was very comforting. After a long time of grieving over the loss of Dylan my memories of him went from painful to wistful, and eventually I was grateful that I had the memories at all. It took about 2-3 years for that to happen with my memories of Dylan, but with Moritz I've at least got the illusion that it's taking a few days. Being able to see things from the happier side of the grieving process has helped a great deal, because that was the most draining part of the process first time around. There's a huge difference between dealing with loss with no end in sight, and dealing with loss with the sense of hope that things will get better. That moment when you get the first memories that make feel a little happier is a watershed. Now I know that I'm going to have the strength to get through the next few weeks between now and Moritz's funeral and come out the other side okay. No matter how much it reminds me of what happened in the aftermath of Dylan's death and no matter how many parallels I can draw between Dylan and Moritz I'll not only be able to get through this, but I might even be able to help some mutual friends too.

Alex: I'm on a boat!

Thanks go to Alex for the day off yesterday, and to Rach for the day off a decade ago. Those two days made a huge difference in the healing process for me. Getting out of the routine of grief and work, and finding the time to just enjoy life for a few hours is what it's all about. Now it's time to get back to work, because life goes on, and that's okay.

Saturday, April 11, 2015


This week I received some very sad news. One of my friends, Moritz, died very suddenly. He was rock climbing with some friends, had an accident and died on the scene. I've known Moritz since 2008, when we were in California together. Since moving to CERN we've spent a lot more time together. DVD nights, gym sessions, whiskey tasting, nights out in Geneva, hiking in the Jura. He was a brilliant physicist, his work was recently shown at the Moriond conference and his career was about to take off. He's left a huge void in the community that's being felt by a lot of people right now.

The time we spent together in more recent months was usually when we'd bump into each other at CERN, chatting over lunch, like old friends. We both worked in high pressure environments, in somewhat ridiculous circumstances, and made sacfrices for our work. It was very comforting to know that he was there, that we could always talk, that our friendship predated our time at CERN and would last for years aferwards, that there was always someone I could share a beer and a cigarette with (and Moritz was the only person I ever smoked with.) That's all gone now. When Moritz died I didn't just lose a friend, I lost a source of support, a comrade, and one of the few people here I would want to chat to right now. Unfortunately life goes on and physics is unforgiving.

If Dylan was still alive he'd be about Moritz's age, and Moritz reminds of Dylan in many ways. I recently found out that he had a younger brother. I can feel parts of my grief about Dylan leaking into my feelings about Moritz. Part of my feels angry at Moritz, as if he did this on purpose. I need to get away for a while to manage these feelings.

What I want to do is leave and go back to the UK. I want to speak to the people who helped me with Dylan's death. I want to talk to them, play stupid games, make stupid jokes and remember that no matter how bad it gets I have people who know me and know what grief is really like. I find myself in a foreign country, alone, being reminded of not only the loss of Moritz, but the loss of Dylan too, almost a decade ago. No matter how much the people here may care they are still, at the end of the day, colleagues first and friends second. It's rare to find someone I feel comfortable being open with when it comes to grief. Having said that there is a mutual friend I want to spend some time with, as soon as I get a chance.

Moritz is gone. I've lost one of my friends, one of my allies, and now I feel alone and out of place. It's made CERN feel a lot colder. I love Moritz like a brother, and now I'll never see him again. I need to find a way to move on. I miss him so much right now.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Gradually slipping away

Readers of this blog may have noticed that I've spent most of my time on here talking about my own life and my future, rather than talking about Dylan. There are a few reasons for this. The first reason is that Dylan's suicide has had a knock on effect on nearly every aspect of my life since he died, so it's natural to talk about my life in the context of this blog. The second reason is that this blog is not about Dylan, it's about me, and my grief for my memories of Dylan is not the same as grief for Dylan (my other family members would write very different posts if they kept blogs.) The third reason is that I've already written a lot about Dylan on an old LiveJournal account, and that was very cathartic. The final reason is that it's sometimes too painful to write about. These blog posts take time, not just to write, but to find the right frame of mind and the time needed for reflection. I'll spend the rest of this post giving an example of something about the loss of Dylan that bothers me.

This is how I remember Dylan.

Dylan and I used to share a very small bedroom. We had bunkbeds and we'd often stay up late at night, listening to the radio and talking to each other. I can still sing the theme tune to the "Late Night Munster Show" that ran from 10pm to 1am (very late for 10 and 12 year old boys!) One of my most vivid memories was one night when we made up our own lyrics to the theme tune to One Foot in the Grave. For some reason I thought that the words said "You silly old fool. One foot in the grave." They don't say anything like that, but that didn't stop us from changing the word "fool" to the worst insults we could imagine. We played that game for about an our or more, instead of getting to sleep. It's one of my fondest childhood memories. At the same time as being a pleasant memory it also scares me. This is the first time I've ever shared this story about Dylan and as much as I'd love to reminisce about it I can't. Dylan's dead and he can't talk to me about it. I'm the only person alive who remembers it and when I forget it will be forgotten forever, and I won't even realise it. Every time I forget about something I shared with Dylan part of him slips away forever. There's already so much I must have already forgotten and will never get back, and it's only going to get worse. It's a kind of loss that follows you around for the rest of your life. I've accepted that he's dead, but that doesn't mean that the loss stops there, I'll keep losing bits of him as the memories fade, one by one.