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.