It's been just over three months since Alex died. Alex was an undergraduate, a senior, who had been part of my research group since the beginning of last summer. Alex was a math and philosophy concentrator (major), who loved computer science, took all our most challenging courses, and loved nothing more than sharing his knowledge and enthusiasm with those around him. He was a teaching fellow for several of our courses, two of which I taught. He also took operating systems from me. He was, most definitely, one of my students.
It was Sunday evening. I was reading email. An astute colleague had seen an article in our school paper, the Harvard Crimson, and noticed that it was about a student who had TF'd a course I taught. He sent a link to the article. I saw the words "heartbreaking loss" and the name "Alex Patel," and fearing the worst, started crying out, "No! No! No!" But indeed, it was yes, yes, yes; Alex was gone.
So, what do you do? You've lost someone you cared about, someone for whom you felt responsible. Someone you just saw on Friday and had asked how things were going. You saw he was somewhat subdued, but he assured you he was doing well; his thesis was going well; he smiled; he laughed. And now he's gone. And you know. You know that as much as you want to run and hide, there is a research group -- your group -- your students, and they are already suffering or will be suffering as much as you are. What do you do?
As you read the rest of this, know that we're doing OK. None of us got much research done the end of last semester. I'm sure some grades suffered. But that's not important; what is important is that we're all still standing. We are closer than ever before. We try to do more fun/social things together. We have a special relationship with Alex's family. We have a copy of Marcus Aurelius' Meditations in the lab -- it was one of Alex's favorite. I stop down in the lab more often. We are all perhaps a bit kinder and gentler. And we are all a lot older. These things just age you in ways nothing else can. We are changed, but by and large, I think that we have all healed or at least, are well on our way through the healing process. And that's what the rest of this is about -- how we got from devastation to healed. What worked and what didn't. What people did that was amazing and wonderful. What people might have done that might have helped. But mostly, it's about the journey from October 22 to January 31.
What you know and what you don't know
Having read the article in the Crimson, I knew that some of my students, the undergrads, would probably already know. However, the graduate students, who are not as closely tied into the community probably didn't. That's not a good thing. So, you compose email to your group. Rest assured, nothing in your professional career has prepared you for writing this email; in fact, nothing absolutely nothing has prepared you for any aspect of this experience. You are on your own.
I used the subject line "Devastating News" to prepare the reader for what was inside. The note itself was short and to the point:
I hate to deliver bad news via email, but the following has hit the Crimson and if I can do anything at all to ease the shock, i wish to do so.
I am simply devastated beyond words to report that Alex, as in our own Alex, died this weekend.
I have absolutely no details at this point.
I will be in shortly after 8:00 tomorrow and expect to make the 9:00 provenance meeting short. Anyone who wants to hang out together and just be with our group should come up to my office.
Hold your friends just a bit closer this evening.
Tips for administrators or the people who deal with these situations:
By the time I found out, it was too late for me to attend the memorial that was being held at the house (dorm) with which he was affiliated. So, I missed an opportunity to begin my own grieving and healing and spend time with others doing the same. Historically, the faculty are notified at the same time the students are, but this time, the students were notified and the faculty weren't. In my opinion, this was an enormous mistake. No administrator can possibly know which students will be affected and therefore, which faculty may have affected students in his/her class the next morning. The faculty absolutely need to know.
Next, I entered information gathering mode. The Crimson article was written by a reporter I knew. I sought her out to find out if there was any other information she had. She didn't.
I had met Alex's father once, and wanted to reach out to him. So, I ended up in an email exchange with the Resident Dean (Adam) of the house (dorm) with which Alex was affiliated. Adam was quite helpful -- I indicated that I would like to reach out to the family, but more importantly, I indicated that I needed to have professional resources on the ground in Maxwell Dworkin to support my group. Adam put me in touch with the right people. I knew enough to know that this was bigger than me and that I needed help to support my people; not everyone would have known this.
Tips for the mental health professionals called in:
There are a group of people who need you and may not know they need you. In general, telling highly self-sufficient people who are typically in authority to "reach out if they need help," doesn't really do much. Gentle outreach that offers condolences, tells the right people who you are, what you can do, how to contact you, etc is probably a good idea. I know they did this quite well for the family, for which I remain eternally grateful. But there is family within the University community as well, and it's important to reach out to them.
Then there were many phone calls Sunday evening. I don't think I can even remember them all now, but I appreciated each of them -- the colleague who let me cry; the member of my group who checked in to tell me that he and others had been with Alex the prior evening. The human connection, even if it ended up in silence over the phone was really important.
Then came Monday -- I tried to spend time in our lab -- I figured it was either going to become a barren wasteland or a hub, and I wanted it to become a hub. It did. It's where I greeted most of the group in the morning with a hug. Even my students who don't tend to hang out there, came by so we could all be together.
Tips for anyone going through something like this:
Be thoughtful about the places and physical reminders that might be trigger points. Don't let things "just happen," plan for them.
By this time, I'd been in touch with mental health services and had requested that someone come and join my group for our weekly meeting on Friday. I figured that way we wouldn't disrupt our schedules, we knew everyone would be able to attend, and we'd all have started processing, so that we could make the use of the services. That said, I'd exchanged email with these folks enough that when one of my group was showing signs of guilt, e.g., "I should have seen this coming," I was able (with permission) to get an almost immediate appointment for him/her.
Tips for anyone going through something like this:
Know the limits of your own expertise. I can say things like, "This is not your fault," but I am not a trained professional and I know that. It would be nice if we didn't need to ask for help, but this is one of those times to put ego aside and call on the professionals.
Many of the things that followed are a bit of a blur, but some of the things I or others did that mattered were:
- I connected with both of Alex's parents. We talked. I let them know that Alex had been loved, respected and admired, that there were people here who knew and cared about him. They both wanted to come to the lab and meet the group, be with the people who had formed this part of Alex's community.
- I became an honorary member of the Philosophy department. Philosophy is a small department; they know their students, and they knew how much this was going to affect them. So, they scheduled a department memorial, and since they knew Alex had been in my lab, they invited me. In fact, three different people in the department personally reached out to invite me. This was a big deal. Although I was unable to attend their gathering, I felt I had another community with which to grieve.
- Computer Science was a bit slower to respond -- after learning of the Philosophy gathering, CS did pull something together. It would have been nice if we'd had the forethought to do this without first having Philosophy do it. We scheduled it at a time that was convenient for the faculty, but I'm not sure that it was convenient for students; I think we could have done better here. That said, it was a lovely gathering. Alex's family joined us. There were tears and there was laughter.
- A couple of my colleagues made it a point to stop by my office regularly, just to say, "Hi." My son stopped by more than he otherwise might have. I appreciated these things a lot.
- One colleague sent flowers to our lab; the CS faculty also sent flowers. They were much appreciated.
- I had to go to London about ten days after Alex's death and a bunch of other not-so-good things were happening in my life. A colleague with whom I hadn't spent a lot of time previously spent a long walk through the streets of London talking with me - mostly about other things, but it was a warm conversation that was much needed. I don't think he had any idea how profoundly valuable that was (I got a chance to tell him so recently).
- There are other things for which one is never prepared: how do you hand off Alex's work to another member of the team? Got me. Fortunately, one of my team stepped up -- I remain grateful.
- Different venues provided an opportunity for different people to break down and "let it out." For some, it was 1:1 meetings with me; for others, it was our group meeting with the mental health professional; for still others, it was the memorial. For me, it happened while sitting alone in my hotel room in London, listening via Skype to the Memorial Service taking place in Cambridge. I was so sad not to be there in person, but I have to say, the Skype connection was amazing and being able to weep in private had its benefits.
- The small gestures people made to simply be present made huge differences: the stops by my office, the willingness to talk, the hugs -- they got me through this.
- Many of us were able to avoid the guilt feelings that often follow a suicide. Personally, I know and knew at the time that Alex knew I cared for him. I can't begin to understand his decision making, but I do know that he knew there were people who cared for him. I believe many in my group knew that too -- Saturday night Alex had been with several members of my group working on a problem set. Their last interactions with him were hugs good night. While that's not the same as having been able to say, "Goodbye," it was a warm human connection that they shared, and my impression is that this provided solace, even though it also fostered those early feelings of disbelief.
- It would have been nice if the folks from mental health services checked up on my group -- just knowing that they were paying attention to what was happening in the community would have been helpful. Instead, it felt like the onus was entirely on us -- so while "making help available" is useful, demonstrated caring from people who are supposed to know more about this than I do would have been good.
- Administrative silence was painful. Other than the Dean of Harvard College, who sent mail notifying students of the death, and only after I exclaimed that, "I have to tell my faculty," sent mail to the faculty, no administrator made any public statement. In an era when mental health crises are on the rise at Universities, they were silent. Administrators who speak out about how my students spend their Friday and Saturday evenings said nothing. There was no message to our community saying, "Help is available," or "If you see someone struggling, say something." Nothing. This was a disservice to me, to my group, to our students, and to the entire organization. In times like this, real leaders speak up.
- Alex is always with me. I can now say his name without getting choked up. I miss him.