Lessons learned from the death of a friend

lessons learned

lessons learned

This post is going to be a bit of a departure from normal. Earlier this month, I got news that someone that I used to know very well had died very suddenly, of a brain aneurysm. To say that it was shock is an understatement but in the process of dealing with it, I thought about a number of things related to organizations.

One of the things that made the news so tragic was the history. About two years ago, I had worked with this person – let’s call him John for anonymity’s sake – as his manager. He was a contractor for my company and had been so since the days that the company had been a startup. I had been working with John for about a year and a half, or slightly longer. He and I used to play card games during lunch – we were the only ones that used to do this (note – I am not talking about poker; I am talking about games like Cold War: CIA vs KGB). We bonded over things like that.

He was always a bit different than others – he had an odd sense of humour and definitely liked to do things his own way. Most of the other managers could not handle him but I was able to work with him just fine – I just had to understand how he thought and work with that. And he was not boring.

In any case, about two years ago, he came to me and announced that he was going to have to leave the company. I inquired about it; after all, he was an asset – a flaky asset at times but an asset nonetheless. He mentioned that he was having some mental issues and needed some time to deal with all of that, starting immediately. I wished him luck and let him know that I understood – I have had my own mental issues in the past. He left later that day – my boss was not happy about it but I was able to smooth things over with her. I felt that this was my duty as his manager (or soon to be ex-manager, in any case).

Over the next several months, we talked a few times – always over email as one or both of us were too busy to do anything. Given how fast he had left, I still had several of his games as I had stored them at my desk. I initially kept telling him that I had to meet to give them back – there was no one left to play them with at the current job.

A little over a year ago, I left that job for an exciting opportunity at a startup. As I was packing up my desk a week before I left, I came across the board games and I realized that I had not talked to John in about a month. I thought about contacting him and resolved to do it when I ‘had time’. Of course, all of you realize that this means … never.

Over the next few months, up until a few weeks ago, I would occasionally see those games on my games shelf and think, “I need to contact John and see how he is doing”. Then I got the news that he had died.

I was floored. I had always thought that there would be more time, more opportunities to meet or share games, more … just more. I thought that I could meet with him later. I thought … a lot of things. All of this was now gone. Now done.

I went to the viewing as my family was heading out of town the next day when his funereal happened. I went up to the funereal home and saw him in the coffin. It was not John lying in the coffin, it was … a piece of meat. Nothing animated or real. I didn’t know what to say. I talked to him or it for a bit but had to leave – there was no one there that I knew; John had had a very private and siloed life. I did not know his family and friends, and none of our other co-workers attended this event. I had to leave quickly – I had said my goodbyes but what was there wasn’t John, it was his shell. And I couldn’t stay there with that.

I attended an unofficial wake with a couple previous workmates and we talked about John a little. While we doing that, I thought about what his death could teach me, and about what I could learn from it. Here, in no particular order, are the main things that I could gather.

Things to Learn

It is never too late to do what you should; it is always too late to do what you should have done.
I should have reached out to him when I thought about it the first time, or the second, or third, or … I should have reached out. I did not. And now I can’t. Ever. This … well, it sucks. But it prompted me to reach to others that I had not chatted with in years or months. And now I have better relationships than I did before. Does this help my situation with John? No, of course not. But, to be blunt, he’s dead so it does not matter. What matters is what is, not what could be or what was. No matter how many opportunities are lost due to inaction, what matters is getting off your ass and grabbing the next, not wailing over spilled milk.

Something is better than nothing
I may not have been able to meet up with John physically – he may not have been able or willing to respond, or maybe our signals would have crossed. At the very least, however, he would have known that I was thinking about him and cared about him. That may not have been much but it would have been better than nothing. It would have been some positive change, which is better than stasis. Better than nothing.

Sometimes, shit just happens
John died of a brain aneurysm. This of one of these shitty things that will get you regardless of how great your diet is, how much exercise you are getting, or how much stress you have managed to eliminate from your life. It is one of those colossally bad luck event that probably would not have been survivable if he had been in a hospital. As it was, it apparently happened while he was sleeping. So, one minute, he was there – the next, gone. It sucks. And it’s random. Sometimes, life is like that. Railing against it won’t do anything. Blaming fate or chance or God or Vishnu won’t do anything. Sometimes you just have to say, “that sucks”, and keep going. And it sucks.

So, there it is. John is gone. I am sorry that I will never get to tell him how much I enjoyed playing games with him, or how much I enjoyed his quirks and sense of humour. I am sorry that I will never get to tell him how much I missed doing things with him. But he is gone. So I have to draw what lessons I can, if any, and ensure that I remember this feeling next time I think about putting off talking to someone because it’s uncomfortable or unpleasant. There may not be a next time and that’s OK – I need to focus on this time, and the next time, and the time after that … I need to keep going and remember him for what he was. Take care, all of you, and please go talk to that person that you should have but just have not. Do it now, even if it’s a voice-mail or an email. Just do it.
Image courtesy of anemoneprojectors / flickr.com

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