I received some devastating news a week ago today, so this post will be in contrast to my usual light-hearted musings. My lovely and amazing boss of nearly two years, tragically committed suicide on the evening of Sunday 17th November and I have been going through a maelstrom of emotions ever since. I decided that writing about my grief would help me, although I suspect it will be a tediously long and incoherent ramble to anyone else – sorry.
This is a letter to him, one which I know he will never read but which I needed to write anyway…
They say that there are 5 stages to grief and in the seven days I have been through them all bar “acceptance”. I think that will be a long time coming. The others are on a continuous loop at present, on rewind and playback.
The first stage is “denial” and predictably enough when M took me into her office on Monday afternoon to break the news to me, I shook my head and cried “No – it can’t be true! It can’t be!” I did not believe that you would ever do that. I did not believe that you would ever let the stresses of the job and the organisation overwhelm you so much – not you, who always shone perspective onto any issues we had with a calm “It’s just a job, it’s not Syria, it’s not that terrible at the end of the day”. I did not believe that you would ever desert your family, that you would not want to stay to see your children grown and safely independent in the world. I did not believe that you were so unhappy, that your despair was so absolute, you felt death was the only option.
If you had died in an accident or had a sudden heart attack, my grief would still be profound, but somehow easier to accept and come to terms with. Even now, a week on from being told, I find it hard to believe. Last night I dreamt that I found you in a meeting room at work. I hugged you joyously and told you that I had known all along that it couldn’t be true, that we could sort this out and things weren’t so bad. You just looked at me and said “I’m sorry” and I don’t remember anymore, but I awoke in tears. Again. Mornings are not good.
The next stage is “anger” and boy, have I been furious, both with the organisation you worked for most of your adult life and with you yourself. I have railed at the ruthless indifference of our workplace, the incomprehensible lack of support for good people trying to do their best under difficult circumstances. The culture whose values seem to be on a divergent path to those I know you held dear. The brown-nosed schmoozing of those who only manage upwards and the wilful ignorance shown to anyone whose integrity is greater than their ambition. I have never been a violent person but there were times this week when I would have welcomed the opportunity to punch our glorious leader quite firmly on the nose.
And I have been angry with you Simon. I have wanted to shake you and ask how you could be so stupid, so selfish, so proud and so blind that you could not see how much pain you would cause by committing such an act. How could you desert your wife and children? How could you possibly think that they would be better off without you? Did you not consider the impact this would have on their lives? On the lives of all those you left behind? The one thing we are definitely NOT, is better off without you.
Admitting to being stressed and reaching out for help is not a shameful thing to do. You would not have let anyone down. How did your self-esteem and confidence sink so low that you could not see how much you were admired and respected by everyone who worked with you and had the pleasure of knowing you? How could someone with your intelligence and commitment to do the right thing, the right way, take their own life?
But my anger, with you at least, is gradually dissipating and being replaced instead with a profound sadness. I keep coming back to the mental pain and anguish you must have suffered, to reach the decision you did. You were a thoughtful, kind and decent man and you must have been in torment. That breaks my heart.
“Bargaining” is the third stage but for me it is inextricably bound with “guilt”. I knew you were stressed and had been for a while. Your whole team recognised it and we each did what we could to try to relieve the pressure, volunteering to pick up additional responsibilities and working longer hours to try to achieve tight delivery timescales. But no-one knew the true extent of your unhappiness and distress. We have all, every one of us, looked at our own recent actions and behaviour and wished we could turn the clock back, to do and say different things. We are full of “if only’s”. I know that feelings of guilt are a normal part of the grieving process, but my regrets seem almost countless.
I regret… not being more assertive about managing the plan, as you had urged me to be. When you were unhappy about it not being robust enough and I emailed you to say how bad I felt for letting you down, you wrote back and told me that there was no need to apologise, that we were under-resourced. Although that helped me at the time, I feel terrible now. I should have pushed harder and prioritised this above other activities. You trusted me to do something important and I failed.
I regret… not taking more time to talk to you last week when I recognised your stress. I wish I had taken you aside and said “Stop. Calm down. It’s not your fault and we can get things back on track, together with the help of the great team of people you have around you.” In fact, I did say those things in a long email I wrote to you from home that same Sunday night. Another letter you will never read, one intended to be a supportive and caring message. I wrote to tell you not to be so hard on yourself, to have more confidence in your abilities and to reassure you that you were one of the best managers I have ever worked for. I regret… that I did not write and send it sooner.
I regret… not telling you that I was worried about you and not giving you the big, squeezy hug my instincts told me you needed. Not much practical help I admit, but in times of distress, physical human contact can be immensely comforting. But you were always a very introverted, shy and private person and your body language shouted “keep your distance”. I wish I had ignored that and hugged you anyway, to let you know that I recognised your unhappiness and was there to support you.
Of course, even if the collective “if only’s” of your team had somehow been achieved through some miracle of time travel, it may have made no difference to your ultimate decision. We will probably never know what the final straw was, what tiny, insubstantial piece of golden chaff landed on your shoulders and made the burden simply unbearable. Or whether there was ever any chance of gently blowing it away, so that it settled elsewhere and kept you safe, kept you with us.
And so to “depression” which is the final stage before “acceptance”. And I guess this is where my sadness comes in – I am, quite simply, heartbroken. I have wept more tears than I thought possible this past week. It is hard to concentrate on anything more than the simplest tasks and I am emotionally drained and exhausted. I am not alone – you have left a gaping hole in the team. Our grief is immense and I have seen more grown men cry in the last few days than I have in my entire life. Such is the esteem in which you were held. I know that you would be upset at the pain you have caused us, but proud of the way we are pulling together to support each other. You collected a good bunch of people around you and I do know that you recognised that.
Of course our grief is utterly irrelevant compared to what your family must be going through and my heart aches even more when I think of them. I wish them strength, courage and love to carry on without you, though they neither know nor care that I exist, and nor should they.
I keep asking myself if you would have gone through with it if you had realised how much people truly cared about you and for you? I think that perhaps you would, that perhaps you could not help yourself because you were ill and needed expert intervention. All week people have told me that no amount of well-intentioned support from us would have stopped you, because once someone is in that frame of mind, reason and logic go out of the window. My fear is that this is a form of denial, to help us cope with our, and here we go again on the emotional rollercoaster, guilt that we did not do more. A way of making us feel less culpable. I want to believe that you could have been saved, that your death was not inevitable and that we could have protected you…if we had only known how profoundly distressed you were and how much you needed help (bargaining again). The small consolation that comes from being told “it’s not your fault, there was nothing you could have done” may assuage guilt but instead it replaces it with more sadness and a bitterness that there was no hope for you. I find that just as hard to accept.
It may seem strange to an outside observer that I am so distraught by your death. I feel guilty and worry that it is self-indulgent when we were not family-related. We did not even socialise outside of work unless as part of a team event. You always kept your work and home life distinctly separate and I never dared to offer my friendship beyond the office, at least not while we were still working together on the same project. I often said you were a tough nut to crack, but after nearly two years of working closely with and for you, I truly believed we had developed a mutual trust and a bond. I gleaned that we had similar values in life and similar frustrations with the ways of the world, although I never told you so. I learned, at one team social event, that you liked both reading and writing and that you had read Thomas Hardy and John Steinbeck whilst studying in Germany. I was thrilled – I loved both of those writers and wanted to talk to you about literature and to compare favourite novels. Sadly I didn’t interject at the time and somehow the opportunity to discuss this disappeared, never to arise again. Nor did I ever tell you about my own love of writing. I thought about sending you a link to my blog several times, but always chickened out at the last minute as I was afraid you would not like it and my ego was too fragile to cope with your possible indifference or disdain – I always wanted your approval.
If I admired and respected you as a manager, I also came to see you as a potential friend, someone I wanted to know better. I loved your calm, reasoned approach, your incredible intellect, your humanity and kindness. You were principled and had a quiet, understated, but razor-sharp, wit and sense of humour. Your smiles were rare and all the more precious to those you bestowed them upon. Thoughtful and considerate, you were a sensitive soul, perhaps too much so…
And so now, a week on from first hearing the news, I still look in disbelief at your empty chair, I still rage, I still wish I could turn back time, I still weep for you. But I am slowly, slowly coming to accept your death and to cope with my grief. I am proud and privileged to have worked for you and grateful for the too short time we spent together. I am a better person for having known you and I will always treasure your memory, Simon, my friend that never was.
I do not believe in heaven or hell or any sort of supernatural afterlife and I suspect, knowing him as I did, as a man of science and logic, that Simon didn’t either, although I confess I do not know for sure. Please do not write with any well intentioned, but to me, trite and offensive, platitudes about him being “in a better place”, or being “chosen to be with God”. I am too tired to explain all of the reasons why that would annoy me, just here and now. He is gone and I am slowly coming to terms with that. I will not meet him again in years to come, but I will think of him, often and with fondness.
Simon’s family have asked for donations to the mental health charity, MIND in his memory. If you are feeling generous then please do make a contribution. Or if you are suffering from depression, stress or any other mental health issues yourself and need help, then please, please do reach out to them.
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What a terrible thing to have happened and what a heartfelt ‘letter’ to your friend and colleague.
I’m struggling to remember what they taught us all those years ago at Manchester, but all that seems relevant now is that it’s horribly common and quite often done almost on impulse.
Remember it’s very easy to make perfect decisions with hindsight, and people can be very clever at putting a good face on things. In other words try not to feel any blame for what has happened – easier said than done of course.
If nothing else, Simon’s death has reminded me that there are 101 really good causes to die for, but work is never one of them.
Thanks Roger. It has been a rough time for the whole team at work. The grief is less raw than it was and I can at least talk about Simon now without crying. Have been thinking of his family this Christmas and how tough it will be for them in the coming months when everyone else starts to get back to normal.