Death again

I found out today that one of my department's undergraduates died earlier this week.  We don't know what happened, but it seems like she might have been doing something that was probably fun at the time, but part of why it was fun was it was dangerous, and some proportion of people who do dangerous things get hurt.

I cried when I told Will about it (he'd been out of his office when I read the email), but as they say life goes on and I didn't really do very much differently today than I would have anyway.  Maybe I worked a little less long.  But I was more aware of doing the routine.  It reminded me of the time one of my former coworkers phoned me to tell me several other of our former coworkers had been in private a plane crash: two were dead and the one I knew best also ultimately died, but at the time was badly burned.  The company was very worried about its reputation and clients so I was forbidden to tell anyone else.  Then after telling me this the woman who phoned asked me if I could come back to work for the company that summer (it was Spring of the first year of my PhD, and typically there summers are not paid for.)  She said to me "well, life goes on and we needed to phone you anyway about this" and then asked.

Although I wasn't supposed to tell anyone, I knew that my friend in the hospital had been close with a member of faculty at MIT when they were at Harvard together, and when you get down to it I needed to talk to someone about it.  Ultimately this member of faculty would be my PhD supervisor, but she wasn't then, she was just someone on my former research project.  I'm not sure I really planned it, I just saw her at a seminar and I said "I have to talk to you in private" and she said "can you tell me what it's about?" and I said "no" and she told me a time in the afternoon when she had 15 minutes available.  So at that time I went to her office and I told her, and we hugged each other and cried for about 2 minutes, then we stopped and started dissecting the details of what I'd been told about the accident for about 10 minutes, and then she said she too had to tell someone who really needed to know (another college friend) and her slot was over and that was it.

As I said some proportion of people who do dangerous things get hurt.  My friend who ultimately died loved flying (he was a pilot, he was co-piloting when they crashed.)  He had often told me about mishaps and amazing near misses he'd survived, and to be honest the first thing I thought when I heard he died was "so probability works."  Today on my way back from work I thought  as I often do about how dangerous it is to be in traffic with cars (I bicycle in Mannheim, and to be honest it is about the safest place I've ever biked; cars, bikes & pedestrians all go slowly; it's the South) but how we don't stop just because of that.

I wished today that Will had also cried when I told him, but he couldn't understand what was wrong at first and then just wasn't as moved by it as me.  But it's weird how you need some company and sympathy at least for a while.  You know there's nothing you can do.

I think I was mostly thinking about my students' friends.  As I said I don't know anything, I'm not even in Bath, but I imagine that there could well have been friends there who saw it all happen.  That happened to a girl when I was an undergraduate, or perhaps it happened to a boy.  They were at a party and he was talking to her because he liked her, and she tried to sit on a window sill but fell out of it instead.  It wasn't a long fall but she hit her head and it was immediately fatal.  I didn't know either of them well and I wasn't at the party, but I've always felt huge empathy for the boy who liked her standing there, seeing her go, not being able to help.

And now I don't just have empathy, I have insomnia.  It's a warm night in Mannheim and I've woken up probably because the windows are open.  I don't have any profound insight; life is well known to be a fatal condition.  Tomorrow I have quite a lot of work to do, and to be honest it will probably be easier to focus because it's for the benefit of her classmates. I need to do some marking for them.