Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Band Played On

A postdoctoral associate that was part a University group that carried out research at the laboratory where I work had a heart attack and died at the end of last week. He was 40 years old with a wife and child. Just a few days before his death I attended our usual weekly group meeting and he sat in his accustomed chair just a few feet behind me. Over the past few months we had engaged in an email exchange regarding some details of a project that he was working on. His father also happens to be a colleague of mine, working in my group. Father and son could often be seen working together sitting side by side at the computer terminal in the father's office.

At our most recent staff meeting on Monday, our group leader began by announcing the death. There was a bit of a pall over the room. A respectful hush as the available details were shared. ... Contributions would be collected for some flowers. ... A viewing and funeral would be scheduled for later in the week. ... We would receive email once everything was scheduled. The air and attitude in the room at that moment felt much as you might have expected. Yet 30 minutes later, everyone was back to their usual joking and talkative ways. The news was received, processed in short order, and everyone's life seemed to go forward as usual.

Yet two chairs in that meeting room normally occupied were empty. One will remain so from this point forward. I thought about the shock and helplessness felt by the grieving family and it tore at me. Their deepest pains and sadness overflowing without check. Later in the morning I learned that the dead man's wife was visiting in Russia. Due to visa issues she would not be able to return to the United States for some weeks. I can only imagine how utterly alone and helpless she must feel. It must be absolute torture. Yet for everyone else, the band played on.