Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Grieving the Only Way I Know How

I have been rather fortunate that tragedy, at least in the form of death, has not been a major force in my life. Of course, I have known people who have died, including those who did so much too young. My father died in 2005 when I was only 26, but his death came at the end of a very long journey with Alzheimer’s, so I had long made peace with him not being a part of my life—and although it may be uncouth to admit, his death was something of a relief.

On Friday, September 3, my good friend Will Dunlop killed himself. At the time of this writing, I have known this for four days, and I still cannot make any sense of it. To me, Will was among the happiest, most fun-loving people that I know. Everyone who knew him would agree.

We met in 2011 at a conference in a seedy Daytona Beach hotel. He was a graduate student at the time, and was told by Kate McLean (who was on his dissertation committee) to go to the conference to talk to me about identity, narrative, and culture. My first memory of Will is of him sitting on the floor of the lobby next to a dusty fake tree, in small shorts, tank top, and bare feet, working on his laptop (an image that I would come to know as quintessentially Will). As I walked by, he called out, “Hey, are you Moin? Kate sent me here to talk to you.” We went on to have deep conversations and many laughs, not only that day, but ever since.

I have many wonderful memories of Will, but those are for another time and audience. What I set out to write about here is how we deal with this kind of life. What do I do with my incredible sadness and confusion? How I am supposed to handle seeing people on the street who look like what Will might look in 20 years? How am I supposed to continue going about my life when so much of it is wrapped up with Will’s? Three days after his death, I was invited to review one of his papers for a journal. My most looming deadline is to write a paper that he specifically asked me to write after I visited his class last fall, to be included in a special issue on “the good life” that he is co-editing. How can I possibly write about “the good life” when his has ended? Compartmentalizing my personal and professional lives in order to “move on” is simply not an option.

The standard response in American culture for how to handle this kind of thing is to “talk to someone about it.” In the last few days, I have received numerous emails and texts with offers to “talk.” Of course I appreciate these offers in the abstract and know they come from a warm and thoughtful place, and I know that I am supposed to talk to people. But I don’t want to talk. I don’t personally find that to be helpful, especially in a large group setting. Some find comfort by immediately jumping into action, setting up tributes and the like. That is great and I understand why they want to do so—I imagine it provides feelings of control and utility—but that is not me. I need to sit with my feelings and fully understand them, but most centrally, I need to write. In recent years, I have come to understand my identity not as a psychologist, researcher, or teacher, but as a writer. It is as a writer that I am the most effective communicator of my thoughts and feelings, both personal and professional. Writing is how I understand my thoughts and feelings, it is how I can begin to make peace with that which I cannot comprehend, and for me it works in a way that talking to people simply does not. I talk plenty in my life—too much, some would say—but spoken words do not flow easily when I am sad, and especially not when I am expected to produce sad thoughts. I am a terrible comfort for people in grief for this very reason, as I always feel an unmet demand to soothe with words that I simply cannot find. But the written word comes so naturally. I have spent the last few days writing in my head, as I always do, and now I can sit down and let the words flow right out. I have decided that I need this to be ok, for others, yes, but especially for myself. This is how I manage my grief. Perhaps some of you share these feelings, and if you do, I hope that my writing them out helps you as well.

The day after Will’s death an Instagram post informed me that it is National Suicide Prevention Month. Of course, this made me think even more about what I had already been thinking: what could I have done to prevent this? I know that is a fool’s game, but that does not stop me from playing it. Will’s research focused heavily on how people craft redemptive stories—turning negative life experiences into sources of growth and meaning—and what constitutes “the good life.” Was there something in his life that he was trying to redeem? Did he feel the good life was eluding him? Were there clues in his work? A fool’s game that is nearly impossible to avoid. 

I don’t think I even yet realize how much I will miss my friend. I know that I will never again see his goofy smile, never again get to make fun of him dressing like a Long Beach teenager, never again share texts about absurd observations, and never again meet him at the bar after a day of travel to share some beers and stories. What I do know is that I will continue to write, both about him and for him, and that doing so will slowly repair my broken heart.


  1. I am very sorry for your loss. "a Long Beach teenager" was exactly how I thought of Will the first time I met him (sunny and warm). That was also how I described him to my supervisor who advised me to approach will. I am lucky to have met him in person (even though briefly) and very lucky to have received lots of encouragement from him. I hope he keeps searching in the afterlife or the next life. I am sure he will eventually find what he was/is looking for.

  2. Biggest shock for the month! I accidentally saw your tweet while trying to find info for another professor. My goodness! Will was such a pleasant guy in our email exchanges (I never got to meet him in person). I will always remember him. I am truly sorry (and I am not just saying this emptily). Let us know if we can help in some way.

  3. so sad to here this.