I was getting dinner started and I happened to notice an email coming in on my phone. I glanced over to see a few words of the sender and subject show up momentarily. The sender was not a name I was familiar with and the subject line was “very sad news”. Unusual. And because I was intrigued and needed an excuse to procrastinate with the cooking, I flicked open the email…
It was not at all what I expected. At first I didn’t know if I should be reading it. It was from the head of a faculty at uni, someone very senior who I didn’t even know existed. The news was more than sad, it was shocking. Apparently a student had died; someone in my class. I felt like pinching myself – was this even real?
I read the email over three or four times, trying to work out whether this really was what I thought, whether I really should be reading it. I stared at the name of the student. Was it? I stood in the kitchen, half chopped veggies, water boiling away, just staring for a moment, shaking my head.
I’ve found it hard to fit in with the group of students in this class. I don’t know most of them by name and probably wouldn’t even recognise all of them by sight, even though we’ve been in the same class every week for two months now. It’s a big class, at least 20 students, which is unusual for a graduate class, and seminars are conducted in a very large room making it somewhat impersonal. We are all from different departments within the larger faculty, and I’m the only one from the Italian department so this is the only class I have with these people. I think I may also be the only international student. Anyway, it’s hard to remember everyone and my natural introversion takes me over and I don’t talk much, so I don’t really get to know people. But as in any group of people, there are some that stand out. I think different people stand out depending on the group as a whole, and there may be people that I notice that others won’t. Off the top of my head I can think of only a few people in this class that stand out. I don’t even know all their names but they stand out for various reasons – I’ve sat next to them and chatted briefly, or they talk a lot in class, have an interesting accent, an interesting face or look… Out of those who stand out to me in this class, there is one who stands out just slightly more. I’m not sure of her name but I’m pretty sure this is the student that this email is referring to.
She stood out, not just because she had a slightly interesting look about her and spoke fairly often in class; she stood out for her brilliance, her intelligence. From the very beginning I was in awe of her quick wit. She was so bright, so well-read, so prolific! One of those people who just bowls you over and you know immediately upon meeting her that, yes, she is going places. She would be writing brilliant things, publishing books that future students in this course would be studying.
I actually envied her. I wished I had her ability to read and absorb. I remember once when our class broken up into smaller discussion groups and she bounced in and everyone was sitting there looking at their phones and laptops in awkward silence. She smiled and started rabbiting on about the reading we’d been assigned that week, even before the professor arrived. Not only had she clearly read it, she’d really taken it on board, and it appeared she was already familiar with that particular work. I tried to pretend I’d read it too (I’d skimmed it on the way into class on the train), so motivated by her energy, so in awe of her intelligence. She was a little nerdy, a little quirky, and super bright.
When I managed to pull myself out of my shock, I cooked the dinner, which was now late, and once I was lying down with Thumper getting her off to sleep, I re-read the email. I still wasn’t sure if this student was actually her, this bright light that had impressed me from the get-go. I googled her. Facebook profile. Somewhat private, but profile pics available to flick through. I stared. It was definitely her. Only one post on her page was public, a query to a tattoo artist about a certain style. I googled the name of the style. Beautiful. I wondered if she ever got that tattoo. Now it would be wasted.
I didn’t know this person at all really. I’d talked to her maybe two or three times in total, said hi, smiled in her direction, noticed her, listened to her give insightful commentary during class. It dawned on me that, although nothing had been stated explicitly, she had taken her own life. I thought back to the last class and my stomach turned at the memory of her. She was not herself that day. Again, I didn’t know her, but thinking back to that last class I should have known something was up. She didn’t talk. It just so happened I’d been put in a small group for a discussion on that day and we all had to briefly discuss our assignments. I remember now that she wasn’t really participating, looking down or away throughout, and when it came time for her to talk about her assignment she was brief and unenthusiastic. Of course I didn’t think about it at the time, although I may have wondered briefly why she wasn’t saying much, but looking back it’s clear she was in a bad place on that day.
After getting over the initial shock, I began to think about perception and success. I was reminded, yet again, never to judge anyone as you never know what’s going on for them behind the scenes. Never put anyone on a pedestal either, as we all have our weaknesses and hero worship equals undue pressure. She seemed so full of inspiration, brimming with knowledge and enthusiasm, yet she was fragile and I had no idea. All this got me thinking then about gratitude. I am so incredibly grateful that, while I may not be super brilliant or write any groundbreaking theses or contribute to the intellectual world in my life, I have what I need to keep me going in life. I love all this study, learning, but ultimately my people are what matters most, and I have three of them closest to me that mean everything. I can study forever, become an intellectual, write something worth publishing even, but none of this is important in comparison to spending time with those I love, my husband and kids. It’s trite, I hear you say… sure, whatever, but it’s what’s most important. I feel for those left behind by this shining light of a human and I hope anyone suffering from depression or any kind of mental illness can find love and support enough to get control over that and know that those closest are what’s important. I wish I knew this in my 20s when I was most emotionally volatile but I am grateful I made it out of that time to now where I have all that I need and recognise it. I won’t forget this woman; and I won’t forget the realisations I came to as a result of her death. It may not be of great importance for anyone but me and my family, but that’s enough.