For Will: Some Reflections on Sorrow

21 April 2017, 1044 EDT

The following is a guest post by Jana von Stein, Senior Lecturer of Political Science and International Relations at Victoria University of Wellington.  

Will Moore’s suicide carries with it a special sorrow that I can’t yet even wrap my head (or heart) around. I met Will when I was on the job market in 2005, but it wasn’t until 2008 that we became close. My comradery with him did not revolve chiefly around academics, although he was a tremendous mentor to me. Instead, it revolved around tragedy.

“Somewhere, my son’s brain is in a jar in a medical researcher’s office,” Will bellowed to a group of us at the 2008 Peace Science conference.

What a strange thing to announce in public, I thought. I needed to know more. I shared with him that I was 5 months pregnant, and that the baby had been diagnosed with very complex heart defects. The neonatologists were optimistic, and I wanted to believe them, but I knew it was possible that my firstborn, like his, would die far too young.

Will was in touch a lot during our epic battle to save my daughter Sophie, but for the life of me I can’t recall what he said. I can hardly remember what anybody said. But I vividly recall his first message to me after she died on that cold February morning.

DO NOT drive. I won’t go into detail why, but do not drive.”

I’m not sure what was so awful about driving, but I attempted to heed his advice. Poorly. Anyhow, I think that may simply have been Will’s way of saying “I’m here. How can I help?”

Will and I talked a lot during those dark first several months, mostly about how numb I felt. He had felt that way too – it was the body’s way of protecting itself amidst the abyss. And then I stopped being numb, and it was bad. Very bad. Will was one of the very few people I could connect with, always via Facebook messenger. We developed a kinship around our tragic commonality. He shared a photo of himself – apparently also posted on his webpage – taken minutes after they had removed Kris from life support. Posting such things on a website was taboo, but to me this was like water in an oasis. Someone else had survived ‘pulling the plug.’ Someone else was willing to speak about the unspeakable. I felt a lot less lonely because Will helped counsel me through that horrific period. I hope he knew that.

Will and I were connected by our shared tragedies, but we also had at least two other things in common. One was an ability to flout social norms and simply call a spade a spade. For me, that was a result of my life experience with Sophie. I simply did not give a shit about social graces anymore. I presumed the same was true for Will. I later learned, as many of us have, that Will was different: it wasn’t so much that he chose to flout norms; it was that he was tone deaf to those norms in the first place. Whatever the cause, I wish Will had known how wonderful this trait of his was. To me, his inability to fit in was inspiring. To him, it was an albatross.

Second, and maybe relatedly, I felt a huge kinship with Will on human rights perspectives. I’m not talking about the easy ones, like “Is genocide OK?” I’m talking about the hard ones – “Should Holocaust deniers be allowed to speak at universities?” “If FGM isn’t ok, why is circumcision?” Will’s deep commitment to Voltaire’s principles fit squarely within my worldview. I think we both took pleasure in watching politically correct academics squirm when their own intolerance was brought to light.

My last non-work-related interaction with Will was in May 2015. As is my habit, I contacted him a few days before the anniversary of Kris’s death to send him my support. He replied:

“I mostly smile when I think of Kris. Sometimes anger, sometimes grief, sometimes sadness, sometimes a sense of failure, but mostly smiles… I think that’s largely the case for Kath as well. But everyone’s journey is her own, there is no wrong way to grieve or remember.” Will seemed to be at peace.

“The language we are using is loss of humanity,” Will wrote to me in July 2014, three years after my Sophie died. “That is exactly how it felt to me. At some level, I will never get all of it back. But I got much of it back.” Kath, I hope you know how much respect and friendship Will still felt toward you. That came across time and again. Kevi and Chelsea, I hope you know how deeply he loved you. He was so tremendously proud of you. And I am so devastated that you will not have him around as you walk through life.

I’ve been looking through my messages with Will, trying to piece things together. There are words like ‘hug’ and ‘empathize’ and ‘understand’ throughout. This is not the language of a person struggling to connect with humanity. To me, there was an immense chasm between what Will expressed in writing and what he experienced in person. Because I currently live on the other side of the world, and saw Will so rarely, his ‘in writing’ persona was the one I knew. But this disjuncture in his life must have been awful.

Will, I cannot tell you how devastated I am to lose you. You were living proof to me that it was possible to survive such loss – and succeed. And now … you’re not. I do not begrudge you peace, but I cannot help but feel that the universe has a hole in it without you. I hope you have found the peace the living world did not bring you.