At the U.S. Air Force Academy, the names of each fallen student and graduate are chiseled into a memorial wall. During freshman year, the first time a cadet visited this wall of white names in dark stone, the gravity of their chosen career came into an equally stark relief. With many of their friends in civilian schools opting for a more circuitous route to realizing their own mortality, these cadets—teenagers, most- are forced to empathize with this wall’s faceless-names–men & women who’d gone before them, stood where they’d stood, doubted what they’d doubted, and, because of the nature of their profession, hadn’t gone much further.
As they begin their post-college careers, these same young people reprise this moment of reflection over-and-over, the ebb-and-flow of the world’s violence taking their classmates & slowly consuming the empty space on the Academy’s wall. News of a graduate’s passing travels the alumni network quickly. Often out of respect for the family, the departed might not be immediately named in a mourner’s announcement. This omission brings some anxiety: someone has passed, but who? Did I know her? Was he in my squadron? Any of my classes?
So, in the uncertain space between first word & details, the nascent grief takes the strangely impersonal form of searching the web, emailing, and wondering what’s happened. Eventually, a name is circulated, and each graduate subconsciously calculates their own emotional proximity to the departed—a sort of grief triaging; trying to understand how personal a tragedy this is, how significant.
Often, the name might not belong to someone a graduate knew well. Because of that shared experience, it’ll never sound as distant as a perfect stranger’s, though, or even a casual acquaintance’s. So we ought to grieve, and we each know this, and so we start by cataloging every memory, no matter how insignificant, we have of the deceased, fitting the loss into our own stories by translating this oft-distant, nebulous tragedy into a deeply personal dirge, composing on each string tying us to them.
At first, this process made me uncomfortable. Why am I actively trying to personalize this loss by conjuring up dormant or seemingly unremarkable memories? Is there some objectively ‘correct’ level of grief to feel? Is the grief I do feel only there because I’m reminded of my own mortality, or, in tragedy, are ties of commonality & acquaintance practically interchangeable with those of friendship? Would this person have ever crossed my mind again if this hadn’t happened?
As I’ve grown older, I’ve learned to be a little easier on myself. I shouldn’t feel selfish for grasping at memories of a person I’ve lost simply because they weren’t a close, dear friend. Just as my shared background with this person makes me feel some tie to them, so too does every experience we shared. By remembering, I’m closing whatever gap may have existed between us, and bringing my departed friend into my mourning, making it less about myself. It’s as fitting a tribute as I—as most, can muster; a sort of chiseling of their name into our hearts. And I think that’s supposed to hurt.
I don’t presume to have anything wise to say on loss and frankly, this essay is more a vehicle for catharsis than advice. But I do, like many of my classmates, veteran or otherwise, have a long list of names to remember.
I also don’t know if others ruminate on the same things when faced with loss somewhere between a stranger and a loved one. But for some of the 1800 or so students at our Harvard Business School, the passing of Pedro Meira (MBA, ’16) may be the first time they’re faced with the loss of a classmate.
So what I can tell you is this: there probably isn’t a ‘correct’ way to feel here. If you’re uneasy, figure out why. If you need help, or have no idea what you need, say something & give someone the privilege of helping you.
But if you had any tie to Pedro, no matter how seemingly small, take some time to feel all of it. For me, that act of remembering, that act of translating the person we’ve all lost into the memories we’ll each keep, feels human in a way that few things do.
There’s a small tradition we observe when an Air Force Academy graduate passes. Pedro and I never served together, but he had all the right trappings: the warmth, the wit, and, as he showed us all, the grit.
So, here’s a toast: to Pedro Meira, Dawg of Section D, Harvard Business School MBA Class of 2016.
We’ll carry your name, my friend, and try to do as much good in the world with the memories we’ve made as you’d have done with the beautiful soul that helped make them.