Niki and Yusuke

I feel like I have a special relationship with grief.

No one truly close to me has died. I have not yet lost parents, or siblings, or beloved teachers, or close friends. I’ve lost two grandparents, both people with a yawning gap of language, culture, and temperament that kept me from getting close to them, whom I don’t miss because there was nothing to miss. I haven’t felt that deep, wrenching loss that feels like a piece of oneself tearing free and vanishing into the cold. I haven’t felt the damp, empty silence that follows.

But I have felt absence. I have eaten alone when I didn’t want to, because most of my friendships were at a distance and the rest were illusory. I have dwelt in the dim, stark, hideous isolation of having loved ones who couldn’t understand what I was dealing with because I didn’t have words for it, and never getting what I needed or wanted from them because I couldn’t ask for it. I have dealt with moving long distances, unaware and then acutely aware of how little of that social network could or would follow me each time. I have been estranged, cut off from things and people and places and smells and sunshine that mattered to me, not knowing when or even if I’d ever feel them again, feeling like I wasn’t myself without them. I have been lonely, reaching out for hands that weren’t there and support that never came.

I have faced the repeated, shouted, serially reinforced threat of exile, never quite coming to terms with never seeing any of it, any of them, again because the certainty never comes.

I like to think I understand grief because I have been bracing for it, in so many forms, for decades. It feels near, warm, familiar, in ways I don’t understand and might not ever adequately explain. In some cruel way, I am always waiting, keeping well provisioned the version of me who has to do without, because eventually, she will.

Kumai Yusuke was 29. He had over 20 academic papers to his name before his first postdoctoral fellowship was through, 17 of which he published as a Ph.D. student. I published three during mine. I didn’t know him well. Yusuke and I would see each other in hallways and seminar audiences, and had a few beers while sitting next to each other at pubs and parties, but never got close. My most common interactions with him were when I locked myself out of the lab after 9 PM and he was the only person who worked as late as I did and thus was around to lend me his keys. He sailed through his doctoral defense and secured a prestigious postdoctoral position in France. He was found dead after an apparent hiking accident during a vacation on the Isle of Skye in 2015.

Photo of Kumai Yusuke smiling.

Niki Massey was 35. She was an accomplished author, helping her household make ends meet with a large portfolio of erotica. She was an abortion clinic escort, protecting patients from the gantlet of abuse-shrieking protesters lining paths and accosting cars. She was an activist of the feet-on-the-ground sort that many of us will not or cannot be. She was a devoted and talented cosplayer, putting enormous effort into her hand-made costumes and enjoying the well-earned gasps of delight thereafter. She was a blogger I followed closely: informative, bitingly sarcastic, more willing to delve into the most iniquitous of Internet dens for fame and glory than I am likely to ever be, and the subject of many self-made memes. She was a fixture at Skepticon, and through that, a personal presence in the lives of many people who have enriched mine. She and I rarely spoke directly to one another, but the distant, quiet friendship was there nevertheless. She was found dead in her home a few days ago.

A photo of Niki Massey.

I regret being as standoffish with Yusuke as I was. We never bonded over science, because his research was several doors away and did not intersect with mine. But we might have been able to bond over being people of color in the still-very-white institution of Canadian science, subject to a variety of obnoxious microaggressions neither of us likely felt safe addressing. What did he endure in place of jokes about extra passports and cocaine deals? We were both disabled, too, though his near-blindness (necessitating very distinctive bifocals) is hard to compare to my autism, TMD, and ongoing undiagnosed intestinal complaint. Niki, too, existed at a dense intersection—black, fat, disabled, atheist, and asexual—that few others could match, and brought unique insights to each issue via the others.

Yusuke has been gone for over a year. His birthday recently passed, and I shared a quick memorial. Someone with his surname thanked me for keeping his memory alive. Niki’s passing is still too recent for anything like that, but if her profile is still there to remind me in a year, I will do the same for her, because I know what it means to the people who are still here.

Grief is something we can all share. It might be the one emotion that’s as loud for others as it is for me, given to big, cathartic displays and rituals. Few will ever properly understand the full expanse of my joy or delight or sadness or fear, but there are entire industries for the dim plains of my grief. Those who would hold against me the tears I shed in sentimental films or when I meet someone whose pain truly mirrors mine shed even more than I do when they know someone they loved will no longer need a place at the holiday table. Grief is common, grief is communal, grief is big and social and cuts directly to our deepest fear: that we might, in the vastness of our nightmares, someday be alone.

I have been bracing for grief for longer than I have anticipated joy or quivered in fear.

But all the bracing in the world does nothing for me when grief arrives. I have no shield or antidote for weeping throngs, no barrier I can place around my heart to keep their sadness from seizing and revealing mine. I feel everything loudly, and their wounds become mine, and the thanks I receive for little gestures like my birthday message for Yusuke remind me that, in this, we are united. In grief, I am not the incomprehensible weirdo whose emotions elude the people who raised her. In grief, we are not strangers.

In grief, we are small creatures railing against permanence, remembering what was and making promises to what will be, staring into the lonely vastness and dreading our turn, but we are small together.

Niki. Yusuke. You left us too soon. We are smaller for your absence.

We will remember you.

Niki and Yusuke