How to Feel When the Good Die Young

I had grand ambitions for this summer. I was going to write the first twenty-five pages of a memoir about our broken culture of casual sex and how we can fix it. In the spring I tore through my childhood bedroom at my mom’s house and dug up the journals I kept during high school. The stack of black Moleskines moved into their new home on my Brooklyn bookshelf, their pages stained and crowded with detailed accounts of that ridiculous crush, this awkward moment in rehearsal, the kiss that defined desire and confidence and intimacy for me at age sixteen. This was going to be the summer I got serious about my writing career and broke ground on the book I’d been put on this earth to write. Weekends would be spent at the beach, weeknights bent around my laptop. It was a beautiful, bone-satisfying decision to make, my goals finally clear.

That is not what happened this summer. My close friend Tahlia died at age thirty-two at the end of July, and my high school friend Ryan died at age twenty-six at the beginning of September. Somehow I managed to make it this far into my life without knowing the acute pain of phone-call chains to make sure everyone knows. I’m disappointed to report that the clichés about death are true: there is no right thing to say, there is no way to block the grief, there is nothing fair about the brutal end of a young life. Sometimes the good die young and we are left to pour over the mistakes we made and the nights we stayed up until 2am at the bar talking shit about Emma Watson and her terrible singing voice.

It feels childish to make the deaths of my friends about me, but death is a deeply personal experience. You realize when you lose someone that the place they occupied in your life is now empty, a gaping corner thrown into high relief. Death throws off your balance. It calls to mind the plans you had together that are now canceled, the beach days, the reunions. The needs they met will have to be delegated to someone else. You can’t bitch to them about work anymore. You can’t go to them with obscure pop culture memes. You can’t learn from them, only from what they left behind.

And of course there’s the jarring question of what the fuck am I doing with my life? Why didn’t I make more of an effort to see them, why didn’t I answer her texts faster, why didn’t I catch up with him when I had the chance, why didn’t I ask them for the backstory behind that outfit, that tattoo, that life decision?

If I were to die today, what would I regret? What wrongs have I committed that I need to right? What have I not said that needs to be said, must be said, because you never know who could be next?

Who am I, really? Who do I love who needs to know it?

Tahlia was thirty-two. She wore loud, clashing patterns and nodded her head so forcefully during conversation that I worried it would someday snap from her tiny body. She liked Twitter and House Hunters and stretching a soft sheet across the grass to bake in the sun. There was always a thick, dog-eared book beside her at the bar when I met her for after-work drinks. She was ravenous for entertainment, niche knowledge and the opportunity to claim a corner of a company to make her own. Tahlia was a good person and a good friend—she was the older sister slash mentor I sorely needed during my twenties. I understand her importance only now that she is gone, the victim of a fatal aneurism that was as sudden as it was unfair. I hear that’s the way it always is with death, that you understand them when you lose them.

The only thing I can compare her death to is if someone picked up the needle from a record in the middle of a song—no scratch, just sudden silence where there used to be a voice and rhythm and the strum of a guitar. You wonder if silence has ever been this loud before.

A few days before Tahlia had her aneurism, I got drinks with some of my teammates. They were worried that our beloved boss might be leaving the company. Her calendar was covered in meetings with Human Resources, and she kept answering phone calls in the middle of the workday. The prospect of Nadia moving on was foreign and frightening: I was her first hire in the summer of 2014, and I’d grown at her side from a bewildered, cocky twenty-two-year-old intern to a jaded, highly skilled twenty-six-year-old strategist. It wasn’t only the idea of losing my manager that unsettled me; it was the threat of a long, important chapter of my life drawing to a close. I couldn’t process the magnitude of what her departure would mean when it was only a dim possibility, and I assured myself that it couldn’t happen. I am not good at anticipating goodbyes, dealing with them only when the person’s absence becomes a reality. I am the guest who sneaks out of the party.

That Saturday I was getting ready to take a shower when I got a Twitter direct message from Meghan, Tahlia’s best friend. She had terrible news. Tahlia had had a stroke and she wasn’t going to make it. The banality of my day, the reality of standing naked as the window AC unit in my bedroom wheezed, the message staring at me from my laptop, it all mashed together into a white noise roar. Surreal. Death was too complex a reality to register.

Meghan asked me to call her and I guess I did, I can’t remember. I do remember putting on a black maxi-dress and pacing around my apartment barefoot. I called our mutual friends and her former colleagues from TED. I texted my boyfriend that I’d be late, that Tahlia was dying. I kneeled on the wood floor as animal sobs creaked from my lungs and throat, my body devastated by the news my brain couldn’t quite grasp. There was sand in my tote bag from our trip to the beach last weekend. This time last week we were plotting my next promotion surrounded by half-naked Russians working on their tans. Tahlia was about to dye her hair. Tahlia wasn’t going to last the weekend. They were likely taking her off life support tomorrow.

Sunday night as I waited to hear from her family about her passing, I got a text from my teammate that Nadia had added one-on-one meetings with all of us first thing tomorrow morning. My overloaded brain was checked out. Whatever would be would be. Whatever she told us, we’d figure it out. I couldn’t feel the feelings about Nadia that I knew were hiding somewhere in my brain. I looked in the mirror and thought, well, fuck. I wanted to text Tahlia to gossip about it. Tahlia was in a coma.

I was the first person Nadia met with on Monday morning. Because I wasn’t surprised (wasn’t feeling anything, really), our conversation only took twelve minutes. I asked what her leaving the company meant for me, what I could do to offer stability to the rest of the team, where she was going. I was abstractly excited for what this would mean for my career, for the gap she was opening up for me to rise into. What I’d always considered an apocalyptic possibility now felt like the natural progression of events. This is how things were going to be now. The only choice I had was to jump.

After our meeting I found an empty hallway, sat down on the cold floor and huffed a few sobs, my body again reacting to something my brain couldn’t process. I felt that natural impulse to tell Tahlia what had happened. I’d never realized before that she was my go-to person for all things career-related, a connection underlined by the fact that she used to work at TED and knew all the key players. She would understand how wild and disruptive and exciting this was. She would understand my unique balance of devastated and scared and intrigued. She knew the cognitive excitement and emotional pain of unique losses like this. She would get it. But she was… well, was she dead? Was Tahlia dead yet?

I didn’t know how to ask Megan if our friend was dead yet. That’s not an easy text message to craft. I wrote something asking if she’d been removed from the respirator, if there was any news. Megan replied that she’d passed away late last night, probably around the same time my teammates were dissecting Nadia’s calendar.

I thought of Tahlia telling me on Saturday as we floated among the waves at Brighton Beach that I was ready to step up. When I told her that I wanted to ask for a Deputy Director title at the end of the year, she drawled that I could leave TED any time I wanted to and run a social team somewhere else. Right now she would tell me to be kind to myself, and she would tell me I could handle this, whatever this promotion turned into. She would tell me to go home and honor my grief over her death, submit to its overpowering gravity and lean into the pain, and she would tell me to stay here and throw myself into this professional opportunity. It was the first time I couldn’t ask her which was which.

That Tahlia’s death and my promotion have become woven together is an unfortunate and bizarre accident, not some symbolic clash of fate, but the timing still feels important. I feel like an adult in a way I haven’t before. I do not have the fear of responsibility and expectation that I had on the other side of this summer. There is only so much you can control. You walk forward. You tell people you love them. You apologize. You do the best you can. It is such natural, circle-of-life trauma that I have to remind myself that this is hard, and that it’s okay to be tired and sad and confused and resentful.

After a particularly frustrating week of work, I broke the emergency glass and texted Nadia for advice. We met for a drink: I vented and she listened and I confided fear and she built me back up again the way she always had. When I finally admitted that Tahlia’s death was catching up to me, that this promotion and my grief were caught up in each other so that one fed into the other, I began to cry. I explained I’d only now realized that Tahlia was my go-to friend to talk about work, she was my work person. I’ve never needed and missed her more.

Nadia said something beautifully simple in response: now that she’s not my boss, she can be my work friend instead.

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If Tahlia’s death makes me feel old, Ryan’s death makes me feel young. Death has a way of casting a rosy fog across the stories we tell about each other, but I have no desire to romanticize my friendship with Ryan. It would be an insult to his memory — he was, if anything, hilariously blunt. He had a knack for concocting precise, cutting observations delivered in perfect deadpan. As a teenager I was an uptight snob, the fun-killer of our theater department concerned with order and getting rehearsals started on time. Ryan was the chaotic good of every cast, throwing out the rules if they didn’t suit the fun, collaborative atmosphere that a bunch of teenagers putting on a play actually needed. We needled each other constantly and I was never entirely sure how much Ryan respected me. I was, of course, in awe of him. At age seventeen, nothing was more urgent to me than making Ryan laugh.

By senior year I’d lightened up somewhat, or at least been worn down enough by the antics of my class to join in the misbehavior. I have trouble remembering exactly how Ryan and I became friends after years as clashing acquaintances. In my journal from that year, I wrote at length about his acting talent: Ryan was finally given a break from being typecast as the clown and threw himself into a challenging role in Twelve Angry Men. When I wrote a cynical, funny ten-minute play about two exes drawn back together on New Years Eve, Ryan gave me precise, helpful feedback about strengthening its dialogue and humor. Once during rehearsal he curled up next to me on the floor of the Black Box Theater and fell asleep with his head in my lap—I have no memory of this, but I spent a long paragraph in my journal dissecting what a casual display of trust it was. When all social order broke down around graduation, we made out a few times in my car. It wasn’t romantic, but it was fun. Ryan taught me how to have fun.

I have this photo of Ryan that I love. He and Austin are whacking each other with pool noodles, foam weapons in one hand and beers in the other. The exposure is off and Ryan is wearing his green Improv Troupe shirt, his feet disappearing into the grass. I’ve never missed high school but I covet this memory and that tipsy, teenage realization that I am exactly where I want to be alongside people I’m grateful to know.

The last time I spoke to Ryan was over Facebook Messenger in 2015 when I asked if he was going to our upcoming high school reunion. He replied, “I think I will! I feel like it’s important to experience the 5 year reunion as dumb as it may be.” I didn’t answer him, and I didn’t attend. My old insecurities caught up with me; while I wasn’t “unpopular” in high school, I spent all four years secreted away in the theater wing. The idea of seeing whatever portion of the seven hundred kids in my graduating class returned to drink from kegs at the Boys & Girls Club of Greenwich did not sit well with me. I started to get that shaky, pulse-racing panic at the thought of it.

When my mom dropped me off at Ryan’s funeral on Friday, there was a line of people stretching all the way up the street. Hundreds of classmates, his former teachers, family friends and neighbors and characters from the Brooklyn comedy scene came to honor Ryan’s memory. I never made it inside the funeral home and instead spent two hours on the sidewalk giving hugs and catching up with former castmates and friends-of-friends. There were people whose faces I’d known as a teenager but never spoken to before who shook my hand and asked me how I am, how TED is, how my writing is going. Sure, a few rude preppy bitches were still rude preppy bitches, but for the most part everyone was here to say goodbye to someone important. None of the old bullshit mattered anymore. I clung to my high school sweetheart’s side, both of us having changed so much since we were teenagers, and I found myself having an actual good time, or something like it.

The running theme of the stories everyone told about Ryan was that he loved bringing people together. It’s a tragic, bittersweet gift that his passing served as the reunion several of us had avoided. I exchanged dozens of promises to check in next week, to get dinner soon, to stay in touch more. I wish I had caught up with Ryan when I had the chance, and I won’t make that mistake again. Or I will make that mistake again because I’m an anxious, busy introvert and I’m only human, but I will try harder. Survivor’s guilt goes down your throat with a burn like the Fireball Whiskey we were obsessed with at age sixteen. It also wakes you up. None of us is important enough to be a shitty friend.

I didn’t write a book this summer. I still want to and I eventually will for the simple reason that I was born with words and I need somewhere to put them. Right now their purpose is to help me process this double-blow of loss and grief, and to remember two people who taught me much, much more than I knew at the time. There’s some level of comfort in knowing that the condolences I wrote about Tahlia and Ryan brought joy to their families, whose strength and generosity still makes me cry. I wasn’t sure if I should contort my personal reflections on mourning into an essay to put online, but death, to put it bluntly, fucks all of us up. Maybe this will help some of you feel a little less fucked up.

My friends are gone but we have years and years and years of memories to pool and share. They live on through us and the people we’ve become with their help. They both encouraged me to write. So I will.

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Ella Dawson is a sex and culture critic and a digital strategist. She drinks too much Diet Coke.

5 thoughts on “How to Feel When the Good Die Young

  1. This is a lovely, wonderful essay about terrible things. I’d forgotten I’d email subscribed re: your posts a while ago, but I’m so glad I did because it’s been a good reminder that I want to comment on this post, seen via twitter. I’m glad you wrote something here; I’d been wondering if you’d be able to write words about this for a while – writing about grief is so hard and so different than other words, somehow. I’m so sorry for your losses, for the summer of allllll the conflicting emotions (congrats about the promotion, by the way?! but wow that timing, I’m sorry). I’ve popped up periodically on twitter about this, but Tahlia was one of those internet friends I felt like I knew in the way one sometimes does, and, even in that peripheral way it was unbelievably jarring, so my heart goes out to you, truly, because so many orders of magnitude more terrible and real for you, obviously, and I’m so sorry about your classmate as well.

    Words left me for a long time after my mom died (see: on going quiet and silences, for the thing i wrote a while after), and honestly even 2.5 years later my writing mojo is still…different. It took me a while to embrace that, and I’m glad that you’re writing now, etc. etc. etc.

    ALSO: it’s about a different grief than this, but the memoir A Long Goodbye by Meghan O’Rourke is one of the best depictions of the mundane complicated parts of dealing with loss I’ve read and was one of the most helpful for me (the other most helpful, in a way that is both lovely and terrible, is Tahlia’s A Manifesto on Permanence).

    I hope autumn is much more calm for you. ❤️

      1. :). Also, the links were missing from the comment because i trusted rich text formatting when I shouldn’t have (#not a good millennial?) but the “on going quiet and silences” text was a blog post link – – which is def not necessary reading I just feel dumb that I fake linked a link and want to fix it, and the book link is

  2. As someone once said, grief is the price we pay for love. We can’t have one without the other, unless we are the ones that die first. It’s a painful lesson, and it doesn’t get easier with age. Thank you for a moving tribute to your friends.

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