On January 1, 2009, my brother Tom committed suicide. For much of 2008, he was an emotional wreck, and his wildly oscillating behavior put the entire family through the wringer — but none more so than his wife and kids. By October of 2008, I finally saw Tom for the first time in many months, and he looked terrible. He had been out of work for a while. He was fighting a lot with his wife. He had gained a lot of weight, and his complexion was pasty. But by November, good news came in. His mood had lightened considerably. He said he had some really promising job prospects in the pipeline, he was working things out at home, and he felt that, at last, things had finally begun to turn around for him. I was immensely relieved.
Of course, things had not turned around. He had merely entered the happy phase that the suicidal often enter when they have committed to their course of action. They realize that their pain is indeed going to come to an end, and so their mood lifts, even though something terrible is about to happen. I spoke with Tom on New Year’s Eve, as I always did. He sounded great. We joked on the phone. He was like his old self. A few hours later, when everybody had gone to bed, he went down into his basement, looped a noose around his neck, drank enough to pass out, and strangled himself. He did not leave a note. He did leave behind a folder on his computer entitled “Getting Prepared,” which showed that he had been researching ways to kill himself painlessly or in ways that looked accidental for a while. This was no snap decision.
I lost almost all of 2009 to an emotional fog. I immediately began seeing a grief counselor. I knew that it would take me the better part of a year to put myself back together again, and I was right. Immediately seeking help was a huge factor in that. That I did it with my wife by my side all the way was another huge factor. She was grieving, too. And together, we figured out how to heal from this.
Read more: Fade to Black
I have shared that specific analogy with a number of people since Tom died, especially those who have experienced a suicide and sought out my advice because they knew that I had been there, and I was open about my experience. I wrote about losing Tom just a few months after he died, on the pages of Risk Management magazine, in a piece that was fairly raw, emotionally. I have written about this topic twice here at National Underwriter. One was a feature on how the life insurance industry could be doing more to aid suicide prevention. It would be a great business move, and it would certainly fulfill the industry’s long-standing tradition of charity. Another was an editorial about how A.J. Moore, the son of Sheryl J. Moore — an outstanding producer and frequent contributor to both LifeHealthPro and ProducersWeb — took his own life after being bullied relentlessly by his schoolmates. And now I’m writing about it again, after the five-year anniversary of Tom’s death.
Why? Why bring this up again? I have thought about that quite a bit. And with time comes perspective. There is one story about my grieving process over Tom I have never shared before (outside of a few close friends and family) that to me, speaks to both the grieving process and the need to prepare one’s family for the untimely loss of a loved one. We need the ones we love to leave something of themselves behind when they go. Some prepare adequately. Others do not. Both courses of action have consequences. My hope is that my story might help you have a more productive conversation with your clients, especially those who don’t quite get the reason why insuring their own lives is not just a luxury or a nice-to-have, but part of the fundamental duty we all have to care as much as possible for the ones we love. Or maybe it’ll help you have a more productive conversation with your own friends and family.
Anyway. this story is called Finding Meester. Thanks in advance for reading it.
Tom and I were less than a year apart in age, so we grew up as “Irish twins.” We did everything as a team, and one of those things was to develop a mutual love for all kinds of geek interests — comic books, role-playing games, and computers chief among them. After college, I remained in the Northeast, while Tom moved to Atlanta. The cost of travel prevented us from seeing each other very often, but we still kept in touch by phone, and by email. But it wasn’t until Tom got me into playing World of Warcraft that we could spend serious amounts of time together.
Even if you have not played World of Warcraft, you probably know somebody who has played it, or know somebody whose kids have played it, or read a news story about it, or, failing those things, stopped reading this article to Google it. It is a massively multiplayer online role-playing game, or MMORPG. In fact, it is the MMORPG. No other game of its kind has managed to even come close to the success Warcraft has enjoyed. It’s beginning to wane now, but at its peak, the game had some 12 million players, each paying not just for the game itself, but also a monthly fee to log in to its servers. Being a game you play over the internet with a few million of your closest friends, getting into Warcraft is not something one does casually.
The game itself is basically a computerized version of Dungeons & Dragons. You create a fantasy character like a human or an elf or a troll and you pick an occupation — warrior, mage, that sort of thing — and you wander the game’s massive countryside completing quests, killing monsters and looting their treasure. Sometimes you can play against other players, sometimes you can play alongside them. The game is really meant to be a social experience, and you truly cannot get the most out of playing the game by playing it alone.
Tom and I played with a close mutual friend of ours, who was also living in Atlanta. The three of us formed a little gaming group of our own, so when we were playing the game — which we did often — we were usually playing it with each other. That on its own made for a great way to stay in touch, as we usually chatted about all kinds of non-game things while we were logged in. Sports, politics, whatever. Sometimes, we logged in and kept our characters parked in a safe haven, just so we could talk with each other. Eventually, the game became as much our own little social network as a form of mutual entertainment.
I mention this because for a long time, I saw Tom’s avatar in Warcraft — a troll named Meester — more than I saw Tom himself. I’d log into the game and look for Meester, because Meester was Tom and Tom was Meester. It’s strange to have such an imaginary appearance be a stand-in for a real-life loved one, but that’s life in the 21st century, I suppose.
When Tom died, he left no note. This is not uncommon for suicides, actually. But he also left not much of anything else. His joblessness and what I can only imagine was long-standing financial difficulty had driven his family into a very deep hole. He certainly had no life insurance in effect, which would have been extremely useful. Most of his possessions had been sold off over time, so I can’t imagine he even left much for his wife and kids to hang on to. In many ways, to me it felt like Tom didn’t die as much as he simply disappeared. Just before I laid the first shovelful of dirt on what would become the resting place for his remains, I laid my fingers on the paper box that held his ashes. I have been to more funerals than I care to remember. I have attended many wakes. I am used to seeing the departed, even in closed-casket affairs where there is only a photo to look upon. This was different. This was not Tom. This was a box with what used to be Tom. And it all had an alien feel to it. Frankly, it made me question my long-held desire to be cremated, and those ashes scattered at sea.
I spoke at my brother’s funeral service in Atlanta. I told some of my favorite stories about him, in part because they were funny and we all wanted to remember Tom for something good rather than for the cause of his death. And I did it because I am a storyteller by trade. I love storytelling for the magic it brings; when you tell a good story, it lives on in the memory of those who enjoyed it, and it lives on even further when people pass it along, and along, and along again.
And yet, my stories of Tom, and the memories that drove them, were not enough. Perhaps it is because of the way in which he died, or perhaps because I never thought I’d help bury one of my brothers, but for whatever reason, I needed some kind of reminder that Tom had been. That is how I fixated on his Warcraft character, Meester.
I obsessed over where Meester was, and until I located him, I felt that some part of Tom was lost in the ether, adrift. It did not take long to find the character. Because Tom and I were part of a formal gaming group, you can keep tabs on when players come in and out of the game. I looked at where Meester had been in-game the night Tom died. Had he logged in? Had he left some clue or message in the game? He had not. He had simply “parked” his character in one of the game’s numerous safe havens, where you can be easily found once you come back into the game. Sometimes, when people quit playing Warcraft, they stand in a populated area and give away all of their character’s possessions. Tom had not done that. He had just logged out like he might have done any other night.
I thought that would be the end of it. I knew where Meester was. I knew where a little piece of Tom was. And that should have been enough. But it wasn’t. Soon I felt like I needed to have possession of the character, even though it was not a real, physical thing. I wanted to make sure that Meester was safe and sound, which meant porting the character to my own Warcraft account. That character had suddenly become very precious to me.
I contacted Tom’s wife to make sure it was alright; and she graciously agreed. To be honest, she was dealing with far, far bigger problems than I was. Her fortitude, and the ability with which she has served her family since then is nothing less than a testament to her strength.
The next step was the actual character transfer process. You must understand that World of Warcraft has created its own shadow economy. People get so nuts playing this game that if they want more loot or gold for their character, they will actually pay other people to “farm” such stuff and then give it to their character, for a price. This is illegal within the game, but people do this and all kinds of other dodgy stuff with their accounts, anyway. Blizzard Entertainment — the company that publishes and runs World of Warcraft — works nonstop to keep this kind of thing in check. They also have in place very specific rules for getting a dead person’s account transferred over to you.
I followed the rules to the letter. I got a copy of Tom’s death certificate from Georgia. I sent a copy of that plus other documents to Blizzard, to justify the transfer of Tom’s account over to my own. All I needed was Tom’s login and password. And those, I did not have.
More importantly, Blizzard could not give them to me. Account information is the single most valuable resource Blizzard handles. They simply cannot afford to let a customers’ account info out into the open because other players might take over the accounts and plunder them. I understood that, but I also felt that at this point, I had come too far to be stopped now.
Read more: Bullied to Death: A.J. Betts (1997-2013)