I’ve kind of been avoiding writing this stuff down. On one hand, I want to always remember Dan and how amazing he was, but on the other, writing it down forces me to sit with it. To remember all the good things, the sad things, and the things I can’t do anything about any more. As vibrant as my memories of Dan are, as admirable his passion, dedication, and talent were, he is gone and the future will give me no new memories with him.
While I was in Vancouver for a work conference last weekend (IA Summit), I found out that Dan Larson- Fine took his own life. In the house he lived in, while his roommates had a party. He was surrounded by people he cared about, and people who loved him deeply, people he had made plans with that night, people who were his students and looked up to him. And yet, none of that was enough to hold back the darkness this time.
I was alone in my hotel room when I found out. It was midnight Pacific time and 2am Central. Erin told me what happened and in my shock I called Chris who was asleep. I left a message because I needed to get it out. I needed to say what happened for it to sink in. I cried all night, listening to videos of Dan playing piano, notably the last one he posted that now feels like he was telling us something was wrong. I tried participating in the conference the next day. I went to the yoga event that the conference sponsored, but when the instructor said "this is exactly where you need to be", I started crying again because I knew I needed to be home. After barely making it through the morning keynote speaker, my friend Lori offered to take me for a walk around the city and let me talk about Dan and all the wonderful memories I had of him. After lunch, I knew there would be no point in going back to the conference that day. My friend Nicki, who is in Vancouver for school and was also very close to Dan came over to my hotel room and we spent the rest of the afternoon thinking about him, crying, and consoling each other. As awful as it was to be away from home, I'm glad we had each other.
I was able to go to sessions during the last day of the conference, one of which was particularly challenging because it was about what should be done with digital memories of people when they die. It echoed the process I was going through but it was an important thing to consider. I walked up to the speaker afterward and thanked her for her presentation. I told her what I was going through and she hugged me. She had lost someone to suicide as well and understood what I was going through. She shared a book recommendation with me that she said might help me process the death of a loved one in the digital age when social media makes loved ones feel present, "When We Are No More: How digital memory is shaping our future".
At the end of the conference, it's a tradition at IA Summit to do something called "5 minute madness" where the stage and mic is open for any attendee who wants to share a thought or experience from the conference. I got on the stage to share what happened and thank the people who had supported me in my grief (friends, strangers, hotel staff who made the mistake of asking me how my day was going). I wanted to say Dan's name aloud, share him with hundreds of new people, and tell a hall full of user experience designers that we have a unique role in helping LGBTQ people be visible in our society by simply changing how we ask about gender in online forms. While we don't know what lead to Dan's action and if his gender identity was at all related, it felt like an important opportunity to recognize and honor that aspect of him for others who may struggle with it. When I got off the stage, I received hugs from strangers who whispered into my ear that they had lost someone to suicide, thanking me for sharing my story and making Dan's struggle known. That was hard, knowing they had shared the pain I was in, knowing that someone they loved had lost hope in that darkness. It's a reminder that you don't know what sadness someone has lived with and to be extra patient because we're all human.
When I got home from the conference, I was desperate to see my Fight or Flight Academy family. The community was grieving the loss of a friend, a teacher, and an incredibly talented athlete. It was good to be surrounded by more people who understood the pain and share memories of Dan with. It made me appreciate them all so much more.
Drinks and Discussion with Dan
Chris and I had learned somewhat recently about his depression. We would often have Dan over for what I affectionately called “Drinks and Discussion with Dan”, where we would make old fashioneds and talk about serious stuff, like guns, white washing, social justice, politics, religion, etc. There were a couple of weekends in a row when Dan canceled at the last minute, or was late. We were getting frustrated because it felt like he didn’t respect our time and friendship. When Dan came over, we confronted him about these feelings to find out what was going on and figure out how we could work through it. That’s when we learned that he had been dealing with depression and deep loneliness. The tone of the conversation shifted as we realized what he was going through. We spent time unpacking everything and emphasized how much we loved and cared about him. When he had to leave, we hugged him longer than usual. Chris walked him outside and hugged him again, reminding him that we were there for him and that we loved him.
Unfortunately schedules got really busy and our discussions happened less frequently than I would have liked. The last time I saw Dan was at our mutual friend Erin’s birthday party, a karaoke night at the gym. I hung out with Dan the whole night because I was feeling a little socially overwhelmed after not having been at the gym in a long time. Lots of new faces and jokes that went over my head. But as usual, Dan made me feel comfortable, encouraged me to participate, and made the evening wonderful.
The Foundation of Our Friendship
Dan was an amazing person and loved by many. We became friends in 2012 (according to Facebook). He became important to me when I struggled to find my place at Fight or Flight Academy. I didn’t feel like I belonged there, I thought parkour was beyond me and I’d never be good enough to enjoy it. Dan started training me outside on the weekends. We’d hang out and he’d help me work on vaults, wall runs, climb ups, rolls. All of the basics in a real world environment. I still never got very good at parkour, but his friendship helped me bridge the gap from stranger to family. He and everyone else at the gym called me Kat, I became one of them.
When I broke my leg in 2014, Dan came over to cheer me up. He offered to make dinner for me, but he was such a chaotic ball of energy who couldn’t focus on the task at hand that I ended up kicking him out of the kitchen so I wouldn’t trip on him while I made dinner and laughed at him.
Things That Will Never Come To Be
One of the hardest parts about this week has been remembering all of the things we were planning on doing together. The fact that we’ll never get to do them cuts deeply.
- We were going to watch John Wick and John Wick Chapter 2 at our place and discuss the gun choreography and filming techniques. I will never look at fight choreography and filming the same way again because he taught me to appreciate the work that goes into it all.
- Sometimes we’d pick topics for Drinks and Discussion with Dan nights. Dan had messaged me a few weeks ago to tell me that he wanted to talk about rape culture and if encouraging women to take self defense classes to protect themselves against rapists perpetuated rape culture. I was also looking forward to talking about the new Ghost in the Shell movie and maybe seeing it with him.
- Chris let Dan borrow one of his favorite television shows “Sports Night”. We were excited to discuss Aaron Sorkin’s ability to make a show about a sports show interesting to people who don’t give a shit about sports. Of course, he was so busy that he never watched it. We kept telling him to bring it back so we could make him watch it with us, but he always forgot.
- We leant him our copy of Gunslinger, the first book in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. I think he finished the book, but we hadn’t gotten a chance to discuss it yet.
- I was hoping to have Dan take us to the gun range and experience some of his expertise first hand.
I’m struggling with this grief. Someone I love deeply is gone and yet the world keeps moving. It’s hard to move on from the grief because it feels like letting him go. I want to hold onto him, I want him to come back, I want him to know how much we love him so we can help him fight the demons he had inside. But I know that’s not how depression works. And I know that there is still joy in life, there is still beauty, and I have ways to share what Dan taught me with others to keep his memory alive. But right now, I just want to grieve.