Email Funeral for a Friend

Carol Davenport in 1992

The email from a mutual friend was a surprise. Carol Davenport, my friend from the Harvard Business School class of 1992, was in hospice, with 24 hours to live. I knew that Carol had been experiencing severe health problems, but I had just chatted with her on Facebook a few weeks earlier. We’d talked about finding her a roommate to help defray her living expenses and the possibility of me sending her some freelance editing work. And now, she was on the verge of death.

I suppose her health issues, which included congestive heart failure and a related, major health crisis several years earlier, had been far worse than I knew. Carol had also been a heavy smoker, who liked to drink as well, for decades. She had chain-smoked her way through many evenings spent together in her apartment on Soldier’s Field Road in Boston—talking about her erratic boyfriends and career prospects in management consulting. That, too, must have finally caught up with her.

Carol died before her allotted 24 hours were up. Pretty sure I was the first from our section to hear the news, I utilized an email list that had probably been created for fundraising (is anything from HBS ever not about fundraising?) and let my section-mates know that Carol was gone. She was only the second person from our section to pass away, which is striking when you consider that we’re all over the age of 56.

What came next was a sort of email funeral for Carol, as many of my section mates sent around condolences and shared fond memories of Carol in better days. She was recalled as smart, kind, and classy, which she was. The emails also offered reflections on the passage of time. Most of us had not been together face to face in many years. Some of us have not been in the same room since 1992, but it doesn’t matter in this digital age. Thirty-one years is nothing when you’re only an email away.

As some of us remarked, Carol’s death was a reminder that we need to make good use of our time and love the ones we love while we’re still here. Yes, the email funeral was a signal that time is running out for us. Who knows how long any of us still has. Hopefully, we’ll all be around for a bit more, but you never know.

The lead up to Carol’s death also offered a message, if we were prepared to hear it, about the arcs of our lives and the vicissitudes of good fortune. The Harvard Business School class of 1992 produced many outstanding corporate executives, some of whom have had successful, highly compensated careers. One of the richest men in the world is among our ranks. Most of us, like me, are making a living in an increasingly unstable and age-discriminating environment. Others, like Carol, have been struggling, in some cases quite significantly.

Carol had reached out to many of us, privately, asking for support through a GoFundMe campaign. Unable to work due to her health issues, she was in dire financial straits. Many of us helped, however we could, but it was clear she needed a more durable solution, but none was forthcoming.

She had reached out to a classmate asking if she could come live with her. This classmate had told her no, because she herself was dealing with a fragile career situation and family pressures. “I need to take care of myself first,” she told me. “And now, I feel horrible that I said no.” I told her not to judge herself. We all need to focus on our own needs as the priority.

Bigger picture, though, Carol’s plight can tell us something about the America that’s arisen on our watch. As the graduates of the “West Point of Capitalism,” perhaps we can do some self-examination and wonder how successful we’ve all been when our collective contributions to corporate life have resulted in a society where sick people have nowhere to go, no hope for better care, or even a place to live.

Maybe it’s time to start an email thread about that…