Aaron sighed, “I lost my job in December and I can’t find anything else.”
His statement hung in the air for what seemed like an eternity. I struggled to find the right words to say. How could I help? What could I possibly do? My company wasn’t hiring and I didn’t know any others that were. My suggestions were limited and unrealistic:
“You could start your own company.” (How could anyone do that with no seed money?)
“You could create an online website that makes you money.” (What could he offer that people would be willing to pay for?)
“Is there anything else that you are passionate about?” (Apart from the profession you poured your heart and soul into for years?)
I loved Aaron like a little brother; I was his mentor. We met through the Canadian Society of Exploration Geophysicists (CSEG), and my job was to look out for his career and his well-being. Over the years Aaron amazed me with his bright, shining optimism and his passion for life. He loved everything about the discipline of geophysics and was always searching for ways to do his job better. He was driven by curiosity and never shied away from hard work. He was drawn to Quantitative Interpretation (QI) because the analysis carried the interpreter into the real world of physics where attributes could be identified and measured. He worked at Fugro Seismic Imaging, Senex Energy Ltd and Ikon Science. His career choices were almost always led by his desire to challenge the status quo and think outside the proverbial box.
Aaron’s approach to life was unique and beautiful. He believed (and had tattooed on his side) that life is a daring adventure or nothing! He made the most of his youth and freedom by traveling to obscure places and learning about new cultures. His favourite place to go was Phuket, Thailand. He saw beauty in this place despite the obvious corruption. He felt at peace there, which I found hard to understand, but in the end he always said that his heart belonged to Canada.
Aaron was a very strong man, and when he said “opportunity does not knock, it presents itself when you beat down the door”, people would get out of his way. He was a competitive body builder. He honoured his body, ate strategically, and when he trained he gave it everything he had. To Aaron, life was all about challenging the mind, body and soul. He thought deeply, he loved desperately, and he connected whole-heartedly with as many people as he could. He had many dear friends in numerous arenas of life and made a point of meeting one new person every day. He called it social exercise. He wore his vulnerability on his sleeve, and if you looked into his eyes you could see the innocence of a little boy trying to find his way through life.
After he lost his job he floundered for months. He tried selling supplements at a local gym in Australia, but his heart wasn’t in it. He toiled away, letting his mind go flaccid, rather than keeping it sharp and keen as he always had. I got busy at work and forgot to check in for several weeks. One day I thought of him and dropped him an email. ‘Where are you? How are you?’ He did not sound like his usual self, full of strength and determination. He sounded depressed and broken. He left his job at the gym, then found out that his girlfriend was pregnant. Although am sure that this brought him joy and happiness, it was also a source of stress. His usual mantra of being prepared to give up everything to achieve his goals could no longer be observed because he had other people to think about. His ability to provide for a family was now in question. The mental anguish he felt was crushing his soul.
I recently read in a Globe and Mail article that 50% of the geophysicists in the city of Calgary have been laid off. Those of us who have been spared this plight continue to work hard, forging ahead and sadly forgetting about the ones we left behind. I hate to write this; they are our equals and physically still here, but they are left behind in our thoughts. Our thoughts instead drift forward as we look for the next market correction and as we search the horizon for signs of a reprieve from our industry’s stress. Meanwhile, those who no longer have jobs struggle mentally with this new reality. The adages from days gone by about “standing strong in the face of adversity” and “facing the sun so that shadows fall behind” are hollow. Our colleagues don’t just lose their homes and their comforts, but rather they lose their self-confidence, their motivation, and their desire to strive. Some feel hopeless and lost in an industry that does not seem to care. These people, who are usually bold, do not deserve our pity, for if you pity someone then you are implying that they are beneath you. They deserve our respect. They deserve our support. They deserve our unconditional kindness.
Aaron took his life a few days ago. In one of the most painful moments of my life, I received a message from him that he had hit rock bottom, didn’t see any more positives and didn’t know how to get out of it. He went back to Thailand, where he knew he could get lost in the jungle of nature and people. He painstakingly made his plan and carried it out, saying only that he was sorry and that he loved me. My pleading with him to hold on, to be strong, to let me help him was left hanging in mid-air, unanswered. My offer to help was too late; my outstretched arms were left empty. Aaron died Monday, July 18th, 2016 in the wee hours of the morning.
People tell me that it is not my fault, that there was nothing more I could have done, some people just can’t be helped; and although I want to believe them, I also think that it is a cop-out. I can do more for my struggling colleagues. I can look them in the eyes and acknowledge their pain, even when they are trying to hide their faces from me. Our horizons for caring need to stretch beyond our own worldly comforts and self-serving plans for the future. My retirement fund is not more important than Aaron’s life. My holidays are not more important than Aaron’s life. My daughter’s beer fund at university is not more important than Aaron’s life. I could have done more to help, but I did not. CBC reported a headline recently, “Suicide rate in Alberta climbs 30% in wake of mass oilpatch layoffs”. Why are we letting this happen
The Canadian Mental Health Association tells those who have lost their jobs in Alberta to focus on supportive and healthy relationships, to get moving and take action, to take care of themselves and to beware of negative self-talk. Finally, they advise you to reach out for help. For some, these instructions are impossibly unattainable, especially when one is paralyzed by uncertainty and an apparent lack of options. We, as friends and colleagues, need to step up and take the lead. We need to talk about the layoffs directly, without skirting the issue, and we need to use initiative to anticipate what our friends require. We also need to remind them, as Helen Keller said, that “although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of overcoming it”, and one doesn’t have to do that alone.
So, where does this leave me now? It leaves me wanting. I miss my friend. I cry every day. I want to reach out and ask people in our industry to help support the child that Aaron left behind, but I‘ve never done anything like this before. He had no money, no life insurance and his girlfriend is young, alone and afraid. If anyone has the ability to give, then I will collect and use the money to set up an education fund for Aaron’s child. Aaron, like most of us, valued learning above all else. Please email me if you can help: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Someone asked me today if I feel that supporting someone in need is a burden. My answer is no, that it is an honour. I want to encourage the CSEG to have links on their website to direct people who are struggling mentally with their situation. I want to ask companies that are laying people off to take extra care in ensuring their people land on their feet. Finally, I want to ask the reader, yes you, three questions that Aaron asked me several times over the years: What does your heart tell you? What do you stand for? How do you want to live your life?
About the Author(s)
Amanda Knowles is a professional geophysicist at Canadian Natural Resources Ltd., a CSEG volunteer, and an active member of the Human Ventures Institute.