Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Friend Grief and Shaming

Nicholas Kristof - NY Times
I’m not sure when it began, this need to feel morally superior. But we see it everywhere. “My beliefs/race/gender/income/profession make me better than you” permeates our society. And sadly, we even see it when we grieve our friends.

Perhaps it’s as simple as a need to find a logical explanation for something that doesn’t make sense. Assigning blame makes us feel a little better about what happened. Some of the responses I’ve heard when sharing the news of a friend’s death are:

“A bodybuilder? Steroids, huh?”
“Melanoma? Did they go to tanning salons a lot?”
“Heart attack? Well, they were overweight.”
“AIDS? They must’ve slept around.”

Your first reaction may be to dispute their assumptions. Or you may feel ashamed that they got it right.

If you’re like me, the cause of death is not often foremost in your mind. You’re reeling from hearing the news of your friend’s death. You’re trying to make sense of it. Maybe you’re even blaming yourself for not intervening in some way.

This past weekend, Nicholas Kristof wrote a painful eulogy to his friend, Kevin, in the New York Times, “Where’s the Empathy?”

“The doctors say he died at age 54 of multiple organ failure, but in a deeper sense he died of inequality and a lack of good jobs.”

You can argue Kristof on politics and job creation, of income inequality and the shrinking middle class. He would probably welcome such a discussion. But what you can’t do – must not do – is criticize him or his friend.

Kristof’s grief for his high school buddy is searing. “I have trouble diagnosing just what went wrong…” he writes of his friend’s downward spiral to a much too early death. Resist the temptation to ask why Kristof didn’t do something to help his friend. Imposing guilt – which seemed to be an undercurrent in his op-ed – is not helpful to anyone.

Kevin Green’s story could happen to anyone. In fact, it’s already happened to a lot of people. A factory job used to be the cornerstone of a solid, middle-class lifestyle. Now those jobs have dried up, and people like Kevin are the “collateral damage”.

When I was working in the AIDS community, I was often asked “how did they get it?”  That struck me as pretty offensive, just like the other comments I mentioned above. If someone says something stupid like that to you after your friend dies, you might want to respond as I did: “What difference does it make? They’re dead.”

Not polite, I’ll admit, but it usually shut them up. Your grief for your friend is yours and important. It should not be subject to someone else’s value judgment. Whatever the circumstances of their death, maybe this, Kristof’s closing words to Kevin, will help you focus on your friend, too:


“Those who would judge you don’t have a clue. They could use a dose of your own empathy.”

Friday, January 9, 2015

Celebrating Your Friends

There was supposed to be a party today.

“I want to make it to 90,” Pierre told me when he was 88. His parents had only lived to their 70s, but others in his family had lived longer.

“We should have a party,” I suggested. He liked that idea. I mean, if you’re going to live that long, you deserve a celebration. “You could have dancing girls.”

His eyes lit up. He liked that idea, too.

We never had a chance to discuss details. Pierre died last January, a short time after his 89th birthday.

We don’t always remember our friends on their birthdays. Sometimes we remember them on the day they died. November 22 is the day we remember President John F. Kennedy, not May 17, his birthday. September 11 is the day we remember those who were killed in the 2001 terrorist attacks. Those deaths were very public, so that’s understandable.

Sometimes we remember them on holidays because those are times we traditionally gather together and reminisce. My friend, Mary Ellen, was born on Christmas Eve, so that’s when I remember her.

But often we remember on their birthdays. Many of our holidays are someone’s birthday: Martin Luther King, Jr., George Washington, Abraham Lincoln.

And why not? Why shouldn’t we remember our friends on the anniversary of the day they came into this world? That’s the day that made our friendship possible.

It’s sad, though, especially the first year after they died. I’ve been thinking about Pierre all week, wondering if I could write about him today. After all, it took me almost a year to write about him at all.

But then I remembered that day at his house. I’d sent him a sinfully rich chocolate cheesecake for his birthday a few weeks earlier, so the topic came up easily (birthdays, not chocolate). He told me he was prepared for death whenever it came. His body had gone through a lot, and he wasn’t interested in staying alive just because medical science said it was possible.

He still saw beauty in little things: sitting in the warm sunshine on his front porch, watching the traffic speed up and down the Glen; a cozy cashmere sweater (or two); a funny story.

When he said he wanted to make it to 90, I knew it was a long-shot. He wasn’t going to have surgery just to get to that milestone, and that was his right. I also knew if he was told he wouldn’t make it, he’d probably just shrug that typically French, incredibly sexy shrug. I imagine he felt that making it to 89 was close enough. And it was, technically, his 90th year.

So I choose to remember Pierre today, on what would’ve been his 90th birthday, rather than later in the month, on the first anniversary of his death.

Maybe one of your friends died last year, too. And of course the first anniversary will be hard. But how about getting out your calendar and marking their birthday on it?

Decide to spend part of that day remembering them: do something you two used to do together, go someplace you both loved, dig out your photo album (remember those?) and wallow in good memories; call a mutual friend and swap stories.

It’s hard. I know it’s hard. But soon you won’t focus on how sad you are that they’re gone. Instead you’ll feel how very grateful you are that they were a part of your life.

Because that friendship – like all our friendships – made us who we are today.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Top Ten List for Friend Grief in 2015

The fireworks are over, the champagne is long gone. You woke up refreshed and ready to go…or not. But regardless, it’s a new year – 2015. And here at Friend Grief, it promises to be a very, very busy one. That’s why, instead of ending 2014 with a list of accomplishments (and there were many, thanks to all of you), I thought I’d start 2015 with a list of plans:


  1. Friend Grief in the Workplace: More Than an Empty Cubicle, the fifth book in the series, comes out in a few weeks.
  2. The second book in the series is updated each year with new statistics and resources: that means Friend Grief and AIDS: Thirty Years of Burying Our Friends will be re-released in March.
  3. A new website will be unveiled in February, with not only this blog, but discussion guides and expanded resources for each book.
  4. The sixth book in the series, about men grieving their friends, will be released later in the year. (I need a title, by the way, so suggestions are welcome.)
  5. More ways to find my books. In addition to Amazon, IndieBound, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, they’re now available from The Grief Toolbox; coming soon on iTunes.
  6. When the sixth is done, I’ll be bundling them into one volume.
  7. That complete volume will also be released in an audio version.
  8. More opportunities to see me at speaking engagements at nonprofit organizations and book-related events.
  9. More freelance articles like this one on The Grief Toolbox. Not all will be grief-related. After all, my first paid freelance article was about the trials and tribulations of being a St. Louis Cardinals fan married to a Chicago Cubs fan.
  10. Formal announcement of the somewhat intimidating book project that will follow the Friend Grief series. It’s been rumbling around in my head for almost a year now, and is moving forward more quickly than I anticipated.

Yes, it will be another busy year: sharing stories of people like you who grieve the loss of their remarkable friends. And as usual, you won’t be surprised to find that they use that grief to create a better life, not just for themselves, but those around them.

Wishing you all the best as we head into the great unknown of a new year: one that is full of possibility, excitement and hopefully, peace.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Friend Grief's Top Five List for 2014

The year is almost over and I thought it would be a good time to look back on the posts that generated the most interest this year.

The funny thing about writing is that you don’t always know what resonates with people. Sometimes you write something that you believe is so brilliant it will change the lives of everyone who reads it – and obviously, everyone in the world will read it. That usually doesn’t happen. Sometimes you write something that’s definitely not your best effort, but there’s something about it that hits a nerve.

This list certainly surprised me:


#5 Update on Friend Grief and AIDS The second book in my series has been the most popular by far. It’s also the one that I’ve committed to updating every January (so expect a 2014 edition in the next few weeks) to include current facts and new resources. It’s a subject I’ve been close to for over 30 years now. I donate 25% of the retail price (not profit) of every paperback and ebook to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.


#4 How Celebrities Grieve Their Friends 2014 seemed to be an exceptionally bad year for celebrity deaths. For some reason, we expect those in the public eye to grieve differently than we would. They don’t. It’s just that their grief is on display for the world to critique.


#3 The End of the Friend Grief Series? The title certainly got a lot of attention. I’m not at the end of the series, but getting close. The fifth of sixth books comes out in late January. But there’s more to come, and the series has taken a turn that surprised me.


#2 Anger, Condemnation and Philip Seymour Hoffman  Ah, celebrities again. The death of this talented actor brought out not just grief but anger and swift condemnation as well. The reactions were shocking to a lot of people – friends and strangers alike.


#1 Friend Grief: Guilt vs. Regret. This was definitely a surprise. I try very hard to avoid regrets. And 2014 has shown me the power of doing that. I grieve for two friends who died this year – Pierre and Dan – but I don’t have a lot of regrets. That has eliminated the guilt I would’ve felt if I hadn’t taken a chance of looking stupid. I highly recommend a carpe diem approach to life.


So that’s my list. I suspect the 2015 list will surprise me as well. Maybe one of your favorites is here, maybe not.

As always, stay tuned. There are big, big changes (all good) coming soon that I think you’ll find helpful.

One thing won’t change, sadly: we will grieve our friends. And hopefully, we’ll remember them with love and joy, as we’d want them to remember us.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Friend Grief Without (too much) Guilt

There are different kinds of guilt. There’s the guilt we feel for saying or doing something that hurt someone else. And there’s the guilt we feel for not saying or doing something.

About a month ago, I acted on a whim. It was something I’d thought about doing for a while, but hadn’t done. What possessed me, I have no idea.

During college I lost touch with the guy I took to prom junior year. We did a couple musicals together, and he also came with me to my senior Christmas dance. We had fun together (not to mention my first kiss). Dan was often overshadowed by his popular older brother, a very talented actor and pianist. But I think one of the reasons Dan and I got along so well was that I liked him for himself, not his brother.

I knew he’d gone to work for one of the airlines after college, but otherwise, did not have any direct contact with him for a long time. A couple years ago that changed when we became friends on Facebook. We sent birthday wishes and liked each other’s updates, but that was the extent of it.

In October, I was visiting my mother and realized I’d driven by the business he opened after retiring from the airlines. I remember thinking “I should stop by and say hi.” Then I thought, “No, that’s stupid.”

But on a trip in early November, I decided to risk feeling stupid or even unwelcome. Dan was working in the front of the store, and as soon as I walked through the doorway, he smiled. “I’d recognize you anywhere, Viki.”

He invited me to sit down and we spent some time catching up on what we didn’t know from Facebook. I told him I’d be back in town this week and we talked about maybe getting together outside of his work day.

This past Saturday a very cryptic post on his Facebook page showed up in my notifications. It was from a man he’d worked with, expressing his gratitude for their friendship. In fact it was so cryptic, it took me a few readings to realize it meant that Dan was dead. It took the rest of the weekend for confirmation that indeed, he’d died suddenly.

It wasn’t that I had any great expectations of what getting in touch again would mean. I just assumed in November that he’d still be around in December.

I was wrong.

Honestly, I’ve been pretty weepy all week, though I haven't had time for the cry that I know I need. I will, I promise, probably tonight or tomorrow when things calm down a bit. I’m going to miss his memorial service on Saturday, because, as usual, I’m 300 miles away.

So, yes, I’m grieving right now. But I’m grateful beyond words that I acted on that whim. Even though I had no reason to believe he wouldn’t be his usual charming self, I did worry that I’d make a fool out of myself.

Do I wish I’d seen him sooner, maybe when the idea first popped into my mind? Of course I do. But I did see him and talk and laugh and hug. And as much as I wish there would be more of that, I’m grateful that I don’t feel guilty. Had I not seen him, had I assumed I could stop by sometime in the future, oh, yeah: what I would feel most strongly now would be guilt.

I wish we would’ve had more time together. He was, without a doubt, one of the sweetest, kindest, funniest men I’ve ever known. I don’t think I fully appreciated that at 16, but I sure do now.

There’s probably a Dan or two in your life: a friend you’ve lost touch with, not because you had a fight, but because life took you in different directions.

If you’re reading this, and someone pops into your head who fits that description, please reach out to them. You have my permission to use the holidays as an excuse. Don’t wait until tomorrow.

Because tomorrow might be one day too late.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

"All My Friends Are Dead"

Pierre on "Combat"
Growing up in the 60s, I was, along with my friends, definitely anti-war. I knew guys who served in Vietnam – two who died – but I didn’t agree with the war. 

It seemed odd to many that one of our favorite TV shows was Combat! It ran from 1962-67, and featured a squad of American soldiers in France after the D-Day invasion. We watched the show because we thought the actors were cute. And my favorite was Pierre Jalbert.

Pierre was my “type”: under six feet tall, dark, lean. The French accent didn’t hurt. It was a great, long-distance fantasy…until we met.

The night we met
It’s a long story that I won’t get into, but one night in 1984, I think, my two best friends and I found ourselves partying with Pierre, his wife, and Jack Hogan, who played Kirby on the show. The next day I had the worst hangover of my life, but it was worth it. I only saw him once more, about a year after that. One of my friends kept in close contact, but I didn’t. I’m not sure why.

Pierre’s life was nothing short of amazing: Canadian ski champion, Olympic captain, friend of movie stars, ski instructor, sound editor, actor, writer. He built his house in Beverly Glen and was a talented wood carver. He was obsessed with the life of the Marquis de Lafayette. “He was 19 when he fought in the Revolutionary War!” he’d tell me again and again.

He told me because I visited him a few times in recent years to record the stories of his life. We’d sit in the dining room of his beautiful home, scanning old photos, taping our conversations.

During one of my visits
He was certainly frail those last years, after suffering a stroke. I drove him to some doctor appointments. Though he was frustrated with minor memory lapses, he never lost his sense of humor. Once, when a medical technician assumed I was his wife, he insisted, “No, she’s my girlfriend, not my wife.” I turned bright red, because even at 88, he was still a handsome flirt.

I wrote last week that I learned a lot from him in his last year. I didn’t just learn about Lafayette, or why he was brought in to help with The Godfather (Pierre’s responsible for the iconic baptism/mob hit sequence at the end of the movie).

I learned that he gave full credit to his friends for everything that happened to him in his life. A new one would appear at a crucial moment, offering him an opportunity that would change his life: the actress who invited him to Paris, the businessman who sponsored his immigration to the US. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without my friends.”

I learned that he missed them terribly. “All my friends are dead,” he insisted, when we first sat down to record his stories. “Not all of us,” I countered. His stories about his friends were told without a trace of envy or disapproval. He loved them for who they were, and though he didn’t always understand or condone their behavior, he loved them nonetheless.

I learned that with every setback – rheumatic fever, the shattered leg that left him in constant pain for over 60 years, deportation when he failed to secure a work visa – he bounced back. He had a resilience that was remarkable. “Weren’t you depressed when you couldn’t ski in the Olympics?” “Sure,” he agreed. “For a week.” Then, Norma Shearer invited him to Paris, and he moved on to the next adventure.

I learned that it’s possible to live your life without regrets. When he insisted he had no regrets about his life, I was skeptical. I tried to bait him, frankly. Maybe it was Buddhism that gave him that peace. But just as he saw his friends impact his life, he saw each twist and turn as something ultimately better. Everything happened for a reason.

I feel like I learned a lot from Pierre. I still have my notes and my tapes. Next year I’ll transcribe them and put them into a coherent tale about one of the most remarkable men I’ve ever known.

I can hear his voice sometimes. If I close my eyes I can feel his hand in mine as we walked through the parking lot to lunch. When my car windshield is dirty, I think of him insisting I pull into the gas station in Santa Monica so he could clean it.

Finally, Pierre, I’m writing about you. Don’t give me that typically French shrug, as if you don’t care. I know better. So wherever you are, pour yourself a scotch on the rocks and settle back.

Allons-y.

Monday, December 1, 2014

World AIDS Day 2014

Today, December 1, is the 27th annual observance of World AIDS Day.

Since that first year, when I dropped a few pounds in the collection can at the curtain call of a play in London, I’ve marked the anniversary.

The second year I coordinated a fundraising event. Some years I went to a special Mass or memorial service. Other years I simply made note of it and went about my business.

This year I’ll be part of a reading and panel discussion at Women & Children First bookstore in Chicago about the generation gap in the AIDS community. This reflection on Huffington Post last week will give you an idea of what that means in terms of fighting the epidemic.

The theme for World AIDS Day this year is “Focus, Partner, Achieve”.

This year the epidemic looks like this:

            1.2 million people in the US are living with HIV; 14% don’t know they’re infected.

            The annual number of new infections has held steady for 10 years: 50,000/year.

            13,000 people with AIDS in the US will die this year.

The African-American community – particularly men who have sex with men – is disproportionately affected.


So, how do we follow the theme for this year?


Focus:              Target education and prevention efforts to the communities most at risk: African-Americans and young people 13-24

Partner:            Work with faith communities, schools, government agencies and nonprofit organizations to reach those communities.

Achieve:          Make an AIDS-free generation our goal.


What does all that mean?

It means that 30+ years into the epidemic, there’s a hell of a lot of work to do, in the US and around the world.

It means we have to reach out to make sure that every conversation- whether it’s about education, affordable housing, access to healthcare, affordable medications, anti-discrimination laws, aging – includes a recognition of how those issues impact people living with HIV, and those at risk of infection.

There is no cure. There is no vaccine. But unlike the early days, we have powerful tools: scientific knowledge, antiretroviral drugs, PReP (Truvada, which can effectively protect against infection).

That’s where reaching out to partner with others is important. The drugs won’t help you if you don’t know about them. They won’t help if you can’t afford them. It’s hard to keep to a regimen if you’re living in a homeless shelter. Unpredictable health won’t help you keep a job.

We’ve come a long way in 30+ years, but there is such a long way to go.

And I for one would like to see a day when, on December 1, people have to be reminded of what the world was like before AIDS was eradicated.

And the only way we do that is by working together, every day.



For more information on HIV, AIDS and what you can do to help: