Tuesday, August 26, 2014

How Celebrities Grieve Their Friends

Yes, I know I wasn't going to write about celebrities. But doesn’t it seem like a lot of them have died in the past month or so? James Garner, Sir Richard Attenborough, Lauren Bacall, Robin Williams, Elaine Stritch: all left grieving families and friends, just like non-celebrities – with one glaring difference.

Celebrities leave friends behind who are anonymous and others who are also celebrities. And while those live their lives in the glare of the media, that doesn’t mean that they’re capable of grieving gracefully in public. You may be surprised or even critical of them.

Remember Paul McCartney? He was roundly criticized for his “It’s a drag” comment the day after John Lennon was murdered.

People who hadn’t worked with Robin Williams in decades appeared on talk shows within hours to reminisce about days gone by. Here in Chicago, the local news stations tracked down his elementary school classmates. That’s not unusual. Watch the reports next time a celebrity dies, and see who the first people are to show up on camera.

Often, a celebrity will not appear in public after a friend’s death, instead issuing a very carefully worded press release or tweet.

Sometimes - but rarely – a celebrity speaks eloquently soon after a friend’s death. Russell Brand’s tribute to Amy Winehouse comes to mind, the pain of his loss beautifully exposed for all to see.

Why rarely? Because, as we sometimes forget, celebrities are people, too. They experience the same emotions, same life events. The glaring difference is that they grieve in public, not always by choice.

It seems that those closest to the deceased are often the last to speak in public. They prefer to grieve in private, which is everyone’s right. And I’m usually relieved that that is the case. Too often celebrities – and non-celebrities alike – try to make a tragedy about them. They see a chance to get some attention, at the expense of their friend’s memory. I don’t know about you, but that’s not my kind of friend.

So I’ll leave you with another one of those rare, poignant eulogies. It’s Billy Crystal’s remembrance at the Emmys. It’s a simple and loving tribute to a friend, devoid of the narcissism displayed by others.

What a concept.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Not Another Post about Robin Williams

I was just about to post last week when television, radio and the internet exploded with news of Robin Williams’ death. I’ve posted here about how and why we grieve when a celebrity dies. And I decided I didn’t want to write another blog post about celebrities.

But the topic I’d intended to share suddenly didn’t seem very important. I couldn’t stop thinking about Robin Williams. I’ve been a fan since “Mork and Mindy”. I have friends who worked and played with him, who are devastated. So I still could’ve written about him. I mean, why not? Everybody else has.

Like many of you reading this, I know people who have committed suicide. One was a high school classmate. One was a girl who lived next door when I was growing up. Another was the husband of a family friend. Each situation was very different. But my reaction when I’m told of the suicide of a friend is almost always the same: delusional.

Why delusional? Because – like the friends who gathered for Alex’s funeral in The Big Chill – I immediately assume I could’ve made a difference. “You think you can keep everyone jolly?” one of them demands. Not exactly, but I think most people, when told a friend committed suicide, will feel some level of survivor guilt.

It’s not the survivor guilt of someone who lost friends on 9/11 or from AIDS or on the battlefield: “Why did they die and I lived?”

It’s the survivor guilt of “Why couldn’t I stop them?”

I’m not going to offer some dime store version of therapy and suggest that if you’d been a better friend and kept in touch with them that that would’ve made the difference. I’m not arrogant enough to believe that I can understand what goes through a person’s mind as they contemplate suicide. But I’m pretty sure the reasons are more profound than “she didn’t return my phone call”.

What I will say instead is this: suicide leaves a long trail of broken hearts – not just family, but friends. It incites grief and guilt and overwhelming anger.

I’m a little early, but September is National Suicide Prevention Month. If you ask me, it should be every month.

There is help out there. There really, truly is help out there. And here’s where you can find some:

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

“Oh, That’s Depressing” – Writing about Friend Grief

I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve told someone what I write about. “Oh, that’s depressing” is certainly the most frequent negative response. Luckily, I don’t hear it too often.

I was in New York last week at the Writers Digest Conference. Going to this particular conference in January, 2011, was what really kick-started my writing career. I met people there (and shortly after) who are still trusted advisors and friends. I started tweeting on my way to the conference so I wasn’t the only one there who wasn’t on Twitter. This blog began a week later.

Although I haven’t been posting as regularly the past few months, it’s not because I had nothing to say. There were health issues that got in the way, and at times, the self-publication process took precedence. I will be blogging more religiously now, I swear. But I digress.

Writers are supposed to have an “elevator speech”: how do you describe your work in the time it takes for an elevator ride? It shouldn’t surprise you that the reaction varies greatly depending on whether I say “I write about grief” or “I write about friendship”.

If I say I write about grief, there’s always someone who considers that depressing. No, I insist, it’s not depressing. Some of the stories are sad, but they’re not depressing. They’re about the impact our friendships have on us. That usually appeases them, at least for the moment.

Then there are the people who do not have a negative reaction. “I write about people who are grieving the death of a friend.” I used to call it the “You know…” moment. I’d tell them what I write about and there would be a pause, Their eyes never left mine, but I could see a spark of recognition.

Sometimes they nod, sometimes they smile, but the message is always the same: “Yeah, I get that.” More often than not, they’d say “You know…” and tell me a story about a friend of theirs who died.

At the Writers Digest Conference, I spoke with two men: one a former Marine, the other a former Air Force pilot. When I told them I’d written a book about losing friends in the military, they both had the exact, same physical reaction: They straightened up a little more, eyes open a little wider, and nodding slightly they both said, “Yeah…”.

That, as we heard in the conference sessions, is what many writers dream of: making a personal connection to their readers. They don’t want to read something theoretical, something dry. They want to read something that speaks to their hearts: something they can identify with and understand.

It took me a while to accept that I was capable of writing something that appealed to people. The compliments still surprise me. Unlike the publisher’s rep who told me three years ago that “grief is only going to be big for another two years”, the rest of the world knows that there is no expiration date on a universal experience.

There is one thing that’s hard for me. When I’m done with my research, and I’m immersed in putting stories together for a book, there are times when I find myself overwhelmed. It was particularly true with the last book, Friend Grief and the Military: Band of Friends. Although the previous two books (AIDS and 9/11) were also about people who died under horrible circumstances, this one was different. For several weeks, I was grumpy, to put it mildly. I came out of it, and I believe in the end, the book shows not just the unique grief of those who lose friends in war, but how the survivors are able to process their grief, sometimes in very creative ways.

Depressing? Maybe.

Sad? Definitely.

Inspiring? Very much so.

The reactions of my readers – and future readers – here on the blog, on Facebook, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Twitter, Google+, in much-appreciated reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, in private messages and in person – are what keep me going. So keep them coming! And thanks for being part of Friend Grief.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Friend Grief and Reunions

Our 2010 reunion
It’s reunion season.

I graduated from Nerinx Hall, a Catholic girls school run by the ever-progressive Sisters of Loretto in St. Louis. Since our 20th reunion, we’ve met every five years.

We’ve met in the school cafeteria, a country club, and the home of one of our classmates. Sometimes we’ve had one event, sometimes two over a weekend. Certain traditions are included at each reunion.

First, no men. We made that mistake at the five year reunion (actually held a year late) and decided it was too much trouble to entertain husbands or boyfriends. We have a lot more fun when it’s just us.

Second, before we meet for dinner or brunch, we have a tour of the school to see the wonderful improvements and bemoan the old days of manual typewriters rather than iPads.

And third, we start with Mass in the chapel at school. We used to have a priest celebrate it, but that became problematic. Now we have our own service, our way. The music changes, the readings change, but one thing is constant.

During the offertory, a rose is presented in memory of each girl from our class who has died, starting with the one who died while we were still in school. The causes of death – cancer, automobile accidents, suicide, 9/11 – are rarely discussed. But the girls themselves are remembered.

There have been times when we’ve gathered to plan a reunion when no one had died since the previous one. That will probably not happen again, though as far as I know, a year away from our next one, there’s no new rose to add.

Sometimes the deaths have been well-known to the class. Sometimes we’ve been surprised because we’d lost touch with someone. But as we age, we know that there will be more.

Maybe you’re one of those heading out of state or just across town to reconnect with old friends. Your focus may be on impressing people or just hoping to not embarrass yourself.

But at most every gathering – no matter the length of time – you will be confronted with the knowledge that not everyone is there. The girl whose locker was next to yours, the one who passed notes to you in World History, the one with the curliest hair - one or more of them have died.

Maybe you were close friends. Maybe you were in different cliques and just never made the effort to get to know each other. It doesn’t matter.

At some point during your reunion, you’ll look around. You’ll marvel that everyone got older except you. And then you’ll remember those who did not make it to their 20th birthday, much less their 50th. They were part of you, part of growing up, even if they’re gone.

So take a minute like we do. Recite their names, or include their pictures in the reunion program. Share a story.

And include all your classmates in your reunion.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Friend Grief at Work

Once you’re done with school, the most likely place to meet new people is through your job. And some of them become terrific friends.

Maybe you shared an office and worked on a project together.

Maybe the two of you were in the same movie.

Maybe you were baristas in the same coffee house.

Maybe you taught in the same school.

Maybe you found yourselves assigned to the same firehouse after graduating from the academy.

And then they died.

The first four books in the Friend Grief series have included some people who worked together: first responders on 9/11, active duty military, war correspondents and actors. All shared a love of their jobs and a deep affection for their friends. All struggled with the grief of losing their friends – sometimes violently and suddenly.

My next book - Friend Grief in the Workplace: More Than an Empty Cubicle – expands the notion of ‘workplace’.

When someone talks about their job, or their work, most would imagine a desk in a high-rise office building. But that would be a very narrow view of how people spend most of their waking hours.

Some of the workplaces you’ll be invited into in the next book include:

            A local TV news station

            A major newspaper

            A neighborhood coffee house

            A church

            An elementary school

            A medical center

A convent

Imagine that your friend died, and to make matters worse, you couldn’t escape the grief at work – because the friend worked with you every day. Compounding the grief is the loss of a productive person in your workplace.

Maybe you were assigned to do their work until they could be replaced, dramatically increasing your own workload.

Maybe the balance of power shifted in the workplace, and others were now jockeying for your friend’s job.

Maybe you resented the person who replaced them.

And maybe you were angry at being told “snap out of it – there’s work to do.”

If any of these scenarios sound familiar, you’ll identify with the people in the next book, coming in November.

And in the meantime, take a minute to think about the people you work with, the ones who you count as friends. And consider that those friendships may be more valuable than you thought.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Grieving Your Friend Onstage

It’s hard for people to express their grief in words. While crying may be acceptable in some settings, it’s not easy to find a setting to discuss your grief. And for young people, who have not experienced a lot of loss, it can be doubly hard.

A University of Maryland theatre major worked through the loss of three of his friends in the only way he knew how: onstage.

Brendan O’Connell lost three of his friends in a drunk-driving accident in the summer of 2011. One had been his best friend for 15 years, next-door neighbors who grew up together.

His grief was compounded by the knowledge that he’d begged off riding with them that night. When he returned to college, he was, in his own words “bottled up” – in more than one way. His guilt prevented him from sharing his grief as did the realization that he, too, had driven drunk at times. He self-medicated with alcohol to deal with it – or not deal with it.

It took time, a long time, to forgive himself and face his grief. Would it have gone more smoothly if he’d talked about it or not turned to alcohol? Possibly. But what came out of his reflection was something more personal, more cathartic.

À Demain (French for See You Tomorrow) is a play about his friends and their joy for life. O’Connell plays himself, and his brother portrays the best friend, who shows him the way out of the darkness.

A local parent, who knew all three young people who died, had this to say:

“It honors a fallen friend, it celebrates life, and it also reminds us how he died and the preventability of it all,” he said. “It is another way to learn the lessons that we, as parents, are all trying to impart.”

O’Connell’s play is part of the Capital Fringe Festival, where it is playing July 18, 20 and 25. For ticket information, www.capitalfringe.org.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Should You Send Flowers to a Dying Friend?

You know what it’s like.

You’ve had friends who were dying and refused visitors. Maybe they were overwhelmed, depressed, scared, determined to face their fate alone. Maybe they’d lost a lot of weight and didn’t want anyone to see them ‘like that’. Maybe they didn’t want to see ‘the look’: the facial expression that they interpret as pity.

You’ve had friends who even refused to talk on the phone. Maybe talking was painful or difficult. Maybe their memories were shaky. Maybe they just weren’t prepared to talk about their illness with anyone.

Those refusals are their right, although being on the other end hurts.

You know your friend is dying – or suspect they are, because information is so sketchy. They’ve set very clear boundaries for interaction.

So, what can you do?

Send flowers or a plant? Send a fruit basket? They probably have plenty already.

Here’s a radical thought:

Write a letter.

If you feel less awkward writing inside a card, by all means buy a card that’s blank on the inside. Enclose a photo of the two of you. Or write on a postcard from a place that means something to both of you.

But write a letter. Take the time to say what your friend won’t let you say to their face or on the phone:

            That you respect their need for privacy.

            That you’re praying for them (but only if it’s sincere and what they’d want).

            That you treasure the times you spent together.

            That you’re available to listen if they want to talk – listen without judgment or comment.

            That you are the person you are today because of your friendship.

Don’t offer medical advice. Don’t write sentences that include the word “should”. Don’t scold them for their decision to keep friends at a distance.

It won’t be easy for most people to do this – not just because as a society we’ve gotten out of the habit of writing letters – but because it’s hard to express difficult emotions, like grief. It doesn’t have to be a long letter, just heartfelt.

Because the time to tell your friends you love them is now, while they’re still here.