Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Coming Soon from Friend Grief

It’s very busy in my house: spring cleaning, office reorganization and the next book in the Friend Grief series about to be published. So I thought this is a good time to let you know what’s coming in the next couple months:

I’ll be in the first AuthorHub at Book Expo America, May 29-31. It’s a special area for self-published authors, and includes such superstars as Hugh Howey. (I’m definitely not in his league, but it’s nice to bask in the glow.) If you’re attending, please stop by and say hi!

Here on Friend Grief during May, leading up to the next book’s publication, I’ll have a series of posts on people and organizations I’ve met during the research, including Stop Soldier Suicide, American Women Veterans and the National Veterans Art Museum. My hope is that you, too, will be motivated to help them and their cause in whatever way you can.

I’ll also be guest blogging on a number of sites next month, and I’ll share those links with you soon.

Like my books on AIDS and 9/11, there’s a wealth of information out there for people in the military: books, films, organizations doing important work that helps those who have lost a friend in battle. Some are listed in the book, but more will be available here and on my Pinterest page.

In June, I’ll be signing at Printers Row Lit Fest and Chicagoland Authors Promoting Success. If you’re in Chicago either of those weekends, I hope you’ll stop by and meet some terrific writers.

July 1st I’m launching my first email newsletter for my readers. Sign-up info coming soon!

Lastly, and most important, Friend Grief and the Military: Band of Friends will be released on Memorial Day. It will be available, of course, in paperback and e-book. You’ll be able to find it on IndieBound, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and iBookstore. I’m pleased to share this synopsis (the cover design will be revealed soon):

“They were killing my friends.”

That was how Medal of Honor winner Audie Murphy justified his heroic actions in World War II. As long as there have been wars, men and women in the military have watched their friends die. Experts warn that delaying our grief will complicate our lives. But what about those who have no choice but to delay it until the battle is over?

In Friend Grief and The Military: Band of Friends you’ll meet military and non-combatants who struggle with the grief and guilt of losing their friends. You’ll learn, too, in the amazing ways they help each other, that “leave no one behind” is a life-long commitment.

Like they say, stay tuned. There is more excitement in the works that I can’t wait to share with you!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Policing the Grief Police

A couple weeks ago we considered the Grief Police. They’re the people who are more than willing to tell you how to grieve the death of your friend. In fact, they’re probably telling you that you’re making too big a deal out of it.

I asked what people want to hear when a friend dies. It’s not really that different than what anyone who’s grieving wants to hear: a simple “I’m sorry” or “I’m glad to listen if you want to talk about it.”  But those comments require a certain amount of empathy, basic human compassion. And frankly, not everyone is capable of that.

So, how to respond when someone says something stupid like “it’s not like they were family”? I suppose, if you’re like me, your first reaction is to want to smack them. It might even provoke a sudden burst of tears. But in talking to people and thinking back on the times I’ve grieved a friend, I discovered that the answer is really very simple.

If we are to expect respect from others, we must give voice to that respect ourselves. How can we expect others to understand the grief we feel for our friends if we don’t express it? That means we have two very simple things to do:

First, tell your friends you love them. Maybe you don’t feel comfortable saying the L word, but do it anyway. Tell them what a difference they made/make in your life. And tell them while they’re still here, so you don’t have to add a layer of guilt onto your grief when they die.

Second, tell others that you loved your friend. When someone is dismissive of your grief, just say “They were my friend and I loved them. Why wouldn’t I grieve?” If they’re stupid enough to persist with comparisons of those they deem more worthy of your grief, stop them with “I love a lot of people, and many of them are friends.”

The size of our family may be limited; our circle of friends is not. But the loss of one is still deeply felt. And deserves every tear we shed.




Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Friend Grief and Medics

Conlan Carter as
Doc on "Combat!"

Imagine you work in an emergency room. You’re an orderly, maybe – no rank in the pecking order. You might be the only one there to help, or you might have help, but not from a doctor or nurse – there aren’t any. It’s all on you.

Every day – in bursts of activity that last for hours – your workplace is filled with patients. They’re screaming and panicky or very, very still. Some are missing legs or eyes; others have horrific head wounds. The floors are covered with blood and bandages and random pieces of flesh.

You’re trying to be in three places at once; responding to whichever patient you think can be stabilized and moved up to surgery. The people you’re working on are barely out of high school. And you know every one of them.

When we think of medics, we generally think of movies and TV shows. They were (usually) guys who were referred to as “Doc”, even though they weren’t doctors. They were often older than the squads they accompanied. Most of their duties consisted of tending to non-life-threatening injuries.

As I researched my next book, Friend Grief and the Military: Band of Friends, I found amazing stories about medics. Men and women on the front lines, their role has evolved, just as the nature of war has evolved.

I was surprised to learn the following:

Medics are allowed to carry and use weapons in self-defense or in the defense of their patients.

US Navy medical corpsmen have earned 22 Medals of Honor, the highest honor for any member of the military.

One of the Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima was a medic.

We tend to not think of medical professionals as our friends in civilian life. But the uniqueness of war makes everyone dependent on one another: living in close quarters, traveling together, eating together, and sometimes dying together.

They are in a vulnerable position, not being combatants. They rely on their unit to protect them. Trust must be absolute.

The grief they feel when a soldier in their unit dies can be complicated by guilt at being unable to save their friend, who may have died protecting them. They must also be able to assess why someone died, and learn something from it to use in the future.

I read one book by a doctor who spoke with great gentleness about the medics who served with him. They’re the same age as the guys they’re taking care of – 18, 19, 20 – or maybe a decade younger. They are working against the clock – and battle conditions – to save limbs and organs and lives of the friends who minutes earlier were protecting them. And every day they see things that would bring a civilian emergency room physician to his or her knees.

And they, too, like the others in their unit, rarely have the luxury to grieve immediately. That must wait for later.

You’ll learn more about them and their incredible bravery in my book. But next time you watch a movie or TV show set on the battlefield, think about those medics. Their job was and is a hell of a lot tougher than it looks.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Friend Grief Police

You know who they are, because they made you feel like this.

You tell them your friend died, and they probably said one of these things to you:


 “I know just how you feel. My dog died.’

 “Aren’t you over that yet?”

“You’re not crying, are you?”

“It’s not like your mother died or something.” 

“Well, they were overweight/smoked/drank/did drugs.”

Don’t you love people like that? Instead of just saying “I’m sorry”, they feel free to pass judgment – not just on how you grieve but that you grieve at all for your friend.

They are usually self-appointed, though at times will hide behind religious vestments to justify their opinions. It’s okay to be hurt and angry. They just won’t understand. Ten people in the same place at the same time will react ten different ways to any event. So it is with grief.

The grief we feel when a friend dies may take us by surprise with its intensity. We may feel guilt or regret or anger. We may feel comfort or torment in our memories. It’s when we want to share those feelings that we run into the Grief Police.

When I first started writing about grieving the death of a friend, the working title of the books was “It’s Not Like They’re Family”. That’s the response a lot of people hear when they tell someone a friend died.

What would you like to hear instead?

How about “I’m so sorry”? I mean a sincere “I’m so sorry” followed by “how can I help?”, rather than by a swift change of subject so everyone can feel happy again.

It’s so easy, isn’t it, to say the wrong thing, intentionally or otherwise? On a good day, I like to think that the Grief Police are well-meaning, but clueless. Most days, though, I just want to smack them.

So consider yourselves warned: you’re liable to meet the Grief Police when you share the news of a friend’s death.

I’ll share some thoughts on what to say in response and how to avoid joining the Grief Police in my next post. Feel free to add your own in the comments below.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

"Body Counts" by Sean Strub

I’m not a fan of memoirs. I find a lot of them to be self-serving justifications for past behavior, spinning a fictional tale that presents the narrator as either a victim or hero. And while AIDS is an issue I’ve been involved with since the 80s, Sean Strub’s Body Counts was not a book I was excited about reading.

Strub changed my mind on page 2, when he mentioned that a mutual friend, Jamie Leo, dressed as a priest at ACT UP’s controversial 1989 St. Patricks’ Cathedral demonstration. My mind flashed back to a Halloween party Jamie and I had attended in the mid-70s, and I now found myself connected to Strub’s story in a way I hadn’t anticipated.

Body Counts is the not the story of a victim or even a hero. It’s the story of a man at a unique time and place, a man with personal demons and challenges he used to fuel a quite remarkable life.

A native of Iowa City (where I went to college), Strub’s interest in politics takes him to Washington in the late 70s, a good time for liberals. His growing awareness of being gay – and the ways his early, as yet unacknowledged, sexual abuse play out – occurs in a gay community still largely closeted. That immersion in politics led him to a career in direct mail fundraising for gay issues. His move to New York coincided with the discovery of a new, strange, and frightening virus that targeted gay men.

Not all of us involved in fundraising for AIDS organizations in the 80s wound up as activists, but Strub did, bringing those talents and contacts to ACT UP. But it wasn’t until the death of his lover, Michael that Strub’s life took an irrevocable turn. That morning at St. Patrick’s was – at least for me – the moment the Catholic boy from Iowa became an activist. From then on, his commitment to the community took on a much deeper meaning. He was fighting for his friends, for Michael, and for himself.

He’s not shy about naming names (though it doesn’t come off as name-dropping), and his anger is well placed: politicians like Bill Clinton who conned the LGBT and AIDS communities, making promises on the campaign trail that translated to indifference, at best, once elected; gay advertisers, who abandoned Strub’s Poz magazine because it was geared to anyone with HIV, not just privileged, white, gay men; Anthony Fauci of the CDC, who time and again declined the opportunity to support people with HIV/AIDS rather than the status quo of government bureaucracy. Too many times – whether it was politicians, religious leaders, even members of the LGBT community – access did not translate to support. And facts did not always sway those in power.

And that’s the strong suit of his book, which should be required reading for anyone who doesn’t remember the first 20 years of the epidemic (and even those of us who do). By starting out in Washington, then moving to New York, just in time for the outbreak of HIV, Strub’s life connects the dots in a unique way I have not seen anywhere else. If at times it feels like he’s a witness to history, he is.

But more importantly for all of us, he’s a participant. He’s an integral part of the history of the AIDS epidemic, especially in New York. And if he insists his reasons were selfish – to create a legacy larger than himself – so be it. His new cause-within-a-cause (HIV criminalization) puts him once again in the position of advocating for people on the margins, even within the AIDS community.

He does not, thankfully, gloss over his own failings. None of them – denial about his own health, assumptions about people in power – are unique to Strub or gay men or anyone who is HIV positive. They’re human failings. By his own admission, he’s luckier than a lot of people, especially when it comes to health and finances. He lived long enough to benefit from the “cocktail” of anti-retroviral drugs that created the “Lazarus Effect”, bringing back thousands from the brink of death to now-health lives.

I was amazed at how many ways our lives brushed up against each other, unknowingly: mutual friends, identical reactions to moments in history, being in the same place at the same time. And once again, I was touched by the acknowledgement of the role of friends in the history of the AIDS epidemic. That always has been the real heart of every story: how friends stepped up and became caregivers, activists and leaders in the fight against bigotry and fear.

Over the years, I’ve read dozens of books about AIDS (wrote one, too). All have left me sad, frustrated and angry. But no book has left me with such a profound sense of gratitude and peace as Body Counts. And that’s a remarkable thing.

Early in the book, Strub shares a letter from activist Vito Russo that encourages him to do something we should all take to heart:

“This is not a dress rehearsal,” he wrote to me in August 1981. “It’s your one and only life, and you have to make it something right now, you do not have all the time in the world, it only seems that way. End of wise comment.”




Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Another Celebrity “Friend” Dies

There’s been a lot on the news, on the internet, in the papers the past 48 hours about the death of writer/director/actor Harold Ramis; even more here in Chicago, because he was one of “us”.

Again – as we saw recently in the case of Philip Seymour Hoffman – people are sharing their grief as if he were a close personal friend.

And again, others are asking “Why?”

Why do we mourn the death of someone we’ve never met?

Why do we feel as if we’ve lost someone who was a part of our lives?

Why do we act as if they were our friend?

Certainly, the internet and social media like Twitter and Facebook have enabled millions to share their thoughts and feelings with the world. We’re probably more aware of the impact certain celebrities have on our lives because of the obsessive nature of the 24-hour news cycle.

We admire their talent and maybe their work ethic. We identify their works of art – films, TV shows, songs – and link them to important moments and places in our lives. And that’s what I think is the key.

When I think of Carole King, I remember listening to “Tapestry” in my first dorm room. Many years later, when my daughter was a tiny baby, I remember singing along with the lullaby King contributed to “Til Their Eyes Shine”.

Am I friends with Carole? No, of course not. We’ve never met and I’ve never even seen her perform live. But when I think of the little dorm room at Webster, or sitting on the couch holding my daughter, I think of Carole and her music. And now, when my college-student daughter wants to see Beautiful (the musical based on King’s early career), I think of Carole and those earlier times, too.

That’s doesn’t make us friends, not in the way I define ‘friend’. But it points to the influence people can have in our lives.

With Harold Ramis, that influence often resulted in people – mostly men – who can quote entire scenes from Caddyshack or Stripes; even President Obama can’t resist. But those who worked with him and knew him – his real friends – probably would describe him the way Kelly Leonard, Asst. VP of Second City, did yesterday:

“Harold Ramis was an A-plus creative talent and an A-plus human being, which never happens.”

The oldies radio station I listen to refers to their playlist as “the soundtrack of our lives.” And that’s true. Every one of us can tell the story of the first time we heard a song: where we were, what we were doing, who we were with.  The songs and the artists become a part of our lives.

So when a celebrity dies, it’s as if we’ve lost a part of us. It’s not entirely true, because their work lives on. But now there is a twinge of sadness when we hear that song or watch that movie or TV rerun.

That’s okay. Feel sad that Harold Ramis – or Philip Seymour Hoffman or whoever – won’t be creating any more memorable characters.

But don’t forget to celebrate, too. Hold onto those memories; make new ones, too. And for now, let’s remember Harold Ramis:


In the immortal words of Jean-Paul Sartre, “Au revoir, gopher.”



Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Friend Grief - Guilt vs. Regret

Guilt: responsibility for a crime or for doing something bad or wrong; a bad feeling caused by knowing or thinking that you have done something bad or wrong.

Regret: to mourn the loss or death of; to miss very much; to be very sorry for.

(Definitions courtesy of Merriam-Webster Dictionary)


Often when a friend dies, we feel overwhelmed by what might have been. There are good memories to comfort us, stories we can share with other friends. But often – too often – the negative feelings overshadow everything else. And we feel guilty.

Or do we?

There are certainly times when guilt is an accurate response to the news that a friend has died. If you promised to call/visit, and then blew them off because you were tired or got a better offer, than yes, guilt is appropriate. If you consciously avoided them because you “couldn’t handle” seeing them “like that”, then yes, you should feel guilty. If you spent time with them, but refused to let them confide their hopes and fears about dying, demanding that the conversation stay upbeat, then yes, I hope you do feel guilty.

But what most of us feel is not guilt. While the first definition of guilt is related to committing a crime, isn’t it interesting that the first definition of regret is about mourning?

There have been times when I couldn’t visit someone who was sick because I had a cold, and I knew their compromised immune system might not be able to fight it off.

There have been times when family obligations or my own health took precedence over spending time with a sick friend.

There have been times when I realized too late that I never told them I loved them, even though they’d probably protest that they already knew.

There have been times when I just thought we’d have more time. It wasn’t denial. I just expected they’d live long enough to finish a project we were both working on, one I’ll have to finish on my own.

I guess I’m saying that since we’re all imperfect, we will always have regrets. We will be sad when a friend dies and feel that loss very deeply. We’ll do things and go places, and wish they were there with us. That’s regret, and it’s unavoidable.

Guilt, however, is avoidable. Yes, it’s hard to visit a friend who’s dying, hard to see the physical change in them. So what? You can’t handle feeling uncomfortable, even if your presence brings comfort to your friend? Then you’re not much of a friend.

So, your assignment for today is to make a promise to yourself to avoid guilt when it comes to your friends. Don’t make excuses. Don’t wimp out. Be present. Be supportive. Be a good friend.
You’ll still mourn their loss. You’ll still have regrets. But you'll sleep better not feeling guilty.