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.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Be Careful What You Wish For

I’ve written before about a conversation with some friends, where we discussed our willingness to share news of a serious illness. One of us was already open about her health challenges. Another insisted she would share news with her friends. The other two admitted they were unlikely to tell their friends if they were seriously ill, even the ones sitting at the table.

I have several friends who are very open about their health. I don’t think they share that kind of news with everyone. But ours are friendships that are several decades long. We’ve known each other longer than any of our marriages. There’s trust.

But even people who would be uncomfortable sharing their own health news with their closest friends still expect their friends to be honest with them. Yeah, I know, a little hypocritical. They want to know, they insist, so they can help their friend. I guess they don’t believe the concern and caring go both ways. I know I didn’t.

A few months ago, I asked a friend if he’d tell me if he was sick. “I’m not,” he insisted, but agreed that he would tell me if there was a problem (in fact, he wondered why I felt I had to ask).

Not long ago we were having lunch, when late in the conversation he paused, looked at me and said quietly, “I had chest pains for three days straight.” For a moment, I was afraid I might burst into tears right there in the middle of the restaurant. He went on to explain that all the tests were negative, his heart was fine. It was something unrelated and not serious.

Even as he explained, I scolded myself: “You wanted him to tell you, remember?” Yes, I did. But that didn’t mean I was prepared to hear it. What made sense in theory was something very different in practice.

I had a medical test this week that I was nervous about. He was one of the few friends I emailed about it. He responded that he was saying a prayer. The next morning, when I hadn’t given him an update, he emailed again to ask if I was all right. I had the test results – negative – so I could give him an update and thank him for his concern.

But I was embarrassed. I felt like I should’ve toughed it out myself and not told anyone what was going on. And I understood a little of what my two friends may have been thinking that night at dinner.

I bring this up for two reasons. First, quite a few of the people in my books have expressed the same regret: that they were unable to help a friend before they died. Sometimes it couldn’t be helped: the friend was thousands of miles away or died suddenly. Sometimes the friend kept their failing health a secret or refused help. Often the surviving friends were angry at being shut out, and wondered if maybe the friendship wasn’t as strong as they’d assumed.

Second, unless you’re a hypochondriac who enjoys sharing your health woes with the world, you probably don’t want to tell a lot of people what’s going on. Family aside, your closest friends would want to know: to listen, to support, to help, to let you know they love you.

Because what I’m learning more and more every day is that “in sickness and in health” applies to friendships, too.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Share Your Friend Grief Story

Believe it or not, the final two books in the Friend Grief series will be published this fall. I’m looking for additional stories for both books. Do you have a story that will fit one of them?

Workplace grief

The next book is titled Friend Grief in the Workplace: More Than an Empty Cubicle. The stories in it are about people coping with the death of a co-worker who was also a friend. Don’t let the title throw you off, though: I have a pretty broad definition of workplace. There are already stories of friends who worked together at a coffeehouse, a TV studio, a newspaper, a firehouse. Maybe you’re an actor or dancer, a server or bartender, a medical professional or teacher. You see? Any kind of workplace.

Life Changes

The final book in the series is as yet untitled, and is a wrap-up of sorts. It will focus not on the grief itself, but the ways in which people channeled their grief. Some of the people in it have made dramatic life changes, their friend’s death acting as a wake-up call. Some of the people in it decided to carry on their friend’s work or passions. But all have very different lives because of their friends.

Maybe you have a story that fits one of these books. Maybe you know someone who does. Maybe you saw a story on the news that would be a great addition.

If so, please email me (victorianoe@friendgrief.com) with a brief description. Deadline: July 15. I will contact you and we can figure out how best to discuss your story (email, Skype, in person, etc.).

And by the way, Friend Grief won’t end when this series ends.

Thanks in advance and stay tuned!

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Friend Grief and "If/Then"

Artwork by Zina Saunders
“He broke your heart, didn’t he?”

I was New York City last month, sitting in the mezzanine at the Sunday matinee of a new musical. Musicals are my ‘thing’; always have been, always will be. Acting, singing, dancing: what’s not to like? The show had been enthusiastically recommended by my daughter, who did not tell me much about the plot (as it turns out, deliberately).

“He broke your heart, didn’t he?”

If/Then, starring the remarkable Idina Menzel opens with the story of Elizabeth (or Beth or Liz, depending on which friend is speaking), newly back in NYC after a disastrous 12 year marriage/exile in Phoenix. The title refers to the theme of the show: choices. She has two invitations: one from an old friend, one from a new friend. Which one she accepts will determine her future. Or will it?

The line comes late in the second act. She’s speaking to her late husband’s best friend, who is explaining how much he missed him.

“He broke your heart, didn’t he?”

We think of broken hearts as the fallout from a failed love affair. We sometimes express grief for a parent or spouse in the same way. But it was the first time I ever heard grief for a friend expressed that way. I was surprised.

And then I thought, “well, why the hell not?”

If you loved your friend – whether or not you actually admitted it to them while they were alive – why wouldn’t you feel that way? You might find yourself shocked at the depth of that heartache, but you shouldn’t be.

I’ve had a couple friends who had serious health scares, but survived. In both cases, when they told me what was going on, I struggled to not fall apart. And it was totally selfish: I let myself wonder “what will I do without them?” Luckily, that’s a question I don’t have to answer right now. But after seeing If/Then, when the time comes, I know how I’ll answer that character’s question:

“Yes, he broke my heart.”