Monday, February 28, 2011

"Ask Amy"

“Ask Amy” is a syndicated advice column written by Amy Dickinson.  You may be familiar with her delightful memoir, The Mighty Queens of Freeville.
In a recent column, a woman wrote about a friend of hers who had died, and was quite lonely at the end.  Long-time friends had abandoned her while she was ill.  The woman writing was distressed by the unnecessary loneliness and isolation her friend experienced.
Death is not easy or comfortable or something that our society even finds easy to discuss. We don’t want to talk about it.  We want to avoid the topic as long as possible.  I suppose it’s why we talk in abstract terms of “if something happens to me…” 
Have you avoided a friend who was dying? 
Maybe you didn’t know what to say. 
Maybe you felt like there was nothing you could do to help. 
If so, you underestimated the power of friendship.

"Ask "Amy column - Feb. 22, 2011,0,7354878.column

Friday, February 25, 2011

“Why Didn’t You Tell Me?”

I was going to write about Longtime Companion today, but realized I’d already posted about AIDS this week. 
I received an email from a friend the other day.  I’d interviewed her for my book a while back, and she had a painful story about a friend of hers who had died.  They’d lost touch, and when the friend died, she wasn’t notified.  It was months later when she heard the news.
Her email was almost unbelievable:  the same thing had happened two more times.  Three friends of hers had died.  Three families had failed to notify her.
Now, I haven’t talked to her since I received her email.  She was clearly stunned that it had happened – twice – again.
It did, however, get me thinking.
Consider for a moment your friends.  Maybe you grew up with them, went to school with them, worked with them, volunteered with them, or traveled with them.  Maybe you live hundreds or thousands of miles away from your family.  Does your family know your friends (and I don’t mean the Facebook variety)?  Do they know these people exist, much less how important they are in your life?
Who would notify them?
When we plan for the future – not that many of us do – we leave instructions for funerals and donations and how to divide up our belongings.  Rarely do we leave instructions for whom to notify in the event of our death.
Maybe you had a similar experience to my friend.  Think back at how hurt you were – not just by your friend’s death, but by finding out about it months or even years later.
Now, promise you won’t do that to your friends.

Monday – “Ask Amy”
Wednesday – Our Parents’ Friends
Friday – Chuckles the Clown

Thursday, February 24, 2011

"The Concert for George" Live Streaming 2/25

This Friday, February 25 would have been George Harrison's 68th birthday. 

In my post The Concert for George, I shared the story of how this concert was created: as a way for his friends to honor George and to mourn their loss.

On his birthday, "The Concert for George" will livestream on his website for all to enjoy.

Feel free to sing along!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

30 Years of AIDS - Part 1

I have two degrees in theatre. In the 1980’s I was working professionally in the Chicago theatre community.  There was no way to escape AIDS.
By the end of the decade, I could’ve covered the walls of my one-bedroom apartment with the AIDS Quilt panels of people I knew.  I’d left the theatre to be a professional fundraiser, mostly working with AIDS organizations.
Most were men, though not all.  Some were classmates from college, or colleagues from one production or another.  Some had lived at one of the AIDS residential programs I worked for.  Some had been volunteers of mine; one was my assistant.
I remember picking up a coffee-table book about the Names Project, and staring at the cover: one of the quilt panels was for a guy I’d worked with in college.  That’s how I found out he was dead.
I developed a bit of paranoia in those days whenever I lost touch with one of my many gay friends.  No news was rarely good news.  As recently as last year, a name came up in conversation, and because we’d lost track of him, we assumed he had died long ago of AIDS.
In the fall of 1991, I went through a stretch where someone I knew died every week for 11 weeks in a row.  When the eleventh one died, I booked a seat on Amtrak, Chicago to Los Angeles: two days, no phones, no conversation unless I wanted it.  Of course, I couldn’t really escape, but that was how I coped. 
If you had told me in 1981 that 30 years later there would be no vaccine, no cure…that you would find people living with HIV and AIDS in virtually every country on earth…that there would still be a stigma attached to it…I would’ve said you were nuts.
As it turns out you wouldn’t have been nuts.
But you would’ve been right.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Types of Grievers

What kind of griever are you?

One of the hardest things for some people to understand is that everyone grieves in a different way.  Throwing yourself back into your “normal” routine may be perfect for some people, but the worst possible thing for others. 
I’m not even talking about gender.  The differences I’m talking about today are personality differences.  Of course, gender, ethnicity, even age may have an influence on these behaviors.  But that’s what they are:  responses to a situation. 
Personality and behavioral assessments are used in business every day: Enneagram, Meyers-Briggs, DISC.  In Dr. Kenneth Doka’s book, Disenfranchised Grief, he offers a description of different types of grievers.  You may see yourself and others in these descriptions:
1.      Intuitive:  Some might say an intuitive griever is typically a woman, and certainly in our society, a woman expressing her grief through crying is accepted.  But this griever can also experience other physical manifestations of their grief:  anxiety, confusion, inability to concentrate, physical exhaustion.

2.      Instrumental: Similarly, an instrumental griever may more likely be a man.  This is someone who is reluctant to talk about their feelings, and anxious to get back to “normal”.  They may also be the person who needs to “do” something: bring food over to the deceased’s family, organize a memorial service, or clean out a closet.

3.      Blended:  You may even be one of those grievers who possess qualities of both the intuitive and instrumental grieve.

4.      Dissonant:  This is a person in conflict: a man who wants to express his grief, but feels like society won’t allow that.  It could also be a woman who feels guilty for not crying a lot.  You don’t feel like those around you will allow you to grieve the way that makes the most sense to you.
I’m not trying to perpetuate stereotypes. 
But I wanted to point out these differences because often those who mourn friends are criticized for grieving.  The people around them don’t understand the depth of the pain they feel, because the person who died is “just” a friend.
Recognize that everyone grieves differently. 
And let them.

Friday, February 18, 2011

"My Name is Alex"

Family Ties was a successful sitcom in that ran on CBS from 1982-1989  A family led by parents who’d been hippies in the ‘60’s included one son, a conservative Republican, played by Michael J. Fox.
Arguably its most famous story is “My Name is Alex” from the fifth season.  Performed live in two back-to-back episodes, the second with no commercial breaks, it opens with the Keaton parents and their two older children returning from the funeral of Alex’ best friend, Greg.  The parents are concerned about their son’s reaction to what has happened.  Indeed, Alex is a model of forced cheerfulness.
When he’s alone, Greg appears to him – a real, physical presence, cracking jokes about how being dead is a great excuse for missing his economics test.  Alex apologizes again and again, because there’s more than grief at work here: there’s guilt.  Greg had asked Alex to help him move furniture, and because Greg had shown up late, Alex had refused.  “I couldn’t be bothered,” he tells his sister.  “Selfishness saved my life.”  Minutes after that refusal, Greg died in a car accident caused by trying to make up for lost time.
“I was supposed to be in that car,” he screams, finally falling apart.  His parents send him to a therapist, and Alex is resistant, to say the least. 
But as he begins to talk about his family and his childhood, he becomes less cynical and condescending, especially when it comes to his memories of Greg.  Greg’s willingness from their first meeting to treat the brilliant Alex P. Keaton as just a regular guy was something Alex cherished. 
Whether, as the therapist insisted, it all came down to whether Alex believed in God, is debatable.  What was clear as the episode drew to a close was that Greg’s death – and life – gave Alex a new perspective on his own future:
“Greg’s dead and I’m alive and I can’t change that.  But I can keep his memory alive.  I can take his sense of humor and his energy and his warmth and I can make it my home. I can be the best Alex Keaton that I can be and I can use the gift that I’ve been given and I can take time to appreciate the beauty in this life.”
Maybe you are one of those people:  someone whose life changed dramatically when a close friend died.  Maybe you became a “different” person. 
Or maybe you just took the best parts of your friend and made them your own…

Monday – Types of grievers
Wednesday – AIDS 30 Years Later (Part 1)
Friday – Longtime Companion

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Welcome, She Writers!

Welcome to my dance in the B&W Bloggers Ball!

This is my very new blog, born Feb. 1.

As I worked on my first book, 'It's Not Like They're Family': Mourning Our Friends and Celebrating Their Lives', I realized that I needed to raise awareness of the unique experience of grieving the death of a friend.  The 10,000,000 people in the U.S. who will have this experience each year have few resources - in print or online - to help navigate and validate their grief. 

I'm pretty new to be giving blogging tips, but the best thing I ever did was have Networked Blogs link this to my Facebook and Twitter accounts.  It's generated a lot of traffic here, and saves time.

So, enjoy your dance here, and I look forward to dancing with many of you!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Like a Brother (or Sister) to Me

When a tragedy occurs – natural disasters, 9/11 – my reaction is to soak up the media coverage.  I need to understand what happened – the how and the why.  Not everybody feels that way; some people prefer to stay as detached as possible. 
Some things have become cliché when people are interviewed about those who have died.  One we often hear in describing a friend who has died is ‘he was like a brother to me’.  Certain groups – like firefighters or police officers – refer to those with whom they work as ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’.  They work together, have each other’s backs, sometimes live together.  They’re more than ‘just’ friends.  I’m not sure when it was – probably not long after I started writing my book – that that phrase started to bother me.
Many people believe that saying someone is ‘like family’ elevates them:  puts that relationship on a higher level than ‘just’ friends. 

This photo was taken at my latest high school reunion.  The women in the photo are not my sisters; I have a sister.  They're my friends - some closer than others, to be sure - but they're my friends.  And I don't take that designation lightly (no matter how Facebook defines it).
What’s wrong with saying someone was ‘like a brother’ to them?  Nothing.  It’s never meant as an insult; rather as an endearment, a way to honor someone and emphasize the importance of that friendship.
But what, I wondered, is wrong with just saying ‘he (or she) was my friend’?  Why do people feel that calling someone a friend isn’t enough to explain the importance of their relationship?  Why is calling someone your friend not the greatest compliment in the world?

Friday – “My Name is Alex”

Monday, February 14, 2011

Feb. 14 - Not Just for Lovers

Today is Valentine’s Day, the day set aside each year to bolster Hallmark, floral and candy industries’ bottom lines.  It’s also the day people tend to express their love.

Those with whom we have a romantic relationship – spouse, partner, boy/girlfriend – are the traditional recipients of such expressions.
Children give valentines to parents, classmates and teachers.
But on the one day of the year when expressing love is not just encouraged but expected, there is one group that probably doesn’t get much attention:  friends.
No, they’re not the people we marry or give birth to – or who gave birth to us.  But they’re important – sometimes more important than family.
Take a few minutes today and tell your friends how much you love them. 

But tell them.
What are you waiting for?

Wednesday – When ‘friend’ doesn’t say enough
Friday – “My Name is Alex”

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Concert for George

“All I wanted to do was really share our love for George and his music with the people.  I need to do this for him, but it’s for me most of all – I need to be able to express my grief in this sort of way.” – Eric Clapton
How do we memorialize our friends?  How do we show the world how much that person meant to us, how much our lives changed for knowing them?  There’s more than one way to remember your friends, just as there is more than one way to grieve.
Some people give eulogies.  Some people donate money to causes that were important to their friend.  Some people have the opportunity to do something a little bigger.
One year after George Harrison died, a group of his friends gathered at The Royal Albert Hall in London for a ‘memorial service’.  It was called The Concert for George, an evening to celebrate the music and the life of the “quiet Beatle”.
People came from all parts of his life: his wife and son, the two surviving Beatles, his favorite comedy troupe (Monty Python), musicians he’d played with and admired.  They shared his music and entertained an audience not just in attendance that night, but around the world via PBS and a commemorative concert DVD.  Their efforts supported the Material World Charitable Foundation, established by Harrison in 1973.
There were no eulogies, in the traditional sense.  But as you listen to them talk between songs and during rehearsal you realize the true meaning of that night for his friends:  to work through their grief while honoring their friend. 
“A lot of our grieving has been dealt with by playing this week,” Clapton said.  “This is a blessed occasion for me because I can share my love of George with you…and I think most important of all is that his wife Olivia and his son Dhani can experience and witness how much we loved him, through his music tonight.”
Most of us don’t have the chance to memorialize our friends in this way.  But the sentiment Clapton expressed is universal.  We want the world to know and love that person who meant so much to us:  who they were, why they were important to us, and why the world is a sadder place without them.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Grieving Online

The Internet allows people around the world to communicate 24/7, though not always for the better.  We are besieged by texts, tweets, posts and comments from people we know and people we don’t want to know.  There is no expectation of privacy.
How then to account for the use of the internet for expressing something as private and personal as grief?
My high school class started a Yahoo group after 9/11, to share information on memorial service plans for our classmate, Carol Demitz.  The group lives on, and now shares news of other classmates’ deaths, as well as happy news:  births of grandchildren, marriages, plans for social outings.  Its initial purpose may have been fulfilled 9 years ago, but the desire to remain connected remains.
Newspapers routinely allow online readers to post remembrances on the death notices page.  These posts remain online for a set amount of time, and are opportunities for people to pay their respects to the family of the person who has died.  Because they are not interactive, there is no opportunity for those who are grieving to connect with each other.
Facebook has changed all that.  While there is an occasional page devoted to an event that resulted in multiple deaths (9/11, for example), most of these pages are created to memorialize one specific person.  Sometimes a parent creates the page to keep their child’s memory alive, but also to keep in contact with the child’s friends.  Sometimes it’s not a family member, but a friend who does this.  Facebook enables those who post or comment to become a community.  Friends can share stories of their friend, as well as their struggles as they mourn.  Those people – who may not have ever met “irl” (in real life) – are now connected in their shared grief.
These are not formal bereavement groups in the traditional sense, where professional leads a group of mourners.  These sites are rarely “led” by a professional.  They spring up spontaneously and often become inactive as those who mourn begin to heal.
One can argue that Facebook creates artificial community; not real because contact is not face to face.  And certainly the term “friend” has been used loosely, to define someone – possibly a stranger – who knows all about you.  But it has also created a way for those who mourn, but may be separated by distance to connect with those who share their grief for a very special person.
I will post more on this in a few weeks.  A doctoral dissertation is being written on just this topic, and the author has generously offered to share her research.
Have you ever posted on a friend’s Facebook memorial page?

Friday:  The Concert for George

Monday, February 7, 2011

People Will Talk (about their friends)

We were having dinner at Stecchino’s on 9th Avenue in New York, a lively group of eight who were attending the Writer’s Digest Conference.  With the agent Pitch Slam behind us, the tension of the past two days was finally wearing off, aided by wine, laughter and crab cakes.
I don’t remember what we were talking about.  But suddenly George turned to me and said very matter-of-factly, “my best friend died at 29.  It changed my life.”
I shouldn’t have been surprised.  George and I had already talked at length about my book, and his enthusiasm was contagious.  But this was the first personal comment he’d made on the subject.
I’ve interviewed a number of men for my book, with more to talk with in the coming weeks.  When I first started, I assumed that it would be like pulling teeth to get men to talk in any detail about friends who had died.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The first man I interviewed actually asked to talk to me, when a friend told him about sharing her story.  We met in his favorite bar, which turned out to be the place he and his friend had spent a lot of their free time.
I pulled out my list of questions – about 30 – hoping that the answers would take more than 15 minutes.  Ninety minutes later, we were still on question #3, although his story had covered most of the rest of the list. 
Conventional wisdom dictates that women’s friendships are more important than men’s; that women are more willing to talk about their feelings.  I was certainly guilty of believing that.  But the willingness of men to bare their souls about their friends has been a revelation to me.
Everyone who has experienced the death of a friend has a story to tell, of the joy of knowing that friend and the pain of losing them.  Don’t assume that men don’t want to share it with you.  All you have to do is ask:
“Tell me about your friend.”

Friday, February 4, 2011

Your Own Personal "Big Chill" Moment

The Big Chill (15th Anniversary Collector's Edition)
Karen: “You'll never get this many people to come to my funeral.”
Michael:  “Oh, Karen, I'll come. And, you know... I'll bring a date.”

You’re going about your day – conference calls, grocery shopping, carpool – when you get a call, a text, maybe an email with the subject line “sad news”.  Someone you know – a friend – has died.  And the world stops.
It happens to us all eventually.
The iconic film about this experience is The Big Chill, the 1983 film about a group of people who reunite for the funeral of one of their college friends.  It was a blockbuster, and not only because of the soundtrack (who can forget JoBeth Williams playing “You Can’t Always Get What You Want?” on the organ for the funeral recessional?).  It was something everyone can identify with:  the death of a friend.
Not all of us will spend the weekend with our friends in a sprawling Southern mansion: playing touch football, getting high, or having sex with our best friend’s husband.  But reconnecting with friends on such a sad occasion can still have a profound effect.
Sometimes – too often – you lose touch with those friends.  Life gets in the way: jobs, families, living hundreds of miles away – all prevent you from keeping in touch with the people who at one time were the most important people in the world.  Still, you wonder how and why you let it happen.
Like the characters in The Big Chill, that gap in contact can create terrible guilt.  You may think that somehow your presence could’ve saved your friend’s life or made it easier.  Pretty egotistical, huh?  But human. 
These characters were all extraordinarily lucky:  they were all able to come to that funeral from their homes around the country.  Not everyone can even get off work to attend a local funeral for a friend, never mind one that is hundreds of miles away.
And most importantly, they were notified.  Sometimes friends – particularly far-flung friends – do not learn of a friend’s death for months or even years.  The friend’s family may not have liked you or even known about you, but to find out after the fact compounds your grief.  And even though the point where you can “do” something is long past by then, the feeling of helplessness can be overwhelming. 
One of my high school classmates, Carol Demitz, died on 9/11.  We’d celebrated our 30th high school reunion the year before (although she didn’t attend) with the usual ‘we should get together more often’.   But it took Carol’s death – not the first in our class – to put those words into actions: a class gift in her memory, a Yahoo group that’s still going strong more than 9 years later, occasional informal dinners, and a bond that has grown stronger each year.  Her death, I suppose, was our Big Chill moment:  our wake-up call to nurture the friendships that sustain us, and stop relegating our dreams to the “someday” pile.
Take a moment today to contact a friend – just one; it won’t take long – who you’ve lost touch with.  Catch up on news and gossip, reminisce, and make real plans to get together.  Don’t wait until you get that call, that text, that email.
“In a cold world, you need your friends to keep you warm.” – Big Chill poster
What are you waiting for?

Monday:  People will talk (about their friends)
Wednesday: Grieving online
Friday:  The Concert for George

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

"Meet Me at Metropolis"

All you really need to know about Delle Chatman can be summed up in one story.  It was November, 2002, and she was in post-op after ovarian cancer surgery.  Not all of the cancer could be removed, and the surgeon told her she wouldn’t live to see spring in Chicago.  “What are you talking about?” she asked.  “We don’t have spring in Chicago; we go right from winter to summer.”
Delle was a force of nature:  a tall, elegant African-American woman whose many talents included playwright/author/photographer/screenwriter/professor, with a deep spirituality and a great laugh.
A year later, a coffeehouse opened around the corner from the Academy of the Sacred Heart, which our daughters attended.  Metropolis soon became the school’s unofficial annex, with parents, students and faculty using it for socializing and meetings.  It’s a “Cheers” kind of place:  as soon as you walk in the door, they’re making your “usual”.  The coffeehouse serves an eclectic community, including recent immigrants, retirees, Loyola University students and moms in need of caffeine and adult conversation.  Many days Delle and I would talk or email or just run into each other, parting with a “meet me at Metropolis.”
One morning in the spring of 2006, we sat there, me with my Earl Green iced tea, she with her green tea chai latte.  She had been to Paris with her daughter Ramona that spring, and believed she was in remission.  There was a pause in the conversation and I changed the subject with great trepidation.
“I have an idea for a book to write,” I told her.
She was thrilled, encouraging as always of anyone’s dreams.
“I didn’t want to tell you because it’s kind of…depressing.”
She demanded that I tell her.
“It’s about what you go through when your friends die.”
She certainly knew that she was the impetus, the inspiration.  But she never acknowledged it, preferring to jump on the bandwagon.  “You should do it,” she insisted, with great enthusiasm.
“Yeah, right,” I said.  I’d never written a book, never tried to write a book.  My writings were limited to grant proposals, press releases and the occasional fantasy story about my girlfriends and I when we were in high school.
“Just do it,” she said with a wave of her hand, as if I were talking about ordering another scone.  She made me promise.  Before Thanksgiving, she was dead.
About a year after she died, I tried to write the book.  Four times I started, four times I gave up.  I’d get a little ways, interview some people, and then hit the wall.  I couldn’t do it.  I felt like I’d let her down, and told her so, in one of my frequent one-sided conversations.  “You can haunt me for the rest of my life, but I’m sorry, it’s not going to happen.”
Over the next two years, I’d think about my promise and feel guilty.  Whenever I faced a challenge, I would hear Delle’s voice:  “if you’d write the damn book you wouldn’t have to worry about that.”
In August of 2009, I was going through a rough time emotionally and physically, having suffered a concussion the previous March.  My husband and daughter and I were in Michigan on vacation, when I woke up one morning with a start.  I’d had a very strange dream, and decided I didn’t want to forget it.  I dragged out my laptop and started typing everything I remembered.  Not long after I finished, I was hit with a revelation, completely unrelated to the dream:  I knew exactly what the book would be like.  I’d struggled before with the format and tone of it, but now it was crystal clear:  what would be covered, who would be in it, what I needed to do. 
From that moment on, I was on a mission to finish “Delle’s book”.  But it wouldn’t be about her, or even about her friends.  It would be about people who didn’t have the opportunities I had:  to support her through her illness, to grieve her, to honor her.  It would be about people who were left out:  friends. 

My book is not about Delle, although it would please her no end if it were.  But she is the reason it exists.  Our friendship was one of the great joys of my life, and her other friends will tell you the same thing.  She continues to guide us and inspire us, and remind us of how precious life can be.  Hopefully she'll be pleased with the outcome of my promise to her.  If not, I’m sure I’ll hear about it.

Friday:  Your own personal "Big Chill" moment

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

"It's Not Like They're Family"

It wasn't the response you expected when you told someone your friend died. 

You expected sympathy. 

You expected the importance of your friendship to be respected. 

You expected understanding.

A shrug and "well, it's not like they're family" wasn't it. 

You were shocked that they didn't "get it".

Welcome to Friend Grief.  This blog will raise awareness of a powerful experience in all of our lives:  the death of a friend.  Millions of people each year suffer the pain of a friend's death, and many of them suffer more because those around them don't respect their grief. 

I was surprised to find that there's a name for it:  "disenfranchised grief".  The term was coined by Dr. Kenneth Doka at the College of New Rochelle to identify grief that is not “openly acknowledged, socially validated or publicly observed.” 

Most corporate bereavement policies don’t accommodate someone whose best friend has died.  Friends have no rights - legal or otherwise – to visit a dying friend, to participate in their funeral service, to formally memorialize them.  Even bereavement groups for “loved ones” may not appear welcoming to someone who has lost a friend.

Examples of this kind of grief will be explored here:  in stories I’ve gathered for my upcoming book, ‘It’s Not Like They’re Family’: Mourning Our Friends and Celebrating Their Lives, as well as stories shared by those who join the discussion. 
But it’s not all sad and tragic:  there will be other stories, too, from people who were able to support and honor their friends, and look back with no regrets.  Don’t be surprised if some of them make you laugh out loud.
For those who wish to seek out grief support, you will find links to online and offline resources to help you.
Perhaps like me, you’re one of those people whose friend’s death acted as a catalyst for them to make major changes in their own lives.  You’ll learn about some amazing reinventions.
Comments are always welcome, and I hope you will share stories of your own experiences as a way to honor your friends.
I also hope that bereavement professionals will read this blog and ensure that their services are specifically welcoming to not just family, but friends.  Those who grieve are not defined by the legality of their relationship, but the depth of their love.
With the exception of today, new posts will appear on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, so check back accordingly.
Feel free to share this blog with anyone you know who is struggling with the death of a friend.  It won’t change what’s happened to them, but it might help to know they’re not alone.
Tomorrow:  The book I’m writing, and why.
Friday:  Your own personal “Big Chill” moment.