Wednesday, March 30, 2011

"Do You Need Any Help?"

When someone dies, most people have good intentions. They want to mourn, they want to remember. And they want to help those who are grieving themselves.
Often, when you grieve the death of a friend, the focus is on their family. They are the “primary” mourners. They are the ones who get the most sympathy. And families do deserve sympathy and support.
The standard question is, “do you need any help?” Now that’s not always the best thing to ask. For one, it puts the burden on the griever to identify and express that need. They may not be thinking clearly enough to do that. It can also come off as insincere, as if the person asking is hoping the answer is no.
Even so, it is a reaching out, however imperfect, to those who grieve.
But who asks the friends?
Sometime the death of a friend can cause paralyzing grief, the kind where you wander around the house, not able to focus or think.
Maybe you were lucky. When your friend died, maybe those around you asked how they could help you. Most likely, they didn’t.
If you know someone who’s grieving the death of a friend, acknowledge it. Ask if there’s something you can do to help. Better yet, suggest something you are willing and able to do, the most important thing of all: listen.
Ask them to tell you about their friend.
It will mean the world to them.
Do it.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Back to Ground Zero

I’ve been to Ground Zero three times.
The first time was in 2005, a few weeks after my father died. I didn’t like being there, probably because I was already mourning more than I believed possible. We went down and looked through the chain-link fence. Banners listing the names of the victims covered large sections of the fence. When you looked down, you saw a massive hole in the ground, a few trucks and not much else. The enormity of it was so much more dramatic than seeing it on TV. My classmate’s name was right there, in alphabetical order. I felt like it was a pilgrimage, of sorts.
I went back in October, 2009, when I first started on my book. I spent the morning just walking around, soaking up atmosphere, as it were. Trinity Church and St. Paul’s were quiet escapes from the hustle and bustle of re-building. The site, so barren 4 years earlier, was a construction site now. The banners with the names were gone, replaced by ones showing renderings of what was being built. What had happened 8 years earlier seemed almost forgotten. Life moved on: the Burger King across from the site was bustling, as were the souvenir shops, clothing stores and gentleman’s club.
In 2010, I spent two days at Ground Zero, September 10 and 11. This time was different for a couple reasons. I was deep in the book research and writing now.
Being there on the anniversary had a very different feel to it. The construction had progressed dramatically. I stood on Broadway, across from Zuccotti Park, with a young man who lived and worked in Manhattan. He’d never been down there, but because it was a Saturday, he didn’t have to work. He just wanted to show his respect. It was a solemn crowd.
I was in New York last week with my family, and didn’t go to Ground Zero. We were there for a mini-vacation and college visit. I’ll go back in May and again in September, for the 10th anniversary. I’m sure I’ll be shocked by the changes in the site and the surrounding area.
Life goes on.
Whether we want it to or not.

Friday, March 25, 2011

When A Celebrity Dies

I recently posted on the phenomenon of grieving when a celebrity dies. We grieve because we have a connection to them, just as we do with our real friends. “I felt like I knew them” is a familiar explanation.
Aurora Winter’s article, Elizabeth Taylor: 5 Tips for Overcoming Grief When a Celebrity Dies, looks at this from the perspective of actress and AIDS activist Elizabeth Taylor’s recent death. She has some thought-provoking tips for using a celebrity’s death as a catalyst for your own life.
Read her article at:

Monday – Back at Ground Zero
Wednesday – “Do You Need Any Help?”
Friday – Longtime Companion

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Memorializing Your Friends – StoryCorps

One of the disadvantages some people feel when a friend dies is the inability to pay tribute to their friend.  You might give a gift in their memory to their favorite charity or cause.
But we want the world to know how important and special this friend was to us; why the world is a little sadder without them.
So there are blogs – not unlike this one – and Facebook tribute pages.  But another wonderful way to honor your friends is through StoryCorps.
StoryCorps is an organization dedicated “to providing Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share, and preserve the stories of our lives.”

I first learned about StoryCorps in conjunction with the September 11 Initiative, preserving stories of those who survived and those who died on 9/11.  The stories are actually interviews, between two people, which are recorded and preserved at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress (along with a free CD to share).

Since 2003, StoryCorps has collected and archived more than 30,000 interviews from more than 60,000 participants, making it one of the largest oral history projects of its kind.  You may have heard their weekly broadcast on NPR’s Morning Edition. 

In addition to the September 11 Initiative, their projects include collecting stories from different populations such as Latinos, African-Americans, teachers, those with Alzheimer’s and the LGBTQ community.

Based in New York, StoryCorps makes regular efforts to bring their recording facilities to different parts of the country, such as Alaska and Minnesota, with upcoming trips planned to California and Hawaii. 

Imagine sitting in their recording booth with a friend of yours, talking about a mutual friend and what they meant to you.  Laugh about the silly things you did with them, or remember the impact they made on their community.  Think back to how you met, and how your first impression of them remained true.  Imagine going home with a CD of your reminiscing.  And imagine that conversation being preserved at the Library of Congress.

What a fitting tribute to your friend.

Learn more about Story Corps at And while you're at it, make a donation.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Gift of Saying Goodbye

My husband and I recently visited a friend who’s dying. His partner has been keeping a group of us up to date on their situation, and on a Saturday afternoon, we were able to visit them. We weren’t alone; two other friends had flown into Chicago from Dallas and Seattle.
Our friend looks awful (so does his partner), but for a few minutes, the old energy and sense of humor were back. We all had a lovely visit, though brief.
Yes, it was uncomfortable, and yes, it was undeniably sad.
But what a gift it was, too.
The gift was not just that we were able to see him, probably for the last time.
The gift was that we were allowed to see him.
Too often, we don’t get to say goodbye to our friends, and not just because there is a sudden death.
Too often, the friend has cut themselves off, not wanting to be seen; not wanting to see the looks of pity or sadness in the eyes of their visitors. It’s not always the visitors who don’t know what to say; sometimes it’s the person who’s dying.
Too often, the family around our friend – with good intentions – cut off visitors so as not to tire out our friend.
But we were luckier than many people. We had a wonderful time – laughing, flirting, gossiping – that was all too brief.
But we were given a great gift.
And for that, we are grateful.

Friday, March 18, 2011

"Let's Be Careful Out There"

At the end of the morning roll call on the 80’s hit Hill Street Blues, Phil would always remind his comrades “let’s be careful out there.”
They were cops. They knew every day could be their last.
Not everyone lives that consciously, certainly not when they’re younger.
But the truth of the matter is, the world is a dangerous place. Stuff happens, no matter where you live.
We can eat healthy foods, exercise every day, do all the things that are supposed to “guarantee” a long life and still not reach that goal.
This photo is from my 40th high school reunion. Each rose represents one girl from my class of 122 who died; there are 9. One died our senior year, the most recent, two years ago.
As we age, we lose more and more friends. It’s just the law of averages, and not unexpected. What we don’t expect are the “before their time” deaths.
We don’t expect to experience a friend’s death before we’re old enough to vote.
We don’t expect to experience a friend’s death before our hair turns grey.
We don’t expect to experience a friend’s death, period.
So when it happens, we can become skittish, paranoid about our remaining friends. We pester them to lose weight, exercise more, or have that mammogram. We probably annoy them beyond words, and they might even tell us to back off.
Too damn bad.
The price of being a friend is that you are loved. And you’ll just have to live with that.

Monday – The Gift of Saying Goodbye
Wednesday – Memorializing Your Friends – StoryCorps
Friday – Back to Ground Zero

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Everybody's Talking About Surprises

I really, really, really don’t like surprises.  I guess I’m too much of a control freak to accept the fact that there really are things in this world I can’t plan for or anticipate.
Today is WOW! (Women On Writing) blogging day about surprises, so welcome to all who are visiting from the tour!
When it comes to our friends dying, honestly, how is that something you can accept?  Plan for?  Anticipate?
Several days after 9/11, I waited in front of Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago for my husband to join me for the inter-faith service.  I called home for messages and was stunned to hear a friend’s voice, sobbing.  I’d known her since 1966 and could not remember her ever crying, but she was; in fact, it took a while for me to recognize her voice.  She was calling to say that one of our classmates from high school was in the South Tower, and was missing.  By then we all knew what “missing” meant.
When I was working for an AIDS service organization in 1989, we had a coffee-table book on the Names Project, otherwise known as the AIDS quilt.  On the cover were several panels.  One of the panels was for a guy I’d gone to college with.  That’s how I found out he was dead.
So when I say I don’t like surprises, these are the kinds of surprises.  Nothing can prepare you for the email with the subject line “sad news about…”, or the phone call with the tone of voice that means “someone died”. 
We expect our parents to die. 
We expect older people to die.
We never expect our friends to die, because every one of them is a part of us.
So if you haven’t heard from one of your friends for a while, give them a call, drop them a note, shoot them an email. 
That’s the kind of surprise they’ll appreciate.
I wrote today's post as part of the WOW-Women on Writing Blanket Tour for
Letter from Home by Kristina McMorris ( This debut
novel is the story of three young women during World War II and the identity
misunderstandings they and the men in their lives have. Ask yourself: Can a
soldier fall in love with a woman through letters? and What happens if the
woman writing the letters is different from the woman he met the might
before he shipped out, the woman he thought was writing the letters? Is it
still love or just a lie?

  Like many authors, Kristina has had a wild selection of "real jobs"
everything from wedding planner to actress to publicist. She finally added
novelist to the list after  Kristina got a peek at the letters her
grandfather wrote to his sweetheart(a.k.a. Grandma Jean)while he was serving
in the Navy during World War II. That got her wondering how much two people
could truly know each other just from letter writing and became the nugget
of her novel.

  In honor of her grandparents, and all the other families kept apart by
military service, Kristina is donating a portion of her book's profits to
United Through Reading, a nonprofit organization that video records deployed
U.S. military personnel reading bedtime stories to their children. You can
learn more about the program at

  If you comment on today's post on this blog or any of the others
particpating in Everybody's Talking About Surprises, you'll be entered to
win a special surprise prize! It includes an personalized copy of Letters
from Home, a Big Band CD, Victory Garden seeds, and more.  To read
Kristina's post about surprises and a list of other blogs participating in
Everybody's Talking about Surprises visit The Muffin.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Spreading the News Online

I have a friend who’s dying.  His partner set up a closed Facebook group to keep a group of friends and family up to date.
What resulted in the past two weeks is an outpouring of love for both of them.  One friend flew to Chicago from Seattle, another from Dallas.  Others visited, called, posted on the Facebook group page.
Visitors can be tiring, especially for someone close to death.  But to be there when he had a burst of energy on Saturday was a true gift.
Had it not been for Facebook, it would’ve been much less likely that we would’ve all been informed.  The ease of sending messages and setting up groups or pages means that the caregiver can notify dozens or hundreds of people in the time it takes to notify one.
The Yahoo group my high school classmates started after one of the class died on 9/11 is still growing strong almost 10 years later.  Its original purpose – to inform the class about memorial services and discuss ideas for a class gift in her memory – morphed into something very special.  It’s now the main conduit for keeping in touch, spreading news about births, deaths, jobs, etc.
There is a lot to criticize about online social media sites and their propensity for sucking up hours of your life in the pursuit of mindless trivia.  But for caregivers, family and friends, it can be a cost-effective, time-efficient way to share important information about a loved one who is dying, or has died.
Depending on the people involved, Yahoo, Twitter, Facebook, Caring Bridge, email or blogs may be the most appropriate way to contact people.  In fact, being in charge of notifying people is a great assignment for a close friend who wants to do something meaningful.
So often we ask “what can I do?” and the person we’re asking is too overwhelmed to think of anything.  If you have a friend who’s dying, offer to help them by setting up and maintaining an online group of family and friends. 

Friday, March 11, 2011

9/11 and Cumulative Grief

In six months, we will commemorate the 10th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.
For some people – probably most – 9/11 is something that happened years ago.  The History Channel runs specials periodically, and many books have been written concerning that day.  In truth, a lot of people are tired of hearing about it.
Most people weren’t directly affected by the loss of life.  Some people – like me – knew someone who died that day. 
But for a select group, the losses they suffered are almost unimaginable.
“Therapists treated traders who lost dozens of close friends in the towers, police officers who lost everyone in their unit, firefighters who ‘knew 100 people who were dead,’ and former employees of Windows on the World who had skipped work the day of the attack, with the result that ‘everyone they know is dead.’”  - Therapy After Terror
Grieving one friend can overwhelm you.  How do you grieve 10? 50? 100?
Take a moment to think about your circle of friends and co-workers.  Imagine if one day they were gone, all of them.  Imagine how your life would change: not just your physical work place, but the little rituals and traditions you share with your friends. 
Think about the thousands of people who survived that day, but lost so many friends.
And be grateful for your friends.

Monday – Spreading the News Online
Wednesday – Memorializing Your Friends - Story Corps
Friday – “Let’s Be Careful Out There”

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

How Others Look at Friendship

...or perhaps more accurately, how others look at grieving the death of a friend.
You may feel alone after a friend has died.  You may have a hard time finding people who understand what you’re going through.  But it’s an experience we will all share some day.
Following are quotes from a few people who understand:

“A friend who dies, it’s something of you who dies.” – Gustave Flaubert

“With every friend who has been taken into the brown bosom of the earth a part of me has been buried there; but their contribution to my being of happiness, strength and understanding remains to sustain me in an altered world.” – Helen Keller

“Friends are together when they are separated, they are rich when they are poor, strong when they are weak, and a thing even harder to explain – they live on after they have died, so great is the honor that follows them, so vivid the memory, so poignant the sorrow.” – Cicero

“This is the comfort of friends, that though they may be said to die, yet their friendship and society are, in the best sense, ever present, because immortal.” – William Penn, More Fruits of Solitude

Monday, March 7, 2011

A Friend You Never Met

Where were you when you heard John Lennon died?
Princess Diana?
Michael Jackson?
Celebrity deaths – especially those that are sudden or violent – hold a certain fascination for many people.  The media will be temporarily obsessed with the story.
But what can seem unusual is the way some people mourn those celebrities – as if they were a close friend.
Why is that?
They’ve never met that particular celebrity, even though they may have bought their cd’s or seen their movies or watched their TV show.
But they mourn.
Jeff Goldblum was a guest on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” and suddenly began to talk about the late Tim Russert, moderator of “Meet the Press”.  Goldblum admitted he was upset for two days, when he heard of Russert’s sudden death, because he had felt a connection.
It may be a stretch to call these people ‘friends’.  We all have our own definition of friend, and it generally includes some kind of face-to-face interaction. 
But they are a part of our lives – if only a half-hour a week on TV – part of our routine, part of our experience.  And when they’re gone, a piece of our life is gone.
Mourn them.
Celebrate them.
But remember your real friends, too.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Chuckles the Clown

Laughing at funerals is generally frowned upon (Irish wakes notwithstanding).
People are expected to act a certain way: maybe not grief-stricken, but at least respectful of those who are and the person who has died.  You get a lot of dirty looks if you’re the only one laughing.
In recent years, there has been a movement to make wakes and funerals and memorial services more of a celebration of life.  Laughing – in the context of shared memories – has become appropriate. 
Considered by the Chicago Tribune to be the funniest TV comedy episode of all time, "Chuckles Bites the Dust" on The Mary Tyler Moore Show concerned the death of Chuckles the Clown.  Dressed as Peter Peanut, he was trampled by a rogue elephant during a parade.  Her coworkers immediately began to make jokes, and she was horrified by what she saw as nothing less than cruelty.
But at the funeral, she suddenly finds herself unable to stifle her laughter.  Now it’s everyone else who’s disgusted.  And in a complete reversal, as soon as the minister encourages her laughter – because Chuckles hated sadness - she breaks down in tears.
Have you ever been the one to laugh when no one else did?
Maybe your memories of your friend made you giggle.
Maybe something absurd – something your friend would have thought funny – happened during the wake or funeral.
Everyone grieves differently.
Sometimes they even laugh.

Monday – A Friend You Never Met
Wednesday – How Others Look at Friendship
Friday – 9/11 & Cumulative grief

Thursday, March 3, 2011

She Writers Blogger Ball Redux

Welcome to the SheWrites Blogger Ball!  Welcome - or welcome again- She Writers!

I guess I wasn't the only one who had a great time on the first She Writers Blogger Ball!  What a great opportunity/excuse to explore other women writers' blogs.  I learned a lot about other members of She Writes, and was thrilled to have so many visitors to my very new blog.

As the title implies, this is a blog on the topic of grieving the death of a friend.  It's an experience we all face, and sometimes we're surprised  when we encounter a lack of respect for that grief. 

Here you will find examples of those experiences.  Some are sad, some are funny, some are life-changing.  But all point to the importance of friends in our lives.

There are two topics that will be examined closely this year.  There will be a monthly post on AIDS, particularly its effect on the gay community.  There will also be a monthly post on 9/11.  This year is the 10th anniversary, and during August and September there will be more frequent posts about those whose lives changed forever that day.

Feel free to go back in the archives, or check for new posts - every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.  Comments are always welcome!

So, welcome, and I hope you will learn and be inspired by my blog!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Our Parents’ Friends

In the old Peanuts comic strip, adults were occasionally heard from but not seen.  Now and then you’d see the lower part of a body, but never, ever a face.  The adults were drawn as if at a child’s eye level: feet, legs, hands.
When you were growing up, there were adults around you who were friends of your parents.  They were the same kinds of friends you have: people they met at school, at work, in the military.  They shared the same kinds of experiences: growing up, dating, marrying, divorcing, raising children, taking care of aging parents.  They laughed and cried and argued and shared the special moments in their lives.
Some of these adults may be as close to you – or closer – than your own parents.
As we grow older ourselves, these adults – these role models – will also die.  And our parents will grieve them as surely as you will grieve your friends.
Perhaps the worst part of growing older – aside from the inevitable physical limitations – is outliving people you love.
Next time your parent loses a friend, encourage them to share memories with you. 
Because it is through sharing memories that people live on.