Monday, May 30, 2011

Band of Friends

Robert Noe - 1946
I was thinking today, Memorial Day, about my father. He enlisted in the Navy in January, 1946, at the age of 17. Too late for the war, he spent two years up and down the coast of California. He talked about the men he served with in much the same way as we’ve become used to in movies and on TV.

We've seen many over the years - sprawling blockbusters, quiet reflections, black & white and color - on the big screen and on TV. Each is a little different, a slightly different take on war, death, life, friendship, purpose:

Band of Brothers
The Great Escape
Apocalypse Now
The Longest Day
The Great Santini
Movies and TV shows about war and the military are set in a time and place that most of us didn’t experience. They include archival footage and simulations of famous battles. They are more or less factually based. They tell a story of a unique moment in time.
But at their core, the best ones are stories about relationships. Sometimes resorting to stereotypical characters (the “lifer”, the “farm boy”, the “coward”), they still create compelling stories about the men (and sometimes women) who fought to defend our way of life.
There is a special bond among military, especially those who serve in times of war. They depend on those around them – for support, for encouragement, for their very lives. Theirs are friendships forged in the heat of battle; friendships that last a lifetime.
When you take a moment to honor our veterans today, take another moment to think about their friends: those who made it and those who didn’t. Because I guarantee that every veteran is thinking of those friends, too.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Friends Grieving All Around Us

There are stretches of time when it feels like there is no good news in the world. Tornadoes, earthquakes, accidents, war, floods…the bad news is relentless.
I’ve been in New York for the past week, at Book Expo America and conducting research and interviews for my book. It was intense and exhilarating and exhausting. So was the news:
            *The search for loved ones in the aftermath of killer tornadoes in the Midwest.
*A New York City firefighter, a survivor of 9/11 who never got over the guilt of surviving his brother firefighters in the Deutsche Bank fire, committed suicide.
*A sailor just arrived in NYC that day for Fleet Week, was struck and killed by a car on the West Side Highway.
Obviously, in each example there are families who are grieving. But there are also friends.
How do people who are not family begin to search for their friends in Joplin?
How do firefighters cope with the knowledge their brother firefighter felt guilty for surviving when others didn’t?
How do Navy personnel accept that their colleague died not at war, but crossing the street?
I have no answers to these questions. All I know is that in every case, I thought about those left behind: the friends who worked with them, the friends who grew up with them, the friends who are left out in the chaos of grieving.
For all those friends – especially this Memorial Day weekend when we remember those who gave their lives for us all – I’ll raise a glass and say a prayer that they will find peace as they grieve their friends.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Things You Can Do When a Friend is Dying

One of the hardest things about experiencing the death of a friend is figuring out what you can do.
Their family may have the essentials covered, or they may live in a supportive community.
Maybe not; you won’t know unless you ask.
Courtney Strain was dying when she wrote a beautiful, short pamphlet What you can do when a friend (like me) faces the end of life. She wanted people to know that the dying are living every day, and they still need their friends. An excerpt:
“Just because I’m dying doesn’t mean I’m any less capable of being your friend. Dying isn’t my whole identity. Let me be a real person in your life. I can talk about other things besides death and sickness. I can have fun and be fun.”
For a free download of What you can do when a friend (like me) faces the end of life go to If you’d like to share this resource on your website/blog, please provide this link. You may also request hard copies directly from BJC Home Care Services in St. Louis at 314-872-5050.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Dying Matters - For Friends, Too

I’m in my best friend’s will.
She told me long ago what she was leaving me. It has no value to anyone in her family; in fact, she’d prefer they didn’t open the box at all. It’s a personal keepsake of our past, mostly high school.
I think it was when I was in St. Louis for her father’s funeral that I told her there was huge flaw in this plan. “You’re assuming you go first,” I told her. After a moment, she agreed that was problematic. (Plus, I really, really, really would like to have that box now.)
This week is Dying Matters week in the UK, a time for people to at least begin the difficult conversations we must have but try to avoid.
When we attend funerals we often reflect on, for example, the choice of music and say “I want that at my funeral” or “that reminds me of what I want at my funeral.” (I think my will specifies “Spirit in the Sky” and “I Happen to Like New York”, but I’ll have to double-check that.)
But if you’re like most people, you haven’t given those kinds of plans any thought. You haven’t even told anyone what kinds of treatment you want if your death is near. A recent study showed that 59% of people in the UK don’t want to die in the hospital. What the study didn’t reveal is how many of them have actually told anyone of those wishes. It’s important for many reasons, including the possibility that you will not be able to communicate those wishes when the times comes.
Don’t just discuss this with your family: include your friends. Ask them if they’ve made any plans, have any opinions on what they want or don’t want.
Need guidance? Check out for materials on how to have those conversations: with yourself and others.
Watch The Big Chill and check the playlist on your iPod; you may get some ideas there.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Types of Grievers – Part 3

Last month I posted about two different types of grievers.
Some people channel their grief into action: running errands, organizing, bringing food to the family.
Some people are very open with their feelings, talking and crying when they feel the need.

Then there are people who do both.
I envy them.
Those are people who feel comfortable expressing their feelings, even if it’s uncomfortable to others. They cry in front of us, not because they expect us to make everything better, but because they need to cry. When they’re not crying – and sometimes even if they are – they keep busy. They organize the gathering after the funeral service, they make sure everyone at the wake signs the condolence book, they sign for flower deliveries.
They’re able to compartmentalize in a way, except both expressions – crying and doing – are positive actions that help them work through their grief.
Once all the services are over, and everyone has returned to their lives, not as much needs to be done. There is a hole, a lack of “things” to keep them busy. That’s the time – as anyone who has grieved can tell you – when the silence can be overwhelming.
So when you encounter one of these grievers, and marvel at their focus and ability to express themselves, step back. Let them do what they need to do.
Then pick up the phone a week or so later, to break that awful silence. And let them know you’re there for them.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Flashbacks of 9/11

Photo courtesy Taunton Gazette

The news earlier this month about the death of Osama bin Laden wasn’t entirely good news.
I found that every person I talked to about this – without exception – shared some memory of that day almost 10 years ago.
Sometimes it was as innocuous as “so-and-so was supposed to be there for a meeting, remember?”
Sometimes it was “we really didn’t understand what was going on” (from my daughter, who was 7 at the time).
But sometimes the feelings were raw, as raw as they were that day. The comments were passionate and full of a pain that has not eased, even after all this time.
Rather than bring “closure” (that word again), the death of bin Laden stirred up a lot of anger and grief.
Personally, I didn’t feel angry; I got past that a long time ago. But I did find myself experiencing the uncertainty, the fear that I would never again feel truly safe.
You didn’t have to lose someone that day to have those kinds of reactions.
But as we move closer to the 10th anniversary and the opening of the memorials, be mindful that these old feelings may pop up again. Grief has a way of biting you in the butt when you least expect it, and this is no exception.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Are Friends Considered "Loved Ones"?

I got a request today for a referral to a grief support group for friends.
Now, I’ve been doing some occasional research on this for about six months now. My completely unscientific results so far have shown that very, very few grief support groups specifically (that is, in their literature) welcome friends.
Why is that?
I asked the Executive Director of a well-known agency in Chicago, and she insisted that their general grief support groups welcome friends. When I reminded her that the group description mentions loved ones, she insisted that that included friends.
“I’ve never thought ‘loved ones’ meant ‘friends’,” I told her. She was surprised. She assumed that – because she believed it – that everyone accepted that friends are in fact loved ones.
When I responded to today’s request, I realized that I could only recall one organization (I believe in the UK) that had a grief support group specifically for friends.
So, where to go?
If you know of a support group for grieving friends, or if you have attended one, I’d love to hear from you.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Myth of Closure - Part 3

It's been quite a week, hasn't it?

I’ve been talking to a lot of people this week about closure, as it applies – or doesn’t – to the death of Osama bin Laden.
The word has been bandied about in newspapers, blogs, Facebook, Twitter and every news program on TV.

My “research” has gleaned the following observations:
1.      Closure does not end grief.

2.      Justice does not ultimately equal closure.

3.      Those who speak most emphatically about closure tend to be observers to the situation, rather than directly affected.

4.      Those who are most directly affected by 9/11 don’t all see bin Laden’s death as closure.

5.      Believing there is closure makes people feel better, because they think they will no longer have to witness grief.

6.      Closure doesn’t change anything.

Wouldn’t it be great if the last observation were true?
Wouldn’t it be great if closure meant we are no longer in pain, grieving the death of a loved one?
Wouldn’t it be great if closure meant that the person we mourn comes back to life?
While it’s certainly a good thing that the world has one less personification of evil, it doesn’t, as a friend said this morning, “change anything.”
We will grieve; we still miss the person who has died. And while our grief will soften and evolve, it will never completely go away.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Because as long as we have our memories, that person still “lives” in our hearts and in our minds.
For me, getting to the point where you can think about that person, and smile instead of cry…that’s closure.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Myth of Closure - Part 2

Firefighter's Pew
St. Paul's Chapel near Ground Zero
“I hope it brings some comfort to the families. No closure. That word should be stricken from the English language.” - Lee Ielpi, whose son, Jonathan, a firefighter from Queens, died on 9/11 (quoted in the May 3, 2011 New York Times).
Much is made of the concept of closure. We’ve been told that certain things – an anniversary, a verdict, a discovery – can somehow end grief. Closure is considered the act of putting a period at the end of the sentence of grief. 
Except there’s no such thing.
The death of Osama bin Laden has been heralded as closure for those who lost family and friends on 9/11, the end of the grieving. Now we can finally get back to normal and forget about what happened.
For some people, death is closure, after a loved one has suffered a long illness. For some people, getting to the first anniversary of someone’s death is closure, proof that you’ve survived your grief. Others can point to specific “signs” that made them feel better.
But for society to imply that one event – dramatic though it was – can end anyone’s grief is simplistic.
At my father’s wake, my girlfriend’s mother, who had lost her husband the year before said, “You don’t get over it; you just get used to it.”
For many people, bin Laden’s death will ease their minds. “Justice” has been served.
But make no mistake: their grief has not ended. For them, there can be no real closure.
At least not in this lifetime.

Monday, May 2, 2011

The Myth of Closure

“Closure: the sense of finality and coming to terms with an experience, felt or experienced over time.” – Encarta Dictionary

“Closure” is a word frequently invoked in grief-related literature. Events are said to bring “closure” to people who grieve: discovery of remains, burial, 1st anniversaries, etc.
But the news of the death of Osama bin Laden may only be initially considered closure.
Certainly, the death of the most wanted terrorist in the world is a cause for celebration, even not knowing how other terrorist organizations will respond.
But for those who lost family or friends on 9/11, there is no closure.
Osama bin Laden is dead, but so are their loved ones.
Don’t assume everyone is happy and “all right” now.
Don’t assume the grieving is over. In fact, this news will likely re-open painful memories for all of us who knew someone who died that clear, blue September morning. My first reaction on hearing the news last night was, “but Carol’s still dead.”
So, as we discuss this remarkable news today, remember all those who lost a friend or family member on 9/11. Today will most likely be a difficult day for them.