Thursday, July 28, 2011

Signs from Our Friends

People who grieve often watch for signs from their loved one who has died.
I’ve had a number of signs from my friend, Delle. She had felt a strong calling to be a priest, an impossibility (at least at this time) in the Catholic Church. A couple years after she died, I went to Christmas mass at Sts. Clare & Francis, an Ecumenical Catholic Communion church in St. Louis. A woman priest was concelebrating the mass, and I couldn’t help but think of Delle, and what she’d been denied. My eyes filled with tears, and then I felt arms around me, as if someone were kneeling behind where I sat. And I heard Delle’s voice in my head saying “it’s all right.”
A woman I interviewed for my book told of her sometimes difficult adjustment when her TV co-anchor died suddenly. A few months after his death, she came back from a trip and turned on her computer, to see his face on her screensaver. There was no reason for that to happen, she insisted to me. It was an old, goofy picture of him and wasn’t something she’d looked at in probably a year. But there it was: a reminder of her dear friend and the good times they’d shared.
Has your friend given you a sign since they died? Maybe it was discovering a letter they’d written to you years ago, or a dream you had. Maybe at a particularly low moment, their favorite song came on the radio.
Whatever the sign, remember that it didn’t happen to make you sad or to make you miss them more. It happened so you’d remember them and the good times you shared. Treasure those signs and be open to more.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

A Support Group Just for Friends

Grief support groups are available in most communities. Some are affiliated with hospitals or hospices. Others are programs offered by religious communities or nonprofit organizations.
Most offer an open group for anyone who is grieving. Everyone is welcome, even though they may be experiencing different kinds of losses (such as spouse, child, parent, friend or pet
But not everyone is comfortable in a general grief support group. They may be the only one mourning a spouse, or they may feel that others in the group don’t understand that their dog was their only companion. People – rightly or wrongly – make comparisons about the level of grief they experience: “mine is worse than yours”. So specialized support groups were formed.
There are groups for those who have been widowed and those who have been widowed at a young age. There are groups for those who have lost a child or a parent or a sibling. There are groups for those who have lost a pet.
An article in the July 24 New York Times tells of a man who lost his wife of 53 years, but didn’t go to the support group for those who lost a spouse because he would’ve been the only man. Men in his generation, he said, aren’t used to expressing their feelings in front of women.
So he did what he needed to do: he started a group for widowers, a place where men can talk about their grief with others who understand it.
Did you attend a support group when your friend died?
If not, did your unwillingness come from the belief that those grieving family members wouldn’t respect your grief as “legitimate”?
Like I said, I’ve never seen a group just for friends. Until we can get those going, consider Friend Grief your support group.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Friend Grief at the Bloggers Ball – Take 5

Welcome She Writers to the Friend Grief stop on the latest Bloggers Ball!
Some of you have been here before; some of you are visiting for the first time. I encourage you to browse the archives here, as well as this post.
Writing is hard.
Writing about difficult subjects is harder.
I wasn’t sure I was up for it.
But those who follow this blog, the She Writers and the posse I’ve gathered have encouraged me and sustained me when I felt I was in over my head.
Once a month I write about 9/11, and also about the AIDS epidemic. I share stories about people who are struggling as they grieve their friends, and about those who have made major life changes because of that experience. I introduce you to organizations and films and people addressing the phenomenon of “friend grief”.
I’m not a professional bereavement counselor. I’m just sharing what I know.
This blog has been a testing ground, of sorts, for my book. I was pretty sure I had a good idea. I just didn’t know if it would really resonate; because if it didn’t, maybe the book wouldn’t either.
But now I know I’m on the right track (see my posts on what I’ve learned writing about “friend grief”), and She Writers have helped.
So, thanks to you all!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

One Way to Avoid Regrets: International Friendship Day

Kristie West’s 30-Day Challenge - - is all about showing appreciation now for the important people in your life.
I started it myself on Monday, and it’s a refreshingly painless way to begin a new (good) habit. Telling your friends what they mean to you has no downside.
It also got me thinking again about regrets: about how the grief we feel when our friends die is sometimes compounded by the sadness we feel about what we never did. We never told them how much they meant to us. We never took that trip together. We never…well, you get the idea.
An Australian group, Global Friendship, celebrates International Friendship Day on the first Sunday in August, this year on the 7th. The purpose is to take a day to recognize and appreciate the contributions your friends make to your life.
Those of us who just started Kristie’s challenge will be in the midst of it, so I thought I’d give a couple ideas for those who may be starting or considering this challenge.
1.      What have you and your friends always talked about doing? I’m going to a Cubs/Cardinals game at Wrigley Field next month with several girlfriends (all of us life-long Cardinals fans), because we decided to stop talking and do it.

2.      Are your friends on Facebook?  On August 7, post on their walls, and let them know how much you appreciate them. If you’re not comfortable with others seeing it, send them a private message.

3.      Wondering what to do with all those old photos? Scan them and post them online or email them to your friends. Be prepared to be embarrassed about hairstyles and clothes, but take the time to reminisce about where you were when the picture was taken.

4.      Want to get together but can’t afford it? Go for a walk, drive around your old neighborhood together, have a potluck. Remember that real friends don’t care about fancy things: they care about the time you spend together.
So, these are a few things to get you thinking. Even though her death was not a surprise, I remember after my friend Delle died that I had some guilt over not doing certain things together. We’d talked about several things – nothing big or complicated – but things that always got pushed aside, thinking we had time.
“We should do that sometime.” If I had a dollar for every time I’ve said or heard that, I’d be rich. Stop putting things off, and push a little. Find the time, make the effort, and avoid regrets later on.
For more ideas on how to celebrate your friendships, go to, and feel free to share your own ideas here.

Monday, July 18, 2011

What Else I Learned Writing a Book about Friend Grief

When I posted last week about what I’ve learned in this now almost two-year book project, I had the feeling I was forgetting something. It took a day, but it finally popped into my head:
I forgot to tell what I’ve learned about writing.
Last week I concentrated on the grief aspect, the subject matter, the people I interviewed (not that there’s anything wrong with that). But this is my first book, and I’m learning by doing. Some things have come easily; some not so easily.
I knew why I was writing the book. In its simplest form, I was keeping a promise to my friend, Delle. What was harder was coming to terms with who was writing the book and what it could accomplish.
It may seem odd to wonder who was writing the book. I’m writing it alone, no co-authors, and no ghost writers (except for Delle). But part of the process of pitching your book is explaining why you are the best person to write your book. At times, my insecurity about my answer has shown through.
What I finally decided was that what caused me to feel insecure was actually my greatest strength: I’m not a professional. My book is not a clinical textbook, meant for the classroom or therapeutic setting. It’s a book for non-professionals like me: a way for them to have their grief respected, to no longer feel alone or dismissed, and a place to learn about other people’s incredible friends.
I had in mind originally that this would be a quiet little book that would appeal to a few people. I learned that it’s not little or quiet; and that if it does the things I just mentioned, it could help people.
Again, I’m not a bereavement professional. But I’ve finally come to terms with the possibility that you don’t have to be a psychologist to help those who grieve.
So, apparently you can teach an old dog new tricks, because I’ve learned a lot in this process. With any luck – actually, with a lot of luck – the book will be “done” in the next 6 weeks or so.
By then I’m sure I will have learned much more.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Kristie West's 30 Day Challenge

Grief and guilt seem at times to be intertwined. We regret the things we didn’t do, the things we didn’t say, when we had a chance. That’s human, but it can sometimes deepen our grief.

Now, it has been said that it takes 30 days to create a new habit (or break an old one). So, I was intrigued by Kristie West’s 30-Day Challenge.
Kristie and I are tweeps: we know each other only on Twitter. She lives in England; I live in Chicago. We’ve never met, although I hope we do something about that soon. ;)
Kristie’s website,,  is a great resource for those looking for help navigating their grief. She has challenged her followers in a unique way. Here is her announcement:

Be honest: were people already popping into your mind as you listened to this, friends you talk to every day and those you haven’t heard from in ages? Were you thinking about friends from school, from other jobs, from volunteer activities who have disappeared from your life?
We all procrastinate, assuming that you’ll get to sometimes very important tasks “someday” or even “soon.” Expressing appreciation for our friends is no different.
One a day, that’s all it takes: contact with one friend each day for 30 days, and tell them what they meant to you.
This isn’t about making amends, unless you want it to be. This is about showing appreciation for someone who has made a difference in your life. This is about doing it now, while you can. This is about avoiding guilt later on for not doing it.
Don’t know 30 people to contact? Oh, you can probably think of a lot more than 30 if you put your mind to it. But if 30 feels too intimidating, try 5 or 10.
Stop making excuses and take the challenge. Once you’re in the habit of telling your friends how important they are, you’ll do it effortlessly.
It costs nothing, other than time, something that’s in limited supply for us all.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Things I’ve Learned Writing a Book about Friend Grief

It’s been five years since I promised my friend, Delle, I’d write a book about dealing with the death of a friend; almost two years since its form finally became clear to me. I’d already spent over two years mulling it over, writing in fits and starts (mostly fits) before hitting the wall. I’d given up, but one day, it was just there like magic; or karma.
I began by researching the whole phenomenon of “disenfranchised grief”: grief that is not acknowledged or respected. Grieving the death of a friend certainly fit the definition. I already knew from personal experience that while everyone at some point will experience the death of a friend, most people are not very sympathetic of others’ grief. The title of my book reflects the most common reaction: “It’s not like they’re family”.
As someone once said, there are things I know for sure, and things I just guess at. The most basic thing I knew for sure when I started out was that everyone has a story. With few exceptions, I get the same reaction from people when I tell them about my book. They might be enthusiastic, or neutral, or sometimes dismissive. But then there’s a pause in the conversation, and they say, “You know…” That’s when they tell me a story about a friend who died. When I realized how universal that reaction was, I knew I was on to something.
I also knew I had to include 9/11 in the book; it’s too big, too unique to ignore. I’ve made several trips to New York, toured every related museum or exhibit, talked to people who were there, and others like me who were affected from a distance. I’ll go back in September for the 10th anniversary observances, hopefully to hear my classmate’s name pronounced correctly this year during the naming ceremony. The loss of life on 9/11, and the friends left behind, could easily be its own book, but that’s a discussion for another time.
Only one thing has surprised me (other than how long it’s taken to actually finish writing the book), and that’s the willingness of men to tell their stories. I go into an interview with roughly 30 questions, all open-ended, to get the person talking about their friend. One reason I have those questions is because I assumed getting men to talk would be akin to pulling teeth without an anesthetic. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
I’ve asked others why these men have been so willing to bear their souls to me, to share their memories and their pain and their love for their friends. I don’t think it has anything to do with me; I think it’s more basic: someone asked. And I believe I will write another book, just about men grieving their friends.
But first I need to finish this one. I’ve set an arbitrary deadline of Labor Day weekend, to finish all but the 9/11 chapter. I chose the date at random, but in reality, it has great significance. Five years ago Labor Day, I was visiting my friend, Delle, in the hospital. I walked into her room as her doctor walked out, having told her the cancer had returned for what would be the final time. Since I promised Delle I’d write the book to begin with, it seems somehow perversely appropriate.
I’ve learned other things along the way: that there is a market for my book, that people are incredibly generous with their time and their memories, that I have a posse that’s pushing/cheering me on.
“You gotta have friends,” the song goes, and it’s true. What is reinforced for me every day is that even when those friends have left us, they’re always in our hearts.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Naming Names: The 9/11 Memorial

Northeast Corner of the South Pool

I’m old enough to remember the very heated controversy over Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial design: the names of the dead etched in stark, black stone. How depressing! How disrespectful! Now, its “naming” focus is one that is copied the world over, including the new 9/11 Memorial, opening to the public on September 12.

I visited “The Wall” in 1988. The Vietnam War shaped my youth, particularly high school and college. I stopped at the kiosk, got my paper and pencil, made a donation and set off to find the names of the two guys I’d grown up with. It had been 20 years since Ernie Sanazaro died, but it was still surprising to see his name there, so final, so permanent. I had a crush on him at one time, and his death, near my 16th birthday, was a shock. When I got back home, I wrote to his sister, asking if she’d like the rubbing (I didn’t want to just mail it to her without warning). As it turned out, she was grateful, and I sent it off to her.
Today I reserved my ticket to visit the new 9/11 Memorial this September. I’ll be in New York for all the 10th anniversary events, to finish that chapter in my book. Last year, although I’d been to Ground Zero before, the memorial events I went to had quite an effect on me. I wound up spending one whole day literally talking to no one except when ordering my meals. I didn’t expect to be so overwhelmed.
This Memorial, too, will include the names of all the victims etched in stone. I already know where to find Carol’s name, so I won’t have to wander around. I’d seen her name years ago, on the posters around the site. But this time, it will be permanent.
I reserved two tickets, one for me and one for someone to go with me. I immediately emailed a friend in New York. If he can’t go, I’ll find someone else because I don’t think I want to go alone. I suspect the emotions this year will run even deeper; “big” anniversaries tend to do that.
Two months from today, the papers and internet and TV will be full of stories about 9/11: reruns of original broadcasts, interviews, surveys, retrospectives, commentaries, observances. When you’re tempted to ignore it, remember those who lost someone that day – family, friend, co-worker.

To learn more about the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, or to make ticket reservations, go to

Friday, July 8, 2011

A Birthday Reflection on Friends Lost

Some occasions make you reminisce and I guess birthdays are one of them. Today’s mine, and I woke up thinking about friends.

Some friends come into our lives for a relatively brief amount of time; others for decades. Some friends represent a specific time in our lives; others remind us of who we were way back when.

But the one thing all of my friends who have died have in common is that they all left too soon.
I remember Carol’s wake. A talented actress, she died after a long battle with breast cancer, and her death was neither peaceful nor a relief. She had deliberately cut herself off from most of her friends: wouldn’t see them in person, barely talked to any of us on the phone. Her fierce independence wound up making us all mad.
We sat in the back of the funeral parlor, a group of her friends. At that moment we may have been the angriest people in the city of Chicago: angry that the cancer won, angry that she was gone too soon, but perhaps most angry that she wouldn’t let us help her.
It sounds selfish, and I guess it is. I felt pretty selfish when Delle was dying. She was my friend and I loved her and needed her and I was pretty angry that she would soon be gone. I never told her I was angry, and did my best to not show it. But that anger was not unique to me. The theme of many conversations with other friends of hers was “it’s not fair”.  
So today, as I think of all my friends who didn’t live to be as old as I am, that anger has calmed. Now it’s more sadness for the trips we never took, the plays we never saw, the jokes we never shared.
And as always, it’s gratitude that they were part of my life, and had a hand in making me who I am today.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Should You “Un-Friend” Dead Facebook Friends?

I don’t do much on LinkedIn, at least not at this point in my life. But I regularly get requests from people I know – and don’t know – to connect. One of them is an old friend of my husband’s…who’s dead.
I’m not sure his family knows about the account, as LinkedIn tends to be strictly business-oriented. And I’m not sure how to bring it up. But it’s a little unnerving to see his name pop up now and then.
Facebook, I’ve found out, actually has a policy on accounts held by people who have died. Family members can permanently remove a page. They also have the option of converting it to a “memorial” page, which allows friends to continue to leave messages on it.
Some people find the ability to share information online – and indeed grieve online – to be a blessing. It can be a way for people from all parts of someone’s life to come together to remember them.
The etiquette, according to advice columnist Amy Dickinson in a July 5th Denver Post article, “Facebook and the New Face of Grieving”, is evolving. Like many other situations, technology presents opportunities and complications at the same time.
Which brings me back to the title of this post: I was part of a Facebook group that tracked the health of a friend who was dying of brain cancer. He’s been dead for several months now, and the group is still prominent on my page, though inactive. Should I leave the group? Should I leave it up, as a reminder of a wonderful friend and the friends who loved him? For now, at least, it’s the latter, not because I’m likely to ever forget him, but because it’s nice to remember him, too.
To read the entire article: