Wednesday, August 31, 2011

“My Best Friend Died and It Changed My Life”

The 4-legged version of George
If George Davis was an animal, he’d be a Labrador retriever puppy: boundless energy and enthusiasm, openly affectionate and fun.
We met at a writer’s conference in New York, and I was touched by his encouragement of my work. He’s a cheerleader for his friends and their dreams. But it took the death of his best friend to make him a cheerleader for his own dreams.
Over wine at Rachel’s on 9th Avenue, he told me about his friend, who died at the much too young age of 29. Most of that conversation will be revealed in my book, but there was something that struck me then, and in the eloquent eulogy he gave at the memorial service.
The media have introduced us to the Myth of the Perfect Dying Person: the saintly one, who never complains despite excruciating pain; the one who protects those closest to them from their fate. The problem is that in this case it was true.
In George’s eulogy, his brother’s college roommate reflected, “I only met him a few times, and am ashamed to say that his always lively, animated demeanor lulled me into underestimating the severity of his illnesses.” It’s a noble and self-sacrificing thing that these friends do for us: shield us from reality, from pain both physical and emotional. But like the man said, it lulls us into a false sense of security.
When George and I talked that night, it was clear that even though they spent as much time together as possible, the fact that they weren’t together at the end weighed on him. But what was truly important had already happened: his friend knew how much he was loved.
To lose your best friend at so young an age – any age – is a life-changing experience. The best way I can explain its effect on George is to say he finally answered the question, “What are you waiting for?” He found the strength to commit: to move back to the states from France, to the work that was meaningful to him, to the woman he loved. And he gives full credit to his best friend.
Not everyone has so dramatic an epiphany following the death of a friend. But sometimes we need a kick in the butt to do what we were always meant to do. It shouldn’t surprise you when it’s your best friend doing the kicking.

G.G. Davis, Jr. (aka VirtualDavis) creates, collects and curates adventure stories from the Adirondack shore of Lake Champlain. An unabashed flâneur, Virtual Davis is the author of Rosslyn Redux, a transmedia chronicle of marriage testing misadventure, exurban flight and eco-historic rehab.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Speaking Ill of the Dead

People who are in the public eye – politicians, athletes, performers – are used to being misrepresented in the press. It comes with the territory. Their lives – and deaths – are under a microscope.
Amy Winehouse. Michael Jackson. Heath Ledger. Speculation about the cause of death – and their lifestyles – fueled the tabloids for week. People popped up out of nowhere – childhood classmates, neighbors, former lovers – offering titillating details, though the accuracy was often questionable. It’s hard to sort the truth, and those who knew them best must be incredibly angry, but not surprised.
When there is a natural disaster (earthquake, hurricane, tornado) or an act of violence (drive-by shooting, bombing, car accident), the lives of everyday people are subjected to scrutiny. The average person is not used to this. So if their death is misrepresented in the press, it’s a situation for which their family and friends are unprepared.
As I write this, news stations are reporting that over 20 people died during Hurricane Irene. And as horrible as that is for their family and friends, now there will be a discussion about how their deaths could have been avoided. 
“They were stupid to go surfing.”
“They should’ve evacuated.”
Really? They deserved to die?
It may be very true that they made a conscious decision that resulted in their death, but it’s doubtful that they intended suicide. More likely, they were just no match for the force of the hurricane.
But speculating about their sanity accomplishes nothing other than bringing additional, unnecessary pain to their family and friends.
So if you are tempted to say something along the lines of, “well, they should’ve known better”, as if they got what they “deserved”:  don’t. Consider for a moment how you’d feel if strangers were criticizing the friend you grieve. Don’t make anyone else feel that kind of anger.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Commemorating 9/11 Isn’t for Everyone

I remember when 9/11 happened. I was glued to the TV, watching everything, read everything, trying to understand what had happened. Others watched nothing, read no articles.
The 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks is fast approaching. Television will be saturated with reruns of original programming from that day and new retrospectives. Reports on the building of the new Tower One, and the 9/11 Memorial and Museum have already appeared in newspapers. Books are being re-reprinted, and new ones are coming out in time for the anniversary.
But not everyone wants to remember.
Families, friends, survivors, even those with no connection to the losses of that day may want to ignore the whole thing.
For some, it’s dwelling in the past, on a horrible event.
For some, the politics of the rebuilding have left a sour taste in their mouths.
For some, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are enough of a reminder.
For some, the observances simply remind them of what they lost that day.
Make no mistake: people don’t need these ceremonies to be reminded of what happened, especially if they lost a friend or family member that day. They grieve every day.
But I hope that those of us who are participating in observances around the world will remember that not everyone grieves the same way. Just because they don’t watch the TV specials, or attend special events, or talk about where they were that day, that doesn’t mean they are indifferent.
You don’t have to wave a flag to prove you love your country, and you don’t have to be at Ground Zero to prove you grieve for those who died.
How people react to this isn’t good or bad. Just assume it’s right for them.

Monday, August 22, 2011

How Can You Tell Who The Friends Are?

No gladiolas, please
I remember sitting in the funeral parlor for my uncle’s wake. He’d died in a car accident less than two weeks before Christmas, and we were in shock. There would be no Christmas that year, not really. But first we had to get through the wake and funeral.
I sat there with my sister and cousin as the funeral directors brought in the flower deliveries. It soon became apparent – at least to us – who knew my uncle and how well.
He and I shared a hatred of gladiolas (and no, you can’t change my opinion on this). They exist only for funerals, in my mind, and depress me just thinking about them. It seemed everyone he worked with who sent flowers, sent gladiolas. “They don’t know him,” we’d say smugly.
Now and then, an arrangement with bird of paradise, his favorite flower, would arrive. And we knew the people who sent them really knew him well.
Years later, when the funeral ends in the film The Big Chill, Karen plays “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” for the recessional. His friends understood not only that it as Alex’s favorite song, but probably had specific memories related to it. His family may have not even known it was his favorite.
Family have been with us since the beginning, but friends are with us most of the way. Don’t be surprised if you know things about your friend that their family never suspected (good and bad). Share them: with other friends and with the family. In times of grief, stories of happier times and the assurance that their loved one was loved can make a world of difference.
And just in case you want to know, I prefer calla lilies.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Hierarchies of 9/11 Grief

Ground Zero Museum (14th St.)
There is a lot of talk these days about the changes in the observances at Ground Zero this year, for the 10th anniversary.
It’s a significant anniversary, not just because 10 is a special number, whether it’s a birthday or anniversary. The new 9/11 Memorial, on the footprints of the Twin Towers, opens that day (the underground Museum won’t open for another year).
Because of those things, changes have been made, and it seems no one is happy about them. Although it’s been alleged that they’ve never before been officially invited, survivors and first responders have been told there is no room for them this year. It will be families only along with a larger than usual contingent of politicians.
Personally, I have no problem with Presidents Bush and Obama, along with Mayor Bloomberg and former Mayor Giuliani attending (they’re not giving speeches). Last year Vice President Biden attended the observances, and given the importance this year, I think all four of them should be there. But…
When I attended the 9th anniversary ceremonies I was really struck by the stark, official hierarchy of grievers, a hierarchy that has existed from the beginning: families first, then first responders, then everyone else (including survivors and those who lived and worked in the area that day).
There is a very small geographic area for those attending: very, very limited. As a non-family member, I was lucky to find a spot to stand across Broadway from Zuccoti Park. The Memorial itself opens that day, but only for family members, and I have no problem with that. It opens to the public the next day, and I’ll be there on the 13th.
But I can’t help but feel great sympathy for the first responders and survivors. I’m way down the list in this hierarchy. I always knew that. But as if often the case, actions do not match words. “We’ll have a separate ceremony for you at a later date” is not a particularly respectful suggestion.
This is an extreme example of a hierarchy of grieving, of those who have “more reason” to grieve than others. I’m not going to get into that discussion, especially as it relates to 9/11. I wish there was enough room for everyone to be there, right there, in the park and on the street. Enough room for everyone who grieves someone who died that day – not just in New York, but Pennsylvania and Washington, DC.
I hope there can be an amicable resolution to this. Because there are so many people who deserve to share that day with others who grieve as they do.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Silly Things You Remember about Your Friends

Last night I was working on something I’d promised to the Voices of September 11 people. That’s the organization compiling a digital archive for each victim of the 9/11 attacks. One of my high school classmates, Carol, died in the South Tower, and I’ve become the contact person for our class. I visited the Voices office in New Canaan, Connecticut, in May, to deliver some remembrances and discuss what else we would contribute. One of those things was my memory of attending an interfaith service at Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago a few days after the attacks:
As I waited, I called home for messages, and had one, from another classmate, Ann.
At that point, I had known her for 35 years. She is one of the least emotionally demonstrative people I know. But she was sobbing as she left her message. I didn’t recognize her voice at first because I don’t think I’d ever heard her cry. Carol, another of our classmates, worked in the South Tower, and she was missing. Her husband had gone to all of the hospitals, but couldn’t find her. She was last heard from calling home from her office on the 86th floor of the South Tower, just before the second plane hit. Please call school, Ann cried, and let them know.
The shock of 9/11 had been staggering, but now, it was worse: it was personal.
As my husband and I sat in the packed cathedral, my mind wandered, as if to block out the sniffling and cries from myself and those around us. Above the desperate prayers and soaring music, I swear I could hear Carol’s infectious, throaty laugh, which always seemed to be accompanied by a toss of her long, stubbornly curly hair.
And then my mind wandered to a contest we had in high school (or at least what passed as a contest at an all-girls Catholic high school in the 60’s): the Hairy Legs Contest. It was just as it sounds: who could go the longest without shaving their legs (if you didn’t have a boyfriend, a long time). I was ashamed of myself: could there have been a more inappropriate or disrespectful thought at that moment?
A month later, I was in St. Louis, having dinner with about two dozen classmates. We’d gathered to discuss ideas for a class gift in her memory, and honestly, to support each other. Among friends who would understand the reference, and possibly see some humor in it, I admitted my odd thoughts at the cathedral. One of them turned to me and said, “Don’t you remember? Carol won the contest.”
As you grieve for your friends, don’t be surprised when really odd thoughts pop into your head: memories of silly behavior or even things that initially make no sense (like mine). Don’t be too hard on yourself. They’re all memories of the friends who have made our lives so rich, memories to cherish.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Dreading Anniversaries – 9/11

With a month to go before the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, the media is gearing up for what promises to be saturation coverage.
Memorial events – some annual, some special for this year – are being announced in New York, Washington, DC, and Pennsylvania.
Politicians will invoke the attacks and the bravery of first responders, and try to link themselves to the courage shown on that day.
News specials – reruns of documentaries from those early days as well as new programs – are being announced for networks and cable channels.
President Obama has declared September 11 to be a National Day of Service, so communities around the country are not only planning commemorations, but activities to focus on positive action.
I remember after my Dad died, that I was dreading the first anniversary. “The first year is the hardest,” they say. Would I wake up the day after and suddenly feel great? Of course that didn’t happen. Every year on the anniversary, I think about him – not just that day, but the days leading up to it.
So it is now for those affected directly and indirectly by the events of September 11, 2001. Some people I know will mark the day by going to a religious service. Some will watch the specials on TV.  Some have made their peace, and feel no need to fixate on it.
Others would like to avoid it completely: “it’s ten years; get over it,” they say. I don’t think this kind of loss – indeed any kind of grief – is something you just “get over.”
Everyone grieves in their own way. And we’ll see some stark examples of those differences in the weeks to come.
Personally, I’ll be in New York, and I will blog every day from Sept. 9-14. I’ll report on the observances at Ground Zero, and other locations such as the Buddhist lantern ceremony at Pier 40 and the services at the British Gardens. I’ll attend two benefit performances of plays written in those early days after 9/11. And I’ll visit the new World Trade Center Memorial. It will all be from the perspective of grieving for a friend.
But I also plan to volunteer on September 10, a small attempt to give back, as I remember my classmate, Carol Demitz.
So, no matter how you feel about the upcoming anniversary – good, bad, indifferent – perhaps you could take some time that weekend to give back to your community, to your first responders, to the military whose sacrifices keep us safe.
That, after all, is the best way to remember.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Why I Started Friend Grief

I started this blog 6 months ago, so I thought it was a good time to look back and take stock.
I’ve learned a lot about the technical joys and frustrations of blogging.
I’ve learned a lot about the challenges of trying to stick out in an online world of blogs on every conceivable topic. This is what I wrote in my first post on February 1:
Welcome to Friend Grief.  It's here to 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. 
The people who are part of Friend Grief have all been there, done that. In the coming weeks, you will meet some more of them. Some of them are real people; others are characters in books and plays and films.
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.
That still holds as well. I’ve contacted hospices and grief support groups in the US and other countries, and while most say friends are welcome to their open groups, none have groups just for friends.
Friend Grief is here for you, and your suggestions for topics or resources are always welcome. Feel free to email me at

Saturday, August 6, 2011

One More Thing about Paul McCartney and Friend Grief

My posts this week, before and after seeing Paul McCartney’s concert at Wrigley Field, have inspired some great conversations.
Comments both here and offline have focused mostly on a new appreciation of friendships (not just Paul’s).
My friend, Gregory, mentioned that he and his late sister (my friend, Delle) had discussed the stark contrast between the emotions expressed so eloquently in Paul and John’s music and their inability to communicate their love to each other.
I suspect that’s not unusual for anyone who expresses themselves in an artistic way: visual artists, writers, songwriters. Actions directed to “the world” or 40,000 people in a stadium are easier than words directed across the table to only one person. The fear of rejection is much greater one-on-one.
When I talk here about grieving the death of a friend, I hope to convey that not only do we experience grief in a variety of ways, but we also experience friendship in many ways.
I did not grieve the same way for Delle that I grieved for Steve. I did not grieve the same way for Carol as I grieved for Corinne. Some of that was because of the circumstances of their deaths. But it was mostly about the differences in our friendships.
There is no one way to grieve and no one way to be a friend. You may be surprised, as you grieve, that you are responding in a completely different way than you did to previous losses. Sometimes it makes no rational sense to grieve more for one person than another. But grieving is an emotional response that needs to be respected as such.
But one thing is sadly universal: the tendency to put off telling our friends what they mean to us. Look at the difference between Paul’s rendition of “Here Today” and his performance of “Something”: night and day, joy and pain.
Which song do you want to sing about your friends?

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Paul McCartney – Grieving for John and George in Music

Last night at Wrigley -
Ruthie Hauge - Sun Times Media
Okay, another gratuitous photo of Paul McCartney.
At his Wrigley Field concert last night, he did indeed perform the two songs I wrote about yesterday, “Here Today”, dedicated to John Lennon, and “Something”, dedicated to George Harrison.
It has been said that men grieve differently. But what I saw onstage was a man who grieved two very different friends in very different ways.
“Something” began simply, with Paul singing along to his ukulele accompaniment. But eventually his band joined in for a lush performance. The video screen was filled with images of George and Paul: rehearsing, performing, and goofing around at various moments in their friendship. It was a tribute to George, a love letter to a dear friend whose presence is sorely missed.
“Here Today” is not a song written by the friend who died; this was a song written to the friend who had died. There were no video images, no backup from his band; just Paul playing acoustic guitar. Paul’s relationship with John was much more complicated than the one he shared with George. Theirs was almost like a marriage between two immensely talented and opinionated men. It was not smooth sailing, and McCartney’s song is about the regrets of that kind of friendship:
And if I say I really knew you well, what would your answer be?
Well, knowing you, you’d probably laugh and say that we were worlds apart, if you were here today…
And if I say I really love you and was glad you came along, then you were here today…
For you were in my song…
Don’t wait, he admonished his audience last night, to tell people you love them. His regret and guilt were palpable.
So in the midst of a 3-hour concert, it was a fascinating study in contrast: deep love and respect for both friends, but very different relationships, very different grieving.
How do you want to remember your friends: the way he remembers George, or the way he remembers John?
It’s not too late to start Kristie West’s 30 Day Challenge, and prevent those regrets.

Monday, August 1, 2011

My Excuse to Write About Paul McCartney and Friend Grief

Why I love black tshirts & jeans
My friends probably think I wrote this as a flimsy excuse to post a picture of my favorite Beatle, but that’s only partially true.
The media are all over his two concerts here at Wrigley Field (I’m going tonight). “McCartney Mania” has been running on my favorite radio station, playing his music from those ground-breaking Beatles days right through to the present. TV reporters were camped out in front of the ballpark, reporting on the concert and the crowds.
Today’s papers ran his play list from last night, and I saw that he continues a tradition he started some time ago: playing a song in honor of each of his late band mates, John Lennon and George Harrison.

For George, he played “Something”, the iconic love song, on a ukulele. A ukulele??
In the documentary, The Concert for George, the memorial benefit concert held on the first anniversary of George’s death, Paul had this to say about his choice:
“Sometimes if you’d go around to George’s house after you’d had dinner, the ukuleles would come out. One time, not so long ago, we were playing and I said, ‘There’s a song I do on the ukulele.’ I played it for him and I’ll play it to you now as a tribute to our beautiful friend.”
For John, he sang “Here Today”, which he wrote about Lennon. Last December, he performed it on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” with the following introduction:
“This song is like a conversation that we never had. I always say to people, if you want to say to someone that you love them, tell them now. Because there may come a point when it’s too late and you’ll think ‘I wish I’d said that.’”
So, Sir Paul, when I see you again tonight – without the band mates I saw you with 45 years ago this month – I’ll be thinking of not just you, but John and George (and Ringo), too.
Rock on, boys, rock on.