Monday, October 31, 2011

Grieving Your Friend in Public

Your friend died, and you’re grieving.

For the most part, that grief is private. But imagine if everyone in town was talking about your friend. Imagine if every time you turned on the TV or radio, or logged onto your computer, someone was talking about your friend.
Imagine, too, that upon hearing the news of your friend’s death, you are confronted with members of the media pushing microphones into your face, asking for a comment. How eloquent do you think you might be?
In In Other Words: Artists Talk About Life and Work, Anthony DeCurtis recounts an interview with Paul McCartney in 1987. They covered his years with the Beatles (it was the 20th anniversary of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”). The discussion took a turn when he began to talk about the breakup of the group, segueing into the death of John Lennon in 1980. McCartney received a firestorm of criticism for his only public comment, “it’s a drag.”

“But I said ‘it’s a dra-a-a-ag,’ and meant it with every inch of melancholy I could muster. When you put that in print, it says, ‘McCartney in London today, when asked for a comment on his dead friend, said, ‘It’s a drag’.’ It seemed a very flippant comment to make.
“…All these people who were supposed to have been John’s friends. The rest of us were just gaga with grief and sitting at home crying, watching all the news and watching all the telly, watching anything we could gather, and listening to every bit of radio. It was just like Kennedy dying, only worse for us, and that had been bad enough.
“The pundits come on, ‘Yes, so John was the bright one in the group. Yes, he was a very clever one. Oh, well, he’ll be sorely missed, and he was a great so-and-so.’ I said, ‘Bloody hell, how can you muster such glib things?’ But they were the ones who came off good, because they said suitably meaningful things. I was the idiot who said, ‘It’s a drag.’
I confess that my reaction at the time - without seeing the videotape - was less than charitable towards my favorite ex-Beatle. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I sympathize with him.
How do you think you’d do?

Friday, October 28, 2011

To Tell or Not to Tell…That You’re Dying

Many people seem to have had the experience that I described in my last post, "Would You Tell Your Friends That You’re Dying?"
An older woman was distressed that to find out about a friend’s death when the Christmas card she sent was returned, stamped “deceased.”
Another woman was sworn to secrecy by her family member, who didn’t want her friends to know she was dying. She didn’t want to see “The Look”.
A friend of mine refused to accept visitors, and would only talk to a very few friends over the phone.
Make no mistake: I respect each and every person’s decision to live their lives as they wish, especially after receiving a diagnosis of impending death. The decision to tell - or not - is not one that is taken lightly. There are many factors to consider, and every decision - like every person - is different. We may not agree, but we can decide what we’d do in that situation.
But I also feel for those left behind: those who didn’t know and those who were directed to not tell anyone. There is so much guilt, so much regret, left in the wake of their friend’s death. All the things they wanted to say and do, but never did. We all think we have all the time in the world, but of course, we don’t.
Lisa Athan’s excellent blog, Grief Speaks, looked at the very human tendency for procrastination:
The only cure I can think of - the only way we can avoid seeing or giving “The Look” - is to make the most of the time we have. Tell your friends you love them. Yes, you might scare the hell out of them, but at least they’ll know what’s in your heart. And who knows? They might tell you the same thing.
How cool is that?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Would You Tell Your Friends That You’re Dying?

We’ve all done it, unconsciously, and with no malice intended.
Perhaps our friend tells us that they’re dying. Perhaps we hear the news elsewhere, and then see the person later.
But anyone who’s been seriously ill, or is dying, can tell you that they get “The Look”. You don’t mean to do it. In fact, you might think the expression on your face is one of love and support, successfully hiding the shock and pain you feel inside. Unfortunately, it’s often interpreted as pity.
I’ve read stories of people who were dying and kept their diagnosis secret specifically because they didn’t want to see “The Look” on their friends’ faces. I know people who have isolated themselves, refusing visitors, because they don’t want to see it.
They’re afraid their friends will act differently, too. We’re all used to the way we interact with our friends: joking, teasing, rowdy and outrageous. But in study after study, people who are dying insist they want to be treated the same way: be concerned, don’t be afraid to ask questions, but don’t treat me like a baby.
They want you to continue to be their friend - the same as always - without dissolving into a puddle of tears every time you look at them. And honestly, you want the same thing, too.
But there is a special pain reserved for friends who are kept away, either by the friend who’s dying or their family. You may have felt it yourself. Not fun, is it?
“I didn’t know they were sick.” Wouldn’t you love to have a copyright on that phrase, and make money every time someone said it? It’s hard enough to cope with the death of a friend, but harder still when you’ve been kept out of the loop. It makes you question just how much of a friendship you had with them.
As shown in the movie “50/50”, this can put a huge burden on the patient. They feel responsible for the happiness of those around them. They hold in their feelings, so as not to burden their friends and family. It’s a very human, loving reaction, but how sad to be unable to express yourself honestly when the end of your life is approaching.
Don’t let that be your friend.
And don’t let that be you.

Monday, October 24, 2011

"Living in the Material World"

A few months ago, I blogged about Paul McCartney’s concert at Wrigley Field and how his tributes to John Lennon and George Harrison were so very different: while the song dedicated to John was full of regret and guilt, the one for George clearly showed the love they felt free to express to one another.
HBO has been showing Martin Scorcese’s documentary about George Harrison, “Living in the Material World”. His wife, Olivia, and son, Dhani, spoke fondly and honestly about George. But it was in the words of his friends that you really got a sense of the man: strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures.
One friend admitted that it was still difficult for him to talk about George, ten years after his death.
Another laughed about George being stubborn enough, even as he was dying, to buy a house in Switzerland to avoid the tax man (the subject of one of his best-known songs).
But it was Ringo’s emotional story of his last visit with him, at that house in Switzerland, that stuck with me. By then, George was too sick to get out of bed. Ringo had to leave: his own daughter was in Boston, diagnosed with a brain tumor, and he had to get to her. When he told his friend why he was leaving, George asked, “do you want me to go with you?”
They both knew it was impossible, but it was a measure of the man to want to support his friend, even as his own death approached.
As the almost 4-hour documentary shows, George wanted to leave the world a better place. Most would assume he would do that with music, and he certainly did. But for his friends, the music was almost incidental. It was the love he showed his friends that made their world a better place.
“Do you want me to go with you?”
Most would say, I suspect, that he goes with them every day. So it is with our friends, too. Friends die, but friendships don’t.


Learn more about “Living in the Material World” at George’s website.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Why Friend Grief is Different - Pt. 3

In my last post, I brought up the painful situation of not being notified of a friend’s death.
As we all know, the stress of grief can affect our memories. Try as we might, things fall through the cracks as we plan for the funeral and deal with the loss of a loved one. It’s embarrassing at times. Personally, I’m on a mission to require name tags at wakes. People you haven’t seen in years walk up and say “you don’t remember me, do you?” On a good day, it’s hard to recognize people you haven’t seen for decades. Being at a wake is probably not a good day. But I digress.
Families are usually the ones organizing the funeral events, and chances are, they don’t know every person their loved one knew. They might not even realize there is an online community of friends. So when it comes to notifying people, there are lots of opportunities to be inadvertently left out.
The sadder situation, though, is when friends are deliberately not notified. When you were a kid, you probably had friends your family didn’t like. Maybe that friend was considered a bad influence, maybe they weren’t in the same social class, or maybe they were just ‘different’. But that didn’t mean you weren’t friends. In fact, it may have been the reason you were friends.
Imagine now, being one of those friends - those not-quite-acceptable friends - deliberately not told of your friend’s death. Not knowing you exist is one thing; not approving of you is something entirely different.
I was working with a client in the early 90’s, an AIDS hospice in Chicago, and I grew close to some of the residents. One young man, from a small rural community downstate, was very clear about what he wanted for his funeral: cremation, no church service. His family had disowned him, so it seemed reasonable to assume his wishes would be honored. His friends stood ready to do what he wanted.
After he died - and I remember to this day how horrible his death was - his family appeared to claim the body. They didn’t visit him while he was alive, but took his body home, for burial and a church funeral to wash away his sins.
Despite his wishes, there was nothing his friends could do about it. Needless to say, none of us were invited. We had our own “service” for him, but knowing his wishes weren’t followed by his family left us all with a bad taste in our mouths.
It’s never too late to consider not just the kind of funeral you want - or don’t want - but who should be included. You can put some of that in a will, but really, those kinds of instructions are best kept separately. And don’t keep them in a vacuum! Writing them down is just the first step: share them, or make their existence known, with family and friends. Keep it up to date, or at least give instructions on how to find your most current contact lists on your computer, etc.
And per Kristie West’s great comment on Wednesday’s blog, I’m going to research ways for you to share your wishes and your list of friends on secure websites.
If you’ve ever been left out when a friend dies, you know how it magnifies your grief. Keeping a list of your friends to be notified won’t eliminate all possible errors. But it could go a long way towards ensuring that your friends never feel that kind of pain.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Why Friend Grief is Different - Pt. 2

From the outside looking in
I have a friend, a dedicated librarian at a public school for special education kids. When I told her about my book, she said she had a story for me.
I sat down with her after school, in the back of her library. She told me the story of a friend of hers. They’d been friends for years, had their ups and downs. But nothing prepared her for finding out about her friend’s death months after it happened. The family knew of their friendship, but hadn’t contacted her.
The pain she felt was real: not just the death of the friend, but the missed opportunities to set things right, and to properly mourn.
Months later, I received an email from her. “You won’t believe it,” she said. The same thing - not being notified of a friend’s death - had happened again. Actually, it had happened two more times.
We’re a very mobile society: we go away to college, move around for our jobs, and retire in other parts of the country. Personally, I’ve found people on Facebook I could never have found otherwise, because they were living in places I’d have never looked.
That mobility can make it difficult for families to know who to contact when someone dies. Just where do they begin to locate friends? Do you keep an address book or Christmas card list? Do you have all your contacts on your computer or phone? Could someone else easily find them?
So, yes, if this gives you pause, it should. You might want to make a note to print out that list and put it somewhere easy to find: with your will, or financial papers. You might want to make a pact with another friend, so there’s someone who can find the information quickly and easily.
Those of us who have experienced the death of someone close to us also know that grief can really muddle your brain. You may simply not be able to think of everyone who should be contacted, until well after the services have taken place. That’s not unusual, and only human.
Not everyone reads the obituaries every day. So as a non-family member, you are at the mercy of the family, as far as notification. Sometimes, with the flurry of activities and details demanding their attention, they just didn’t remember you.
Sadly, my friend suspected, at least in the first case, that something else was going on: that she was deliberately not told of her friend’s death.
On Friday, we’ll consider how it feels to be deliberately left out.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Why Friend Grief is Different - Pt.1

If you have lost a friend - recently or not so recently - you already know.
Pick up your local paper on any day, and you will find a section devoted to obituaries. Some are news articles about prominent people in the community or the world at large. Some are standard “death notices” submitted by families through the funeral home.
These notices tend to follow a standard format, which includes the surviving family members (sometimes mentioning those who have already died, particularly a spouse). They may list names, or just note the numbers of surviving grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They may list the deceased’s alma mater, career, places they lived, hobbies and charitable causes near and dear to their heart.
What they don’t list are friends.
I was a professional fundraiser for years, and one of our dirty little secrets is that we read the obituaries every day. We look for donors or members who have died, especially those who have already indicated that our organization was included in their wills. I know it sounds tacky, but it’s true.
It was during that time, I believe, when I read a very brief obituary that insisted “there are no immediate survivors”.
“No immediate survivors”
And I remember thinking, “how is that possible?” Did they live in a cave? Did they avoid contact with the outside world? Didn’t they have any friends?
In all likelihood, they did have friends, perhaps hundreds of friends. But friends are only rarely acknowledged in public obituaries. And if it doesn’t happen often in print, how often does it happen in real life?
I believe part of the trend of longer death notices, of Facebook tribute pages, of multiple eulogies at funerals, is to ensure that the person who died is not just remembered, but remembered fully.
A few lines in a newspaper, which the family must pay for, are not enough to sum up a life, no matter how modest.
So friends gather in funeral homes, in bars, in parks, to reminisce and share their grief. They do so mostly on their own, because they are not family. The family traditionally takes care of all the funeral arrangements, the estate, and the death notices. Sometimes they will ask friends to take over specific tasks: watch the house during the funeral so no one breaks in (a sadly common occurrence); transport flowers or food, make phone calls.
When someone dies, their friends are seen as a built-in support system for the family (not that there’s anything wrong with that). But the grief of those friends is something that’s given much less attention, much less respect. After all, “it’s not like they’re family”.
Tomorrow, we’ll look at how it feels to be left out.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Everyone’s Best Friend

Steve Daley
“Mourning him would be rather silly. He died too soon, but so do we all. The universe is run idiotically, and its only certain product is sorrow. But there are yet men who, by their generally pleasant spirits, by their dignity and decency, by their extraordinary capacity for making and keeping friends, yet manage to cheat, in some measure, the common destiny of mankind, doomed like the beasts to perish." - H.L. Mencken
We all know people like Steve Daley, who shared this quote with his friend and colleague Mary Schmich. They have lots of friends, but when asked, each one will insist that he made them feel like they were his best friend. In some ways - sometimes literally - they are bigger than life.
So their deaths leave a noticeable hole in our lives.
People in the media - local, national, international - are exposed to death every day. Some of them are embedded with troops in war zones; others report from the scenes of drive-by shootings. They might file stories on funerals and accidents. They are required to stay out of the stories themselves, to just report the facts.
But people in the media are human, and sometimes a story hits a little too close to home. Such is the case with former Chicago Tribune sports and national political correspondent Steve Daley, who died suddenly at the age of 62. Daley was one of those people who you just assume will always be there, always be around, because they seem immortal. But they’re not.
Colleagues have weighed in on Daley (no relation to the former mayors) and his importance in their lives. Tribune columnist Eric Zorn provided samples of Daley’s articles and blog posts. Mary Schmich’s column considered their friendship. Even colleagues at the rival Chicago Sun-Times, such as Carol Marin, mourned their friend in print and online.
In the cut-throat world of media, it’s rare to hear of people who are almost universally respected and loved. Steve Daley appears to be one of them.
His friends echoed Steve’s own words from his blog post on the death of his friend, “Shoe” cartoonist Jeff MacNelly:
“They tell you that in this life you’re supposed to get over this stuff. But you never, ever do.”
To read more about Steve Daley, you can check out his blog, Failed Talkers, and the following tributes from his friends:

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Why Anger and Grief Go Together

My posts on anger and grief - and my guest blog on Memoir Writer's Journey - have brought out some pretty emotional responses.
It’s hard to tell, sometimes, just what people reading my blog are thinking. Most posts don’t inspire a lot of comments, either on or off the site. But anger has been one of those topics that had really resonated with people.
I think the comment - off-line - that stuck with me was the woman who thanked me for giving her permission to be angry.
Imagine: a grown woman who needed a stranger’s permission to feel angry.
Why wouldn’t you feel angry if your friend is dead? Yes, of course you’re sad. You feel a hole in your heart and your life.
But it’s ridiculously hard for people - men and women both - to admit anger. Usually, you’ll find anger reserved for the person or situation you blame: the doctors, the drunk driver, the cancer.
Occasionally, you’ll be angry at the friend themselves.
Sometimes, you might even be mad at yourself, for not being able to prevent it.
All of those reasons are valid, if not necessarily accurate. Chances are, there was nothing you could do. Doctors aren’t infallible.
But that anger deserves to be acknowledged and accepted. It deserves to be felt, no matter how messy it is.
I’m a firm believer in anger. I think it’s easy to get stuck in grief if you’ve never been angry. I think it’s easy to get stuck in grief if you can’t get past being angry.
Anger is one of the stages of grief for a reason: it’s a stage. I’m skeptical of people who say they’ve never been angry about the death of a loved one. I think it’s more likely they haven’t gotten there yet.
This is a topic I hope to keep going with from time to time. Anything that provokes strong responses deserves to be discussed, and this is as good a place as any to do it.
Just try to give those around you a heads-up before you let loose.

Monday, October 10, 2011


“You’ve been sucked into the cancer vortex.”
That my friend Delle’s reaction when I told her of my Dad’s diagnosis. She’d been battling cancer herself for almost two years, and knew what was ahead of us.
“50/50”  is Will Reiser’s autobiographical film about a 27 year old man whose world is rocked by the discovery of a rare form of cancer.
Anyone who’s been through cancer diagnosis and treatment will appreciate the truths in this film.

The characters are real and mostly sympathetic:
Adam himself, vaguely restless before getting sick, now determined to maintain that everything’s okay. He insists he’s fine, even if it means keeping others at arm’s length.
His mother, already caring for a husband with Alzheimer’s, is angry with the cancer and her son’s refusal of help.
His girlfriend, too self-absorbed to handle the “negative energy” of his new life.
His therapist, new and eager to help, who finally breaks down his walls.
But mostly, it’s his best friend, Kyle, played in all his vulgarity by Seth Rogen, Reiser’s real life friend. Uncouth, immature and naturally offensive to almost everyone, he proves himself to be the best friend a guy with cancer could want. Adam’s discovery in Kyle’s bathroom, near the end of the film, is enough to make anyone cry.
Every word, every scene - and some probably seem weird to those who haven’t “been there” - rings true.
Kyle and Adam go out the night before Adam’s last-chance surgery. What happens will stay with you for a long time. You knew it was there all along, simmering below the surface. But seeing it unfold is remarkably powerful.
Seeing “50/50” has made me re-examine how I treat friends who have cancer. Good intentions, after all, are not enough. Do I treat them with kid gloves? Do I go overboard trying to be natural? Do I talk about myself, to avoid listening to them? Do I dare to tell them I’m scared for them and I love them?
I hope this movie is seem by everyone, and encourages people to offer concrete help to their friends.
And I hope that it encourages people in the fight of their lives to be open to accepting the love and help of those around them.
Here’s a preview:

Friday, October 7, 2011

100 Thoughts about Friend Grief

Today is my 100th blog post.
When I started this blog in February, I had one goal: to put a spotlight on the experience of grieving the death of a friend. It appears I’m succeeding.
I already knew there were people out there who wanted to tell their stories, or rather, tell the story of a friend who meant the world to them.
It’s funny, when you become aware of something, suddenly the whole world is attuned to it. Things you never noticed before are now obvious. So it has been with friend grief. It seems everyone has a story to tell about a friend who died much too soon.
Strangers have bared their souls to me, pouring out their frustration and grief. Celebrities have teared up talking about friends who have died. Others have re-directed their lives, because of the influence of that friend.
I don’t know why I got the idea to write my book, which started this whole insane blog/Facebook/Twitter/Google+ journey. It was certainly borne of my friendship with Delle Chatman. My promise to her, before she died, is what has kept me going the past two years as I finally put pen to paper (or more often, fingers to keyboard).
Now I find what fuels me are the responses I receive when I tell people about my book, or they read a post on this blog.
I’ve made a lot of people cry, which was not deliberate.
I’ve given them permission to be angry, which a lot of people seemed to need.
And I like to think I’ve given them a place to come where they know someone understands. That’s what I’ll keep doing, as I start on my second 100 posts and finish my first book (first, because there will be a second and probably a third).
I thank all of you who’ve taken this journey so far, and hope you’ll continue to accompany me, as we celebrate the lives of friends who made a difference in our lives.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Words to Live By from Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs, the Apple visionary who changed the world, lost his battle to pancreatic cancer on Wednesday.
Although Jobs was known as not always the nicest person to work with, his impact on our lives cannot be overstated.
By now, you may have seen the video of his 2005 commencement speech at Stanford University. He’d been diagnosed the year before, and had successful surgery. He was in remission. But a near-death experience had an effect, even on this impossibly driven CEO.
“No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

When our friends die, it’s a kick in the gut, especially when they’re our age. Our mortality is front and center, and we can’t ignore it. It’s not surprising, then, that many people take a good hard look at their lives: their work, their passions, their relationships. And it’s also not surprising that the death of a friend can be a catalyst for some pretty major life changes.

And though Steve Jobs may not have been a friend of yours, his words resonate. So, while you’re thanking him for your iPod or iPhone or any of the other countless ways he’s changed our lives, it’s worthwhile to consider these words from him:

“Life is brief and then you die, you know? And we’ve all chosen to do this with our lives. So it better be damn good. It better be worth it.”

Monday, October 3, 2011

A Lot of Angry Friends Out There

My posts last week about feeling angry when a friend dies resonated with a lot of people.
I had conversations with family, friends, and online “friends” all week. My posts dredged up feelings for many that had been long repressed.
Some people took the opportunity to fondly remember a friend. Others reacted as if a scab had been scratched, and indeed it had.
Those were the people who had been denied the chance to feel that anger when their friend died, and now, years later, it bubbled up again.
You can only hold your breath so long, and eventually you have to breathe again. So it is with repressing emotions. Eventually they decide they’ve been constrained long enough.
Those who are overwhelmed by the sudden, intense feelings of anger share another feeling: powerlessness. They are unable to reconcile what happened to their friend, to what they believe is the natural order of the universe. I know that sounds a little goofy, but how else to explain comments such as:
“They shouldn’t have died.”
“It doesn’t make any sense.”
“They weren’t even supposed to be there.”
They want to believe things are supposed to happen a certain way; in fact, they’re desperate to believe it.
If there is an order to the universe, then their friend shouldn’t have died.
They can only accept that their friend died if there’s a reasonable, logical explanation. If they had to die, there has to be a reason. And it has to be an extraordinarily good reason.
But as we all know, often there is no explanation, reasonable or otherwise.
That’s where anger pops up.
I don’t know if God is flippant enough to insist, “Because I said so,” when asked why someone had to die. And I don’t know if there’s a more irritating phrase than “it was just their time.”
In my lifetime I’ve had friends who died from enemy gunfire and cancer, car accidents and suicide, AIDS and terrorist attacks. Not one of those deaths made sense to me. Not one of them deserved to suffer - sometimes for years, sometimes for seconds. Not one of those deaths could be justified in my mind as being necessary.
But all forced me to admit that I could not change what had happened, and for a control freak, that’s a tough lesson.
We’re all control freaks when it comes to death. There are two things, ultimately, that we have no control over: the circumstances of our birth and the circumstances of our death. And since we tend to be adults when the second one happens, we believe we should have a say: not only on our own deaths, but those of the people we love.
If possible, all of us would do whatever was in our power to spare our friend’s suffering and death. Love does that: it makes you want to protect the ones you love.
But instead of throwing a much-deserved tantrum because we have no power, we have to sit back and say, “I hate that this happened to my friend. I hate it with every breath I take. But I can’t change it, and that kills me, a little, too.”
That’s when we have to decide how we want to remember that friend: by how they died, or how they lived? What part of them will we hold in our hearts for the rest of our lives? What part of them will inspire us and motivate us?
Have your rant. Scream, yell, cry; try not to hurt you or anyone nearby. Have it out, once and for all.
Then decide how your friend will guide you. That’s something you do have power over.