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.

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