Wednesday, November 30, 2011

"Forming Community" - AIDS@30

Steve & I at the Drake

"Forming Community" first appeared in April in Windy City Times. I was honored that publisher Tracy Baim asked me to be part of her series on the history of the epidemic. For tomorrow, World AIDS Day, here it is:
The first time I remember being conscious of the effects of AIDS was March, 1983. My girlfriend was in the hospital, after a difficult labor and delivery that called for a transfusion. She worked in the lab at that hospital and knew the blood supply wasn’t safe. When I visited her there, her sheets had more color. But she still refused the transfusion.
Sex in the 80’s – gay or straight – was a challenge. I was tested twice (once a requirement by a prospective lover, once to ease my own mind). I demanded the men I slept with wore condoms, and it was not always well received. There was much grumbling and insisting they were ‘all right’. But that was a deal-breaker, and no one talked me out of it.
I was volunteering occasionally, mostly to help raise money until 1989, when I took a job at Chicago House as development director. I was the only straight person in the office, something that did not meet with great approval.
The animosity I faced as a straight woman in the AIDS community surprised me. AIDS was still considered a gay issue, and there was a bit of territorialism. I suppose I was naïve. I had no agenda; I just wanted to help.
I came from a theatre background, so I’d had gay friends since high school (even wound up dating a couple, unintentionally). However, I’ve never been to a college reunion because so many of the guys I went to school with have died, many of them from AIDS. I found out one of them had died when I saw his panel on the cover of a book about the Names Project quilt.
I got a phone call from my mother one day, also in the 80’s. She had that “someone died” tone in her voice. When I asked her what was wrong, she said she called to tell me that Richard was gay. “And…?” I asked, fearing the worst. “That’s it,” she insisted. I couldn’t believe she didn’t know. Richard was my father’s best friend then, and remained so until the day my Dad died. Their friendship didn’t change because Richard came out; if anything they grew closer.
The work at Chicago House was challenging and exhilarating and sometimes frustrating. The mission statement read: “Chicago House provides residential and support services for people living with HIV & AIDS.” The problem, as it turned out, was the word ‘people’. Everyone assumed we only served men.
So I did something that was, well, wrong. I didn’t ask permission, and I certainly had no right to do it, but I changed that word in the mission statement. I changed ‘people’ to ‘men and women’. It was as if a light bulb went on, the reaction I got now was so different. “You have women living there?” And just like that, funding organizations looked at Chicago House differently.
While I was there, we opened the third house, which was a hospice. I remember it was a very cold Chicago winter day, with wind chills well below zero. Mayor Daley was coming to see the house, along with some media to record the visit. Now, relations were quite strained between the Mayor and the gay community at that time. In fact, he was coming to the house in Edgewater from a meeting with gay leaders at Ann Sather’s.
As usual, he was running late, but when he got there the schedule was forgotten. He went upstairs, with Tom Dombkowski and John Chester (the executive director and board chair), but without the media. I stayed on the first floor, but after a few minutes, he appeared at the top of the stairs and told the media to grab their cameras. “Come up here; you need to see this.” When the tour was finished, he sat in the living room and answered questions for some time.
There was a constant stream of fundraisers: bar events at Little Jim’s and Roscoe’s, drag shows, a dunk tank at Halsted Street Days, and our first black-tie event at the Drake. I was in London the year before on the first World AIDS Day, and a collection was taken up at curtain call in the West End theatres. I stole that idea the following year, and we sent volunteers to theatres to collect money for Chicago House. Some of my most dedicated volunteers have remained friends to this day.
I left Chicago House after a year (I’ll leave it at that), and continued to raise money in the AIDS community as a consultant with groups like Bonaventure House and Stop AIDS. But there was a price to pay, and it was an emotional one.
A year or so after I went out on my own, I went through as stretch of 11 weeks in a row, where someone I knew died every week. Only one was really close, Steve Showalter, who’d been my assistant at Chicago House. But all were men I’d known around the community, had worked with on projects, or just knew socially.
When I heard about the 11th one, I called my former acting teacher in L.A. and asked if I could visit. I booked a seat on Amtrak: two days with no phones, and no contact with others unless I wanted it. By the time I got there, I was able to hold a coherent conversation; by the time I came back a week later, I could work again.
I bought a copy of And the Band Played On, Randy Shilts’ indictment of pretty much everyone in the 80’s. I remember very clearly throwing the book across my living room several times. I’d read about government inaction, or medical fraud, or politics, and I’d have to stop to…throw the book. I considered at one point buying a copy that wasn’t so beat up, but I think I want to hold on to that reminder of my anger. My best friend asked recently why I read it when I’d already lived through it. The anger: that’s why.
Now and then, I’d mention going to a memorial service, visiting someone at Illinois Masonic, referring someone to Herdegen-Brieske (a funeral home that would take AIDS victims), and I would be asked “how did they get it?” There were few things – then or since – that could instantly infuriate me like that question. My responses were not exactly polite. The nicest I could come up with was “what the hell difference does it make?”
Looking back on that time, I was angry a lot. I felt as if I were living in London during the Blitz: never knowing where the bombs would drop, only that someone I knew would die. And most people didn’t care.
In 1993, I married a man who welcomed my gay friends. He had to: it was non-negotiable. Our wedding flowers all had red ribbons, and our reception was in the Gold Coast Room, the location of the first Chicago House black-tie dinner. One of my former volunteers, Russ Glidden, designed my invitation; another, Fred Eberle, sang at the wedding. We remembered those lost to AIDS during the ceremony.
My late father wanted our first dance to be “Wind Beneath My Wings”, but for possibly the only time in my life, I refused to do something he asked. I couldn’t do it, I told him, because virtually every memorial service I’d ever been to – and there were many – used that song. It was just too sad for me. So we danced to “Sunrise Sunset”. “Wind Beneath My Wings” was the only song played at his funeral.
There are those who feel an ownership to the AIDS crisis, and I understand that. There was certainly a lot of suspicion and occasional antagonism towards any “breeders” who joined the efforts. The gay community was devastated, and my losses pale in comparison.
When asked what I’m most proud of in my life, the little bit I was able to do for the 10 or 12 years I was involved in fundraising for AIDS organizations is close to the top of my list (sorry, my daughter’s at the top).
I wonder if what I did made any difference. Thirty years later I worry about my gay nephew, even though he assures me he practices safe sex. I worry about my gay friends, even the ones who I know are HIV-negative, because I’m used to worrying about them.
I remember a moment in the early 80’s. I don’t know where I was, or what I was doing, I just remember the moment. I thought to myself: “I don’t want to look back and be ashamed I stood by and did nothing.”
What I did wasn’t much, and it may not have changed anything. But I’d do it again, gladly, even knowing I’d lose so many people I cared about.

Monday, November 28, 2011

World AIDS Day 2011 - 30 Years of AIDS

“Disenfranchised grief” is defined as grief that is not socially accepted or acknowledged. I learned a lot about it in the AIDS community.
Thursday, December 1, is World AIDS Day, this year marking the 30th anniversary of the pandemic.
I worked in the AIDS community in Chicago in the late 80’s/early 90’s, after volunteering for a while to raise money for much needed services.
If you had told me in 1981 that 30 years later we’d have no cure, I wouldn’t have believed you. Scientists always seemed to be “closing in on” a cure.
If you had told me in 1981 that in addition to having friends who died within weeks of their diagnosis, that I would also have friends who have been HIV+ for over 25 years, I wouldn’t have believed that, either.
No one lived that long - months, maybe years if they were extraordinarily lucky - but decades? I would’ve thought you were nuts. Or just cruel.
The current state of AIDS (as of October, 2011) is grim:
  • More than 33 million people now live with HIV/AIDS.
  • 2.5 million of them are under the age of 15.
  • In 2009, an estimated 2.6 million people were newly infected with HIV.
  • 370,000 were under the age of 15.
  • Every day more than 7,000 people contract HIV—nearly 300 every hour.
  • In 2009, 1.8 million people died from AIDS.
  • 260,000 of them were under the age of 15.
  • Since the beginning of the epidemic, more than 60 million people have contracted HIV and nearly 30 million have died of HIV-related causes
Sub-Saharan AfricaMore than two-thirds (68 percent) of all people living with HIV, 22.5 million, live in sub-Saharan Africa—including 92 percent of the world’s HIV-positive children. In 2009, an estimated 1.8 million people in the region became newly infected. An estimated 1.3 million adults and children died of AIDS, accounting for 72 percent of the world’s AIDS deaths in 2009.
Asia and the PacificIn Asia and the Pacific, more than 360,000 people became newly infected in 2009, bringing the total number of people living with HIV/AIDS there to more than 4.9 million. AIDS claimed an estimated 300,000 lives in the region in 2009.
CaribbeanAn estimated 17,000 people became infected with HIV in 2009 in the Caribbean, bringing the total number of people living with HIV/AIDS to 240,000. An estimated 12,000 people died of AIDS in 2009.
Central and South AmericaThere were an estimated 92,000 new HIV/AIDS infections and 58,000 AIDS-related deaths in Central and South America in 2009. This region currently has 1.4 million people living with HIV/AIDS.
North Africa and the Middle EastApproximately 460,000 people are living with HIV in this region and an estimated 75,000 people became newly infected in 2009. An estimated 24,000 adults and children died of AIDS
Eastern Europe and Central AsiaSome 130,000 people were newly infected with HIV in 2009, bringing the number of people living with HIV/AIDS to 1.4 million. HIV/AIDS claimed 76,000 lives in 2009.
Western and Central EuropeIn 2009, there were 31,000 new cases of HIV, bringing the number of people living with HIV in Western and Central Europe to 820,000. An estimated 8,500 people in these regions died of AIDS in 2009.
Source: UNAIDS Report on the Global AIDS Epidemic 2010; Kaiser Family Foundation.
On Wednesday, my post will be unusually long. I’m sharing the article I wrote in the spring for Windy City Times, Chicago’s largest publication serving the LGBT community. Their series, AIDS@30, recounts the history of AIDS: its impact on politics, civil rights, culture, medical research and treatment not just locally, but globally. You can follow the series at Windy City Media Group
Perhaps you know people who have died of AIDS, or are living with HIV. Take a moment on Thursday to remember them, and how the stigma of this horrible disease added to their pain, and maybe yours, too.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Being Thankful for Our Friends

I don’t think it was intentional, but I seem to have spent a good part of November connecting and re-connecting with friends.
I’m sure the fact that this month was the 5 year anniversary of my friend Delle’s death had something to do with it, at least subconsciously.
So I began to be very assertive about the time I spent with friends. It began with a trip to New York:

Several days there seeing shows, eating and drinking with Eileen, who I’ve known since…well, a long time.
A relaxing lunch on an unseasonably warm day in Union Square Park with an old boyfriend.
Reconnecting with two friends from college (after not seeing either for 30+ years), for a catching-up, laughing lunch on the Upper West Side that we plan to repeat in January.
After I got home, phone calls and emails to five to six people I haven’t talked to in weeks, making solid plans with most of them to get together in the next week or so.
Yes, as I blogged about recently, it’s often easier to make time for a funeral than for lunch. It’s a sad indictment of ourselves and our culture. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Don’t set yourself up for guilt on top of grief, guilt brought on by your very human failure to make time for your friends.
I’ve had some touching responses to this idea, from people who have made a renewed commitment to their friendships. Now, they do run the risk of being rebuffed, because their friends don’t have the time or inclination to see them. But that’s the risk we always take with relationships.
The holidays are upon us now, a built-in excuse for…excuses. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
So, while you’re being thankful for your friends, take that extra step. You know: the one that comes after “we should get together soon.” The one where you say, “okay, how about next Friday after work?” It’s not so hard. You can do it. Just give it a try.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Giving Thanks for Missing Friends

“As long as you remember him, he’s not really dead.”
I’m paraphrasing a line from Doctor Who, but that’s certainly the intent of the Doctor’s message.
As Americans pause to celebrate Thanksgiving Day, and even those in other countries mark the day with giving thanks by volunteering, it’s a sentiment worth considering.
Holidays - like anniversaries and birthdays - can be painful for anyone who’s lost someone they love. We are haunted by memories of time spent together, and I use the word “haunted” deliberately. The memories don’t necessarily make us feel good.
But as we give thanks, let us remember - without being haunted - our friends.
I’ll remember laughing on the phone with Carol, who watched the Iran-Contra hearings on C-SPAN as she lay dying from breast cancer.
I’ll remember dancing with Steve, so handsome in his tux, in the Gold Coast Room of the Drake Hotel, just months before he developed full-blown AIDS.
I’ll remember sitting at Academy of the Sacred Heart’s Prize Day with Delle, taking pictures of our daughters and making plans for the summer.
I’ll remember conversations with Chris in the cafeteria, full of teenage-angst and solutions for the world’s problems.
They’re not big things. They’re ordinary: dancing, talking, and laughing. But the little things make up our lives: those simple, everyday, sometimes boring things that mean so much to us later on.
My daughter once asked me why grownups don’t just hang out like kids do: they always seem to need an excuse to get together (a meal, a movie, a special occasion). I guess we get so busy we feel we have to make formal appointments, do specific things, because just “hanging out” isn’t important enough.
This holiday I’ll most likely be remembering those times I hung out with friends: in dorm rooms, the basement of my parents’ house, school cafeterias, apartments. I won’t feel haunted, though I may feel a little sad that those friends aren’t here anymore to hang out with.
How about doing the same? Remember the friends who are no longer with you: the little things you did together that cemented your friendship. Feel sad if you want, but not guilty, because even though there weren’t enough of them, those moments did exist.
And while you’re at it, call up a friend who’s still around. And just hang out.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Is It Better to Have Loved and Lost…A Friend?

“Hearts will never become practical until they become unbreakable.” - Wizard of Oz
“To have memories of those you have loved and lost is perhaps harder than to have no memories at all.” - Van Helsing

Most people who use the phrase “loved and lost” think of a relationship breaking up. But what if it really meant the death of a friend?
Are you better off - even in your grief - for having known your friend?
Do you wish you’d never met them, because the pain you feel now is so intense?
In other words, is the pain worth it?
There are certainly moments - especially when your grief is fresh - when you may think it’s not worth it.
But then who would you be?
My friends have shared their love of music, theatre, films and food with me. My friends have inspired me and frustrated me. My friends have gotten me into and out of trouble. My friends have made me laugh and made me cry. They’ve supported me, called me out when they thought I was an idiot, and challenged me to be a better person.
In short, our friends have made us who we are today.
Grief, they say, is the price you pay for love.
So don’t be surprised that you grieve when your friends die. It’s the price you pay for the love you shared with them: a price we should all be willing to pay.

Friday, November 18, 2011

When to Remember Our Friends?

Happy birthday, Delle

May 29 or November 22?
January 15 or April 4?
What difference does it make what day you commemorate your friend?
Well, in the case of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., there’s definitely a difference.
Few people know that Kennedy’s birthday is May 29. The day we forever associate with him is the day he was assassinated.
The opposite is true of Dr. King: his birthday is a national holiday, but the day he was killed is not as important.
My friend, Delle Chatman, died on November 7. Perhaps because my memory of that day is so clear, I tend to not forget it. Her birthday is tomorrow, November 19.
I was in New York on the 7th this year, and my girlfriend and I raised a toast to Delle. Tomorrow, well, I haven’t decided yet what I’ll do.
I always think of Delle on my birthday. In 2002, we sat at Prize Day at our daughter’s school, and I admitted I couldn’t decide what I wanted to do for my next birthday. She told me what she’d done for hers, and I copied it: a girls-only, wine & dessert evening of laughing and sharing.
Tomorrow will probably involve green tea, which we shared a taste for, and possibly a red velvet cupcake. It will definitely include a good amount of work on the book she encouraged me to write. And I know for sure it will be full of gratitude for knowing her, for having the privilege of calling her my friend.
What day do you remember your friend? The day they died? The day they were born? Or another day?
The day doesn’t matter. All that matters, really, is that you remember them and what they meant to you.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A Death Café?

Salon (n.) A periodic gathering of people of social or intellectual distinction.

I always wanted to host a salon. I had visions of the Algonquin Round Table and American expatriates in the Paris of the 1920’s. Make no mistake, I’ve had gatherings like that occasionally, with incredibly talented and opinionated friends. But they never happened often enough for my liking.
So when I read Kristie West’s blog this week about the second London Death Café, it gave me pause.
The concept of the Death Café began in Switzerland, and has spread to London, where Kristie lives. She’s a grief counselor, specializing in helping those who have lost a parent.
A Death Café, much like those celebrated salons, is a gathering of people - fortified by food and drink - discussing a topic most avoid: death. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?
Seriously, we could all use a place - even a pop-up café - where we can talk to others about our fears and hopes about death (ours or someone else’s).
You may be one of the many whose grief for their friend’s death was dismissed by those around you. They didn’t get it, to put it mildly. The problem was that you had few if any people to talk to about your loss.
A Death Café is not a group therapy session. But it is a chance for people to open up on a topic most people would prefer to ignore.
If you’re curious about Kristie’s experience at the first two held in London, check out Kristie West.
If you’d like to find out more about the whole Death Café phenomenon, follow @DeathCafe on Twitter.
Meanwhile, I’m thinking about how to start one here in Chicago.
And planning the menu.

Monday, November 14, 2011

How to Avoid Grieving Your Friend

Sometimes it's too late
I’ve been encouraging (a nicer word than “preaching”) visitors here to reach out to their friends and let them know how important they are to you before it’s too late. What’s too late? Too late is when all you can do is regret what you didn’t do or say. And that happens a lot more often than we care to admit.
Sometimes the idea begins with a simple thought, “I wonder whatever happened to…” Sometimes a discovery triggers an old, pleasant memory. Both happened to me recently.
I was planning yet another trip to New York, and knew I had some unplanned down time while I was there. I called the usual friends I see when I’m there - both of whom I’d reconnected with after long separations. But something made me reach out to two others.
Jan and Jeff were college friends. Jan was my roommate senior year, and we were all in shows together. We were part of a pretty tight group (more on that later). But I hadn’t seen Jeff since 1974, nor Jan since the late 70’s. She and I had been in touch the usual way: Christmas cards and rare emails.
So I surprised even myself a little when I wrote letters to them both: I’m in town, here’s when I’m free, any chance for lunch? I knew what day the letters were delivered, because Jan emailed and Jeff called me.
Last Friday, we met on the upper west side. Except for changes in hair color and weight, we all looked the same to me. We brought each other up to date on what we’d been doing and even future plans. We laughed and joked and reminisced and it seemed for a couple hours on a beautiful day that time had stopped.
Both of them thanked me for setting this up, but I was at least as grateful that they responded. It certainly won’t be 30 years until we see each other again. I’m pretty confident that we’ll stay in close touch now.
There were a couple other guys in our group. I texted one of them to let him know what we were doing and that I’d give him a full report.
After our lunch, Jan emailed me. “Whatever happened to…?” It was a guy I always associated with her. I could see him in my mind, leaning back in his chair, smoking a cigarette at our favorite bar in Iowa City.
Guess I’ll be tracking him down next.
I don’t know if I’ll find him, find him alive and well, or willing to re-establish contact. But I’ll be able to answer the question. And I hope I won’t have to ask myself another one:
“Why didn’t I call sooner?”
If a world-class procrastinator like me can get up off her butt and do this, so can you. Don’t wait until you see the obituary or have your Christmas card returned, stamped “deceased”.
Track them down and contact them.
Do it now.
Whether it’s good news or not, you’ll be glad you made the effort.

The truth is, you’ll still grieve when they die, but at least you won’t feel guilty.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

What Else I Learned about Myself from Delle Chatman

When I told Delle I had an idea for a book, I was nervous. I was hoping she wouldn’t laugh, although I knew her well enough by then to know she wouldn’t. Mostly, I was nervous about saying the words, “I have an idea for a book”: a book that I would write, not a book someone else should write.
I’d never written a book before, never seriously considered it. She was supportive, as I expected: “just do it,” she answered, with a wave of her hand. In her mind, there were no impediments to following through. But there were.
I put the idea aside as her condition worsened and she died. A few months later, I started thinking about it again. I even interviewed a few people, solicited stories from customers and friends. But try as I might, I kept hitting a wall. I couldn’t really put pen to paper. The idea was too jumbled in my mind, and I finally gave up. “I’m sorry,” I told her in one of our frequent one-sided conversations. “I just can’t do it.” I felt like I’d failed her.
A couple years went by. Stuff happened: our daughters were growing up, my mother got sick, I suffered a concussion in a car accident. I didn’t forget about the book, but I chose to ignore the whole idea.
Several months after my accident, I was in Michigan with my family. It wasn’t a good time, and one night I had a strange dream. It was so strange I decided I had to write it down so I didn’t forget it. I dragged out my laptop and began to type. Several hours and 11 pages later, I realized the dream was part of a story. Okay, that was odd. But then it got ever stranger.
I stopped typing the story and suddenly the book I’d promised Delle popped into my head: the format, a working title (which I’ve since abandoned), a tone. Everything that had eluded me before was right there, clear as a bell. Two months later, I was in New York doing research.
That was two years ago. I’ve made several research trips and interviewed a number of people. I’ve started this blog, a Facebook page, a Google+ identity, and tweeted like crazy. I’ve built a following and generated interest in the book from potential readers and agents alike. I’m speaking at the ADEC conference next spring.
The book is not yet finished, although it’s getting close. And I realized with some surprise that there will be second book - specifically about men grieving their friends - and a third, which will be about Delle.
So, what else did I learn about myself from Delle?
I learned many things, but mostly I learned that I could reinvent myself yet again, this time in an unexpected way. I learned that I could write, and write about something that resonated with a lot of people. I learned that I could build a new professional life on the bedrock of our friendship.
That sounds a little melodramatic, and perhaps it is. But I know for sure I would have never considered writing a book - much less one about grieving the death of a friend - if I hadn’t known Delle.
It’s taken me a while to accept, too, that this blog and book could help people. In fact, I resisted the whole notion. But I finally had to surrender. I’m not a professional grief counselor, nor do I pretend to be. If someone needs therapeutic help, I’m glad to make referrals.
But it has been made clear to me that people also need someone who’ll listen, someone who’s been there: someone who’s definitely not a professional. And that’s where I am today, or at least where Delle thought I should be.
I like to think that she’s pleased by this idea of influencing me so profoundly 5 years after she died. I feel like she’s responsible for the wonderful people I’ve met, the incredible opportunities that have presented themselves, and of course, the words. She used to talk about writing as taking dictation from God, but it’s her voice I hear as I type away.
So, that’s what I’ve learned: some powerful lessons about what I’m capable of accomplishing. And I trust she’ll continue on this journey with me.

Monday, November 7, 2011

What I Learned about Myself from Delle Chatman

Delle Chatman

Five years ago today was election night. I’d talked to Delle’s brother Gregory earlier: “I’m writing my sister’s obituary,” he said quietly. I turned off my computer about 7:00, to watch the election results: just about the time that my friend, Delle, left us.
I was sorting through the research for my book when I came upon a folder simply marked Delle. Inside were a variety of things: the tribute DVD created by “30 Good Minutes”, the PBS program she appeared on; another of her play, The Answer; her obituary from the Chicago Tribune. Stuck inside, though, was a piece of paper I’d forgotten about for five years that brought more than one tear to my eyes.
I had the fortune - or misfortune - to walk into her hospital room after her doctor walked out, five years ago Labor Day weekend. I knew immediately that something was very wrong. Her doctor had told her the cancer was back again. She’d had recurrences over almost 4 years of fighting ovarian cancer. This felt different, very different.
One of my talents is making lists (though not necessarily keeping to them). I sat on her bed and we made lists: who to call, what she needed taken care of until she was released, details revolving around her daughter. She assigned me the duty of notifying her Yahoo groups of what was happening. But she controlled the message:
            “Oh, my good friends -
            All of a sudden, a crisis has arisen all because The Old Squatter has bushwhacked me again. Do the details really matter?
            Please suffice it to say we hope a surgical procedure will make breathing easier. Won’t know for sure for a few days. There are risks from bleeding and infection.
            All is in God’s hands.
            All and everyone.
            My brother Gregory is coming to stay with Ramona. They’ll need freezable meals. Maybe someone can organize that for them.
            I feel your love and prayers.
            Thank you.
            Bless you.
I have to tell you, Delle was not a person to whom you were likely to say “no”. But I didn’t want to do this. I thought she should do it herself, and probably said so, but she disagreed. Maybe I just didn’t want to type the words, see them in print, because that would make them real and true.
I already knew from going through my Dad’s illness and death that I was, in the words of A.A. Milne “stronger than you think”. Now I had to stifle my tears and be strong again. It helped that I was mad as hell, more angry than sad that day. It helped me do what I needed to do.
But damn it, what I wanted to do was scream and cry and rage at God for doing this to her. I didn’t want to sit there calmly and compose lists of things that needed to be done for herself and her daughter.
Delle meant more to me than I meant to her. I always knew that, and that’s okay. Those who knew her knew they had to share her with many, many people: other moms, parishioners at St. Gertrude, actors and directors, writers, family, baristas, really anyone she met. No one “vaguely” remembers Delle: they will tell you that they have strong, clear, vibrant memories of her and miss her every day.
But the question I posed on this blog last week was “what did you learn about yourself when your friend died?” I’m afraid it will take a couple posts for me to answer that, at least in the context of my friendship with Delle.
I learned that I can be there for a friend who’s dying. I already knew how to visit people in the hospital, but I also learned how to really focus on normal stuff: meeting at Metropolis for green tea after dropping off our daughters at school; insisting that she buy more comfortable shoes for walking around Paris; taking a road trip to Milwaukee for the Call to Action conference; saving a seat at Prize Day so we had a clear view to take pictures of the girls.
No one wants to see “the look” from their friends: that painful expression that proves how scared they are. I’m sure I probably gave her that look the last time I saw her. I tried not to, but I’m pretty sure I failed. But I’m also pretty sure I succeeded most of the rest of the time (it helped to be in denial).
So, yeah, I proved to myself I can be a friend in the face of a devastating diagnosis. On Wednesday, I’ll tell you an even more important lesson I learned from Delle.

Grief, grieving styles, Delle Chatman, friendship

Friday, November 4, 2011

A Question about Friend Grief

I posed this question on my Facebook page Friend Grief:

“What’s the most important thing you learned about yourself when you lost a friend?”

We’re here because we’ve experienced the death of a friend. We’ve cried and raged and felt regrets.
But what have we learned?
Not about death, not even about how those around us have dismissed the impact of our grief.
What have you learned about yourself?
Have you learned - perhaps too late - how much your friend meant to you?
Have you learned your friendships are more important than you ever imagined?
Have you learned you are who you are because of your friend?
Did their death teach you that you’re stronger than you thought?
Maybe you have an answer to one of these questions. Maybe you learned something else about yourself.
I invite you to share what you’ve learned in the comment box below, or on my Facebook page (or both, if you’re so inclined).
Next week I’ll give you my answer.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

“Old Friends Make Life’s Voyage a Pleasure Cruise”

Eric Zorn

 If you ever wondered why friends are so important to us - men and women alike - just read Eric Zorn’s column in today’s Chicago Tribune.
It points out what I’ve tried to explain in this blog: our grief when they die is unlike other types of grief.
When you read his column, you think, “Well, of course, they would mourn for each other”. And I’m sure they will.
But that kind of experience - friend grief - is often dismissed as unimportant, lacking in comparison to grieving a family member.
But love is love, and when someone we love dies, we mourn them. Our hearts don’t care about titles or legal relationships. All we know is that the world is a sadder place because that friend is gone.
So, in full support of the trip Eric took with his buddies, I ask you to think about friends you haven’t seen for a while. Think about friends to whom you say, “We should get together more often”.
And then get off your butt and do something about that, before you get any closer to port.