Monday, January 30, 2012

A Death Notice on Facebook

John Northage, Jr.
I had something else in mind to share today. But as often happens, the universe had other plans.

I logged onto my Facebook page this morning to see a post that confused me at first. It was a friend's Facebook page announcing his death. For a brief moment, I thought it must not be him. It must've been his father who died. But when I saw his son's link, announcing that John had died of a heart attack yesterday, I knew it was the worst possible news.

My daughter was 6 months old when I first went to John's wife for acupuncture. We bonded quickly, over our close age and beautiful baby girls born within weeks of each other. John, at that point, was more in the background. A teddy-bear of a man with a gentle way about him, he did the body work on patients, which I didn't need.

Over the past 17 years, both my husband and I had gone to John for treatment: my husband for occasional back pain, and me for extended cranial-sacral therapy after my concussion. John literally held my hand through the ups and downs of my recovery, always honest and supportive. The day he said "you're done" was a day I had despaired of ever seeing. But he was right, I was done with his treatments.

I could have never gotten through the frustrations of my recovery without him. I could never have made progress without his calm attention to my needs. I will be grateful to him for the rest of my life.

As I shared the sad news on Facebook, calling my husband and the friend who had originally referred me to John and Althea, I found myself unable to stop the tears.

The tears came from sadness first, but also from anger. He and his wife had plans that would be forever altered. It wasn't fair. It wasn't right.

The fact that this news came two days after finding out another friend is having heart surgery next week (and has, in fact, had 3 or 4 heart attacks already without realizing it) was a little too much to bear at first.

My husband is fond of saying "we're at that age". But really, what is the age when you should expect your friends to die? What is the age when it doesn't hurt as much?

So now we wait for information about a memorial service, and how the family would like John to be remembered.

For now I'll just remember John as a talented therapist with a big heart and a bigger smile who will be sorely missed.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Online Life and Death

I'm going to share an interesting article about a topic I've written about recently: what happens to your online identity after you die?

We've looked at Facebook memorial pages, and the new Facebook app that allows you to create a video that will be posted after you die.

But Facebook isn't the only website to consider. We spend a lot of time online, not just socializing or surfing the web. We also shop and bank online. We store and share photos online. We write blogs. We set up automatic bill payments.

If you're like most people - including me - you've probably not made any arrangements for those accounts after you die. But it came up a while ago when I got a LinkedIn invitation from someone I knew...who had recently died.

Here are some questions to ask yourself (and your family and friends):

Who knows your passwords?
Who knows which bills you pay automatically online?
Who knows how to access your photos?
Who will control your blog?
If you've designated an executor for your estate, do they know the answers to these questions?

As it turns out, the law's a little murky on this. I was surprised to read in Alissa Skelton's article on Mashable that only five states have created laws governing the management of digital assets (such as bank accounts, websites and social media accounts) after death.

Basically what happens is that the internet doesn't know you're dead. So everything you normally do automatically will continue to be done. And those things you do yourself will not be done. It's a mess that the Founding Fathers certainly never envisioned.

So check out Alissa's article here: Facebook After Death: What Should the Law Say?

You might be surprised and intrigued.

I know: it's one more thing to do. But take a minute to at least think about it.

And then make plans, so that the family and friends you leave behind will have one less stressful task.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Pitching My Book at Writers Digest Conference

George Davis tweeting at WDC12
I've taken a few days off here to attend the Writers Digest Conference in New York.

In addition to workshops and speakers addressing the craft and business of writing, there is a Pitch Slam, where hundreds of writers pitch their books to brave agents. I was one of the hundreds.

I spent most of the conference with friends (not all of whom I'd ever met in person before). A few of us had met there last year, our friendships deepening over the phone and internet. We practiced our pitches on each other, tweeted madly and bared our souls over calamari and frozen custard (not at the same time).

As I stood in lines 10-deep to wait for agents who'd braved what passes as a winter storm in New York City, I felt pretty focused. Just before I'd walked into the room, a video had popped up on my Facebook newsfeed: a video of my friend, Delle.

Seeing her and hearing her voice was initially jarring: it had been taped a year after her cancer surgery. My first reaction was "your hair looks awful". But the timing - just minutes before I pitched the book she inspired, while wearing one of her scarves - was nothing if not perfect.

It was as if she appeared at that moment to calm me and cheer me on. Our mutual friend, Kim, didn't know where I was when she posted it, but I thank her for doing so.
The closing speaker on Sunday said something that really resonated, not just with me, but everyone there:

"Someone out there has been waiting their entire life to read your book."

Will keep you posted on the progress of the book.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Grief Lessons from Winnie the Pooh

A.A. Milne (and friends)
Today is A.A. Milne's birthday. I've read his Winnie the Pooh stories in English and Latin (Winnie ille Pooh, as I recall). I was in a show in college with his great-niece. My daughter's nursery was full of Pooh and his friends. In honor of Milne's birthday, I'm bringing back my reflection on Pooh.

Perhaps my favorite children’s stories are about Christopher Robin and his best friend, Winnie the Pooh.
There was always an ordinary quality to their stories: get up in the morning and see what happens. Characters had strengths and flaws, but were always accepted
We all have friends like Tigger - the personification of ADHD - whose non-stop energy is exhausting. Who doesn’t have a friend like Eeyore, who assumes the worst in any situation? And Rabbit: I mean, really, who wants a party-pooper like him for a friend?
Actually, we all have friends like them and the other characters in the book. And although from time to time they all get frustrated with the others, they are quick to forgive and forget. Well, maybe not Rabbit…
It’s not Charlotte’s Web: no one dies. But there is a death of sorts in Christopher Robin’s leaving for school.
He knows something’s coming, a day when he can no longer do “Nothing” with his friends. Not only that, he’s going away, to a place he’s only heard about from grownups: the great unknown. He can’t take his friends with him, and he knows that even though they won’t change, he will.
But Christopher Robin and Pooh make a pact to always be friends, always do “Nothing” together, even if they’re apart.
A.A. Milne, creator of the adventures of Christopher Robin and his friends, had a lot to say about the strong bonds of friendship. Following are some quotes from the man who introduced us to a ‘bear of very little brain’, but a heart the size of the universe:

“If you live to be a hundred, I want to live to be a hundred minus one day so I never have to live without you.”

 “If ever there is tomorrow when we're not together... there is something you must always remember. you are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. But the most important thing is, even if we're apart... I'll always be with you.”

 “How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”

 “I think we dream so we don’t have to be apart for so long. If we’re in each other’s dreams, we can be together all the time.”

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Grief and Anger: Not Pretty

This post originally appeared in September and generated quite a bit of attention. And why not? Anger is the emotion we try to keep separate from our grief. It represents a loss of control, a lack of objectivity. But control and objectivity do not peacefully co-exist with grief. Here's a reminder of why it's okay to be angry, and okay to let it go:

Anger can be unattractive, there’s no question about it. It’s messy and unpredictable, sometimes loud and violent. And in a world where we like things to make sense, it’s often unacceptable. But never more than when you’re grieving. There’s a long list of people we can be angry with:
The person who died: why didn’t they take better care of themselves? Why did they take such a stupid chance? What were they thinking?
The medical community: why didn’t the doctor force them to take better care of their health? Why didn’t the paramedics get there sooner? Why hasn’t someone discovered a cure for cancer, etc.?
God: why did you make a good person suffer? Why did you leave those children without a parent? Why them? Why now? Why not someone else? Why not me?
The family: why didn’t they make him go to the doctor? Why did they let her live alone?
Death is, after all, the great unknown. Despite stories of white lights and visions of deceased relatives, no one’s come back from any extended time in the afterlife. We don’t know what awaits us.
And we REALLY don’t know why people die when they do. We say “it was just their time,” and obviously, it was. As a friend, that sense of helplessness can create even deeper anger.
Many times when I’ve grieved I’ve been angry, although I rarely shared those feelings. Despite being one of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ famous stages of grief, it’s probably the least acknowledged.
Anger can be useful, but when turned inward, is more likely referred to as depression. That’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about white-hot, body-shaking, screaming-at-the-top-of-your-lungs anger.
You’ve already realized that the grief you feel for your friend is being devalued because you’re not family. And that can add to the anger you already feel.
Even those who are also grieving are unlikely to accept your anger. Think of Sally Field melting down in the cemetery in Steel Magnolias, and the shock on her friends’ faces. The minister in The Big Chill - “I’m angry, and I don’t know what to do with my anger” - is much calmer about it, but the look in his eyes is anything but.
The problem with suppressing the absolutely justified anger we feel when a friend dies is that it will bubble up eventually. It will present itself suddenly and loudly and often in a completely unrelated situation. And that presents its own complications. Screaming at a barista who doesn’t know you won’t bring back your friend.
So, if you’re angry that cancer treatments and cures came too late for your friend…
If you’re angry that your friend’s family dismissed her threats of suicide…
If you’re angry that your friend drove drunk…
If you’re angry that an evil person chose your friend at random to kill…
Embrace that anger: accept it and embrace it. You’re angry because of the pain that your friend’s death has caused. That’s, dare I say it, normal. Frankly, it would be strange if you weren’t angry. You’re angry because you loved them and wanted them to stay close to you always. Selfish maybe, but normal and human.
So, as long as you don’t hurt yourself or anyone else, you have my permission to be angry. Then you can work on channeling your anger into positive action, to keep your friend’s memory alive every day of your life.

Consider today what you will do to channel your anger.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Dying: There’s an App for That

It had to happen sooner or later.
Remember Murder She Wrote and other mystery TV shows and movies? Someone - usually a wealthy, mean, vindictive person - leaves a video for viewing by his/her survivors. There are shocking revelations - perhaps motive for that person’s murderer?
Well, Facebook - recognizing how digitally addicted we all are - has a new app: “If I Die”.
I love that name: “If I Die” - like we have a choice. J
Here’s an article from today’s Chicago Tribune:
It’s a great idea for control freaks (like me). You control what your final Facebook status update will be. You create a video to be posted when (sorry, it’s when not if) you die. Three Facebook friends have to confirm your demise before it can be posted.
Here’s the Facebook app:

I guess there really is an app for everything.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

9/11: Are We Done With This Yet?

"Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close"
Around the time of the 10th anniversary of 9/11, several major newspapers - including the Chicago Tribune and New York Times - took a look at the response of the arts communities to 9/11. The results were varied and somewhat disappointing.
The authors of the articles wondered aloud why there were no iconic plays - like Rent - or films - like Philadelphia - which addressed the AIDS epidemic. There’s no shortage of documentaries: the building of the World Trade Center, the attacks, the search for bin Laden, the “truth”. But that’s different. Even Paul McCartney’s 9/11-inspired song “Freedom” fell flat. Why?
Grief is a complicated thing. For those directly affected by 9/11 - friends and family - there is no end to remembering, no end to their losses. It was an event that affected not just them, not just our country, but the world. Anniversaries bring up memories. There is no real closure.
But one thing that has surrounded 9/11 from the beginning is controversy. Whether you’re talking about why the towers fell or why first responders’ cancer diagnoses cannot be directly linked to exposure on the pile, there is controversy.
Next week a new film with Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock opens nationwide. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close follows a family devastated by the father’s death on 9/11. Some people - like me - are looking forward to it. Some people are disturbed by it.
Why do we keep dredging this up, they ask? Why can’t we just forget about it?
I can understand that, especially coming from people who received frantic phone calls and voice mails from loved ones trapped in the towers.
Some events aren’t easily forgotten. What’s more important than the event itself, though, is what we’ve learned from it. So I’m looking for two answers when I see the movie:
What does it say about grief?
What does it say about love?
Those two things - grief and love - are intertwined. We wish they weren’t. But in the end, grief teaches us a lot about love: how we loved those who have left us and how we love those who are still here.
After I see the film, I’ll let you know how - and if - it answered my questions.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Too Busy for Coffee, But Not For a Funeral

Metropolis Coffee House
My hangout since 2003
“Enjoy the little things in life for one day you may look back and realize they were the big things.” - Antonio Smith
 Lisa Athan has a blog,  Grief Speaks (you can also find her on Facebook). She wrote something that really resonated with me. It echoes those New Year’s resolutions we’re all struggling to keep right now.
“I do find it fascinating that we, as busy people living such hectic lives, who pride ourselves on multi-tasking, can drop everything to attend a funeral, yet so long as the person is alive, we decline invitations for lunch or coffee because we’re too busy. ‘Perhaps another time,’ we say. We tend to assume that there will always be a chance for another time.”
You don’t have to be a grief professional to know those words are sadly true. Grief is hard enough without guilt piled on top.
Later this week I’ll share a wonderful, sad story from a man whose friend died. He was lucky enough to see him before he died. But he was one of the busy ones, too busy for the 45 mile trip over Los Angeles freeways to get together with his friend. Now those 45 miles feel like 45 inches.
Maybe the physical distance between you and your friend is great - hundreds of miles, several states, an ocean. Maybe it’s not so great, but the logistics are just as daunting.
Well, lucky for us, we don’t live in prehistoric times. We live in a marvelous age where there are very few excuses for not staying in touch. Imagine: we can…
…write a letter.
…send an email.
…DM on Facebook.
…pick up the phone.
…even show up on their doorstep.
So, your assignment today (if you choose to accept it) is to pick one friend you’ve fallen out of touch with; one friend you really miss.
Now pick one of those methods of communication.
And do it.
Don’t wait until you read the obituary in the paper, or have your emails bounce back. Do it today. Make a date for coffee.
It’s a lot more fun than going to a funeral.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Remembering Your Friends…In a Eulogy

This week I said that we’d be looking at some of the many ways we can remember a friend who has died. One way is through words, specifically in their eulogy.
I’ve been to too many funerals where the minister didn’t know the deceased at all, and that never fails to make me angry.
What is the purpose of a eulogy? If the purpose is to make total strangers feel they knew that person, then in this re-post from June, Fr. Duffy succeeded. If he wanted us all to remember Fr. Judge for years to come, well, I think he succeeded there, too:

I’ve never been called upon to give a eulogy for a friend. I wrote the eulogy a hospice chaplain read for my father’s funeral. I’ve made remarks at friends’ memorial services. But I’ve never given a formal eulogy: never stood up in front of a gathering of mourners, script in hand, before a microphone, praying for strength.
The photo here is one of the most iconic images of September 11, 2001. Fr. Mychal Judge was a New York City fire department chaplain. He died ministering at the World Trade Center. His funeral, at St. Francis of Assisi Church on West 31st Street four days later, was nationally televised.
Franciscans are required to leave instructions “in the event of” their death, and on the morning following the attacks, Fr. Michael Duffy was told that Fr. Judge had left instructions for him to give the eulogy.
I was shaken and shocked … for one thing, as you know from this gathering, Mychal Judge knew thousands of people. He knew, he seemed to know everybody in the world. And if he didn’t then, they know him now, I’m sure. Certainly he had friends that were more intellectual than I, certainly more holy than I, people more well-known. And so I sat with that thought, why me … and I came down to the conclusion that I was simply and solely his friend … and I’m honored to be called that.

I always tell my volunteers in Philadelphia that through life, you’re lucky if you have four or five people whom you can truly call a friend. And you can share any thought you have, enjoy their company, be parted and separated, come back together again and pick up right where you left off. They’ll forgive your faults and affirm your virtues. Mychal Judge was one of those people for me. And I believe and hope I was for him …
How do you sum up a life and a friendship? Fr. Duffy’s eulogy is as good as they get: personal, joyful, mournful. Even if you never met Fr. Judge, by the end of the homily you’ll feel that he was your friend, too.
Thanks to Fr. Duffy for teaching us all about his friend.

For more information on Fr. Mychal Judge, his life and his legacy:
For the entire transcript of Fr. Duffy’s homily:

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

A 2012 Plan for Grieving Your Friends

9/11 Remembrance ribbons on
 the fence at St. Paul's Chapel
New Year
Clean Slate
Clear the Decks
If only…

I’m not suggesting ignoring your grief.
I’m not suggesting pretending you didn’t lose a friend.
What I am suggesting is finding a way to channel that grief, finding a way to create something new and positive.
One of the feelings most often felt when a friend dies is that we want to be sure they’re not forgotten.
So maybe we visit the cemetery, or post on their memorial Facebook page.
But how about taking that a step further? How about actively doing something to remember them?
Carol Demitz was a classmate of mine. We didn’t travel in the same circles, but we had classes together in our small Catholic girls high school in St. Louis.
After she died on 9/11, our class made a donation to our school in her name, underwriting new lighting in the hallways.

But every year on the anniversary, when the names of the victims were read at the Ground Zero ceremony, her name was mispronounced (the accent’s on the first syllable, short vowels). I’m a stickler on pronouncing names correctly and it bothered me. When I stood there on the 9th anniversary, and heard it mispronounced yet again, I made a promise to myself that it wouldn’t happen the following year.
Last May I started in earnest to find out how to correct that. I spoke to several people, finally talking to a woman in Mayor Bloomberg’s office just after Labor Day. She wrote down Carol’s last name phonetically, but could make no promises that the person reading would get it right. I figured at least I’d gone on record, and maybe that was the best I could do.
So on the morning of the 10th anniversary, standing in the warm sun across from Zuccoti Park, I listened to the names being read again. This time Carol’s name was pronounced correctly, and I nearly burst out laughing. Then I wanted to cry.
It wasn’t something that was important to most people. Even other girls from my class said “we know what’s right; that’s all that matters”. But for some stupid reason, it was as important to me as collecting remembrances for the digital archive. She would be remembered. And named correctly.
We’re going to consider a few ideas in the coming weeks, looking at ways people found to keep their friend’s memory alive.
Some are activities, some are financial, and some are life-changing decisions.
You might have your own ideas, or these posts may trigger your imagination.
And if you’ve done something - big or small, temporary or permanent - to preserve the memory of the friend who meant so much to you, feel free to share it.


Monday, January 2, 2012

New Year’s Resolutions…About Friend Grief?

Today is the second day of 2012. Have you broken any New Year’s resolutions yet?
We start the year with such good intentions: lose weight, exercise more, save money, travel. We expect that it will be easy to keep them.
Then something happens. We realize just how hard it is to keep those resolutions. We fall off the wagon once, and decide we’ve failed. So we give up. And it’s not February yet. Pathetic, isn’t it?
But I would propose that you go ahead and make New Year’s resolutions about friend grief.
1.      Don’t ignore your grief. It will bite you in the butt when you least expect it.
2.      Don’t keep your grief bottled up inside. Share it with a therapist, in a group, with a friend or family member, in a journal, online.
3.      Realize that grief is unavoidable: “the price you pay for love.”
4.      Remember that grief takes different forms. It’s not all about crying. You can grieve a friend by doing something positive.
5.      Don’t wait until the funeral: stay in touch with your friends now.
6.      Remember what helped you the most when you grieved, and offer those things to others who are grieving now.
7.      Don’t set a timeline for “getting over it”. Grief can’t be defined by a calendar. Let it take its own course. It will, anyway.
8.      Accept that you’re a different person now - for having loved your friend and for having lost them.
9.      Find a special way to remember them and make it a regular/annual thing.
10.  Continue to join me here or other social media hangouts:

Twitter:  @friendgrief

Facebook: Friend Grief

There’s a lot new in store for this site this year: more guest bloggers, expanded resources page, new opportunities to share stories about your friends, and freebies, too! And suggestions are always welcome, so feel free to contact me at with any ideas.

Thanks for joining me here, and I look forward to making our friends proud of us in 2012!