Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Friends Grieving for George Harrison

George Harrison's birthday was a few days ago. He would've been 69 years old. I find it almost impossible to think of that gangly, 20 year old "quiet Beatle" on Ed Sullivan's Show as a senior citizen.

Last fall, I wrote this about him, after watching the excellent "Living in the Material World" documentary about his life. As in "The Concert for George", his friends talk about their love for him. I highly recommend both films, whether you're a Beatlemaniac or not. Because you'll find yourself marveling at the beautiful, complicated friendships he treasured so much:

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.

Monday, February 27, 2012

When a Friend’s Diagnosis Scares You

“I read the news today, oh, boy…”

When I was a kid, it seemed that old people talked about nothing but aches and pains. If asked how she was feeling, the most optimistic response my great-aunt could come up with was, “well, not too bad”.

And while I’m not there yet, as we age we see glimpses of declining health. Sore knees and weakened eyes become the rule rather than the exception, both in ourselves and our friends.

We may complain about not being able to play certain sports anymore, but, hey, we’re still here, right?

Then one day you get the phone call or the email, or you see a post on Facebook. One of your friends is sick, really sick: dying. And the world stops.

We go into crisis mode: contacting our friend, offering assistance in any way we can. We stop obsessing about stupid things and concentrate on what we can do to help. We get out of ourselves, though it may only last a little while.

Deanna Watson, writing in yesterday’s Times Record News of Wichita Falls, Texas, is in the midst of one of those times. Her colleague, sports writer Nick Gholson, had surgery last week for advanced colon cancer.

Time has a way of standing still when we hear shocking news. Our minds struggle to understand the words and what they mean. They didn’t get all the cancer? What does that mean? Can they operate again? There’s something they can do, right? You’re going to be okay, right? RIGHT???

It’s the shock of the news, but it’s also the rush of selfishness we all feel: what about me? Some people may even feel guilty later on if they realize how they’re reacting, but it’s so very human and understandable.

We love our friends, or they wouldn’t be our friends. We share our lives with them. We want to always be able to do the things we do with them now, or have done for years.

So if your reaction to such devastating news is to think “I need you to be okay, I need everything to stay the way it is right now” you’re not alone. I remember thinking the same thing – and not admitting it to anyone – when hearing that friends were close to death.

The difference between this and dealing with the devastating news that a friend has died is that they’re still very much alive. As devastated as you are, you’ve been given a gift: time. No, it’s not as much time as you assumed you’d have. But it’s time: time to say what’s in your heart, time to help them, time to just hang out and be the friend you’ve always been.

Watson talks about how rattled she is: forgetting things, almost being in a daze. But she is as lucid as can be in the close of her article. Hers are words that we can all relate to and follow:

“I’m a different person today than I was, say, on Monday, when little things bothered me. I can feel it. I’ve aged.

I’m sure there will come a day, probably sooner than later, when the little things bother me again.

A friend will hurt my feelings.

I’ll drive over the speed limit on a winding, country road.

I’ll work a few minutes late, trying to squeeze in one more task.
I’ll fuss at the clutter in the living room.

But I can do that another day.

If I get another day.

This week, I’m learning a lesson I’ve been taught many times before.

Today is the only day that’s certain.

You fight for tomorrow.”

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Disenfranchised (Friend) Grief

Last April, I wrote about the concept of "disenfranchised grief". If you've experienced a lack of empathy - perhaps even a callous disregard for your grief - you already know what I'm talking about. On this blog and in my book, I try to shine a light on this kind of grief:
I didn’t know when I decided to write my book that there was such a thing as “disenfranchised grief”, coined by Dr. Kenneth Doka of the College of New Rochelle, in 1989. In the 2002 revision of his Disenfranchised Grief: Recognizing Hidden Sorrow, Dr. Doka observes how the grief a friend experiences can be dismissed:
“Often there is no recognized role in which mourners can assert the right to mourn and thus receive such support.  Grief may have to remain private.  Though they may have experienced an intense loss, they may not be given time off from work, have the opportunity to verbalize the loss, or receive the expressions of sympathy and support characteristic in a death.”
Sometimes the disrespect is intentional, sometimes not. But you’ve probably experienced the following situation:
“The role of the friend or similarly close relationship may simply be ignored – unrecognized or unacknowledged.  Such persons may attend the funeral.  They may even be expected to be there out of respect for the deceased and in support of the family.  But they remain passive participants, their own need to mourn overlooked.”
So, if it makes you feel better, there is a reason your grief felt compounded by the lack of respect you experienced. Grieving a friend is not acknowledged in the same way as grieving a family member.
It’s up to all of us to let those around us know the importance of our friendships and the depth of our grief. Then and only then will grieving a friend receive the respect it deserves.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Writing about Grief Gets to You, Too

The "Survivor Tree"
at Ground Zero
I’ve had interesting reactions when I tell people I’m writing about the experience of grieving the death of a friend.

“Oh…that’s depressing…”

I insist they’re – mostly – wrong, and truly, I believe it.

But there are times when you want to rush the grieving process along, when it wears on you, when it seems as though it will never end.

I’ve found the same thing goes for reading and writing about it. You think it won’t affect you. But it does.

One of the hardest – though not the hardest – topic I’ve written about here and in my book is 9/11. It’s not because I knew someone who died that day; I was mistaken in thinking that would be the case.

It’s a difficult topic for most people to think or talk about: the enormity, the shock, the ongoing ramifications.

My second research trip to New York was for the 9th anniversary of 9/11. I went to various observances, including the Naming Ceremony. I visited the 9/11 Visitors Center, as well as the NYPD and FDNY museums. I read two books on that trip, written by survivors. I figured it would be emotional, so I built in a day to do nothing 9/11-related.

I spent a good part of that rainy, raw Sunday at the Cloisters. I knew before I walked into Ft. Tryon Park that I desperately needed its serenity. The panic attack that started as I approached the entrance gradually subsided, until I left the grounds hours later, calmer and almost relaxed.

But it wasn’t enough. The following evening I went out for drinks with a dear friend, a sweet, gentle man. I found myself trying to pick a fight with him – for absolutely no reason. The fact that he was also stressed (about other things) didn’t help. I had no reason to be angry with him – in fact, I wasn’t angry with him. But I realized when I got back to my hotel that the affects of all the 9/11 research had gotten to me. In fact, I could still feel them physically a week later.

The following year, I was back again. This time, lesson learned. I spread things out over a longer period of time. I said no to attending some observances. I gave myself plenty of downtime. I collected the newspapers, with commemorative sections, but put them away to read later.

I watched virtually no television coverage. I struck up more conversations with strangers – cops from Toronto and England, bartenders, waitresses. I partied late at Fashion Night with a woman I’d grown up with. And I took one complete day off – the 12th – to decompress after 4 straight days of activities.

On the 13th, the second day it was open, the friend I’d picked on the year before accompanied me to the new 9/11 Memorial. I went to all the other observances alone, but for this one I knew I needed a friend. It was emotional for both of us to visit it – me, for seeing my classmate’s name, him, for having lived through the attack. The tears were a relief. We went out for drinks afterwards.

We sat with our same vodkas at the same table at the same bar we’d visited a year before. This time the conversation was not the same. This time we were relaxed. We talked about our kids and getting older, we talked about baseball and theatre. We laughed. We hugged.

The airplane analogy worked: if the cabin loses pressure, you’re instructed to put your own oxygen mask on first before you try to help anyone else.

That’s a very tough thing to remember if you’re grieving or just writing about grieving. It’s next to impossible if you’re a caregiver.

But it’s worth remembering today: you can’t help anyone else if you don’t take care of yourself.

Wherever you are in the grieving process, take a moment today to step back. Turn off the computer or the TV. Turn off the lights and sit in darkness. Breathe. Find a way to recharge your batteries.

Remember something incredibly stupid you did with your friend. Let yourself laugh, even if you wind up crying.

Take care of yourself.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Friend Grief When a Colleague Dies

Jeff Zaslow and The Girls from Ames
In the course of your working life, you will have worked with hundreds, maybe thousands of people.

Co-workers may play in the same band, or share a claustrophobic cubicle. They may work on a project together, or just pass by in the hallway. They may share living quarters, like firefighters or monks. They may work together for weeks or months or years.

Not all co-workers are friends: many are rivals. But often shared experiences, born from impossible deadlines or the excitement of creating something special, forge lifelong friendships.

Several people I’ve interviewed for my book have talked about their grief at losing a colleague. Others are talking about it this week, with news of the deaths of two journalists, Jeffrey Zaslow and Andrew Shadid. I knew Jeff a long time ago.

In 1990, Jeff had been chosen to be one of the successors to Ann Landers. He arrived in Chicago with a unique blend of genuine compassion and goofiness. He held huge singles events – “Zazz Bash” – on Navy Pier, hoping others would find someone to love as much as he loved his wife.

Jeff’s family was not with him in Chicago, and he asked his Sun-Times readers if they would invite him into their homes for dinner. You know, invite him for a typical family dinner and talk about whatever you wanted to talk about.

I was development director at Chicago House, a residential and support agency for people living with HIV/AIDS. I invited Jeff to come to dinner at one of our locations. Serious negotiations followed, to ensure that the residents’ privacy was not violated (not all wanted to talk or have their pictures taken).

There was still much hysteria about AIDS in 1990, and it was to Jeff’s credit that he didn’t shy away from my invitation. I remember his phone call the next day: how deeply he was affected by what these men had endured – not just the disease itself, but the prejudice, fear, and outright hatred. He asked to come back again a few months later, to follow up with the men he met.

Jeff remained a friend of Chicago House, although I had left the agency by the time he came for dinner a second time. I don’t think I ever saw him again after that, but his respect for the residents was something I never forgot. I followed his career, and read his books, including The Last Lecture and The Girls from Ames, and looked forward to his newest book, The Magic Room: A Story About the Love We Wish for Our Daughters.

When I found out he died in a car accident, I was shocked and saddened. In remembering his kindnesses, I found out that he had an impact on many he worked with. Three of them wrote about him after his funeral.

“’Do you want to write something?” an editor asked. I said “No.”…I wanted to honor Jeff by shutting up, an underappreciated art form. But silence felt worse…Silence has no utility, it isn’t a sharp enough blade to scrape at the icy loss that Jeff’s death frosts over the world. I wish I could wrap this up tidily, with an inspiring thought that counterbalances the tragedy in the world and leaves you with a smile. Jeff was so good at that. Alas, he is not here, a hard fact that touches on the often cruel nature of life, one that we lucky enough to have known Jeff will struggle with for a long time.” – Neil Steinberg, Chicago Sun-Times

“We take the measure of our regrets that we didn’t more often take the opportunity to see him when he was alive, that we let ourselves be lulled into complacency by presumed longevity, his and ours…The subtext of this and many other funerals is that tomorrow is a possibility, not a promise. Life is fragile and short, even at the longest. Soon enough you will be sitting in another pew witnessing the memorial of another friend – or they’ll be sitting there for you – so there’s no time like now to start appreciating and enjoying them.” – Eric Zorn, Chicago Tribune

“During his last lecture, Jeff modestly suggested that ideas, curiosities and relationships are the stuff of happiness, the building blocks of a well-lead, meaningful life. After the symphony of words ended, after the pall-bearers rolled the casket up the aisle, we rose from our seats and silently exited the synagogue – uplifted and humbled by Jeff’s example, still mesmerized by our loss but resolved to try to honor his ideals.” – Andrew S. Doctorff, Huffington Post

I checked Jeff’s website this morning, Jeff Zaslow, to see if it had been updated. It hasn’t. But I found an article on it that Jeff had written about Randy Pausch, the computer-science professor made famous in his book The Last Lecture. In the article, Jeff recounts how people reached out to Randy after his diagnosis and speech. One was a man who suffered from serious heart problems:

“The man wrote to tell Randy about Krishnamurti, a spiritual leader in India who died in 1986. Krishnamurti was once asked what was the most appropriate way to say goodbye to a man who was about to die. He answered: ‘Tell your friend that in his death, a part of you dies and goes with him. Wherever he goes, you also go. He will not be alone.”

I hope that wherever Jeff is, he knows that countless friends and admirers have left a part of themselves with him. And that part of him is with them, too.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Trying to Avoid Friend Grief? Good Luck with That

A rose for each classmate who died
First of all, right off the bat, I’m going to say you can’t avoid friend grief. You can’t avoid grieving when a friend dies. But bear with me and read on.

We grieve our friends because we love them. We grieve for anything we’ve lost: hair, energy, good looks, high metabolism, our first car. Why wouldn’t we grieve for friends?

When someone is a part of your life – or was a part of your life – and they’re gone, there is a noticeable hole. Your life is now incomplete. That part of your life existed in part because of that friend. Your witness is gone.

What if I hadn’t had the courage to strike up conversations with total strangers a year ago January at the Writers Digest Conference? What if I’d just gone back to my hotel room instead of tagging along with seven other people for dinner? My writing – and the past year – would not have happened in the amazing way it did.

What if I hadn’t started talking to the other girl cooling her heels at the CYC dance sophomore year in high school? What if we hadn’t discovered that she and I were both waiting for the same girlfriend to show up (who didn’t)? We wouldn’t still be friends today.

What if I hadn’t taken the stage managing class I didn’t need when I first moved to Chicago, so I could try to meet people? What if I hadn’t agreed to stage manage the teacher’s next show? I wouldn’t have launched a career that included directing, founding a theatre and a trade association before morphing into a fundraising career.

At each of those moments, I did something that took, well, more guts that I normally possessed. Did I know those decisions were going to change my life? Of course not; I only know that in retrospect.

But what came of each moment was the beginning of a friendship – or two or three or twelve: friends who kept me going when life threw me curves. Friends who have encouraged me and loved me and tolerated me and been brutally honest with me: in other words, the definition of a true friend.

Not all of those friends are still here. Some I’ve simply lost touch with; too many have died. But perhaps more so than with family, our friends are a great barometer of the different times of our lives.

The program for my wedding welcomed our friends and identified the different groups: my husband’s California friends, my high school girlfriends, my theatre friends. We met them at different times in our lives. So it stands to reason that they knew us in different ways than those who met us at other times.

Think back to when you were in high school, or when you were married, or at your first job. You were a different person in each situation. Your friends knew you in that particular context. They didn’t know the “you” before that.

Now think of the special ones, the ones who continued to be your friend after you graduated, after you divorced, after you changed careers. Those friendships aren’t just based on a narrow definition of who you were: those friendships are built on mutual respect and love for who you’ve become.

Why wouldn’t you grieve for them?

Gatherings, whether they’re class reunions, weddings or even funerals, give us an opportunity to reconnect with people from our past. And almost everyone is nervous about that.

Why? Because we’ve changed, thank God, since we were 17.We’re the same, only different (And so are they, we often forget). Will they still like me, we wonder?

Some will, some won’t, but they’re still part of your past. They’re still part of the times in your life that make you who you are. And you’re still part of the times that make them who they are.

If you’re very, very lucky, you and your friends from those special times will still connect. Maybe you’ll only see each other at class reunions, have a great time, and that’s it. Nothing wrong with that.

But maybe you’ll both see those planned or chance reunions as an opportunity to re-establish your friendships.

The saddest part of a reunion is talking about who’s died. And the conversations inevitably revolve around how they lost touch with others. There may be regret, there may be full-fledged guilt. But there doesn’t have to be.

Take some time today to think back on a particular time in your life – not your whole life, just one period. Maybe it’s when you moved away from home, or when your kids were small, or you started that first really important job.

Think about the people who you considered friends. Maybe they were other moms, other new hires, other lonely kids far away from home for the first time. Remember why you became friends in the first place.

It’s so easy now to track down people. I’ve done it through my university alumni website, as well as Google and Twitter and Facebook.

So try to find one old friend, just one, and reach out to them. Maybe it’s the age I’m at, but I find when I’ve done that in the past few years, it’s always a very positive response. I can’t guarantee that’ll happen for you. But a brief, friendly “you popped into my head today and I just wanted to say hi” can make someone’s day. Including yours.

So, no, I’m sorry, you can’t avoid grieving when a friend dies. But you can make the effort now to never have to say “I should’ve called when I was thinking about it.”

Monday, February 13, 2012

“We’re at That Age” – Well, That Sucks

Anytime my husband and I discuss a friend’s health issues – or sudden death – I can count on him to say, “we’re at that age”. It’s meant to explain away whatever’s happening, as if it were the only possible reason.

Of course, to some extent that’s true. One of the downsides of growing older is that we lose a lot of people we love. We expect our parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles to die; after all, they’re a generation older than we are.

But when people our own age – not to mention those younger – die, it’s a double loss. Because when our friends die, we lose a little of ourselves, too.

I’ve spent the past couple weeks dealing with loss and possible loss. One friend died suddenly. Another insists he’s fine, though his track record for revealing personal information is sketchy.

The one that’s been particularly tough for me is someone I’ve known and loved since I was in college. The story of our relationship is rather complicated, but most of that time we’ve been close, even while living far apart.

He had a health scare. Actually, he was extraordinarily lucky. About to be wheeled into the operating room for minor surgery, the anesthesiologist stopped everything. There was something wrong with David’s heart and it would be dangerous to proceed.

After a trip to the cardiologist, there was more sobering news. Not only did he need surgery, but he’d already had several silent heart attacks. We discussed the news mostly seriously – not completely, because there always have to be jokes between us.

Last week, he called me the night before surgery to tell me he was ready and (for him, anyway) calm. Then he told me that his partner had a short list of people to call if the surgery “went bad”. I was on the list.

Well, I thought I’d been handling all his news pretty well until he said that. I struggled to not fall apart. “Are you upset?” he asked, surprised. “Of course I’m upset,” I snapped. After a few well-chosen words I can’t repeat here, I conceded that I’d be much more upset if I wasn’t on the list. We wound up laughing, speculating about how I would express that particular displeasure.

But before we hung up I told him something I hadn’t told him for almost 35 years: I love you. Now he was the one choking up.

The day after the surgery I got a text from him: everything was fine, but he’d have to go back. Well, to me that meant everything wasn’t fine.

Last night he called. He’s back home, sounding stronger than our last few conversations. I got all the gory details; there will indeed be more surgery in 6 months. Now he faces radical lifestyle changes, which he is more than happy to follow, especially given how much better he felt almost immediately.

We talked about many things, and joked as much as possible. This time when we hung up, he was the one to say “I love you”.

It was a close call: for him and for me. Over the years we’ve argued and screamed, performed on stage together, shared a grad school advisor, laughed and cried. Mostly I think of going out dancing with him, doing our Fred and Ginger routines even at the height of disco.

This morning I told another friend this story. “It’s never too late to tell someone you love them,” she said.

But as we all know, sometimes it is too late. Sometimes we’re too self-conscious. Sometimes we assume they know, so we don’t need to say it. Mostly we just feel like there’s plenty of time.

There isn’t. There’s never enough time.

Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, a day for spending money to prove romantic love.

How about if you also make it a day to prove you love your friends? You don’t have to buy candy or send flowers. Just send an email, make a call or text.

Tell them you’re moved by the spirit of that chubby little cherub, and you wanted to let them know how much they mean to you. Yes, I know it’s hokey, and possibly a little pathetic. But do it anyway.

The worst thing that could happen is that you embarrass yourself. It wouldn’t be the first time, right?

The best thing that could happen is that there will be no doubt in your friend’s mind how important they are to you. Bonus: you won’t feel guilty later on for not telling your friend you loved them.

Friday, February 10, 2012

“We Didn’t Lose a Person…We Absorbed Him”

Photo by Carlos Iamagua
One of the reactions we have after the death of a friend is fear: fear that they will be forgotten.

People who have made a name for themselves in their chosen professions will likely be remembered in some way. But normal folks – the 99%, if you will – do not have buildings or highways named after them. They don’t leave works of art that will live forever. They’re just…normal folks.

So when faced with these truths, what’s a friend to do? You donate money to their favorite charity. You wear a t-shirt with their picture on it. You have Mass offered on their birthday. You make a point to stay in touch with their family. You name your child after them.

I’ve wondered about my great-great grandfather’s relationship with the best man at his wedding during the Civil War, a man named George. In all my years of genealogy research, I’d never found a ‘George’ before then in the family. But in 1868, my great-great grandfather gave that name to his son. It started a four-generation tradition of naming the first son of each generation ‘George’.

They must have been close for my great-great grandfather to name his first son after him. Some day I may do a little research into that man, too.

Your friend was part of your life – part of you – and although you will never forget them, somehow that’s not enough. You want, understandably, for them to somehow go on living.

How does that work? How do you find a way to honor that very special person you were honored to call “friend”?

On Sept. 12, 2009, Glenn Wright (aka “Spoof”) was killed in a case of mistaken identity, as he did chores for his grandmother on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Gang members were seeking retaliation for an earlier attack, and stabbed Wright from behind.

Wright, only 21 at the time, was an artist, volunteering his time at the East Harlem Tutorial Program. A group of his friends, also artists, decided to channel their grief into art.

Six young people created an art show at the Brick Gallery at The Point in Hunts Point in his honor, calling it “House of Spoof Collective”. According to a story in the New York Daily News,

“As music blared across the courtyard, about 100 people filed through the small gallery taking in photographs, paintings, silkscreen prints and graphic designs.

Outside, several artists painted murals on a courtyard wall. Two others took to a ladder to install a larger-than-life picture of Wright on the side of an old smokestack.

‘We took a lot of Glenn’s characteristics and put them into this. He was a very humble, giving person and we tried to incorporate that,’ said Carlos Iamagua, 22, another member of the collective. ‘The way I look at it, we didn’t lose a person, we absorbed him.’”

His friends in the collective found an immediate way to not only express their grief, but their love for Wright. And taking it a step further, they pledged to support young artists, thus keeping their friend’s legacy a part of their lives.

Part of Wright’s legacy is a scholarship at the East Harlem Tutorial Program. In an article in The Uptowner by Nate Rawlings, a family member explains the importance:

“He was nothing but good,” Wright’s father, Peter Wright said. He hoped the scholarship that the scholarship will become a lasting tribute to his son. “He wasn’t famous enough,” Peter Wright said. “A lot of people forget.”

So we see two things: something immediate and something longer-lasting. They are keeping their friend in their hearts, in a way that honors him every day.

Me? I’m writing this blog, this book, and other things because I promised Delle Chatman I would.

What are you doing to keep your friend’s memory alive?

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Another Look at Friend Grief and Anger

A few months ago I decided to write about friend grief and anger. To be honest, I don't remember what possessed me to do it. But the reactions I got from this - and follow-up posts - were painful and raw. It reminded some people of their anger. It also gave some people comfort. So be warned that this could do either of those things - or something completely different. Anger is the dirty little secret of grief. And that's what we're considering here:
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.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Time is Not on Your Side

I thought I'd repost this today, as I prepare to attend the memorial service for John Northage. All evidence to the contrary, most of us live our lives as if we have unlimited time: time to do and say the things that are important. Today I'm reminded that our time here is too brief. If you have something to say to your friends, say it. You'll both be glad you did.

“Let us learn to show our friendship for a man when he is alive and not after he is dead.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald

I heard that line while watching a rerun of Law & Order: UK, and I thought it was perfect for the topic of grieving the death of a friend.
As I’ve interviewed people for my book, there is one subject that raises genuine passion. They’re telling me the story of a friend who has died. Sometimes there is a lot of pain: they were shut out by the family, maybe not even notified; they were not allowed access to their friend while they were dying. Maybe they couldn’t get off work to go to the funeral.
Maybe their story is not so sad, but rather an example of how a friend’s life – and death – served as a catalyst to change their own life.
But if I ask “did your friend know how you felt about them?” more often than not there is regret. No matter if they functioned as a caregiver, or kept in close contact while they were ill: there is almost always regret.
“There wasn’t anything I could do, but…”
The regret is that most people never tell their friends that they love them. I didn’t tell my best friend I loved her until after 9/11. “I know that,” she insisted. “I know, but I needed to say it.”
So I took Fitzgerald’s comment two ways. First, that we have to stop making excuses now for not calling, not emailing, not getting together, because we never know what tomorrow brings. And second, stop assuming they already know, and say the words that are in our hearts.
Tell them you love them while you can.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The First Year of Friend Grief
"525,600 do you measure a year?" ("Seasons of Love" from Rent)

In the case of Friend Grief, there are many ways to measure the past year. A year ago today, in the midst of a 21" snowstorm here in Chicago, this blog went live.

I'd returned from my first Writers Digest Conference a week earlier. I knew before then that I needed a blog, but I was stalled on the details. Actually, I was obsessed with the details. So I asked Dan Blank a question during his session: how do I do this? Word Press or Blogger? Template or Custom? He said what my panicky ears needed to hear: just do it. Start writing and worry about the other stuff later. So I did.

When I started this - indeed, for the first few months - I was determined to keep myself out of it: "just the facts, ma'am". I was introducing the idea that grieving a friend is different. I was teaching. I was going to sound professional. I was not going to talk about me. There was no bolt of lightning, but before long I realized I could do both: inform and share at the same time.

It felt uncomfortable at first; still does, sometimes. But once the article on my experience in the AIDS community appeared in Windy City Times (Forming Community), I couldn't go back.

The popularity of some topics has surprised me. The roll at the bottom of this screen shows a changing list of the five most popular posts: AIDS, Winnie the Pooh, anything Beatles-related, and the most surprising of all - friend grief and anger - show up frequently.

None of this happened in a vacuum, or on my own. The topics come easily - too easily, sometimes. But there are people I want to thank (besides Delle: she's always at the top of the list and she knows it).

I want to thank Dr. Kenneth Doka at the College of New Rochelle, who coined the phrase "disenfranchised grief". His generosity and support are deeply appreciated, both with the blog and my book.

I thank my writing buddies who have encouraged me, offered suggestions, inspired me and made me laugh this past year. They keep me honest - Dan, George, Kathy, Porter, Karl, Jeanne, Gaby, Kristie and more who I didn't know a year ago, but who now feel like life-long friends.

More importantly, though, I thank those of you who are new to Friend Grief and to those who return on a regular basis. This site is for you, and anyone who has grieved the death of a friend. Anyone who has been shocked by the lack of empathy for  your loss. Anyone who has used that experience as the inspiration for major change in their own lives.

There are lots of us out there, and this is a place where we can gather: to learn, to share, to laugh, to cry. To remember some of the most important people in our lives.

And don't forget: you can also follow me on Twitter, Google+ and on Facebook.  Those of you who subscribe/follow/like will be getting a little surprise later in the spring.

Again, many thanks for sharing this journey with me. It's been an amazing year, and there's more to come.

"Let's celebrate remember a year in the life of friends." ("Seasons of Love")

Spread the word.

And stay tuned.