Friday, March 30, 2012

Report from ADEC 2012

ADEC logo
I just spent a very busy day at the 2012 ADEC (Association for Death Education and Counseling) Conference in Atlanta.

On Thursday morning, I made a presentation – “Building Community for Grieving Friends Online” – about the development and marketing of this blog.
My audience was knowledgeable and enthusiastic. No one walked out while I was talking (always an ego-boost for a speaker). It was certainly the only session out of many dozens that dealt specifically with grieving a friend.
Early in my talk, I quoted one of my favorite stats:

“If you Google ‘grieving the death of a friend’, you will get more hits for grieving a 4-legged friend than a human one.”

I remember how shocked I was, about 18 months ago, when I first did that search. And a year later – though the difference in numbers was smaller – the result was the same.
I attended some wonderful sessions, too. One was a lunchtime networking group on Buddhism and thanatology. I don’t know a lot about Buddhism, but it was a welcome, relaxing way to re-charge my batteries and focus on the afternoon.
I also went to a panel on resiliency in the LGBTQ community. It was quite a lively discussion, especially after I admitted my lingering anger over what I experienced at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the late 80’s/early 90’s. That opened the door to what many see as a tragic complacency on the part of straight and gay people in the US. AIDS has become seen as a manageable disease – just like diabetes  – and not a death sentence.
Because of that, infections are on the rise: not just among young gay men, but among straight people 50 and older. Like I said, the discussion really got people energized: to do something in their own communities, and to press ADEC to take advantage of the incredible resources of those who have been in the trenches all these 30 years.
A lot of the fun of conferences is between sessions. I met someone I only knew on Twitter, and we had a great visit. I saw and talked to every person I wanted to contact. I now have some new, great resources for my book and this blog. And maybe even a few new friends.
There are a lot of very passionate, dedicated people at this conference: people who deal in end-of-life issues and bereavement around the world.
I want to make two final points:
First, I went there to make sure that this blog – and the issue of grieving a friend – be included in the conference, the theme of which was “Being a Healing Presence in a Hurting World”.
Second, there is help out there for you, if you need it. Not one person there would discount the very real grief you feel from losing a friend. I’m not a therapist, but if you feel stuck in your grief and need professional help, it’s out there.
Because of the conference, too, I’ll be adding some additional resources to the blog. Some are organizations that work with specific groups of people dealing with friend grief: military, police officers, LGBTQ. Some are individuals, whose practices include helping those grieving a friend.
So, look for some changes to this blog (all good) in the coming weeks. As always, if you would like to recommend something or someone to add to the Resources Page, feel free to email me ( with the details.

And stay tuned for information on my first mini e-book, and how you can get it for free.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Carpe Diem
I wrote this a year ago, after visiting a friend who was dying, about how grateful I was to have had that opportunity.

My husband and I recently visited a friend who’s dying. His partner has been keeping a group of us up to date on their situation, and on a Saturday afternoon, we were able to visit them. We weren’t alone; two other friends had flown into Chicago from Dallas and Seattle.

Our friend looks awful (so does his partner), but for a few minutes, the old energy and sense of humor were back. We all had a lovely visit, though brief.

Yes, it was uncomfortable, and yes, it was undeniably sad.

But what a gift it was, too.

The gift was not just that we were able to see him, probably for the last time.

The gift was that we were allowed to see him.

Too often, we don’t get to say goodbye to our friends, and not just because there is a sudden death.

Too often, the friend has cut themselves off, not wanting to be seen; not wanting to see the looks of pity or sadness in the eyes of their visitors. It’s not always the visitors who don’t know what to say; sometimes it’s the person who’s dying.

Too often, the family around our friend – with good intentions – cut off visitors so as not to tire out our friend.

But we were luckier than many people. We had a wonderful time – laughing, flirting, gossiping – that was all too brief.

But we were given a great gift.

And for that, we are grateful.

Dennis is no longer with us, though I’ll always remember his impish, flirty smile. I’m sorry it took until then to tell him I loved him. But at least I got the chance, and didn’t waste it because I felt self-conscious.

Don’t wait until you get the phone call: the one where you’re urged to “come now, right now”. You don’t have to make a big production out of it. Just tell your friends you love them. Yeah, guys too.

Carpe diem.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Of Course I’m Depressed: My Best Friend Died
For the past few weeks, the world has weighed in on a debate that could potentially affect us all.

The American Psychiatric Association’s DSM-5 – the Bible of psychiatric disorders – could include grief as a form of severe depression.
There is little debate that elements of grief are consistent with mild depression: mood swings, inability to sleep or enjoy normal activities. It can be difficult for seasoned professionals to differentiate between the two.

A diagnosis of clinical depression is not something to be taken lightly. And normal grief can spiral into clinical depression. There are already protocols in place to deal with severe depression.

But turning normal grief into something that requires therapy and/or medication after two weeks…well, to me that’s going too far.
A March 23 article in Huffington Post quotes Dr. Joanne Cacciatore, of the Center for Trauma and Loss:

Open Letter to the Board of Trustees of the American Psychiatric Association and to the DSM 5 Task Force
Two weeks ago, I wrote a blog opposing the DSM 5's proposal to reduce the DSM IV bereavement exclusion.

This blog has since gone viral in the most incredible way -- 100,000 readers within its first few weeks. It seems that this proposal is experienced as an outrageous insult by the very people it is intended to help.

I have more than sixteen years experience dealing with tens of thousands of grieving people whose children die or are dying at any age and from any cause. To my knowledge, there is no empirical standing for the arbitrary two-week time frame, and thus this proposal not only contradicts good common sense but also rests on weak scientific evidence.

One thing in which the literature is clear: long-term psychological distress is common in this population and other populations suffering traumatic deaths. In my experience both as a researcher and clinician in the field and also as a bereaved parent, the DSM 5 proposal is radical, unnecessary, challenges what it means to be human, and for some may be dangerous.

Those with severe depressive symptoms distinguishable from normal grief can already be diagnosed as soon as is needed using the DSM IV criteria. In contrast, DSM 5 would require a distinction between normal grief and mild depression shortly after the death of a loved one that is often impossible to discern for even the most experienced clinicians. The DSM 5 may well create problematic false positives -- and thus cause further harm, to an already vulnerable population. There are many more reasons we oppose these changes, many of which are outlined in my blog.

Our international organization (MISS Foundation) has 77 chapters around the world and has helped countless grieving families and the professionals who serve them. All our services are free and we are a volunteer-based organization. Our website gets more than one million hits per month and we have 27 online support groups. We oppose this change with our minds, with our hearts, and with our numbers.

I speak on behalf of the MISS Foundation's grieving families: Should the DSM 5 stubbornly ignore the evidence and the mounting professional and public opposition, our last alternative will be to call for more direct action -- in the short term, our organization will rally the support of Congressional leaders; in the longer term, we will have no choice but to join a concerted boycott against the use of the DSM 5 in treating bereaved families facing the death of a child.

…On behalf of hundreds of thousands of bereaved people around the world, I implore you to reverse this poorly conceived and unnecessary decision. My more than 100,000 readers and I hope to hear from you soon.

What do you think? Is two weeks long enough for “normal” grief? Should those grieving longer than that be referred to a psychiatrist for severe depression?
I’ll be at the ADEC (Association for Death Education and Counseling) conference later this week. I look forward to hearing more opinions on this.


Friday, March 23, 2012

Workplace Grief: IndyCar-Style

When we hear the term ‘workplace grief’, we probably think of a traditional business setting. Maybe a former employee came back and shot people. Maybe the boss dropped dead of a heart attack. Maybe there was an accident.

But people make their livings in a lot of places that aren’t cubicles: baseball diamonds, stages, beaches, movie theatres, day care centers, gyms.

Sometimes, by virtual of their professions, people also find themselves in the public eye. Knowing you’re going to – rightly or wrongly – be judged by the media and strangers can reasonably compound your grief for your co-worker.

Last October, Dan Wheldon died in a horrific crash at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. British-born Wheldon, the two-time Indianapolis 500 winner, lived in St. Petersburg, Florida with his wife and two young children. He was 33.

This weekend, the 2012 IndyCar season opens…in St. Petersburg.

There will be memorials all weekend pre-race ceremony; orange ribbons (a tribute to his car) sold to raise money for the Alzheimer’s Foundation; his sister will drop the flag and present the winner’s trophy; Turn 10 rechristened “Dan Wheldon Way”.

Those of us watching on TV will be subjected to repeated replays of the fiery images of Wheldon’s last moments.

His friends – his co-workers – don’t have to watch the replays: many of them saw it happen from their own race cars.

They now have to go do the thing they love – the thing Dan Wheldon loved.

The thing that killed him.

The thing they know could also kill them.

Some of them talked about it in USA Today’s March 20 issue:

“Do I still want to do this? Yeah, I do,” said three-time defending champion Dario Franchitti, who never celebrated the title in the wake of his friend and former teammate’s death. “It was something I had to answer pretty quickly because I was in the car (testing) at Indy a week later, and it didn’t take me long to answer it, and I was quite surprised…I hate to sound blasé,” he said. “It’s not a nice thing. It’s just part of it, man, but that doesn’t mean you forget the person. You get back in the car and get on with it.”

Will Power, who was injured in the same crash, doesn’t know what to expect this weekend:

“I have thought about Dan a lot,” he said. “Every time I see his photo, I can’t help but be sad…and it can happen to anyone. When you get in the car, you have to put it aside.”

Well, you say, it’s a dangerous sport. You have to be a little nuts to enjoy racing around at 220mph, knowing full well you could die at any moment.

That may be true. But danger is everywhere: it’s just a little more obvious on the IndyCar circuit.

Being part of a dangerous profession doesn’t exempt you from grieving your co-workers.

Grief counseling was offered for the drivers, but it sounds like many leaned on each other for support. James Hinchcliffe – in the unenviable position of driving the car that was supposed to be Wheldon’s – appreciated the camaraderie and support:

“We’ve had a good mourning period. I talked to probably 10 or 12 drivers in the last couple of weeks…Especially right after the event, we all needed each other, and some of these guys have been through this stuff before,. This was the first time I’ve ever had to deal with a (racing death), and it was cool to have guys to lean on.”

Though not an official “anniversary” in the sense that we commemorate certain dates after a person’s death, this weekend will be a challenging one for everyone associated with racing.

Kudos to the drivers for accepting the support they needed – professional or other drivers – to help them through their grief.

But even as they prepare to remember Dan Wheldon, and prepare to shut out all distractions to drive their best race, they all know what his close friend and former teammate Tony Kanaan knows:

“Eventually we need…I need…to let it go,” Kanaan said. “I’m going to try to be as positive as I can when I get (to St. Petersburg to race). Try to be strong and not as emotional. But I don’t think you can prepare yourself.”

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

When Your Pain is Self-Inflicted

Christopher Meeks

As we grow older, we lose more friends. It’s just the way it is. Call it “life”; “the law of averages”. Maybe you just think of it as “shit happens”.

Author Christopher Meeks wrote on HuffPost50 about the death of his friend, Andy LaMarca. He begins by recounting Shakespeare’s “seven ages of man” from As You Like It.

“There’s a stage that Shakespeare didn’t define, but it’s the decade where everyone you love starts dying.”

It’s humbling and infuriating and too damn sad for words sometimes. “There is no answer to ‘is it fair?’” he says. “It just is.”

As I’ve written here before, life has a way of detouring us, despite our best intentions. We get complacent (a nice euphemism for ‘lazy’). We assume we’ll see our friend ‘someday’, ‘somewhere’. We might even make plans to get together ‘soon’. The problem is, sometimes soon isn’t soon enough.

“When I saw him this week laid out in his casket, eyes shut, glasses on, with short gray hair, I witnessed his sixteen-year-old daughter distraught, crying until she had to be helped away from her father. I wondered how I’d never interacted with his family. We’d seen each other just once in the last fifteen years.

“The fact was, he lived on one side of L.A. in Simi Valley, and I lived maybe 45 miles east in Eagle Rock. It felt more like I was in Bulgaria and he, Easter Island. We kept saying we’d get together for lunch but never did….And now he’s forever out of L.A.”

A mutual friend recounted how she’d lost six friends in a year.

“When someone you know dies, you just want to see the people you’ve been meaning to see right away, hurry, hurry, hurry.”

She and Meeks made plans for lunch for the following week.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I was in L.A. when I read Meeks' article. I've been to Simi Valley and stayed in Eagle Rock, though on separate trips. I was staying in Sunland and declined to meet someone in Long Beach: too far to drive. I figure his 45-miles one-way probably could take two hours, depending on luck and time of day. I talked to people who regularly decline invitations because it's "too far". I completely understand how he felt.)

So, as they say on “Morning Joe”: ‘what, if anything, have we learned today?’

If you’ve never experienced the death of a friend, well, you’re lucky. It will happen eventually, no matter what you do to avoid it.

Take it from those of us who have been there, done that; those of us who are haunted by missed opportunities to spend time with those who are no longer with us.

Grief is hard enough with piling guilt on top of it – guilt that could possibly have been avoided.

Risk the possibility that the friends you have will think you’re nuts for insisting on making definite plans to get together. It probably won’t be the first time they rolled their eyes at you.

And guys, I’m talking to you, too.

To read Christopher Meeks’ article on HuffPost50: Life Stages and the Loss of a Friend

To read more from Christopher Meeks: Christopher Meeks, Author

Monday, March 19, 2012

Reminders of Your Friends

It's just stuff, right?
Since I wrote this post last year, I've paid a little more attention to "stuff": this despite the fact that I'm at an age where I'd dearly love to get rid of a lot of "stuff".
But these are things that remind me of friends who have died. Most often, they're photos, but sometimes they're gifts I received from them, or souvenirs from a night on the town. One is a note she wrote in high school. I can't help but think of them when I see and touch those things.
Maybe this will remind you of something you have that reminds you of your friend:

This is a picture of a scarf that belonged to my friend, Delle. She had quite a collection of scarves. Tall and vivacious, she wore them with style, unlike those of us who struggle tying them.

At the gathering after her funeral mass, those attending received “goodie bags”: a blue paper bag, with her photo on the side, with one of her scarves inside. I remember making my selection very carefully, and choosing this one. I wanted something of her, some piece of her. Its bright blues and reds and purples were familiar to me, and comforting. When I wear it, I say I’m “taking Delle with me.”

Delle has traveled with me to Missouri and New York, California and Kentucky. She has given me the courage to pitch my book, and attended the theatre. She’s always with me, but when I wear her scarf – even now after almost 5 years – I feel closer to her.

The World Trade Center Tribute Center has a new exhibit called “Objects Speak”, a small but powerful example of the meaning of things.

Objects from the site are preserved in Plexiglass cases. Their owners – or someone related to the original owners – comment on their meaning when first found, and their meaning nearly 10 years after the attacks. They illustrate how the significance of an object can evolve over time. As one participant in the exhibit stated:

“I felt these things are not a possession – they are a treasured memory.” (Christina Cerciello, Elegant Affairs)

Perhaps you have a keepsake from your friend – a photo, a note passed in history class, a ticket stub from a concert. At the time, it may not have had great meaning. But today – perhaps years after they died – that little scrap of paper may mean the world to you.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Friend Grief Lessons from "The Big Chill"

This was the basis of one of my first blog posts, but it still resonates today: what happens when we receive the sudden, shocking news of a friend's death.
Some of us are "at that age" when it seems we get this kind of news all-too-frequently. I've found out about the deaths of two friends - via Facebook status updates - in the past 6 weeks. It doesn't get easier. But you can lessen the guilt.

Karen: “You'll never get this many people to come to my funeral.”
Michael:  “Oh, Karen, I'll come. And, you know... I'll bring a date.”

You’re going about your day – conference calls, grocery shopping, carpool – when you get a call, a text, maybe an email with the subject line “sad news”.  Someone you know – a friend – has died.  And the world stops.
It happens to us all eventually.
The iconic film about this experience is The Big Chill, the 1983 film about a group of people who reunite for the funeral of one of their college friends.  It was a blockbuster, and not only because of the soundtrack (who can forget JoBeth Williams playing “You Can’t Always Get What You Want?” on the organ for the funeral recessional?).  It was something everyone can identify with:  the death of a friend.
Not all of us will spend the weekend with our friends in a sprawling Southern mansion: playing touch football, getting high, or having sex with our best friend’s husband.  But reconnecting with friends on such a sad occasion can still have a profound effect.
Sometimes – too often – you lose touch with those friends.  Life gets in the way: jobs, families, living hundreds of miles away – all prevent you from keeping in touch with the people who at one time were the most important people in the world.  Still, you wonder how and why you let it happen.
Like the characters in The Big Chill, that gap in contact can create terrible guilt.  You may think that somehow your presence could’ve saved your friend’s life or made it easier.  Pretty egotistical, huh?  But human. 
These characters were all extraordinarily lucky:  they were all able to come to that funeral from their homes around the country.  Not everyone can even get off work to attend a local funeral for a friend, never mind one that is hundreds of miles away.
And most importantly, they were notified.  Sometimes friends – particularly far-flung friends – do not learn of a friend’s death for months or even years.  The friend’s family may not have liked you or even known about you, but to find out after the fact compounds your grief.  And even though the point where you can “do” something is long past by then, the feeling of helplessness can be overwhelming. 
One of my high school classmates, Carol Demitz, died on 9/11.  We’d celebrated our 30th high school reunion the year before (although she didn’t attend) with the usual ‘we should get together more often’.   But it took Carol’s death – not the first in our class – to put those words into actions: a class gift in her memory, a Yahoo group that’s still going strong more than 9 years later, occasional informal dinners, and a bond that has grown stronger each year.  Her death, I suppose, was our Big Chill moment:  our wake-up call to nurture the friendships that sustain us, and stop relegating our dreams to the “someday” pile.
Take a moment today to contact a friend – just one; it won’t take long – who you’ve lost touch with.  Catch up on news and gossip, reminisce, and make real plans to get together.  Don’t wait until you get that call, that text, that email.
“In a cold world, you need your friends to keep you warm.” – Big Chill poster
What are you waiting for?

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Mars and Venus Grieve Their Friends

Many books have been written about the differences between men and women, especially regarding relationships. Mostly, they focus on romantic relationships. Some consider friendships: girlfriends and “the guys”.

If you asked a group of people if men grieve differently, I’m guessing most would say yes. They’d insist that men work through their grief by doing things: keeping up with familiar routines or running errands for the family of their friend who died.

They may insist just as strongly that women talk through their feelings. Men are assumed to not want to verbalize their grief, much less share it.

Well, that described my opinion. When I started interviewing people for my book, I approached the men with pre-conceived notions about how they’d respond. I thought asking them to talk about a friend who died would be akin to pulling teeth. I would be lucky to get a few coherent sentences.

I don’t think I’ve ever been so wrong in my life.

“All my friends are dead,” one lamented recently. It’s not true, but at his age (87) he’s outlived most of them.

Then, without prompting, his next comment was, “I wouldn’t be where I am today without them.”

For almost 3 hours, he talked about the people he met at different moments, people who affected the trajectory of his life:

            The woman who invited him to Paris…

            The man who sponsored him to come to the U.S…

            The man who offered him a job that changed his career…

They’re gone now, and he speaks fondly of their friendships. He gives them full credit for the successes he’s had – both personal and professional. And he misses them.

He’s not the only man who’s talked for hours about friends he’s lost. My first interview with a man lasted almost 2 hours. Once he started talking about his best friend, he didn’t want to stop. He wanted to tell the stories, wanted to make sense of what had happened and why he still grieved so deeply.

Women may very well be more willing to talk about their feelings. But women are expected to talk about their feelings. So it’s not a surprise that they open up about grieving their friends.

Men are quite capable of talking about their friends, their memories, and their grief. But in many situations, men – rather than women – are judged by how they react. Men are assumed to be stoic, in control, able to “handle” messy things like grief.

The truth is most men aren’t given a safe, non-judgmental place to share their memories and sadness. They may be protecting their image; they may feel the need to be stronger than anyone around them.

But without realizing it, I’ve given some of them a place to vent: to be angry that their friend died, to be sad they died, to wonder what it all means to them now.

I’m not there to make a diagnosis or prescribe anti-depressants. I’m just there to listen. So, while I still try to finish my first book, there will be a second one: just about men grieving their friends.

This takes no special talent or skill. You can do it too.

If you know a man who’s lost a friend recently, get together with him. Go have coffee or a beer. Just hang out.

Tell him you’re sorry their friend died. And ask him to tell you something about that friend.

Just don’t be surprised if you’re listening for a long time.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Helping A Friend Who's Grieving A Friend

This post was originally titled "Do You Need Any Help?" It's what most people say when told someone has died. But that question is normally directed to the family, not the friends.
Chances are, when your friend died the only response you got was "that's too bad". You probably weren't asked if you needed help, or even how you were coping.
If you know someone who's lost a friend, reach out to them. Ask them, but try to be specific about what you're offering. Better yet, just offer to listen.

When someone dies, most people have good intentions. They want to mourn, they want to remember. And they want to help those who are grieving themselves.
Often, when you grieve the death of a friend, the focus is on their family. They are the “primary” mourners. They are the ones who get the most sympathy. And families do deserve sympathy and support.
The standard question is, “do you need any help?” Now that’s not always the best thing to ask. For one, it puts the burden on the griever to identify and express that need. They may not be thinking clearly enough to do that. It can also come off as insincere, as if the person asking is hoping the answer is no.
Even so, it is a reaching out, however imperfect, to those who grieve.
But who asks the friends?
Sometime the death of a friend can cause paralyzing grief, the kind where you wander around the house, not able to focus or think.
Maybe you were lucky. When your friend died, maybe those around you asked how they could help you. Most likely, they didn’t.
If you know someone who’s grieving the death of a friend, acknowledge it. Ask if there’s something you can do to help. Better yet, suggest something you are willing and able to do, the most important thing of all: listen.
Ask them to tell you about their friend.
It will mean the world to them.
Do it.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Grieving for a Celebrity “Friend”

Davy Jones
 "Did you hear who died? Because if you didn’t, you need to sit down.”

That was the text I sent to my girlfriend last week. I saw the news on Facebook and Twitter, and when I didn’t hear from Eileen immediately, I realized she must not know what happened.

She responded instantly, asking who it was.

I hesitated. I was the one who called her almost 30 years ago to tell her that one of her very favorite actors had died. This was another sudden death.


“Jones” was Davy Jones of the Monkees, who died of a heart attack last week at the age of 66.

In the interest of full disclosure, in high school we (and a few other girls, too) wrote what now would be called “fan fiction”: stories about celebrities. The details varied, but the plots inevitably included our celebrity crushes falling madly in love with us. Our writing was enthusiastic, but not necessarily good. We wrote in spiral notebooks, with little or no editing.

As long as the nuns didn’t ask to look at the notebooks, we just looked like we were working really hard. At our lockers, on the stairs in the back of the cafeteria, or possibly during World History lectures, we shared what we’d written the night before. The obsession eased over time.

But we’ve kept the notebooks all these years. Some of the stories involved the Monkees.

It was shocking news, and our response to it was probably typical of people our age. Eileen and I had a 3-way phone call with our other girl friend, where we reminisced and then made plans for getting together when Annie’s son gets married this summer.

I’ve written before about how odd it seems for people to get upset when a celebrity – who we probably have never met – dies. But that person – like our friends – represents us at a certain age: our hopes, our dreams, and often times our insecurities.

The celebrities we had crushes on told us a lot – often in retrospect – about our taste in music, theatre and men in general. We tended, as we matured, to not admit to some of those crushes.

Davy Jones’ influence, by virtue of those spiral notebooks shared every morning at school like new installments of a Dickens serial, was a little different. Eileen gives him full credit in an article she wrote on Novelists Inc for moving her future writing career to the next level:

“So, thank you, Davy. Not just for being the nonthreatening fantasy that helped ease my way into the dangerous waters of my teenage years, or for being the kind of person who never tarnished my image of you as a sweet, funny, all-around nice guy. But for showing me what would make me happiest in my life, and helping me do it. I, for one, won’t ever forget you.”

To read Eileen’s complete article: "What Davy Jones Had To Do With My Career"

To read more about Eileen’s award-winning writing career after the Monkees: Eileen Dreyer