Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Grieving Online Friends
Last week I asked if friends we know only online are worth grieving. And I learned something very interesting. I already knew it was true for me, but as it turns out, it was true for a lot of people.

People may be in our lives for specific reasons: other moms in the play group, or the guys on the softball team, or the others suffering through a 7:45am algebra class. The friendships we make there may only last as long as those shared activities or interests. A few may endure.

Shared purpose draws us to people online as well. We gravitate to like-minded people, whether they agree with our political views, passion for baseball teams, or other common interests.

They fill a hole in our lives. They enrich us. We look forward to their posts and tweets. It only stands to reason that we’d mourn their loss, even if we’ve never met face to face.

But ultimately what I found most interesting was the desire of many people to meet their online friends. They’re connected, but they want to be more connected:

“When are you coming to London?”

“We’ll be in New York the same time!”

“We could meet at the conference.”

In the past year, I’ve met a number of people in person who I’d only known online. Like I said before, little things may have surprised me, but I’ve not been disappointed. If we think of our online friends as “pen pals”, then meeting them doesn’t seem odd at all.

I read an article about a man who lost track with one of his tweeps (Twitter friends), and found out later that he’d died. They’d been in touch for quite a while, but he only found out about the death from a mutual online friend.

He felt bad about two things: first, that he didn’t know the guy had been sick. He’d given no indication in his tweets that he was seriously ill.

Second was worse, actually: he didn’t know how to grieve. He couldn’t contact the man’s family: his Twitter account was deleted and he had no idea where he lived.

And he didn’t know how to explain his grief. How could you grieve for someone you’d never met? How do you explain you were friends with someone, when you didn’t even know what city they lived in?

To me, a friendship is a friendship. The connection you make with another human being is no less valid for making it online.

I read another article about a man who has set out to meet all his Facebook friends in person. I’ll be interested to hear how that works out: if he was disappointed, if meeting them strengthened their connection. 

Maybe we just all need to marvel about the advances in technology, the ones that allow us to establish a relationship – personal, not just business – with people on the other side of the world. In all likelihood they’re people you would’ve never been able to connect with otherwise. Of course you’ll miss them when they die. But you’ll be the richer for knowing them.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Memorial Day - Remembering Military Friends

Seaman Robert F. Noe
I intended to spend today considering responses to Wednesday's post about whether online friends are 'worth' grieving. But responses are still coming in, so I decided to let that topic percolate for a week. So if you want to join that discussion, feel free.

Below is my post from last Memorial Day. We won't actually celebrate it until Monday, but I think it's worth looking at again, with a recommendation of how you can show your appreciation to our troops.

I was thinking today, Memorial Day, about my father. He enlisted in the Navy in January, 1946, at the age of 17. Too late for the war, he spent two years up and down the coast of California. He talked about the men he served with in much the same way as we’ve become used to in movies and on TV.

We've seen many over the years - sprawling blockbusters, quiet reflections, black & white and color - on the big screen and on TV. Each is a little different, a slightly different take on war, death, life, friendship, purpose:

Band of Brothers
The Great Escape
Apocalypse Now
The Longest Day
The Great Santini


Movies and TV shows about war and the military are set in a time and place that most of us didn’t experience. They include archival footage and simulations of famous battles. They are more or less factually based. They tell a story of a unique moment in time.
But at their core, the best ones are stories about relationships. Sometimes resorting to stereotypical characters (the “lifer”, the “farm boy”, the “coward”), they still create compelling stories about the men (and sometimes women) who fought to defend our way of life.
There is a special bond among military, especially those who serve in times of war. They depend on those around them – for support, for encouragement, for their very lives. Theirs are friendships forged in the heat of battle; friendships that last a lifetime.
When you take a moment to honor our veterans today, take another moment to think about their friends: those who made it and those who didn’t. Because I guarantee that every veteran is thinking of those friends, too.

If you'd like to show your thanks for the men and women serving in the military, please consider making a donation to the Cup of Joe for a Joe program from Green Beans Coffee. They're set up at military bases in Afghanistan and elsewhere, providing free coffee, tea and smoothies to our troops. One cup is a $2.00 donation, and you'll be doing something nice for someone who's risking their life for you every day.

Cup of Joe

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Are “Virtual” Friends Worth Grieving?

Do you know your relatives?

I don’t mean the ones you’re in close contact with, like immediate family. I mean all of the people you know you’re related to, even the ones you only see at weddings and funerals: the ones whose opening line is always “you don’t remember me, do you?”

You probably do, even if you haven’t seen them face to face in decades.

Same with friends: some you see or talk to every day, others you only see every 10 years at class reunions.

My point is that you’ve seen them, met them face-to-face. That’s how you became friends in the first place.

But our lives are different now. We have “virtual” friends, people who may live on the other side of the world: people we “know” only because we text and tweet and chat and share and post and Skype.

So, what do you do when one of them dies?

In the past year I’ve met some of the people I’d only known online. Sometimes I was surprised (honestly, I thought he was taller). Sometimes they picked me out of a crowd. But in every case, the personality I grew to know online was the same as their real personality. I haven’t been disappointed, at least not yet.

Some of my online friends have now become “real” friends. What may have begun as a simple business-related connection has evolved into something much more personal. We share travel tips and restaurant recommendations, brag about our kids, offer support in our work and personal lives. As far as I’m concerned, the ability to meet people online you could have never met otherwise is a great gift.

Back to: what do you do when one of them dies?

It hasn’t come up for me, at least not yet. I have online friends who live all over the U.S., Canada, the U.K., France, Italy, and Australia. Many of them – most, probably – I’ve never met in person. We’re more like old fashioned pen pals.

I’m curious to hear about your online friendships. Have they evolved like some of mine? Do you consider them real friends, or do you relegate them to a lesser category? Would meeting them spoil things? Will you mourn them when they die?

On Friday, we’ll look at some responses, and consider the last question in particular.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Types of Grievers - Part 4

Let's face it: everyone has an opinion, not just about other things but about our own behavior. Imagine feeling you're not allowed to grieve honestly. It happens more often than you think, in this fourth and final look at types of grievers.

“You need to be strong for...”
“You need to move on.”
“Why haven’t you cried?”
We all grieve in our own way. But the fourth and final type of griever described here is the type no one wants to be. This griever can’t or won’t express their grief the way that feels most natural to them.
Generally speaking, in our culture, men are expected to be the strong ones when dealing with grief, and women are expected to willingly express their feelings.
Men may feel that any expression of emotion is not “masculine” and should be suppressed.
Women may feel that there’s something wrong with them because they’re not crying.
Men may feel they should limit their physical contact with others to stiff hugs and formal handshakes.
Women may resist the efforts of well-meaning friends and families to ‘let it out’.
Men may want desperately to talk about the person who has died.
Women may wonder why they feel relieved instead of sad.
Disapproval from friends, family, bosses and even strangers, can stifle our natural reactions to grief.
Our cultural and ethnic heritage, as well as the society we live in, can also contribute to the pressure that we need to grieve in a way that makes others feel more comfortable.
How do you grieve? Does it depend on the particular loss, or do you recognize that you handle grief in a certain way?
However you process grief, remember: everyone does it differently, and no one person’s way is the only way. No one should be bullied into grieving in a way that others dictate.
It may not be the way you grieve. But it’s just the right way for them.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Types of Grievers - Part 3
This type of griever is, I have to admit, more like me. It's hard for me to not multi-task, even when grieving. I bet you know someone like this.

Some people channel their grief into action: running errands, organizing, bringing food to the family.
Some people are very open with their feelings, talking and crying when they feel the need
Then there are people who do both.
I envy them.
Those are people who feel comfortable expressing their feelings, even if it’s uncomfortable to others. They cry in front of us, not because they expect us to make everything better, but because they need to cry. When they’re not crying – and sometimes even if they are – they keep busy. They organize the gathering after the funeral service, they make sure everyone at the wake signs the condolence book, they sign for flower deliveries.
They’re able to compartmentalize in a way, except both expressions – crying and doing – are positive actions that help them work through their grief.
Once all the services are over, and everyone has returned to their lives, not as much needs to be done. There is a hole, a lack of “things” to keep them busy. That’s the time – as anyone who has grieved can tell you – when the silence can be overwhelming.
So when you encounter one of these grievers, and marvel at their focus and ability to express themselves, step back. Let them do what they need to do.
Then pick up the phone a week or so later, to break that awful silence. And let them know you’re there for them.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Types of Grievers - Part 2
I'm old enough to remember when Jacqueline Kennedy was criticized for being "cold" at her husband's funeral. People thought she should've been more obviously emotional. Today we look at a type of grieving that our society has forced on men: instrumental.

Everyone grieves differently.
Often, people assume that someone who cries or talks about the person who has died is not handling their grief well. They are encouraged to stop crying, to not dwell on the past. But for that person, that’s how they express their grief.
Others are what may be defined as “instrumental” grievers.
Rather than express their grief by crying, they are more likely to intellectualize their grief.
They want to understand their grief, but they don’t want to talk about it.
They want to control their grief, so it doesn’t overwhelm them, or surprise them, or distract them.
They may also want to ‘do’ things. They may show up with food for the family, or run errands for them. They channel their grief into unemotional actions.
Just as emotional grievers are criticized, instrumental grievers also face disapproval. They may be considered cold or uncaring, because they don’t cry in public.
The ability to not cry doesn’t reflect a lack of caring. It’s just the way some people cope.
So if you see someone who has lost a close friend but acts as if they’re fine, don’t assume they’re in denial. Consider the possibility that they just grieve differently
And be kind.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Types of Grievers - Part 1

A year ago I wrote a series of posts about types of grievers, and I thought it was time to revisit that topic. The first type is "intuitive", and we'll take a look at others types over the next few days.

There is no one way to grieve.
There is no right way to grieve.
Everyone experiences grief in different ways.
Some people let themselves grieve in a physical way. Some clinicians refer to them as “intuitive” grievers. Another word for this type of griever could be “emotional”. Their grief is on display, not held back.
Intuitive grievers express feelings that are intense. Crying is probably the most common expression, and it mirrors how they are feeling.
Typically, in our culture, expressing grief in this way is considered a female response, rather than male. That also can imply weakness.
Crying is not the only physical manifestation of grief for an emotional griever. They may experience prolonged periods of confusion, inability to concentrate, disorganization, and disorientation. Their physical exhaustion and anxiety may be obvious.
This description may fit you, or someone you know. If it does, rest assured that you are not alone.
Well-meaning others may try to force you to stop expressing yourself this way. Let yourself grieve at your own pace. It’s healthy and right for you.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Calling All Girlfriends!


I started out writing my book believing I knew one thing for sure: I’d have no trouble finding women to talk about grieving a friend.

And that was true. But, as I’ve written here before, the men surprised me with their willingness not just to talk: sometimes they offered to talk, unsolicited. As a result, I currently have an imbalance of male/female stories in my book.

Now I’m looking for more women to interview. I’m particularly looking for women who have grieved a friend (male or female) with the following special circumstances:

            You’re a member of a religious community

            You’re a first responder or military

You channeled your grief into action by supporting a cause that either helped your friend or was otherwise important to them.

You experienced the deaths of several friends within a short period of time.

            You used your grief as a catalyst to make changes in your personal or professional life.

Sister of Loretto
If you’re willing to share your story, please email me at We can set up an interview online, by phone, or in person. You also have the option of answering a series of questions and emailing them to me.

By doing so, you agree to allow me to use your story in my book, but you always have the option of remaining anonymous.

Don’t want to, but know someone who might? Feel free to pass along this post.

I’m trying to finish interviews by July 1, so the sooner I hear from you, the better.

And know that I’m deeply grateful for your willingness to share your stories with me. Together we can help others who are grieving the deaths of their friends.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Have You Lost a Best Friend?

Dr. Karen Gail Lewis
I’ve been clear that Friend Grief is a place for those who have grieved the death of a friend to find others who have ‘been there, done that’. It’s helpful, but it’s not meant to be a therapy session (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Sometimes all you need to help you get through this kind of grief is the knowledge that you are not alone.

Dr. Beth Erickson
But there are times when you would benefit from talking to a professional. So I’m pleased to let you know about a teleseminar being held tomorrow (May 10) on the topic of losing a best friend:

Maybe your friend is still very much alive, but for whatever reason, you’re estranged. That lack of connection troubles you. You want to find a way to reach out, to heal whatever rift may exist, and renew your friendship.

When you lose a best friend for whatever reason, it is painful, lonely, and confusing. There are many ways this loss happens:

Two people can grow apart, having found different interests so you no longer have anything in common
                        You face irreconcilable differences that simply can’t be bridged 
                        You are just dropped --  without any explanation
Your friend has a serious health condition (like stroke or dementia); the body is still present, but you have lost your friend. 
Your friend dies, leaving you with a profound loss, unacknowledged by others; therefore, you have no social support for your grief.

Dr. Beth Erickson and Dr. Karen Gail Lewis, best friends themselves, are offering a free teleseminar on the topic of losing a best friend. It will be held Thursday, May 10, at 8:00 pm Eastern (7:00 Central; 6:00 Mountain; 5:00 Pacific).

This will be an opportunity to hear from them and other callers about topics such as: what support you would have wanted, what you did get, what you may still need to help as you heal from this tremendous loss.  It's also an opportunity to learn more about the grief process and its life-long affect -- even as you move on in your life.
This will be an informative and healing experience for those who attend.
NOTE:  Even if you can’t make Thursday evening, register so you can get a recording of the call. 

After this free teleseminar,  Dr. Beth will be offering a three week follow-up seminar for those who would like to talk more about their loss and understand how to grieve and move on – while recognizing the life-long impact of the loss on their lives. This will also be open to those who have not participated in the teleseminar.
(The charge for this 3 week seminar will be $75. That’s less than a weekly movie date with popcorn and soda for this level of psychological pain relief. However, if you register for the series on Thursday evening, May 10th, you will receive a $20 discount.  So, the three week seminar will only cost $55.)

Click here to register for the FREE teleseminar    

Dr. Beth and Dr. Karen Gail are marriage and family therapists (and best friends). Between them, they have over 80 years of experience.  Given the mobile society, they both do telephone consultations.
Dr. Beth has authored three books, one of which is focused on loss, her primary clinical specialty.  For a number of years, she has hosted an internet radio show called Relationships 101.
Dr. Karen Gail is author of books on relationships, single women, and adult siblings.  For the past 17 years, she has run Unique Retreats for Women -- fun and personal growth weekends.

We all grieve in our own way, and those who grieve a friend can often feel that no one understands what they’re going through. Anything that can help you – a teleseminar, therapy, this blog – is worth exploring.
I hope you’ll consider this opportunity to share your grief – for any kind of friend loss – and learn something that can help you.

For more information:

Monday, May 7, 2012

"Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake"

I was fortunate to be in the audience for the Chicago Tribune’s sold out Printers Row Live event on Friday evening, a conversation with author Anna Quindlen.  

Her new book, Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, is a thoroughly enjoyable reflection as she reaches a milestone birthday this summer: sixty.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve been a fan of Quindlen’s for many years, and not just because we share a birthday. Her writings have spoken to a generation of women whose lives were defined by choices our mothers never enjoyed: choices that complicated as well as simplified our lives.

In her latest book, Quindlen takes time to pause, to look at where she’s come from and where she’s going. Her conversational tone – reminiscent of those times with friends when we dissect our lives and solve the problems of the world – makes this a quick, but thoughtful read.

She addresses many of her trademark topics: women in the workplace, parenting, growing up Catholic, marriage. But, cognizant of moving from what one author called ‘moving from middle age to Renaissance’, she considers her future, and what aging means to a generation of women who are living decades longer than their parents.

The parts of her book that resonated the most with me right now were those that addressed aging and friendships.

“One of the most important parts of tending our friendships is working our way, over time, into the kind of friendships that can support cataclysm, friendships that are able to move from the office or the playground to hospital rooms and funeral homes…On the one side are the difficult and demanding events to come, the losses, the illnesses, the deaths. You can see them out on the horizon like a great wave, its whitecaps approaching. But on the other hand is a levee that protects us, that of the women we can call anytime, day or night, to say, ‘I’m drowning here.’”

Her observations on aging – not just the physical changes – will probably resonate with you, no matter your age:

            “The thing about old friends is not that they love you, but that they know you.”

You know how it is: friends from the old neighborhood, from high school, from college or your first job. They remember things…they remember you, and who you were at a particular time in your life. The longer the friendship, the more “you’s” they remember.

            “And then one of them is gone, and you’ve lost a chunk of yourself.”

Deep into her book, Quindlen quotes memoirist Carolyn Heilbrun.

“Since we do not wish to die, surely we must have wished to grow old.” – The Last Gift of Time

I thought that was a great way to describe a lot of us Baby Boomers. We have believed most of our lives that we are the first generation to experience…almost everything. Now unable to deny that we are no longer young, we are forced – kicking and screaming, it seems – to admit we are getting older. In spite of our best efforts, we are not immortal.

There’s no doubt that we Boomers are unwilling to accept a traditional, sedentary old age. We are determined, as always, to reinvent every stage of our lives.

We can’t put off the inevitable, at least not forever. But we can enrich our lives now – no matter how old we are – by treasuring and nurturing and enjoying our friendships.

If you’re a woman of a certain age – or even if you just want to understand women of a certain age – you’ll enjoy Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake.

And be sure to share your cake with friends.

Check out Anna Quindlen to order this or any of her other books, and learn more about upcoming appearance.

Friday, May 4, 2012

"Love is in the Details"

E. Jason Wambsgans, Chicasgo Tribune
The front page of the Chicago Tribune is generally reserved for hard news. And stories that begin “above the fold” are typically national or international in nature.

But the story that began just under the masthead on Thursday, with a series of three photos, was very local. You could say it’s a little story. It has no earth-shattering implications for the economy or national security. It’s a story of friendship and loss, and the friends left behind.

A year ago yesterday, Justyna Palka, an art director at Ogilvy & Mather, was struck and killed by a tour bus as she crossed a busy intersection in downtown Chicago. The bus driver has an extensive criminal record. He tested positive for cocaine and is awaiting trial for aggravated DUI and reckless homicide. Palka was 26 years old.

Born in Poland and raised in Germany, Palka moved to Chicago in 2006 to study at the School of the Art Institute. She excelled at school and strove for perfection. “She couldn’t do anything halfway,’ said Karen Smith, her supervisor at Ogilvy & Mather. But in the months before she died, Palka had begun to focus on living a more balanced life, with an eye to her future.

Within days of her death, Olivia Roszkowska left dogwood and hydrangeas at the corner where her friend died.

“I could not stand people passing by and not knowing what happened there,” Roszkowska said. “I just didn’t want this intersection to be so empty. I didn’t want this intersection to be like nothing happened there.”

At first, the flowers were left on the sidewalk, but they wilted and were swept away. That wasn’t acceptable. She asked permission from Palka’s mother to put up a bouquet, and tied it to the sign post.

When the flowers faded, she replaced them with new ones, eventually with artificial ones that could stand up to Chicago’s unpredictable weather. Even as rain and snow replaced the summer sun, the flowers remained.

She was joined by others, also friends of Palka, who found comfort in scouring craft stores for just the right selection:

“’There’s something therapeutic about picking out the flowers. I almost feel like I’m there with her,’ said Elyse Simpson. ‘I think about how thoughtful she was. How every detail had to be perfect.’”

The selection changed with the seasons: hollyberries for Christmas, orchids in the New Year, red gladiolas for Valentine’s Day

Sometimes other objects were left: a small Santa statue in December and a cross at Easter. But Palka loved flowers, especially tulips, so that’s what her friends brought.

“A year after the accident, friends take comfort in the fact that now, as in every May, the city’s boulevards are bursting with tulips, Palka’s favorite flower. ‘I saw the tulips today while I was driving,’ said Yuridia Trujillo. ‘Every time I see them, I think of her.’

Roszkowska flew to Germany this week for Palka’s memorial, which included the unveiling of a bronze statue.  But first, she stopped at Columbus & Illinois.

“It was 9pm by the time she arrived with an armful of silk orchids and roses. Cars zoomed past as she worked to attach the flowers to the street pole. Sometimes people will stop and talk, but on this night, she was alone.

‘Just that moment of putting the flowers on the corner, it has a very deep meaning for me,’ she said. ‘I think about what happened and how much I miss her as a friend.’”

One of Justyna’s favorite sayings was ‘love is in the details’. It was true for her, and most definitely is for her friends.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Competing Over Grief

Karl Sprague
Please welcome my friend, Karl Sprague, who has an important perspective on grieving a friend:

It wasn’t the first time I’d canceled a meeting. I knew he was having some business challenges, but several other people needed my help that day. So I canceled. I sent an email apology, along with some available dates on my calendar for us to reschedule. I didn’t hear back right away, but figured we’d get back in touch soon. It happens all the time.

Six days later I got a phone call from Anthony’s wife. He was dead. The circumstances were cloudy, and she gave little detail in our short conversation. Subsequent reports suggested it was a suicide.
Anthony was my age, with two kids the exact same ages as my own. He was my friend.

I went to the funeral, a jumbled mess of anger, disbelief, and guilt. Especially guilt. I struggled to express my condolences to Anthony’s wife and kids. I was numb. People approached me to make small talk, but I didn’t respond. I couldn’t form the words. I knew his death was my fault. I could have said something. I could have done something.
A friend repeatedly sought me out and wanted to talk. I don’t think he understood how much I wanted to be alone.

There was nowhere to hide from him. The people, the flowers, the coffin itself, all conspired to block my retreat. As I bolted from the room, he followed. When I walked outside, he did the same.
Finally, I’d had enough. My anger, guilt and frustration were ready to boil over. I stood my ground on the sidewalk.

“We need to talk,” he said.  “I want…”
I cut him off, “Look, I don’t want to talk right now. Anthony needed my help, and I cancelled my meeting with him. I might have prevented this. I should have been there for him.” There was a lump in my  throat and a hammering in my chest. I wanted to run.  This was my pain. My misery. My grief. I didn’t want to share it or explain it.

My friend grabbed my arm, and I could see the pain etched upon his face. “Karl, when you canceled the meeting, he called me. I did meet with him. I got my chance.” His voice choked. “And I blew it.”
We began to argue. I wasn’t ready to give up my guilt and my blame. He wasn’t either.  A car horn sounded in the street and we were jarred into silence. I think we both realized how misplaced our emotions were. Not at the funeral. Not now. We didn’t say another word, but hugged and then went into the service.

We met for cocktails several weeks later. During the course of our discussion, we realized that it wasn’t a competition. There was no honor in trying to shoulder more of the blame for our friend’s death. Our grief was private, but our support was mutual. And helpful. We mourned a friend. We celebrated a life. And our relationship is the richer for it.

Karl Sprague is a writer and executive coach.  His blog, The Short Distance, can be found at Karl Sprague. He has completed a manuscript for a thriller entitled Castro’s Shadow. You can follow him on Twitter @karlsprague.