Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Friend Grief in 140 Characters

The Twitterverse doesn’t miss much: political gaffes, celebrity gossip, shameless self-promotion. There are writers who swear by the discipline needed to express themselves within the 140-character limit. You want breaking news – not tape-delayed, like our Olympics coverage? Log onto Twitter.

That said, is it the best place to grieve?

I’m not talking about the incredible hospice programs, writers, therapists and other professionals who tweet information about programs to help people work through their grief.

And I’m not talking about those who tweet death notices of famous people.

I’m talking about people who run to Twitter to express their grief.

Twitter is a community, though a virtual one, like this blog. And let’s face it: it’s often easier to express our feelings online than face to face. Some people aren’t ready to deal with the world, and that’s compounded by living in a society that values the ability to “move on” quickly.

But does grieving on Twitter help anyone?

The value of grieving online is something that is attracting the interest of those who work in the bereavement field.

Most believe that the internet has been very effective in creating and building communities that focus on a particular kind of grief, like this blog. It allows people to work through their grief among those who truly understand their experience.

What I consider an invaluable use of the internet – and Twitter is a big part of this – is the ability to spread the word quickly. Instead of being faced with making dozens of phone calls to family and friends, now we can send a blast email, or post on Facebook, or tweet the news.

And in doing so, we are comforted, too, because it’s so easy for others to reach out to us. Think 140 characters is too short to make a difference? Try this:

I'm so sorry for your loss. You are all in my thoughts and prayers. I'll stop by after work to run errands for you and give you a break. <3

Actually, that’s 139 characters, but you get the idea. It doesn’t take a lot to show your support.

We’ll continue this on Thursday.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Friend Grief and Death Cafe - Guest Post from Kristie West

Kristie West
I’m thrilled to welcome Kristie West to Friend Grief. I met Kristie on Twitter last year, and though she’s in London and I’m in Chicago, we’ve struck a great friendship. She agreed to share her experience with Death Café and how it relates to grieving the death of a friend:

I know Viki has her Death Café coming up soon…which is very exciting!….so when she asked me to guest blog I decided to talk about the relevance of a Death Café to friend grief and the impact one could have on the other.

One of the hardest bits around grief can be the experience of feeling that people aren’t there for you.  This can be more severe when the person that died was a friend rather than a family member.

Our friends are the family we choose – I strongly believe this. And though we aren’t tied to them by a last name or by blood the experience of losing them can be just as powerful as losing a family member. Even more powerful for some.  Our experience of the death of anyone in our lives comes down to the meaning it holds for us. And losing a friend, close friend, or best friend may have just as strong or even a stronger meaning for us than any other loss.

But not everybody sees it like this.  We all view life through our own very unique perspective.  And for someone whose family are far more important that friends your loss of your friend won’t seem as bad or as extreme to them as a family loss.  And so it is much easier not to deal with it or with you and to take a step back.

And this is where the problem of support comes in.

In general our English-speaking societies are pretty rubbish when it comes to talking about death. It is taboo. We don’t want to talk about it or, God forbid, plan for it. We will read endless novels and watch lots of TV and movies filled with it but when it comes to facing it for real we are at a bit of a disadvantage. We consider it all a bit morbid, scary, unnatural.  And mostly we will avoid it at all costs.

And this need to avoid it is precisely why we can sometimes feel unsupported by those around us when we have a loss. When there is a death or deaths in your life there are some people who will be there for you, some who will kinda be around but clearly struggle with it, and some who will disappear. 

And more often than not we are tempted to then get angry or disappointed and say we now know who our ‘real’ friends are. 

When I lost 6 family members in 4 months I learned a very valuable lesson very quickly– when death comes into your life the reactions of people around you will tell you less about how they feel about you…and far more about how they feel about death.

You will become a sudden reminder to others of their own mortality and the mortality of those they love. Think of it like this: you are like a walking subliminal message that goes ‘remember, you will die and everyone you love will die.’ And most people don’t want to be going there. Some simply can’t…..no matter how much they love you. This is why some of the closest people to you will suddenly inexplicably go quiet or disappear. It isn’t that they don’t care….it’s that you push a button in them, a button they may not even acknowledge, that is far too painful or threatening to face.  When people aren’t there for you in this experience, they are avoiding death, not you.

Here is where Death Café comes in. A Death Café is a space for people to talk openly about death and all death related stuff.   Death Cafes encourage the participants to face up to their thoughts and feelings around all aspects of death and share them with others. Talking about death in a normal, natural, and practical way is healthy, refreshing, and often a relief.

And here is how it relates to friend grief:  the more we are able to be open about death, instead of terrified (whether consciously or unconsciously), the more we will be able to be around death –our experiences of it and the experiences of others. The more we will be able to calmly be in that space.  And from that space people will not need to be as far as way from you as possible when you’ve had a death in your life. And they won’t need the excuse of ‘it was just your friend/elderly parent/ex-partner/pet/estranged sibling, etc’ to protect themselves from it.

So what can you do?  Get along to Viki’s Death Café yourself….and tell everyone you know about it too.  Maybe just one of your friends attends.  Or maybe they don’t this time but they think about it for next time.  Don’t underestimate the power in one small step forward. All of the most important movements that have changed the world have started with small steps.

Have an amazing Death Café Viki. I wish I could be there!

Kristie West is a G.R.I.E.F. Specialist.  She helps adults who have had a bereavement in their lives, and her speciality is parent loss. 

After losing 6 family members in 4 months, including her dad who died very suddenly, Kristie found herself seeking help for what she was going through but wasn't satisfied with what she found.  Going on her own journey of learning through psychology, coaching and various other change processes Kristie reached the point where instead of managing or dealing with pain she was left feeling grateful, connected to those she had lost, and totally free from pain.

She created her own process based on her experiences and learnings and now takes others through it in a number of hours to achieve the same change that she did.

She regularly blogs on her site www.kristiewest.com.

Watch the Events page for more details on the first Death Café in Chicago!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Talking About…You Know…

Since the horrific events of last Friday in Aurora, Colorado, people in the US have been forced to talk about something they don’t like to talk about: death.

We talk about hundreds of topics every day, some boring, some exciting, and occasionally something controversial or uncomfortable: sex, drugs, bodily functions, violence, politics.

As a society, though, we have a hard time talking about something every single one of us will experience.

So our conversations over the weekend focused on the motivation of the shooter and the gun control debate. We did our best to come up with a logical explanation for what happened. The truth is much more complex, and unlikely to satisfy anyone.

What we ignored – or tried to – was imagining what it would be like to be in that movie theater or love someone who was.

Later this week, in a guest post by Kristie West, you’ll be introduced to the concept of the Death Café. A movement that began in Switzerland and spread to England, it offers a safe, casual place for people to come together and explore how they feel about death.

I’ll be co-hosting a Death Café in Chicago in September (details coming soon). It’s a very new concept for the U.S., and this one will focus on men grieving their friends.

In the meantime, think about how willing you are to talk about…you know…

Friday, July 20, 2012

Friend Grief in Public

Today’s headlines are a little close to home for me. My cousin is the city manager of Aurora, Colorado, where (at this writing) twelve people were murdered and dozens wounded in a shooting spree at the midnight showing of the new Batman movie. I haven’t heard from him yet, but I’m sure he’s up to his ears. A lifetime of experience can’t begin to prepare you for something this horrific.

The way the media covers tragedies like this one can be debated for eternity. Often in crisis, news organizations shine. But too often, as hours turn into days, they give in to what they defend as ‘the public’s need to know’.

Honestly, all the public needs to know are the facts, especially in the immediate aftermath. I don’t want to hear the 911 calls, and I’m betting the families and friends of those who died probably don’t want to hear them either.

Grief is hard, even if you think you’re prepared for it. But grieving in public…well, that’s a whole different ball game.

Imagine – if you are lucky enough to not know anyone affected by today’s tragedy – that you knew someone who died in that movie theatre. Imagine how you’d feel…

…seeing their picture on TV and in the papers.

…reading blog posts from people with a political axe to grind who blame your friend for not defending themselves with equal or greater firepower.

…hearing religious leaders either insist that your friend is “happy” now, or condemning them for not being ‘good with God’.

And yes, some of these things have already happened today.

So as we struggle through the next days of mourning and healing and questioning, try to refrain from finger-pointing, even at the shooter.

Light a candle, say a prayer, whatever.

And think about not only the families left behind, but the many, many friends.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

At a Loss for Words (For Once)

Let’s say someone you know is grieving a friend’s death.

Let’s say you didn’t know their friend, but you know they were close.

And let’s say you want to be supportive in their time of grief.

Where do you start?

If you’re like many people – maybe even most people – you may find yourself at a loss for words. I’ve seen people who normally talk a mile a minute be absolutely tongue-tied at the thought of supporting someone who’s grieving.

They might mumble, “I’m sorry for your loss.” And then what?

If you ask people who grieve, they will tell you how much they value the support of others. When it’s a friend who has died, rather than a family member, they are particularly grateful to those who recognize the gravity of the loss.

Then what?

Here are a couple of ideas of how you can support someone who’s lost a friend:

-Shut up and let them talk. Don’t compare your own experience, unless they ask. Give them a safe place to share their grief.

-Ask them about their friend. They might not want to talk about it, but again, you’re giving them a safe place to share if they do.

Can you think of any other things you can do?

What did someone do for you when you were grieving a friend that you wish everyone would do (or not)?

Friday, July 13, 2012

Reprise: "The Melody of Friendship"

Kathleen Pooler

I thought this would be a great time to revisit memoirist Kathleen Pooler's post from early 2011 about her friend, Judy. I'm sure her experience will remind you of friends in your life:

When I read Viki’s post, “Do You Need Any Help?”, I immediately thought of my best friend, Judy, who died of breast cancer in 1993 after a five year battle. Viki invited me to do a guest post on what it is like to lose a dear friend. Let me tell you about Judy…
Where do I begin to describe a friendship of twenty years; a friendship that endured life’s many tough lessons and trials? The diagnosis of cancer, the rigors of single parenting, the challenges of living in a fast-paced world were all intertwined throughout this friendship. We clung to each other through the maze of self-discoveries, growth, career changes, family milestones, achievements and failures.
I didn’t realize I would be meeting my best friend, that day in 1973 when we literally bumped into each other in that cramped little coat room in the emergency department of a local hospital where we both worked as staff nurses. We started joking then and we never stopped. Our families would roll their eyes and groan whenever we got together for they knew the rest of the world would be on hold until we were done talking.
Time after time, crisis after crisis, move after move, Judy was a constant in my life, when everything else seemed to be in shambles.
On August 19, 1993, I said goodbye to Judy as she lay dying in the hospital. Her blue eyes opened wide, and recognized me. I felt so angry and helpless, yet so blessed to have been at her side at that moment. I screamed to myself,
Why, Judy, did this have to happen?
How dare you leave me just as I’m about to go through menopause?
It hurts so much to see you suffer and to know this is so close to the end.
The feelings overwhelmed me and I started to cry, “I’m going to miss you so much.”
As I laid my head on her pillow, she reached out to pat my back.
“Your friendship has meant a lot to me, Kathy.” She didn’t have the strength to cry.
On September 13,1993, while on a nature challenge with the nursing students I was teaching to mark the beginning of a new semester, I climbed a tree and did some rope-climbing for Judy. The students gave me a jelly-roll hug where forty warm, young bodies held hands and wrapped themselves around me. Judy died peacefully that evening. A crystal clear, sunny, crisp fall day marked the ending of a beautiful life and a treasured friendship.
The treasured friend who blessed my life for twenty years has now been gone for nearly eighteen years. I am continually reminded that her spirit is very much alive in my heart whenever I think of her. It is the melody of friendship that plays over and over to nurture my soul.

Kathleen Pooler is a Family Nurse Practitioner and writer from eastern New York, at the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains along the New York State Thruway. She is currently working on a memoir about the power of hope through her faith in God. It traces the extraordinary events of her life: two abusive marriages, divorces, single-parenting, raising an alcoholic son, cancer, heart failure, all leading to a life of peace and joy.
Check out her writer’s blog, Memoir Writer's Journey  at http://krpooler..com. She can be reached on twitter: @kathypooler , on Facebook: Kathleen Pooler and email: kpooler63@gmail.com.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Counting the Missing: High School Reunions

It’s that time of year for high school reunions. Maybe you’ve been invited to one this summer. Maybe, like me, you’re in between reunions.

Some people are afraid to go, afraid to face the people they knew so long ago. They obsess about their weight, their jobs, their accomplishments, and often wind up talking themselves out of going. Others have only bad memories and are left with no desire to make new ones. Some look forward to the opportunity to reconnect, take stock, and, let’s admit it, brag.

Sometime after the 20th, when most people are focused on bragging, the mood shifts. We spend less time talking about ourselves, and more time catching up with people we only seem to see at these events. And that, too, is when we start keeping count of who’s no longer there.

My class was small: we graduated 122 girls. Forty-two years later, we’ve only lost touch with a handful.

Nine have died: cancer, suicide, anorexia, car accidents, 9/11.

We keep in closer touch since starting our Yahoo group after one of our classmates died in the World Trade Center.

Since the 20th reunion, we meet faithfully every five years. Each reunion has a reassuringly familiar pattern: mass at school, followed by a tour to see ‘what’s new’ and to good-naturedly complain about how lucky those girls are now.

Then we gather at the home of one of our classmates to catch up. Now and then, like at our 40th, we also have a more formal brunch the following day.

At our mass, we continue a tradition that began a long time ago. During the offertory, one rose for every classmate who died is brought up to the altar, and they’re remembered by name.

So we begin our reunion by honoring those who aren’t there, but are still with us.

If you’re headed to a reunion this summer, or helping plan one, how will you remember your classmates who have died?

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

“I Pray That I Am The Last”

When a friend dies, many of us struggle with a question: How can I make sure they’re not forgotten?

Not everyone is a celebrity, whose artistic creations or legislative record or exploits on the field of battle will be recounted in history books and HBO specials.

Most of the time when a friend dies, they’re just ordinary people, like us. In a world of billions, their uniqueness can be forgotten.

Twenty-five years ago, San Francisco recorded its 1,000th death from AIDS. As part of the annual candlelight march commemorating the assassinations of George Moscone and Harvey Milk, marchers were asked to make signs, each with the name of someone they knew who had died of AIDS.

Remember, this was a time of intense paranoia and fear. Many signs had only a first name and last initial, because they didn’t want identities revealed. Some had full names, and those in the crowd could be heard saying “I didn’t know he was dead”.

At the end of the march, those homemade signs were taped to the front of the Federal Building. Cleve Jones remarked that it looked like an old-fashioned patchwork quilt. And so the idea for the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt was born.

No one then, or certainly during those early years, ever expected it to still be growing in 2012. But unfortunately, it is.

It was quite a contrast, seeing it displayed on the National Mall, surrounded by imposing museums and landmarks. Monuments in Washington tend to be oversized and intimidating, meant to impress, and they do. They also tend to be frozen in time.

The Vietnam Memorial was a radical departure, marking an event by listing the names of every man and woman who died during that war. It was loudly criticized. But it became a standard for monuments to come, in identifying victims, such as the 9/11 Memorial in New York.

But as powerful as it is to see thousands of names carved in stone, the Quilt is much more personal. Each panel has been created – sometimes by friends and family – to reflect the humanity of someone who was killed by this still-incurable disease.

There is no better example of a living memorial. The people who designed and stitched the 48,000 panels have ensured that the 93,000 people whose names appear on them will not be forgotten.

Some were celebrities, like Freddie Mercury and Arthur Ashe, but most were not. They were men, women and children, joined only by the circumstances of their deaths. And every one had friends who mourned them.

If you have a chance to see a display of the Quilt, do so. It’s a powerful experience, whether you have a connection to the AIDS epidemic or not. And maybe it will give you some ideas of how you can preserve the memory of your friend.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

A Birthday Reflection on Friends (Here and Not)

Today is one of those birthdays. You know the ones: they end in “0”.

We give them special significance, as if they mean something more than just the passing of one more year.

A little over ten years ago, I sat with my friend, Delle, at the end of year awards ceremony at our daughters’ grade school. Prize Day is the way Sacred Heart Schools end each year, formally moving up to the next grade, and publicly acknowledging academic and artistic achievements. Her daughter had just finished first grade; mine had just finished second grade.

I turned to her at one point and said, “I’m turning 50 next month and I don’t know what I want to do.”

Her eyes got big. “Oh! Have a party! That’s what I did!” She went on to tell me of the party she’d thrown for herself the previous November: just girlfriends. That sounded pretty good to me, so I stole her idea (steal from the best, that’s my motto).

After sending my husband and daughter out for the evening, my girlfriends and I (including one who drove up from St. Louis) gathered in my back yard for Oriental chicken salad, lots of desserts and cold drinks. We solved the problems of the world, as I recall, and laughed a lot while we did it.

These past ten years – and yes, I know, it’s partly a function of my age – I seem to have gone to a lot of funerals for friends. All were just about exactly my age.

I have to confess, I have not been looking forward to this birthday today. The number kind of catches in my throat, and I wonder if I’m supposed to be different now that I’m this new age.

Maybe it was seeing the AIDS Quilt in Washington this week, but I find myself thinking of those friends who didn’t make it to 60, or 50, or 40, or sometimes even 30. I wonder what my life would be like if they were still around. I know for sure what it’s been like without them.

So today I’m thinking of them, wishing they were actually here, to sit in the backyard with that now pleasant breeze, and laugh about life.

And grateful I knew them all.

And so for today, Sir Paul:

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Remembering Friends: “Creativity and Crisis – Day 3

I’d intended to get to the Smithsonian Folkways Festival on the National Mall early today, to help unfold the Quilt. But 9:00am came and went, as the organizers discussed the advisability of displaying the Quilt in ever more oppressive heat.

While they did, someone suggested I go to the Quilting Bee tent. That’s where panels were being made by volunteer quilters during the Festival. I was welcomed into the tent, and I did indeed unfold Quilt panels. But these were panels in various stages of completion.

Each was different, as unique as the person they memorialized: Bible verses, song lyrics, photos, messages. The quilters used scraps of fabric, pens, colored thread and other materials to create each panel. I unfolded each one, and set up the table for the quilters still to arrive. I sorted fabric and stocked shelves with supplies. Those of us who did this were pretty much done in an hour or so.

By then the Quilt itself was in the final stages of being unfolded, so I missed that opportunity. But I enjoyed what little I did, before heading inside the Smithsonian Castle for a brief air conditioning break.

Next was a session on the history of the Names Project Foundation, and once again, the subject of anger came up.

Imagine a time when your friends – almost all of your friends – are getting sick and dying of mysterious diseases. They can’t rely on their families, their government or their churches to help them. In fact, the one thing they can rely on is to be condemned and shunned, hated and feared.

Would that make you angry?

One way the anger in the gay community expressed itself was through activist groups like ACT-UP. They were angry, in-your-face, and unapologetic. Lives were at stake and they didn’t have time for social niceties. Love them or hate them, they were incredibly effective.

Another way was the Names Project’s AIDS Memorial Quilt.

Whereas the Vietnam Memorial commemorates an event, and lists names in chronological order, the Quilt is a patchwork of random individuals. Organizers channeled their anger into a less strident expression, but one that is no less powerful.

25 years

48,000 panels (each one 3’x6’ – the same size as a grave)

93,000 names

What was initially an effort to simply remember their friends – and make sure the world remembered them, too – has grown into a legacy of an epidemic that created scapegoats and heroes.

No one envisioned AIDS lasting this long without a cure. Certainly no one expected the Quilt to still be growing 25 years later.

The Quilt is not a static, historical artifact, although there is definitely a sense of history about it. By virtue of the volunteers who maintain the panels, travel the world to display them, read aloud the names, help family and friends create new panels and dream of a day when no more will need to be added, it has the feeling of being alive.

I didn’t run into anyone I knew while I was in DC, although I couldn’t shake the feeling that I would. What I finally realized was that I wasn’t really alone. Steve and David and Scott and Clayton were there, even if their panels weren’t on display.

And that is the legacy of the Quilt. As long as it exists, those people – men, women, and children – are still in our hearts.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Remembering Friends: “Creativity and Crisis” – Day 2

Names Performers
The weather has certainly affected the crowds at the Smithsonian Folkways Festival.

It bothered me to see such small audiences in the Red Hot tent when the Names Performers sang their hearts out. They were very, very good, and their rendition of “Rainbow Connection” made me tear up. Many people seemed to find the performances by accident, drawn by the music as they walked around the tent. But once there, they stayed, and applauded enthusiastically.

The performers came from Atlanta and Chicago, some from Northwestern University, lured not just by the opportunity to be paid for their efforts, but to be part of something that is important to them all. Their director, David Bell, has been involved with the Names Project (creators of the Quilt) for many years. But it was special to me to see these actor/singer/musicians, much younger than David or I, commit to this grueling schedule.

The first presentation I attended was a panel discussion on the first tours of the Quilt, in the US and internationally. I found myself nodding my head often, when a comment would trigger a memory for me, or when I just understood the experiences of those four people who had been with the Quilt nearly since Day 1.

It was a terrific and fast 45 minutes. But as they were making their closing remarks, Michael Bongiorni admitted to residual anger at America “for letting my friends die”. And although he qualified it, admitting that he no longer felt that kind of blanket condemnation, it got my attention.

Afterwards, I approached Michael about those remarks, and we sat in a shady spot for a good half hour. He was gracious – bringing me a cup of cold water before we began – and generous with his time and experiences. We talked about grieving our friends – especially those who died at a time when they were condemned by most of society – and we talked about anger (his, mine and the community’s).

I realized later that that’s what was missing for me the rest of the day: anger. There’s a complacency about AIDS: hey, just get the drug cocktail and you’ll be fine. It’s no longer feared. That’s a good news/bad news story.

Anger is what I remember most from the 80’s and early 90’s. It wasn’t pretty and but it was effective. Anger fueled the gay community and those who supported them. Anger birthed ACT-UP, AIDS-service organizations and led to increased awareness and funding.

Tomorrow I plan to get to the Mall early enough to help unfold the Quilt for the day’s viewing. More from sweltering DC after that.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Remembering Friends: “Creativity and Crisis” - Day 1

I arrived in Washington, DC late Thursday afternoon, behind schedule. But I still managed to take a cursory tour of the National Mall, where the Smithsonian Folkways Festival is in full swing.

It’s no cooler here than anywhere else in the US right now, but the triple-digit heat didn’t stop people from strolling the Mall, although I assume the crowd was smaller than anticipated.

One of three themes in the Festival is “Creativity and Crisis”, the arts community response to the AIDS epidemic. Tomorrow I’ll be attending a number of performances and presentations by artists from around the world, and will report on it here

I went to one of the tents to check the list of names. Because of the size of the quilt now – 48,000 panels with over 91,000 names – it’s impossible to display the entire quilt. I got there just before volunteers began to fold up the panels for the day.

Twice I was asked to come in tomorrow morning to help unfold. I probably will do that, either tomorrow or Saturday before I leave.

I walked around the panels a bit, marveling at the detail and care taken to create them. I read the messages, some funny, some profound, all grieving.

And despite my initial disappointment, I was grateful none of the names I was looking for were on display.

I honestly wasn’t sure how I’d react seeing those panels, some of which I’d seen 20 years ago. It’s not that I thought the volunteers there couldn’t handle seeing me cry; I’m sure many people visiting the quilt cry. I wasn’t sure I could handle me crying.

So I listened respectfully to the volunteers who explained about the panels, even though I probably knew as much as they did. I didn’t jump in and say “well, you know, back in ’89…”

In some ways, I’m here against my will. The AIDS epidemic, and the friends I lost, are part of my history, my life. I tried to ignore it for years, thinking I could put it away and not have to think about it ever again, but I was wrong.

As long as I have friends who are HIV+, as long as I have friends – gay and straight – who are at risk of infection, as long as there is no cure for AIDS, I can’t ignore it. I can’t stay silent. As we learned in the 80’s, silence really does equal death.

Instead I’m forcing myself to relive that time in my life, and consider what it all means now. Tomorrow I hope to find some answers, and to show the incredible ways friends remember friends.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Honoring Your Friends in a Big Way

Tomorrow I’m off to Washington, DC for the Smithsonian Folkways Festival. Held on the National Mall (even in this heat wave), one of the three themes of the Festival is “Creativity and Crisis”. It’s a look at the global response by the arts community to the AIDS epidemic.

There will be performances by people from Chicago to South Africa. There will be presentations by those who have made it their life’s work to use the arts to educate the world about AIDS.

And the 25th anniversary of the Names Project’s AIDS Quilt will be observed.

Between now and the end of the International AIDS Conference later this month, 55 locations in the Washington, DC area will display some of the 48,000 panels that makes up the Quilt. Over 91,000 names appear.

Its size – never anticipated – prevents its display in any one location. But several thousand panels will be on display each day during the Festival on the Mall.

I haven’t seen the Quilt for 20 years, when it was displayed at Chicago’s McCormick Place convention center. I went with a friend, and we sought out names of people we’d known.

In many ways, visiting the Quilt is like visiting the cemetery: it exists to preserve the memory of people who died. But with a big difference: the panels are much more personal.

My father, a veteran, is buried at a military cemetery. Until recently, only name, rank, branch of service, birth and death dates were inscribed on the headstones. But now family can add little messages, personalizing them like the headstones at civilian cemeteries.

The panels of the quilt, to a much greater extent, reflect the personalities and lives of those they honor. Some are soft and gentle, others are bold and loud. The ones for babies are especially touching.

Some of the panels were made by strangers, volunteers who followed the survivors’ wishes.

Some of the panels were made by family members.

Many of the panels were made by friends, people who functioned as family at a time when people with AIDS were shunned by their relatives, their churches, their countries.

Some of the friends who made panels now have their own.

I’ll be blogging, tweeting and posting on Facebook while I’m there this week, with a wrap-up next week on how grieving friends created something that is truly remarkable.

Click here to find out more about the Smithsonian Folkways Festival.

Click here to find out more about the Names Project.