Monday, October 29, 2012

Big Changes for Friend Grief

UPDATE - 11/1/12


If I’ve seemed quiet lately, there’s a reason. I’ve been attending a conference and doing research, which took a lot of time. But November will be a big month for Friend Grief.

On November 2, the first in a series of small books on the topic of grieving your friends will be released. Friend Grief and Anger: When Your Friend Dies and No One Gives a Damn will expand on a few earlier blog posts on anger. It will be available on all e-book platforms, and the links will be posted here as soon as they’re available. For my followers in the UK, Canada and Australia, you’ll be able to get it right away, too. If you’re keeping score, November 2 is Day of the Dead.

The print version (about 60 pages) is targeted for release on November 19, which was Delle Chatman’s birthday. I felt it was appropriate, since I wouldn’t be doing any of this without her. I’ll be doing a book signing/launch at the coffee house in Chicago that was our hangout.

My plan is to release the second book, on grieving friends who died of AIDS, on Dec. 1, with subsequent titles in the series released every other month through 2013.

As soon as they’re confirmed, I’ll list additional information – reviews, book signings, etc. – here on this blog. New resources – on and offline – will also be added in the next few weeks.

And after the first of the year, there will be a redesign of the whole blog/website, but let’s get through the holidays first. J

Your feedback is always welcome and appreciated. If you have an opinion about something I wrote, please comment. If you’d like to share a story about a friend of yours who died, email me. If you know of someone who would benefit from what we discuss here, share this link. As always, remember that I’m not a medical professional, and this blog is never intended to be a substitute for therapeutic help.

One of the terrific aspects of this new career of mine is that I believe I have a deeper appreciation of my friends. I find myself reaching out, sometimes self-consciously, in ways that often surprise me.

For example: I don’t have a picture of myself with Delle, just the two of us. I have pictures where we’re with a group, but no picture of just us. We were always the ones taking pictures and never thought to include ourselves. I regret that a lot.

Last Friday I asked the wife of a friend of mine to take my picture with him. I have lots of pictures of him, but again, none of just the two of us. I was a little embarrassed to ask, but I got over it.

I don’t know if anyone can live their life without regretting things they didn’t do. But I’m trying more and more to risk that momentary embarrassment: to pose for that picture, to make that phone call, to say ‘I love you’ while I can.

Try it. You’ll be glad you did.



Friday, October 19, 2012

A Look at “Love is the Cure”

From the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous:

8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

If you or someone close to you has been in a 12-step program, you’re familiar with steps 8 and 9.

Singer/songwriter/philanthropist Elton John’s new book, Love is the Cure, documents his climb out of addiction and how he continues to make amends, most importantly through his AIDS charity.

If you’re a fan of his, like me, you probably wonder how he managed to come out of the 80’s alive and healthy. So does he.

Honestly, the book was a surprise to me. I expected it to be mostly about the important work of the Elton John AIDS Foundation, and how it came to be. It is, but it’s much more. It’s about him working those steps every day.

Elton John cruised (pardon the pun) through the 80’s and into the 90’s, a privileged gay man whose addictions were hurtling him towards an early, inevitable demise. But he came out of it HIV-negative. How the hell did that happen? Luck, he’ll tell you, pure luck. By all rights, he should’ve died a long time ago.

But he didn’t. Deep in the fog of those addictions he knew he was killing himself. It wasn’t until he heard about the horrific treatment of Ryan White, the Kokomo, Indiana teenager who’d contracted AIDS from tainted blood products to treat his hemophilia, that the change began. It was a slow change, though; even White’s death wasn’t enough. People who loved him were scared.

It wasn’t until his lover checked himself into a treatment center, and Elton raged for a while, that he himself faced reality and got the help he needed, too.

What followed was survivor guilt. He knew writing checks to AIDS charities wasn’t enough. He knew he’d spent over a decade watching his friends die (there’s a plaque for each one hanging in the chapel he built at his home): watching, but not helping, not using his celebrity to help others.

And so EJAF was born, and it is the greatest passion of his life. He has surrounded himself with the best and the brightest in the international fight against AIDS. He’s not just a name on the letterhead; he is involved in a hands-on way.

But it is that first experience, the sweet friendship between Elton John and Ryan White, that drives him most of all. His life has changed completely, and he knows exactly who to thank:

“I miss my friends Elizabeth (Taylor), (Princess) Diana and Robert (Key) more than you can imagine, and every single day. I think about them constantly, and EJAF would not be here but for their herculean efforts, inspiration and support. With their help – and David’s (his husband) – and thanks to John, our small but dedicated staff , and our wonderful board of directors – within only a few years, we were becoming a major player in the fight to rid the world of AIDS. There was much work to be done, huge mountains to climb. But wherever he was, I hoped with all my heart that another dear and departed friend, Ryan, was proud. Indeed, I felt a sense of pride in myself as well. I was sober. I was giving back. I was alive. For the first time in years, I was really, truly alive.”

And we’re glad he is.



For information on how you can support the Elton John AIDS Foundation, click here.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Death Café – There’s a First Time for Everything

Last Tuesday evening, I co-hosted the first Death Café in Chicago. A phenomenon that began in Switzerland and spread to London, a Death Café provides a safe, non-judgmental and non-therapeutic setting for people to come together and talk about death and grief.
Our group was all men (except me, lurking on the edge). Although the seven men did talk about friends – and even animals – there happened to be an unusual situation: one man’s mother was actively dying. As befitting a supportive atmosphere, most of the conversations had to do with family dynamics and relationships.
The feelings associated with grief are common, no matter the relationship to the person who died: sadness, guilt, anger, regret, gratitude. All of them were on display Tuesday as these men came together for two hours.

The one emotion that may have surprised them all was relief. As I’ve written before, men are frequently locked into a cultural stereotype after the death of a friend or family member. They’re expected to be the ‘strong, silent type’. They’re looked to by others as leaders, in control of their emotions.
More than one tear was shed, and more than one man was surprised by how much he felt comfortable sharing, even with strangers.
As it turned out, the timing was a blessing: the one man’s mother died very early Thursday morning.
We all – co-hosts and participants – learned a lot. Plans are already being made for a second Death Café, this one for men and women. It’ll be interesting to see if and how that changes the dynamic.

One thing’s for sure: this is a conversation that will continue.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Chicago’s First Death Café

Sounds weird, doesn’t it?

Death Café

I guess the first question is, ‘what and where is it?’

Well in this case, it’s in Chicago next week.

A Death Café is an informal, non-therapeutic gathering of people who want to discuss their experiences grieving. Death, as we know, is a subject that can put a damper on most conversations. But here, it is the conversation.

Therapy is great, whether individual or group. But that’s not what this is. Many people just need a chance to talk about what they’re going through: without judgment or diagnosis. And as it turns out, a lot of those people are men.

Like it or not, men are still expected to be the “strong” ones when someone close to them dies. They’re expected to take care of others, get things done, hold it all in. But what I’ve found in my interviews is that men are not just willing but eager to talk about losing their friends.

So on Tuesday, October 9, the first Death Café in Chicago will be held for men grieving their friends. We hope this is the first of many (and not just for men), so that others have the opportunity to finally talk about a loss that is sometimes difficult to explain.

When people hear it’s called “Death Café”, there’s also a second question: ‘what’s on the menu?’ Well, besides conversation, we’ll have coffee, tea, and goodies.

Space is limited, so go to Events for more information. We look forward to seeing you on Tuesday.




To learn more about hosting a Death Café in your community, click here.



Tuesday, October 2, 2012

"How to Survive a Plague"

Art by Keith Haring
There’s a moment near the end of How to Survive a Plague, the powerful new documentary about the AIDS epidemic, and specifically, the role of ACT-UP in changing the way drugs are tested and made available in the US.

There’s a contentious meeting of ACT-UP New York going on, and playwright/activist Larry Kramer is shown, his face tightening in frustration. Finally he explodes: “Plague! We’re living in a plague! Listen to yourselves!”

Living through the beginnings of the AIDS epidemic was like living in a plague, or in a war, because it was both: a health crisis that became a desperate war to save lives.

The truly remarkable thing to me about this film is that it exists at all. Much of it is archival footage from 1986-1995, shot by members of ACT-UP.

So you actually see the demonstrators lying prostrate in the center aisle of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, protesting the cardinal’s condemnation of the use of condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS.

You see the unfurling of the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, covering the National Mall in Washington for the first time.

You see speakers at the International AIDS Conferences in San Francisco and Montreal, as well as those at NIH meetings, interrupted by chanting demonstrators.

You see executives at drug companies confronted by dying men who demand to know why their clinical trials and testing  - for drugs sold over the counter in other countries - drag on for years.

Act up.

Fight back.

Fight AIDS.

And perhaps most remarkably, you see videos of ACT-UP meetings, where members – some still alive, many long dead – debate and strategize, self-educate and threaten, laugh and cry and scream as they create a new model for fighting an entrenched bureaucracy. The willingness to show this footage – warts and all – is brave, fascinating and instructive. “They knew as much about this as we do,” admitted more than one medical professional.

We forget now that there was a time when people suffering from diseases did not show up by the hundreds at drug companies or government offices demanding funding and new treatments.

We forget that people with AIDS were left to die in emergency rooms. Afterwards, their bodies were stuffed in big, black garbage bags, and left unclaimed by disapproving families.

We forget that for every right we enjoy, there is a battle that went before, a battle to earn that right: a fight, at times, to the death.

The next big crisis may not be a disease or a virus. It may be environmental. It may be a war. But the lessons in this film apply to all those situations and more. In demanding fairness and hope for those you love, you can save millions.

It’s possible that, watching this film, you will disapprove of ACT-UP’s tactics. You will believe that there is a more conventional, less confrontational way to get your point across.

But until – and unless – you fight for your life or the life of someone you love, only to face indifference, discrimination and hatred, you don’t really know what you’d do to save a life.

How to Survive a Plague shows us all how to do just that.