Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Freaking Out About Your Friends

I admitted recently that I’m a little paranoid about the health of my friends. Okay, more than a little. Three death notices in a week’s time will do that to you. So when I hear comments like…

“She called the doctor; something’s wrong and she’s not sure what.”
“He’s not eating.”
“She’s been coughing for weeks.”
“They’re running more tests.”

…I can feel my body tense up.

Maybe you have a friend whose health is shaky. Maybe they drink too much, or use drugs. Maybe they’re so busy taking care of their families than they neglect their own needs. Maybe they’re healthy as a horse, but something strange has happened.

No one wants to hear a lecture about their health. “Stubborn, not incompetent” is the way I describe a lot of people I know. And yeah, I could describe myself that way, too.

“Do you have that effect on people? You keep them all jolly?” demands one character in The Big Chill. The friends are gathered for the funeral of one of their group who committed suicide. All of them are dissecting Alex’ last days and years, speculating on how they could’ve stopped him from taking his own life. Guilt? Sure. Ego? Probably. Selfishness? Absolutely. And why not?

Our friends are part of us. They represent the best – and occasionally the worst – in us. They remind us of who we are and where we’ve come from. They are there for us when we need them, even if we think we don’t.

So if a friend is sick, we want to help. If they’re doing things that are bad for them, we want to make them to stop it.

Saying “I’m worried about you” is often met with “Don’t be – I’m fine.” That kind of rejection is hard to hear. But what is said next is important.

Instead of – as I tend to do – getting mad or defensive when they reject your concern, try following it up with this:

“I’ve lost too many friends already. I don’t want to lose you, too. So I’m going to keep worrying because I love you. And I’m here if you need anything, anytime. Because I know you’d do the same for me.”

I think I’ll give this a try. How about you?

Friday, February 8, 2013

Going to a Friend’s Wake – Having Fun Yet?

A dear friend of mine died Saturday morning, from lung disease and complications from the flu. She was one of the first people I met when I moved to Chicago in the late 1970’s, and we worked in the theatre community.

Mary Ellen was larger than life. She did nothing halfway and rarely hesitated to express her opinion. She was a teacher, director, collaborator, consultant and all-around creative genius. My memories of her are random:

Finding her at a fundraiser, deep in conversation with Peter Ustinov.

Coordinating the table decorations for my wedding reception.

Helping her with a garage sale after her mother died.

Getting really drunk one night after work and finding ourselves at a meeting of the Chicago Art Deco Society, which we promptly joined.

Leaving the Printers Row Book Fair and walking over to the Fine Arts Theater to see Kenneth Branaugh’s Much Ado About Nothing. It’s my favorite Shakespearean play, and I think of that day every time I watch the movie.

She knew everyone: celebrities, politicians, journeymen actors. She taught a lot of them, and the kid in her shared her love of the arts with hundreds, no, probably thousands of children over the years.

While others have said she called them her “babies”, she never called me that. I would express an opinion or tell and a story and her response was often “you wild woman, you.” Rarely was that assessment justified.

Once, and only once, I felt her wrath. We both felt justified in our opinions and neither of us backed down. But I did my best to never provoke that glare again.

What I’ll miss, though, is her laugh: always full-out, never a polite giggle. The kind of laugh that elicits stares from more proper folks. Trust me: she didn’t give a damn if anyone stared.

I went to her wake Wednesday night with great trepidation. I was having a hard time with the shock of her death and the lack of communication between us in recent years.

The funeral parlor was jammed, all three rooms, mostly with parents and children who were going to perform as part of the service. Most of the photos on display were of and from her students; nothing representing most of the times we shared. I walked from room to room, and when I realized there was no casket, my first reaction was “she’s not here.”

I couldn’t stay for the service; I was on my way out of town. Two people I knew from the “old days” were going to speak, but they weren’t there yet. In fact, no one was there from those early days.

Maybe they were out of town, or there were extenuating circumstances that prevented them from attending. Maybe they arrived after I left.

But I’ve never felt so alone at a wake, despite being surrounded by probably two hundred people.  My husband joined me, but after a few minutes, and saying hello to the priest who would lead the prayers, I left. I felt like I didn’t belong.

I’m hoping the arts community will hold something larger, grander, on a scale worthy of Mary Ellen at a future date.  She deserves it.

For me, I’ll have to find a way to say my goodbyes another way. I don’t know how yet, but I do know one thing: there will be laughing.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Who’s to Blame When Your Friend Dies?

I’ve been doing a lot of research on how the military – active duty and veterans – cope with the grief of losing their comrades. Often survivor guilt complicates their grief.

One of the interesting things I found was a checklist the US Navy uses to help someone whose grief is compounded by guilt. It attempts to determine who or what was responsible for their comrade’s death. That’s not the same thing as blame or guilt, but bear with me.

The list identifies every person or situation or organization that could have any hand in the death of a service member: enemy action, the surviving unit members, the unit’s officers, etc. Then it branches out: unarmed civilians, the chain of command, US government and international policies – even the possibility that it was chance.

The person filling out the list must assign a percentage of responsibility to each one. It must add up to 100%. That becomes a springboard for conversation.

I wonder if this isn’t a productive tool for all of us.

Think about when you first heard a friend died. It’s only natural to ask “why?” and “how?” As time goes on, and more information becomes available, you probably started assigning blame. Maybe you blamed the friend, their doctors, or their family. Maybe you blamed God.

But by considering various people and scenarios, maybe then we can acknowledge where our anger or guilt is directed – and why.

A friend of mine died Saturday morning. I think I might make a list.




Friday, February 1, 2013

Another Birthday on Friend Grief

Two years ago today, I started this blog.

It was one week after I attended my first writing conference. I had an idea for a book, had conducted a few interviews, done some serious research, but I wanted to know if anyone else thought I was doing something that would make a good book.

I found out that there were a lot of people who thought I was onto something. And they encouraged me to not wait until the book was finished: start a blog. Now.

So I decided to begin a conversation with you. At that time, if you Googled “grieving the death of a friend”, you’d be directed to more sites dealing with the death of a pet than a human friend. Now, thanks to Friend Grief, that has reversed.

Your support has made this one of the top 20 grief support websites, and I’m grateful. I love your comments – both on this blog and privately – because they prove that this is a type of grief that needs to be discussed.

Even people who have told me they thought my topic was depressing have a story to tell about when a friend died. Some are struggling, some are inspired, but all shared the same desire: to keep their friend’s memory alive.

That book I pitched to agents two years ago is now six small books, all of which will be published this year. The first one will come out this month, so check out the Events page for book signings and readings as well as the Books page for information on ordering your copy (paperback or ebook).

I’ve learned a lot in two years: about writing, publishing and how people grieve their friends. I hope you’ve learned, too:  that your grief for your friend is normal, important and potentially life-changing.

You’ll be meeting some interesting people in the next twelve months whose stories will make you sad, make you laugh, make you think. It’s going to be a fantastic year, and I hope you’ll enjoy the ride.

As Doctor Who (the Tenth Doctor) would say: