Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Friend Grief and Anger is Finally Here

After a number of fits and starts – too many to list, but including Mercury in retrograde – I’ve finally released the ebook version of the first book in my Friend Grief series (paperback version coming soon).

Friend Grief and Anger: When Your Friend Dies and No One Gives A Damn grew from a conversation I had with my friend, Delle Chatman, in 2006. We were sitting in Metropolis, the coffee house we frequented, and she was in remission from ovarian cancer. An idea had been bouncing around my head, and though I was nervous, I told her I had an idea for a book to write. She was enthusiastic as always, and I promised her I’d do it.

I guess it was writers block that I suffered from for a long time after she died that November. I would interview someone and try to write their story, but couldn’t. I despaired of being able to keep my promise and put the project away.

It wasn’t until August, 2009, that I broke through that block. Suddenly it became clear – format, tone, topics – and two months later I was on my first research trip. This blog started in February, 2011, coinciding with my first writers’ conference. The rest, as they say, is history.

So today I sit at Metropolis once again, still glancing occasionally at the door, half-expecting Delle to walk in. I’ll do a book signing here, because there’s no more appropriate location. I owe this all to her: for not being offended by my idea, for encouraging me to embark on a career that deep-down I’d wanted to do all my life, for believing in me when I didn’t believe in myself. I hope she’s pleased.


Here’s an excerpt:

I’ve had friends who died from enemy gunfire and cancer, car accidents and suicide, AIDS and the 9/11 attacks. Not one of those deaths made sense to me. Not one of those friends deserved to suffer - sometimes for years, sometimes for seconds. Not one of those deaths could be justified in my mind as being necessary.

But all forced me to admit that I could not change what had happened, and for a control freak, that’s a tough lesson.

We’re all control freaks when it comes to death. We have no control over the circumstances of our birth and very little over the circumstances of our death. And since we tend to be adults when the second one happens, we believe we should have a say: not only about our own deaths, but about those of the people we love.

If possible, all of us would do whatever was in our power to spare our friend’s suffering and death. Love does that: it makes you want to protect the ones you love. The hardest lesson of all is that, ultimately, you can’t.

But instead of throwing a much-deserved tantrum because we have no power, we have to sit back and say, “I hate that this happened to my friend. I hate it with every breath I take. But I can’t change it, and that kills me, a little, too.”


Ordering information is available on the Books page.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Friend Grief Wants You


I’m currently researching and interviewing people for books in the Friend Grief series. Many of you have stories about grieving a friend, stories that are important – not just to you, but to others.

Your experience can help other people who are struggling with their own grief, often in private because those around them don’t understand.

I’m looking for people in the following situations:

            You’re active duty military or a veteran and a comrade died.

            You’re a first responder and one of your co-workers died.

You live in a religious community (convent, monastery, etc.) and one of your members died.

A friend of yours died on 9/11 (you don’t have to be a co-worker or survivor of the attacks).

            A friend you worked with (recent or in the past) died.

You did something very specific in your friend’s memory: started a nonprofit, made a donation, carried on their work or made changes in your own life.

You were part of a group of friends that either strengthened or fell apart after the death of one of them.

            You sought counseling after a friend died. Did you find appropriate counseling or not?

If you fit any of these descriptions, I’d love to hear from you. I can email you some questions to answer, or we can talk/chat online. You can write it down yourself in your own way.

All responses will be considered for inclusion in my books, but you are always allowed to respond anonymously.

The first book in the Friend Grief series, Friend Grief and Anger: When Your Friend Dies and No One Gives A Damn, will be out in all ebook formats shortly; print version later this month. The second book, Friend Grief and AIDS: Thirty Years of Burying Our Friends, will be published next month. Watch the “Books” page for purchasing information as well as upcoming book signings.

And thank you in advance to anyone willing to share their stories with me.


Friday, March 8, 2013

Dead Friends Who Still Talk To You

Delle Chatman
Four of us sat in the front of St. Gertrude’s Church one November morning. It was a year after our friend Delle Chatman’s death.

Kim, Rina, Jeannie and I originally met Delle because our children attended Sacred Heart Schools on Sheridan Road in Chicago. Now the four of us decided to remember her with Mass followed by red velvet cupcakes at Metropolis, the coffee house where we all hung out.

In November, St. Gert’s puts up an ofrenda: a small, temporary altar displaying photos of parishioners who died during the previous year. Prominent on the table, just to the side of the main altar, was a joyous photo of Delle and her daughter, dressed in traditional African robes, dancing. It was definitely a symbol of how we wanted to remember her: happy and healthy.

Also on the table was a candle burning unobtrusively. But just as Father Dom came out on the altar to begin the mass, the flame shot up and caught the linens on fire.

“Oh, shit,” were the first words out of my mouth, not the preferred response from the front row in a church. Rina was on her feet first, and the flame was quickly extinguished. No harm was done to the memorabilia, and Father Dom missed the drama because it was out of his line of vision. But it was a challenge to not laugh out loud. There was no doubt in our minds who was behind it.

A month before she died, Delle announced that she was discontinuing her cancer treatment. Her body just couldn’t take any more. That email unleashed a flood of emotional responses, friends from all over the country pouring out their love for her.

“I’m not dead yet. Save it for the funeral – I’ll be there,” was her embarrassed response. She was indeed.

Her memorial service was, as my husband called it “the shortest two hours I’ve ever spent in church.” No one wanted to leave. We needed to lean on each other.

Delle’s daughter, “the remarkable Ramona”, was eleven. She had told her mother she wanted to sing at the service “so everyone will know I’m all right”.

We were sitting directly behind the family, close to the front. I remember when Ramona stood and walked over to the microphone. When she got there, a shaft of light broke through one of the stained glass windows and shined on Ramona. There was a gasp from people around us. Not everyone could see it; it depended on where you were sitting. But after my initial shock, I just shook my head. “That was pretty melodramatic, even for you,” I thought to myself.

Those were two of the times I’ve felt Delle’s presence. There have been others, and I hear her voice now and then.

Maybe you hear voices, too. Maybe you just walk into a room and feel the presence of your friend. Wishful thinking? I guess that’s possible. But I like to think our friends are always with us, stalking us long after they’re gone.




Tuesday, March 5, 2013

"The Life and Death of Clay Hunt"

As a rule, I don’t watch 60 Minutes. It’s on at a time when I’m usually doing something else. But Sunday night I happened to turn it on just as it was beginning, and that became a good news/bad news moment.

The third book in the Friend Grief series is about friends who live and work together, and the military figures prominently in it. I’ve been learning a lot lately about the epidemic of suicide among active duty military and veterans, in the US and UK.
As I’ve explained in recent posts, there are a number of contributing factors: multiple deployments, inadequate screening for pre-existing mental health issues, substance abuse, grief for their comrades and survivor guilt.

Sunday’s program opened with “The Life and Death of Clay Hunt”, and it is as haunting a tale as you will ever see: a young man who struggled with grief and guilt after watching his friends die in combat. A young man who found meaning in his work with Team Rubicon, he still couldn’t rid himself of the demons and ultimately took his own life.

When I watched this video, it was clear that survivor guilt was not only limited to Clay Hunt: it weighs down on his parents and friends as well.

What possible good could come from the telling of this story? Awareness, for one: more active duty military committed suicide than died in Afghanistan last year. And hopefully action: on the part of our governments (for this is not limited to American military), our medical establishment, the military itself, and the general public.

This is not going away any time soon. These men and women deserve better than to act on the belief that they are better off dead.

Friday, March 1, 2013

When Grief Goes On and On

Not all veterans are men
I recently visited the Westside VA Medical Center in Los Angeles and spoke to people in their palliative care division. These are professionals who counsel veterans of all ages. I learned a lot from them, and frankly, not much of it was good.

We talked about survivor guilt and grief, and how they are factors in post-deployment mental health issues (PTSD, substance abuse, suicide).

My research lately has focused on recent vets, and the suicide epidemic affecting active duty troops. But I learned that grief for comrades – and complicating guilt – lasts for decades.

One person I spoke to works with Vietnam and WW2 vets. Both aging populations, as they near the end of their lives they feel the need to talk. Often for the first time, they describe their time in war: what they saw, what they did, who they lost. They talk about guilt for what they had to do and who they couldn’t save.

They kept their experiences from their families, to protect them from the truth and to avoid judgment. Now, only after a terminal diagnosis, were they able to get it off their chests, the grief and guilt that had weighed them down for decades.

The vets returning now have even more complications to deal with: multiple deployments, traumatic brain injuries, instant re-entry. The last point was something I hadn’t considered. In previous wars, there was time to decompress on the way home: on a train, a ship, a series of flights. Now they travel from battlefield to home in less than 24 hours, with no time to process what’s happened to them. It’s hard to imagine a tougher transition.

This is not the time or place to critique active duty or veteran mental health services. There is much that is being done and much more that needs to be done for our military.

No one “gets over” grief or guilt. The best we can hope for is that these brave men and women have the help they need.