Friday, June 28, 2013

Saving Grief Until After Wimbledon
I’m not a huge tennis fan; in fact, I’m still learning the game. But I became a fan of Novak Djokovic a couple years ago.

Part of it was because he’s from Belgrade; my mother’s family is from Zemun, about 10 miles away. Part of it was his style of play and manner. So many athletes are loud, rude, and arrogant. But I enjoyed his funny Facebook posts and learning about his involvement in charitable work in his hometown.

During the French Open, I heard about the death of his childhood coach, Jelena Gencic. I immediately remembered a 60 Minutes interview I’d watched last year, where he was shown returning to Belgrade to visit with her. Their love and respect for each other was plain to see. He promised her just before the French Open that he would bring home the trophy for her.

That was not to be. As I watched him lose in the semi-finals on TV, it was clear that his head was not in the game. Tennis is largely a mental game, 126mph serves notwithstanding. Players must be focused, loose and optimistic. The French Open trophy – the only major he hasn’t won – would have to wait.

“I cannot say that I overcame that kind of grief that I felt inside,” he said afterwards. “It’s still there because it’s still fresh. But I also try to focus on the nice memories I had with her. My first coach and mentor, a friend and a lady that really contributed a lot to what I am now.”

Another reason I like Djokovic is that he doesn’t whine, doesn’t make excuses or lash out at other players. I had enough of that bad boy behavior during the heydays of McEnroe and Connors. His grief contributed to his problems with concentration, but he didn’t use it as an excuse for losing. His focus is now on the soggy grass at Wimbledon.

“I still didn’t go to Belgrade,” he said earlier this week. “It happened very recently, so I didn’t go and have the tribute to Jelena. I didn’t go to visit the cemetery, but I will, the first available moment after Wimbledon.”

So after the grass at center court has dried out, after the strawberries and cream are long gone, after he’s – hopefully - hoisted the silver cup in victory (perhaps against native son Andy Murray), Novak Djokovic will go home to Belgrade. There he’ll be able to honor his friend, his mentor, who is as responsible as anyone for his success.

And then, I expect, the number one tennis player in the world will set his sights on Montreal, the US Open and beyond. Because what better tribute to a friend, than to continue to honor their importance in your life?

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

ACT UP/NY’s Non-Reunion Reunion

Few things get your attention like hearing the news a friend has died. For many of the original members of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), the death of Spencer Cox was just such a wake-up call.

Keep in mind that these were men and women who lost dozens, if not hundreds, of friends to AIDS. They were on the front lines of the epidemic: educating, advocating, demonstrating, demanding. Some of them carry the AIDS virus themselves, saved by the ‘cocktail’ developed in 1996.

So you could forgive them if the numbness of experiencing so many losses would affect their ability to grieve. Similar to the military, you have to put your grief aside because the deaths just keep on coming. You tell yourself you’ll do something about it – feel – later. Sometimes you do, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you just want to forget any of it ever happened.

It’s impossible to meet a veteran without hearing their stories of war. Those of us who were involved in the AIDS community, though, have been really good at keeping those kinds of stories to ourselves. I don’t remember making a conscious decision to put that time of my life away. I was just consumed with other priorities: getting married, raising my daughter, starting a new business.

Two years ago, I was asked by Tracy Baim at Windy City Times to contribute to their excellent AIDS@30 series, to reflect on my work as a fundraiser in the 80’s and early 90’s. It was nothing if not cathartic. People and incidents filled my mind, and I was stunned by the amount of anger I still felt. Friends and family were stunned, too: “I didn’t know you went through that. You never talked about it.” I knew AIDS would be part of my Friend Grief series of books, but that opportunity kind of opened the flood gates.

A few months ago, I attended my first ACT UP meeting while in New York. I was a little surprised at how small the group was, especially after seeing How to Survive a Plague, with its videotaped meetings of overflow crowds.

It was there that I met one of my long-time, somewhat-forgotten heroes, Jim Eigo. He told me about a benefit screening taking place in West Hollywood, when I would coincidentally be in L.A. for a conference. I attended it, and met another former ACT UP member, William Lucas Walker. Back in NYC in June, I met Peter Staley, the subject of the iconic photo taken by William that can be seen on HTSAP posters. I was - and am - inspired by them all.

Spencer Cox’s memorial service brought together many of those original ACT UP members. Now they knew what military veterans have known for centuries. “We realized we missed each other,” recounted Alan Klein in a recent article in Gay City News. “We missed our sense of shared community. It was a healing experience.”

So this weekend, June 22, the ACT UP/NY (Just Don’t Call It a Reunion) Reunion will take place at 49 Grove St.

AIDS is far from over. Klein said the goal of the event is “to create a safe space for people to talk about these series issues or about what they’ve been doing for the past number of years. Maybe it will be a reboot of our experience in ACT UP.”

I wish them well. After one of my high school classmates died on 9/11, our class – which had had a reunion just the year before – decided good intentions for keeping in touch were not enough. We started a Yahoo group to keep everyone informed: not just about how we wanted to honor Carol’s memory, but personal things like deaths of parents, spouses and other classmates, births of grandchildren, and the like. We get together periodically for group dinners, and smaller get-togethers. It changed us as a class and as individuals. I’m now close to women who barely spoke to me when our lockers were close together. The Yahoo group and my class are still going strong. It’s all good.

I hope it is for the members of ACT UP, too.

If you are reading this and were a member of ACT UP/NY back in the day, you can visit for more information on the Non-Reunion.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Friend Grief Has Come A Long Way

In January, 2011, I was preparing to go to my first writer’s conference, where I would be pitching agents for the first time. Part of my research was something that I used to impress upon people – not just agents – the need for a discussion about grieving a friend.

So I Googled “grieving the death of a friend”. I expected to find some references to a mostly academic book on the subject. But as I scrolled through the top 100 listings, I was startled:

More than half were for people who hadn’t lost a friend, but wanted to help a friend who was grieving.

            There were more listings for people grieving the death of a pet than a human friend.

To me, it pointed out the need for a place for people who are grieving the death of a friend.

To others, my statistics were hard to believe. I guess people want to believe that they can find what they want – and a lot of it – on the internet (let’s not even get into whether the information is timely or accurate). But in this case, there just wasn’t much out there.

A month later, I started this blog. Like many who write blogs, there are times when I feel like I’m talking to myself. But increasingly, I know that’s not the case. Within a year of that first pitch, the Google search results had shifted. Two years later, they were dramatically different.

That’s entirely the result of the people who read this blog and feel they’ve found a place where like-minded people are gathering.

They’re lost a friend – or two or ten or more – and are surprised and hurt by the indifference of those around them. Maybe they were shut out by their friend’s family, maybe they were stunned to find out that they couldn’t just ‘get over it’.

Others may have been slow to realize the impact of that friendship and its end, unable or unwilling to voice the pain of its loss. An increasing number of people see that death as a catalyst for making major life changes.

Right now, I’m working on the next two books in the Friend Grief series: one on the military, one on 9/11. They’re not easy to research or write. I’ve planned two more books in the series (on grieving friends in the workplace, and on people who made changes in their lives after the death of a friend), but I’ve had a strong recommendation for an additional book: on losing friends to suicide. The jury’s still out on that. If I get enough feedback to prove that this is important, I’ll give it a shot.

This blog, as the rest of my writing, is evolving. Suggestions are ALWAYS welcome: for the blog, for the book series, for other books or articles. There are many ways to reach me (see Contact page) and I really do appreciate hearing from you.

Who knows? The story of you and your friend may wind up here someday.




Friday, June 7, 2013

Talking About Friend Grief at BEA
I recently attended Book Expo America, the largest publishing trade event in the country. It’s exhausting: roaming dozens of aisles filled with hundreds of publishers. They’re there to promote new books, authors, services. It’s crowded and noisy and severely over-caffeinated (despite the presence of only one Starbucks in the whole Jacob Javits Center. And there are lots of free books and other swag to take home. You need comfortable shoes and a rolling suitcase to survive.

I was there mainly to get new and upcoming books to review on But I was also there to talk to some of my production partners (Kobo, Amazon, etc.) and check out any relevant new titles for my research.

When people asked what I write about, some pretty typical reactions were:

“That’s depressing.”

“Oh, grief’s very big.” (That made me laugh)

“Gee, that’s different.”

But the reaction that always gets me excited is when people say nothing. They stare at me for a second, maybe two or three. Then they begin to speak a little hesitantly, “You know…”

That’s when I’ve got them. I’ve struck a nerve. Those are the people who have been strongly affected by the death of a friend. Many of them have suffered a loss very recently and haven’t talked about it.

Sometimes the “you know” is followed by “no one gets it.” Sometimes they begin to tell me about their friend. Many are embarrassed afterwards by their reaction, but I know I’ve made a connection with them.

A man looked at the cover of Friend Grief and AIDS: Thirty Years of Burying Our Friends and his eyes filled with tears. One woman, at the ADEC conference in March, read the title of Friend Grief and Anger: When Your Friend Dies and No One Gives A Damn and smiled. “Someone just said these exact words to me the other day.”

They get it. They get it because they’ve been there - sometimes once, sometimes dozens of times. Let’s face it: we’ll all be there some day.

They’re the people I write for: people who have lost someone who meant the world to them, someone whose life and death changed them forever.

So if you’re one of those people, my book and this blog are for you. Because, yes, grief is very big.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS

I’ve been fortunate to meet a few of my heroes recently, founders of ACT UP. While there were times when I disagreed with their tactics, I never questioned their passion or results.

They’ve been there since the beginning, as caregivers and advocates. They’ve been through the wars and now face something just as dangerous as AIDS itself: complacency.

AIDS is simply not on the radar for a lot of people anymore. It’s no big deal. So what if you get infected? There are drugs to take. You’ll be fine. If only it were that simple.

When the epidemic first began, the arts community suffered a disproportionate number of losses. That was certainly because many gay men were involved in theatre, design, music, dance and film. But even when the demographics shifted, one organization rooted in the Broadway theatre continued its wildly successful efforts.

In May 1992, two already established groups merged to become Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, one of the most important AIDS fundraising entities in the country. Since 1987, they have distributed over $134 million to Equity professionals, national and international AIDS organizations and special initiatives.

I’m pleased to announce that I’m partnering with BC/EFA during the month of June, which is Gay Pride Month.

From now until June 30, the ebook price of Friend Grief and AIDS: Thirty Years of Burying Our Friends has been lowered to 99 cents. If you order it during June, using one of the links below, 25 cents of your purchase will go to BC/EFA.

 UPDATE: I'll also donate $1 from the sale of each paperback version (available only from Women & Children First bookstore in Chicago and Amazon).
I know, it’s not much, but the old fundraiser in me knows that every little bit counts. So when you click on one of those links, you’ll not only be buying my book, you’ll be supporting an organization that continues to fight the good fight. Thanks in advance!