Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Another Celebrity “Friend” Dies
There’s been a lot on the news, on the internet, in the papers the past 48 hours about the death of writer/director/actor Harold Ramis; even more here in Chicago, because he was one of “us”.

Again – as we saw recently in the case of Philip Seymour Hoffman – people are sharing their grief as if he were a close personal friend.

And again, others are asking “Why?”

Why do we mourn the death of someone we’ve never met?

Why do we feel as if we’ve lost someone who was a part of our lives?

Why do we act as if they were our friend?

Certainly, the internet and social media like Twitter and Facebook have enabled millions to share their thoughts and feelings with the world. We’re probably more aware of the impact certain celebrities have on our lives because of the obsessive nature of the 24-hour news cycle.

We admire their talent and maybe their work ethic. We identify their works of art – films, TV shows, songs – and link them to important moments and places in our lives. And that’s what I think is the key.

When I think of Carole King, I remember listening to “Tapestry” in my first dorm room. Many years later, when my daughter was a tiny baby, I remember singing along with the lullaby King contributed to “Til Their Eyes Shine”.

Am I friends with Carole? No, of course not. We’ve never met and I’ve never even seen her perform live. But when I think of the little dorm room at Webster, or sitting on the couch holding my daughter, I think of Carole and her music. And now, when my college-student daughter wants to see Beautiful (the musical based on King’s early career), I think of Carole and those earlier times, too.

That’s doesn’t make us friends, not in the way I define ‘friend’. But it points to the influence people can have in our lives.

With Harold Ramis, that influence often resulted in people – mostly men – who can quote entire scenes from Caddyshack or Stripes; even President Obama can’t resist. But those who worked with him and knew him – his real friends – probably would describe him the way Kelly Leonard, Asst. VP of Second City, did yesterday:

“Harold Ramis was an A-plus creative talent and an A-plus human being, which never happens.”

The oldies radio station I listen to refers to their playlist as “the soundtrack of our lives.” And that’s true. Every one of us can tell the story of the first time we heard a song: where we were, what we were doing, who we were with.  The songs and the artists become a part of our lives.

So when a celebrity dies, it’s as if we’ve lost a part of us. It’s not entirely true, because their work lives on. But now there is a twinge of sadness when we hear that song or watch that movie or TV rerun.

That’s okay. Feel sad that Harold Ramis – or Philip Seymour Hoffman or whoever – won’t be creating any more memorable characters.

But don’t forget to celebrate, too. Hold onto those memories; make new ones, too. And for now, let’s remember Harold Ramis:


In the immortal words of Jean-Paul Sartre, “Au revoir, gopher.”



Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Friend Grief - Guilt vs. Regret

Guilt: responsibility for a crime or for doing something bad or wrong; a bad feeling caused by knowing or thinking that you have done something bad or wrong.

Regret: to mourn the loss or death of; to miss very much; to be very sorry for.

(Definitions courtesy of Merriam-Webster Dictionary)


Often when a friend dies, we feel overwhelmed by what might have been. There are good memories to comfort us, stories we can share with other friends. But often – too often – the negative feelings overshadow everything else. And we feel guilty.

Or do we?

There are certainly times when guilt is an accurate response to the news that a friend has died. If you promised to call/visit, and then blew them off because you were tired or got a better offer, than yes, guilt is appropriate. If you consciously avoided them because you “couldn’t handle” seeing them “like that”, then yes, you should feel guilty. If you spent time with them, but refused to let them confide their hopes and fears about dying, demanding that the conversation stay upbeat, then yes, I hope you do feel guilty.

But what most of us feel is not guilt. While the first definition of guilt is related to committing a crime, isn’t it interesting that the first definition of regret is about mourning?

There have been times when I couldn’t visit someone who was sick because I had a cold, and I knew their compromised immune system might not be able to fight it off.

There have been times when family obligations or my own health took precedence over spending time with a sick friend.

There have been times when I realized too late that I never told them I loved them, even though they’d probably protest that they already knew.

There have been times when I just thought we’d have more time. It wasn’t denial. I just expected they’d live long enough to finish a project we were both working on, one I’ll have to finish on my own.

I guess I’m saying that since we’re all imperfect, we will always have regrets. We will be sad when a friend dies and feel that loss very deeply. We’ll do things and go places, and wish they were there with us. That’s regret, and it’s unavoidable.

Guilt, however, is avoidable. Yes, it’s hard to visit a friend who’s dying, hard to see the physical change in them. So what? You can’t handle feeling uncomfortable, even if your presence brings comfort to your friend? Then you’re not much of a friend.

So, your assignment for today is to make a promise to yourself to avoid guilt when it comes to your friends. Don’t make excuses. Don’t wimp out. Be present. Be supportive. Be a good friend.
You’ll still mourn their loss. You’ll still have regrets. But you'll sleep better not feeling guilty.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Anger, Condemnation and Philip Seymour Hoffman

As I work on the next book in my series, Friend Grief and the Military: Band of Friends, I’m immersed in stories of survivor guilt. Men and women are haunted for years about what they see as their failure to prevent the death of their friend, even if their friend died from suicide. Rarely is there a situation where that guilt is logically justified, but that doesn’t stop it from tearing people apart.

Lately, the news is full of the death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman from an apparent heroin overdose. I’ve heard very little from his friends in terms of survivor guilt. What I have heard should disturb us all.

“He didn’t love his kids enough to stop using.”

“Celebrities think nothing can happen to them.”

“He was weak.”

“He was stupid.”

“He threw away his career.”

And those are the ones I don’t have to bleep out.

It’s not uncommon for those left behind to feel and express anger at the person who died, blaming them for their own death. And sadly, that blame is all too common when it comes to people who are addicts, because of the destruction they leave behind.

 A doctor once told me you can become addicted to anything: food, Sudoku, cocaine, gin, caffeine, gambling, sex, video games. A remarkable piece in the NY Times by a man addicted to money was a real eye-opener for a lot of people. Science is making great strides in identifying genetic predispositions that can explain addictive behavior.

There are options for those who have the strength (and sometimes, the money) to commit to fighting addiction: therapy, 12-step programs, in-patient treatment centers. But public opinion is slow to catch up.

Those who are not addicts, especially those who are not close to someone who is, have no idea what it’s like to live with those demons. And yet, they feel smugly self-righteous in criticizing them for behavior that is less than perfect. It’s important that they feel superior to the person who died from what they perceive as a weakness, a character flaw they themselves do not possess. As far as I’m concerned, they have bigger character flaws, but I digress.

I’m writing this from New York, where Hoffman lived and died. He had many friends here, who are reeling from the news that 23 years of being clean and sober did not prevent what happened last week. They’ve lost someone they loved, someone who made a difference in their lives. As is often the case with celebrities, their closest friends are keeping their grief to themselves. That doesn’t mean they might not be angry, too, but they’re not shouting it to the world.

Imagine, though, that you are one of those friends. Maybe you worked with him, maybe you lived in his neighborhood or knew his family. Maybe your kids know his kids. Read those comments I listed above – the self-righteous indignation - and tell me how you feel.

Are members of the public – who only knew him from a distance – justified in condemning him on every social media platform?

Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, even if it’s offensive to others. But think about how you’d feel if you were one of Hoffman’s grieving friends, reading the condemnations that fill the internet.

And then, keep your mouth shut.

Because there, but for the grace of God…