Tuesday, August 26, 2014

How Celebrities Grieve Their Friends

Yes, I know I wasn't going to write about celebrities. But doesn’t it seem like a lot of them have died in the past month or so? James Garner, Sir Richard Attenborough, Lauren Bacall, Robin Williams, Elaine Stritch: all left grieving families and friends, just like non-celebrities – with one glaring difference.

Celebrities leave friends behind who are anonymous and others who are also celebrities. And while those live their lives in the glare of the media, that doesn’t mean that they’re capable of grieving gracefully in public. You may be surprised or even critical of them.

Remember Paul McCartney? He was roundly criticized for his “It’s a drag” comment the day after John Lennon was murdered.

People who hadn’t worked with Robin Williams in decades appeared on talk shows within hours to reminisce about days gone by. Here in Chicago, the local news stations tracked down his elementary school classmates. That’s not unusual. Watch the reports next time a celebrity dies, and see who the first people are to show up on camera.

Often, a celebrity will not appear in public after a friend’s death, instead issuing a very carefully worded press release or tweet.

Sometimes - but rarely – a celebrity speaks eloquently soon after a friend’s death. Russell Brand’s tribute to Amy Winehouse comes to mind, the pain of his loss beautifully exposed for all to see.

Why rarely? Because, as we sometimes forget, celebrities are people, too. They experience the same emotions, same life events. The glaring difference is that they grieve in public, not always by choice.

It seems that those closest to the deceased are often the last to speak in public. They prefer to grieve in private, which is everyone’s right. And I’m usually relieved that that is the case. Too often celebrities – and non-celebrities alike – try to make a tragedy about them. They see a chance to get some attention, at the expense of their friend’s memory. I don’t know about you, but that’s not my kind of friend.

So I’ll leave you with another one of those rare, poignant eulogies. It’s Billy Crystal’s remembrance at the Emmys. It’s a simple and loving tribute to a friend, devoid of the narcissism displayed by others.

What a concept.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Not Another Post about Robin Williams

I was just about to post last week when television, radio and the internet exploded with news of Robin Williams’ death. I’ve posted here about how and why we grieve when a celebrity dies. And I decided I didn’t want to write another blog post about celebrities.

But the topic I’d intended to share suddenly didn’t seem very important. I couldn’t stop thinking about Robin Williams. I’ve been a fan since “Mork and Mindy”. I have friends who worked and played with him, who are devastated. So I still could’ve written about him. I mean, why not? Everybody else has.

Like many of you reading this, I know people who have committed suicide. One was a high school classmate. One was a girl who lived next door when I was growing up. Another was the husband of a family friend. Each situation was very different. But my reaction when I’m told of the suicide of a friend is almost always the same: delusional.

Why delusional? Because – like the friends who gathered for Alex’s funeral in The Big Chill – I immediately assume I could’ve made a difference. “You think you can keep everyone jolly?” one of them demands. Not exactly, but I think most people, when told a friend committed suicide, will feel some level of survivor guilt.

It’s not the survivor guilt of someone who lost friends on 9/11 or from AIDS or on the battlefield: “Why did they die and I lived?”

It’s the survivor guilt of “Why couldn’t I stop them?”

I’m not going to offer some dime store version of therapy and suggest that if you’d been a better friend and kept in touch with them that that would’ve made the difference. I’m not arrogant enough to believe that I can understand what goes through a person’s mind as they contemplate suicide. But I’m pretty sure the reasons are more profound than “she didn’t return my phone call”.

What I will say instead is this: suicide leaves a long trail of broken hearts – not just family, but friends. It incites grief and guilt and overwhelming anger.

I’m a little early, but September is National Suicide Prevention Month. If you ask me, it should be every month.

There is help out there. There really, truly is help out there. And here’s where you can find some:

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

“Oh, That’s Depressing” – Writing about Friend Grief

I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve told someone what I write about. “Oh, that’s depressing” is certainly the most frequent negative response. Luckily, I don’t hear it too often.

I was in New York last week at the Writers Digest Conference. Going to this particular conference in January, 2011, was what really kick-started my writing career. I met people there (and shortly after) who are still trusted advisors and friends. I started tweeting on my way to the conference so I wasn’t the only one there who wasn’t on Twitter. This blog began a week later.

Although I haven’t been posting as regularly the past few months, it’s not because I had nothing to say. There were health issues that got in the way, and at times, the self-publication process took precedence. I will be blogging more religiously now, I swear. But I digress.

Writers are supposed to have an “elevator speech”: how do you describe your work in the time it takes for an elevator ride? It shouldn’t surprise you that the reaction varies greatly depending on whether I say “I write about grief” or “I write about friendship”.

If I say I write about grief, there’s always someone who considers that depressing. No, I insist, it’s not depressing. Some of the stories are sad, but they’re not depressing. They’re about the impact our friendships have on us. That usually appeases them, at least for the moment.

Then there are the people who do not have a negative reaction. “I write about people who are grieving the death of a friend.” I used to call it the “You know…” moment. I’d tell them what I write about and there would be a pause, Their eyes never left mine, but I could see a spark of recognition.

Sometimes they nod, sometimes they smile, but the message is always the same: “Yeah, I get that.” More often than not, they’d say “You know…” and tell me a story about a friend of theirs who died.

At the Writers Digest Conference, I spoke with two men: one a former Marine, the other a former Air Force pilot. When I told them I’d written a book about losing friends in the military, they both had the exact, same physical reaction: They straightened up a little more, eyes open a little wider, and nodding slightly they both said, “Yeah…”.

That, as we heard in the conference sessions, is what many writers dream of: making a personal connection to their readers. They don’t want to read something theoretical, something dry. They want to read something that speaks to their hearts: something they can identify with and understand.

It took me a while to accept that I was capable of writing something that appealed to people. The compliments still surprise me. Unlike the publisher’s rep who told me three years ago that “grief is only going to be big for another two years”, the rest of the world knows that there is no expiration date on a universal experience.

There is one thing that’s hard for me. When I’m done with my research, and I’m immersed in putting stories together for a book, there are times when I find myself overwhelmed. It was particularly true with the last book, Friend Grief and the Military: Band of Friends. Although the previous two books (AIDS and 9/11) were also about people who died under horrible circumstances, this one was different. For several weeks, I was grumpy, to put it mildly. I came out of it, and I believe in the end, the book shows not just the unique grief of those who lose friends in war, but how the survivors are able to process their grief, sometimes in very creative ways.

Depressing? Maybe.

Sad? Definitely.

Inspiring? Very much so.

The reactions of my readers – and future readers – here on the blog, on Facebook, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Twitter, Google+, in much-appreciated reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, in private messages and in person – are what keep me going. So keep them coming! And thanks for being part of Friend Grief.