Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Thankful for Our Friends – Here and Gone

The holidays are a difficult time for those who grieve.

Even under normal circumstances, we feel obligated to be happy, to enjoy ourselves, to crave the company of others. But for those who have suffered the loss of a friend, it’s tough to get in the holiday spirit.

We often hear that this time of year is for family. I think we all agree that we like to reconnect with friends, as well. I look forward to seeing friends from high school – often the only time all year we can sit together in one place and catch up on our lives. Next year we’ll have a reunion, but since we lost a classmate on 9/11, we don’t wait around for the next formal gathering. We no longer say “we should get together more often”. We do it.

A couple of my friends have faced serious health issues this year. Even though none of the situations turned out to be life-threatening, each one reminded me that none of us will live forever.

I’ve found myself being more assertive about making plans to get together with friends I haven’t seen in a long time – years, even decades. Those friendships have felt more intense this year. Maybe it’s our age. But there’s certainly a need to connect.

A friend of mine died in January. He was 89 and frail, so it wasn’t unexpected. I assumed I’d blog about him soon after. But I couldn’t. I tried, but I couldn’t. So now it’s ten months later – where did the year go? – and I still haven’t written about him.

It’s not that I forgot. Like my friend Delle, there are times I feel his presence, hear his voice. Things pop up that remind me of him. He doesn’t feel all that far away.

So next week, after I’m done with my World AIDS Day event in Chicago, I’m going to sit down and write about him. He taught me a lot during his last year that I’m still processing, so maybe this will help.

As you prepare to travel over-the-river-and-through-the-woods to celebrate Thanksgiving with your families, I hope you carve out (sorry, couldn’t resist that) some time for your friends as well – the ones who are here and the ones who are gone.

Give thanks for the friends in your life who made you who you are today.

If they’re still here, tell them how much they mean to you.

And if they’re not, tell them, too.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Friend Grief on Veterans Day

For Veterans Day, I'm reposting the announcement of my latest book, Friend Grief and the Military: Band of Friends. It recently earned an honorable mention in the Chicago Writers Association 2014 Book of the Year Awards. But what means even more to me are the reactions of veterans who have read it: "You get it."

Grief is hard. Grief for our friends is often dismissed as unimportant, at least when compared to losing a family member. But friendships forged in the military are different, very different. You’re friends, but more, because your lives depend on it.

In my book, you’ll meet men and women on the front lines who watched their friends die, and carry the trauma of that moment with them for decades. You’ll meet noncombatants – doctors, nurses, chaplains, war correspondents and even a little drummer boy from the Civil War – who struggle with grief and guilt and carrying on.

You’ll learn about moral injury, and how that may be a much bigger story than PTSD. And you’ll learn why the oft-recited statistic of 22 veterans a day committing suicide is shockingly inaccurate.

And because grief also changes people for the better, you’ll be introduced to individuals and organizations who are working with veterans to resolve their guilt, work through their grief and honor their fallen friends.

I struggled with the title. Everything I came up with was too vague or too wordy. So I explain in this excerpt how I made my decision:

The popular mini-series Band of Brothers took its title from what has become known as the St. Crispan’s Day speech in Shakespeare’s Henry V:

                        This story shall the good man teach his son;

                        And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,

                        From this day to the ending of the world,

                        But we in it shall be remembered –

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

For he to-day that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother…

Since Shakespeare’s time we’ve often heard soldiers, sailors and Marines refer to their battle buddies as “brothers”. Even though it’s somewhat problematic, given the increasing role of women on the front lines, the designation has stuck.

In writings as far back as the ancient Greeks, the relationship between soldiers has been described as comparable to family. A family is a group of people related by blood that functions together with common goals and dependency. “Blood is thicker than water,” right?

In the military, nothing can be accomplished without the trust and dependability of those in the unit. That cohesiveness is the difference between success and failure, life and death, every hour of every day. The bond is stronger than a normal friendship because your lives depend on it. So, when asked why they refer to their friends as brothers, you are likely to get an answer along the lines of “because they mean as much to me as family.” Referring to other soldiers as family members is, from their perspective, the highest compliment.

A similar phenomenon existed in the AIDS community in the 80s and 90s. People with HIV/AIDS – gay, straight, young, old, male, female – were often abandoned by their families. Their friends became their family of choice – of necessity, really – because their lives depended on them.

Conventional wisdom still holds that the bond between family members is normally stronger than that between friends. But I wonder why, considering this quote that’s quite a bit older than Shakespeare’s:

“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends.” (John 15:13)

That’s why this book is not titled Band of Brothers or Band of Brothers and Sisters.

This book is titled Band of Friends.

Friend Grief in the Military: Band of Friends is now available for Kindle, Nook and Kobo; paperback version available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and IndieBound.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Keeping in Touch with a Friend Who Died

Delle Chatman
I was helping my mother sort through old papers yesterday morning: bank statements, tax returns, paid bills. The shredder simply stopped twice, overheated and tired. On one of its breaks, I picked up two envelopes addressed to her in my handwriting. Puzzled, I opened them both to find copies of emails I had shared with my parents: emails from my friend, Delle Chatman.

When I realized what they were, I had to smile. You see, today is eight years since Delle died. I’ve felt her presence on occasion – so strongly at times I’ve heard her voice and once even felt her arms around me. My first thought upon seeing the emails was, “Gee, you’ve been quiet for a while. Where have you been?”

Those of you who have read my books or this blog for a while will recognize the name. Delle is the reason I’m a writer. I told her when she was in remission from ovarian cancer that I wanted to write a book about people who are grieving the death of a friend. She was enthusiastic about the idea, and made me promise to do it. It took a while, but I did.

The first email was dated New Year’s Eve, 2004. I won’t go into detail about it. It was deeply personal, reflecting on both her cancer battle and that of my father. She closed it saying she wanted us to get together the following week for coffee because she wanted some guidance from me on a new project.

I’m struggling to remember that project. It might be one of several; she always had something percolating. But I was a little surprised to see in print that she had asked for my help. I know we’d ask each other for input on various things, whether related to our daughters or our work. But still, it gave me a little comfort to see confirmation of her respect for my opinion.

The second email was dated Feb. 18, 2005, exactly four months before my father’s death. Delle, herself, was just out of the hospital after another recurrence of what she called “the beast”. While the first email was only for me, this one was sent to “Delle’s Elves”, those of us who had rallied around her since her initial diagnosis in 2002. It was one of her occasional emails bringing us up to date on her condition, outlook and needs.

As usual, she cut to the chase and related the bad news first. But most of the three page email was devoted to good news, exciting projects and her love of her daughter, The Remarkable Ramona. And she ended it as only Delle could: giving hope to those who sought only to hold her up:

I just wanted to let you all know there’s fresh cause to give thanks and to praise God. I wanted to share the depths of it all with you because for a few years now for some of you (thank Heaven for new friends!) you’ve walked with me in spirit, truth and love. I’m grateful for your company and your friendship.

This is what matters.

This is all that matters.

As you pray for me and Ramona, know that we are praying for each of you.

God has given us to each other.

And I, for one, am very, very glad about that.



Like I said, I’ve “heard” from her many times since her death. Whether it was a candle flame sparking a fire on the side altar at our church during a Mass being said for her, or the sun blinding me through a stained glass window during my daughter’s confirmation (Delle was supposed to be her sponsor), each occurrence has been marked by a certain…theatricality. That’s how I know it’s her. Nothing subtle will do.

“God has given us to each other.”

I know all of Delle’s friends feel that way.

And we always will.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Friend Grief and the Holidays

Now that we’re past Halloween, the holidays are upon us. You may not be ready, but they’re coming anyway. For the first time in a long time, I will have my Christmas shopping done before Thanksgiving. But that was a self-defense decision, as I have an unusual amount of holiday commitments this year.

This may be a year in which you’ve lost a friend – or more than one. We tend to think of grieving during the holidays in the context of losing a family member. That’s often the case. It’s been forty years since my uncle died in a car accident less than two weeks before Christmas. There was not much to celebrate that year. Even when a death occurs much earlier in the year, the holidays become one of those ‘firsts’ we struggle to get through.

But little attention is paid to those who are missing a friend during the holidays. That grief is every bit as important. It’s just too often dismissed.

That’s why this Wednesday, Nov. 5, I’ll be the guest on a Google+ hangout on that very topic.

CHANGES, hosted by Sally Ember, will be live from 10-11am EST. You can be a part of it or check it out afterwards, if the time conflicts with your schedule.

Here are the links:

Wednesday, November 5 - , LIVE:

            Or catch our conversation any time on YouTube:

I hope to see you there with lots of questions for us! If you can’t make it, but would like to have your question answered, email me at victorianoe@friendgrief.com, and I’ll do my best to include it in our discussion.