Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Moving Day for Friend Grief

I hate to move to a new place. So much cleaning and packing and unpacking and organizing...it's exhausting. It's almost always an improvement, but still...

Today is moving day for the Friend Grief blog. I've been here on Blogger since my first post in February, 2011. It's grown by leaps and bounds, expanded, become a trusted resource and won awards. I hope all that continues, but it will not continue on Blogger.

This is the last post here before moving the blog over to my new website. It's a big jump, because now it's not just a blog, it's a full-service website. You'll find book links, reviews, resources and discussion questions. There's a page with links to my interviews and freelance articles, as well as upcoming events and speaking opportunities.

But no matter how fancy the packaging, this blog will continue. You'll still find articles of interest to those who grieve the death of a friend, guest posts and book/movie reviews. It will, I hope, continue to be a safe place for those experiencing a grief that often earns little respect.

So just hop on over to the new blog page on Victoria Noe. The first new post there will be next Tuesday, May 5, with an exciting announcement you won't want to miss.

To those of you who have found me and followed me here, my thanks. I hope you'll follow me over to the new site and continue to inspire me to keep writing.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Lots of Friend Grief News

It's spring. After a long, tough winter that tried everyone's patience, it's spring. The snow has melted, the brown grass is turning green. Depending on where you live, flowers have forced their way above ground. Some of you have spring fever, or maybe just hay fever. I feel like I have my own little spring going on right now.

Today is a day that’s been a long time coming. The Friend Grief blog is four years old, and it’s been in need of upgrading for quite some time.

So as of today, I (also) have a new website: VictoriaNoe.com.

This is a big step in a lot of ways. First of all, it’s my name, not the subject of my books. It was important to take this step because my writing has already begun to expand into other areas. That doesn’t mean it was easy. Putting my name out front – rather than the books – has intimidated me for a long time.

This fall will see the publication of the sixth and final book in the Friend Grief series: Friend Grief and Men: Defying Stereotypes. Next year they will be bundled into one book and released on audio. And then…well, that announcement is coming soon, too.

I wanted to expand what I offer online to my readers. So the new website includes a lot of new content:

            Reviews and book group discussion questions for each book

            Resource links specific to each book

            A complete list of my freelance articles and interviews

Sales links to the Friend Grief books as well as My Gutsy Story™ Anthology 2, which includes a story of my own ("I'm Not Gutsy, But You Are")

I’m not one of those authors who’s intimidated by speaking in public. So you’ll find a page devoted to public speaking, with presentations I can bring to your event or class.

On April 29, I’ll send out my first weekly email newsletter. I don’t want to fill up your in-box unnecessarily, so each one will be short, sweet and timely. The first 100 people who sign up for it will receive a free pdf of the first chapter of Friend Grief in the Workplace: More Than an Empty Cubicle, coming out in May.

I have the talented and patient folks at 1106 Design to thank for their hard work on my new website. I hope you’ll check it out and find a lot to like.

And have no fear: the Friend Grief blog will continue, with posts of my own, guests, book and film reviews and more. So feel free to keep checking us out right here.

My thanks to you all who have followed me this far. I’m not done yet.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Grieving For and With Your Friends.

It’s considered a classic now, Steel Magnolias. The play by Robert Haring made a wildly successful transfer to the screen with an all-star cast: Julia Roberts, Sally Field, Olympia Dukakis, Shirley MacLaine, Daryl Hannah.

On the surface, it’s a story of the love between a mother and daughter. But as you watch the film, you can’t help but be struck by the emphasis on friendship.

The women in this film are friends, long-time friends who celebrate and tolerate each other’s imperfections. They aren’t shy about expressing their support or criticism, but it’s always, always, done with love. Maybe you have friends like them. I know I do.

So when Julia Roberts’ character dies, the older women rally around their friend, Sally Field. I’ve included the clip from the cemetery, a scene you’ll no doubt remember because of your inability to watch it without crying yourself.

Her grief and rage are familiar to those of us who have lost someone we love, whether friend or family. But what I’m always struck by are her friends.

They watch her standing alone near her daughter’s grave, and approach her. They try, mostly unsuccessfully, to make her feel better, to lessen her loss. But they know they can’t. You can see it on their faces. They can’t make the grief go away. They can’t justify her loss. They can’t change anything, though they’d move heaven and earth to do so.

They are helpless. Watch the scene: they are helpless in the face of so much pain. So they do what friends always do: they wait. They let her scream and cry and pace and curse. And they wait. And then, improbably, they make her laugh.

What did they accomplish, other than – temporarily – relieving the tension? Her daughter was still dead, her grandson growing up now without a mother. Nothing changed. Except for one thing.
She was reminded that she wasn’t alone. For me, the most devastating part of grief is feeling you’re alone, that no one else understands – or cares about – what you’re going through. 

That’s where friends make all the difference, even when they themselves are grieving. They can help their friend by understanding, not judging; by listening, not lecturing; by crying and on occasion, laughing.

“I didn’t know what to say” is a common excuse for doing nothing to help a grieving person. Well, guess what? You don’t have to say a damn thing. Just show up. Just listen. Because like Sally Field’s friends, you’ll make all the difference in the world.

Steel Magnolias

Saturday, March 28, 2015

News about Friend Grief and AIDS

It’s that time of year again! 

I’m pleased to announce the 2015 update of Friend Grief and AIDS: Thirty Years of Burying Our Friends.

Each year about this time I update the resources and statistics in my book. That's one of the advantages of publishing today - nothing ever has to be out-of-date.

You can find the updated ebook on Kindle, Nook and Kobo. The updated paperback will be available in about a week.

If you have a previous version, just go to the AIDS UPDATE page here for new information on the epidemic.

And as always, 25% of the retail price is donated to one of my favorite organizations in the fight against the epidemic: Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Laurel: A Guest Post by Fred Eberle

Lauren Cronin & Fred Eberle
I’ve known Fred Eberle since 1989, when I was on staff at Chicago House and he was one of my most dedicated volunteers. He is, without a doubt, one of the most talented, generous, thoughtful men I’ve ever known (he's blushing right now, trust me). I’m so pleased that he agreed to share this story of one of the most important friendships of his life.

My friend, Laurel was…a force of nature.  When she entered a room her energy and charisma filled the space. Laurel Cronin was a brilliant actress and director, and when she was onstage it was hard to watch anyone else. It wasn’t that she intentionally pulled focus; she drew it to her. From the first moment we met, it was as though we could finish each other’s sentences. I don’t know if I believe in past lives but, if they exist, I know Laurel played a significant part in mine. 

Laurel directed the first play I did in Chicago after returning from college.  It was a community theatre production, and her creativity and ability to motivate her actors made it a memorable experience.  We both went on to work professionally in Chicago, and our multi-level relationship lasted for nearly 20 years. 

We had one falling out that resulted in a loss of contact for 2 years. I know neither of us thought it would be the end of our friendship, but pride or stubbornness kept either of us from making the first move. One day I heard that she had walked off stage and passed out in the wings.  Without thinking I picked up the phone and asked what she needed.  The ice was broken and we were finally able to reconnect and move forward. 

Immortalized by Al Hirschfeld
Her illness was diagnosed as a kidney issue and, with some time, medication and a change in diet she was able to resume her career.  A casting director invited her to come out to L.A. and within a month she was cast in the supporting role of Liza (Wendy’s housekeeper) in Spielberg’s film, Hook. That opened every door and you couldn’t turn on the television without seeing Laurel in shows such as Murphy Brown, Brooklyn Bridge and a supporting role in Julie Andrew’s short lived sitcom, Julie. She also had roles in films including A League of Their Own, Beethoven and House Sitter (which got her a feature story on Entertainment Tonight as a “scene stealer”). 

In May of 1992, Laurel was in town and we met for lunch just before I left for a season of summer stock at the Peninsula Players in Door County, Wisconsin.  The season would run through early October and, when it was over I was invited to come and stay with her in L.A. She offered to show me around and introduce me to her agent and managers.  I thought my future was set. 

One morning, as I was heading to rehearsal, I got a phone call. It was Laurel telling me that her illness had returned and she was coming back to Chicago to have a kidney removed. Her spirits were good and she was determined to get back to work as soon as possible. Things seemed to be going well until the pathology reports came back and it was discovered that she had been incorrectly diagnosed. The problem was a malignant tumor hidden behind the kidney. 

The day after I got home from Wisconsin I called and her mother told me Laurel had been moved to the hospice at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.  I visited several times but was still in denial about what was coming.  One afternoon, on the way to a theatre fundraiser, I decided to stop in for a quick visit.  When I got on the elevator I heard footsteps and held the door and Laurel’s friend, Bridget got on. She said “I’m so glad you’re here. She’s dying.”

The reality finally hit me. I stood at the foot of her bed with two of her best friends and watched as Laurel’s mother held her hand and tearfully told her it was okay for her to let go.  We were so amazed by her instincts that it took a moment for us to realize that the tortured breathing had stopped. Laurel was gone. 

In the years since, not a day goes by that Laurel is not in my thoughts. I was a product of the era when we were taught that “men don’t cry.”  Even during sense memory exercises in acting class I was never able to produce a tear.  Since that day at Northwestern, I cry at the drop of a hat. I think that's a good thing. I guess that is just one of many things for which I owe Laurel my thanks. 

Fred Eberle is a former professional actor and director. He spent nearly 2 years in the original production of  Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up? Fred currently works as a Concierge and Event Planner, and. sits on the Advisory Council for Concierge Preferred Magazine. He also co-hosts the magazine's quarterly web cast, ¨Unlocking Chicago¨.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Brain Injury Awareness Week

For most people, March 17 is a day to celebrate being – or pretending to be – Irish. For me, though, it’s the anniversary of a day that changed my life.

On St. Patrick’s Day, 2009, I was sitting at a red light when I was rear-ended (no alcohol involved). It was not the first time it happened to me, but this time turned out to be very different. I became one of the 2.3 million people who suffer a traumatic brain injury each year.

The car sustained very minor damage. I had terrible head pain, but again, I didn’t think much of it. That evening, I was nauseous. I assumed I was just upset about the accident. I know full well the signs of a concussion, but it just didn’t occur to me that that was a possibility. I even took a nap, and later slept through the night.

The following morning, nothing had changed: I was still nauseous with a severe headache. But when I called the insurance company I had trouble writing down claim numbers. Later, I was driving again when I realized something was very wrong. I felt like I was in a fog. I couldn’t focus. I pulled over and called my doctor, who directed me to the closest emergency room.

Six hours, a handful of x-rays and a CT-scan later, I was released with a neck brace and an order for an MRI. I kept asking if I had a concussion, and no one would answer, until the doctor who signed me out finally said, ‘well, you certainly have the symptoms’. Eight Tylenol a day and “take it easy” were my only instructions.

When we think about head injuries – if we do – it’s normally in the context of professional athletes or members of the military. But thousands of people each year who are not football players or soldiers suffer traumatic brain injuries from falls in the home or car accidents.

Those around me were used to me operating at a certain level of competence. No longer.

Initially, the effects were obvious: nausea that lasted a couple days, a neck brace I wore for a week, a severe headache for six weeks. I didn’t drive for a month, and even then, not on the highway for another week or so. I didn’t feel confident at all about my reaction time or ability to focus on the task at hand.

I couldn’t read: partly because of the headaches, but also because I couldn’t retain what I read. Watching TV posed the same challenges: I couldn’t remember characters or plot lines.

When I talked, my headache got worse. I could say two, maybe three sentences without having to stop because the pain spiked. Talking also made me short of breath. I had to almost whisper to avoid pain.

I thought I couldn’t remember things, but in truth, they never stuck in my head to begin with. They weren’t there to forget. Someone would say something to me and I’d nod and agree, when in fact, by the time they finished their sentence, I had no idea what they’d said. I was constantly reminded of things I had no memory of hearing the first time.

My sense of direction failed me time and again. My handwriting was difficult to read. I found myself having trouble writing certain letters. Sometimes the act of writing was difficult to control, resulting in a wild-looking scrawl.

After a year, I gave up a 15 year, award-winning sales career. I couldn’t remember prices or procedures consistently.  I made stupid mistakes submitting orders, costing me money out of my own pocket. That added to my stress, which increased my confusion, which added to my stress.

Six years later I feel the effects to some extent almost every day. If I can control the stress - a big “if” - I have a truly normal day. If not…not. I’m still reminding those around me of actions that can trigger problems for me. But I’m resentful that I’m still reminding them. I know they’re tired of dealing with this, but they have no concept what it’s like to be me.

A brain injury is “invisible”. You wouldn’t hesitate to sympathize with a person whose arm was in a cast, or who had to use crutches. But because others can’t see what you’re dealing with, you can find yourself the butt of jokes – even from those close to you.

You may have a friend who has suffered a brain injury. You may even have made jokes about it, and I imagine they smiled when you did. But I can assure you that they died a little inside.

Because I didn’t pass out or fracture my skull, my concussion was not taken seriously by my doctors. What care I’ve had has been mainly self-directed. I will be forever grateful to the people I’ve seen for cranial-sacral therapy and the wonderful staff at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.

I won’t lie: I cried a lot. I grieved for what happened to me. I grieved for the woman I would no longer be: the dependable, multi-tasking, entrepreneurial over-achiever. It took months, but I accepted that I was different now: no more multi-tasking. As it turned out, that wasn’t all that bad.

About five months after the accident, I was suddenly able to start on the book I promised my friend Delle I’d write. My creative side – long dormant – was unleashed. So I guess I owe something to the nasty little man who rear-ended me: a new career.

I hope you’ll take the time to check out this link about Brain Injury Awareness. And next time you talk to a friend who has suffered one, forget about jokes. Ask “how are you doing?” And listen. It will mean the world to them. Trust me.

Brain Injury Fact Sheet

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

National Women and Girls' HIV/AIDS Awareness Day

I was on staff at Chicago House when we opened the city’s first hospice for people with AIDS in January, 1990. At that time, there was only one funeral home that would accept the bodies. Nursing homes and stand-alone hospices refused anyone dying of AIDS. Sympathy was extended only for those who contracted the virus in a way that defined them as “innocent victims”: blood transfusions or birth.

It was a beautiful old house near the lake shore, donated to our organization. The doctor who lived next door was opposed to it, but once he understood that people would arrive in an ambulance and leave in a hearse (unlike crowds lined up for the overnight shelter he imagined it to be), he calmed down. No record exists of how adamantly he opposed the drug house across the street.

The hospice had room for five people, and when we welcomed the first group, the room on the first floor, to the left of the front door, was occupied by a woman of color.

She’d been infected with AIDS by her husband, an IV-drug user, and though he was somewhat healthy, she was dying. She despaired of what would happen to her children, who would be left with her husband and later, presumably, foster care. As I recall, there were no family members willing or able to step up and ease her mind. Later, a friend of mine would start a stand-by guardianship program for women with AIDS – similar to open adoption – that would’ve allowed her to choose a family for her children, reducing her stress and giving her a little peace. But that happened too late for her.

Over thirty years since the start of the epidemic, AIDS is still looked at by many as a disease of punishment: for being gay, for being a drug user, for being promiscuous, or all of the above. But AIDS has always behaved like any other virus: it doesn’t discriminate.

From the beginning, there were services directed to gay men (still disproportionately affected by the epidemic); few focused on women. It was a sad joke in the old days that “women don’t get AIDS, they just die from it.” That’s because until the women of ACT UP waged a fierce campaign to change the definition of how the virus presented, women with AIDS weren't properly diagnosed.

In 2015, there are great advances in both treatment and prevention, but for many women, they are not practical or affordable. Women may be in abusive relationships or in a culture where they are not allowed to insist on using protection during sex. They may not have access to effective prevention and treatment. Or they might just feel uncomfortable walking into a clinic with “gay” in the title.

Human nature being what it is, there are always those who believe they are invulnerable to any consequences, particularly when it comes to unprotected sex. That explains why AIDS and other STIs are on the rise among senior citizens: when unplanned pregnancy is no longer a threat, the effort to prevent sexually-transmitted infections fades.

Luckily, there are organizations that are doing remarkable work to address the vulnerability of women. One of my favorites is The Red Pump Project, which focuses on educating African-American women on the options available to them. Fully 84% of new infections among women are through heterosexual sex. And even in 2015, a woman in the US is infected with HIV every 47 minutes.

I know a number of women who are long-term survivors, but I don’t know many women who died of AIDS. That woman at Chicago House was the first, and it had a profound impact on me. Anytime someone passed judgment on a gay man for being infected, I called them on it with the proof that the virus doesn’t discriminate. You can’t have it both ways: you can’t say it’s a punishment for some and not for others. A virus is too stupid to pick and choose.

So today, I hope you’ll check out The Red Pump Project and other organizations in your community that are reaching out to women, particularly women and girls of color, at risk for infection. There’s a lot of stigma attached to AIDS – still. But it can be eliminated with education and awareness. Find out how you can help yourself and your friends. 

And #RockTheRedPump.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

"You have been - and always shall be - my friend"

Nimoy at Phoenix Comicon
Unless you live under a rock, you know that actor Leonard Nimoy, the Vulcan first officer Mr. Spock on the original Star Trek series, died at the age of 83. And though he was surrounded by his family when he died, they were not the people the media reached out to first. They were not the people his long-time fans wanted to hear from. They wanted to hear from his friends.

Most of those who were interviewed were former cast-mates on Star Trek, along with others who worked with him in his impressive career on stage, television and film. Many found it challenging to express their grief for a man they counted as their friend for decades.

Not everyone – even celebrities – can be eloquent when a friend dies. I’ve written about the backlash against Paul McCartney’s “It’s a drag” comment after John Lennon was murdered. He attributed his words to the shock of hearing the news just hours earlier. There are those now criticizing William Shatner, Nimoy’s co-star on Star Trek, because he honored a previous commitment to appear at a fundraising event rather than attend his friend’s funeral.

I guess I’m less inclined to criticize, because I don’t know what’s in their hearts and minds. But I found it instructive that those who knew him best focused not on his work, but on the man. Bear in mind these are “official” statements. I’m sure more will come later:

“We will miss his humor, his talent and his capacity to love.” – William Shatner

“He was a true force of strength and his character was that of a champion.” – Nichelle Nichols.

“His most enduring quality was his kindness and his desire to make you the most you could be.” – Steve Guttenberg

“My heart is broken. I love you profoundly, my dear friend. And I will miss you every day.” – Zachary Quinto

“Today the world lost a great man and I lost a great friend. You taught us to ‘live long and prosper’ and you indeed did, my friend. I shall miss you in so many ways.” – George Takei

Even the astronauts on the International Space Station – and remember, that many of them were inspired by the ideals of the original Star Trek series – paid tribute to Nimoy and his unique character on the show.

But perhaps the best tribute to Nimoy – the best compliment for any friend – is the line from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Spock is dying. His friends are not only unable to save him, but forced to watch him die. And though Spock was resistant to expressing any emotions, he manages to tell Kirk, his closest friend, “I have been – and always shall be – your friend.”

Why don’t you say those words to someone today?

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Coming Soon to Friend Grief

Have you been busy? I sure have. And that means there’s a lot coming soon here on Friend Grief in the next few weeks:

  • The re-release of Friend Grief and AIDS: Thirty Years of Burying Our Friends with updated statistics and resources for 2015. As always, 25% of the retail price of ebook and paperback versions will benefit Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.
  • The release of the fifth book in the series, Friend Grief in the Workplace: More Than an Empty Cubicle (cover reveal next week).
  • Another great guest post for your enjoyment.
  • The debut of my new, full website, VictoriaNoe.com. (Don’t get excited – it’s not live yet) The new website will include this blog, along with lots of added content:
    • Discussion questions for each book
    • A list of resources specific to each book
    • Links to my freelance articles
    • And more!
  • And one last thing…the first issue of my monthly email newsletter. Some of you receive these blog posts via email. This is different, and you’ll have a chance to sign up for it soon. We’re still designing, but I can tell you it’ll include links to the previous month’s blog posts, along with news about my books and appearances. Don’t be surprised if there are contests, too.

So, yes, a busy time! I hope you’ll stick around for a wild few weeks, because I promise you, it’ll be worth it!


Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Grieving Your Friends on Facebook

Last week two separate articles caught my eye.

The first was the announcement by Facebook that users could now designate an “executor” to manage your account after you die.

I’ve written before about friend grief and Facebook: finding out about a friend’s death, setting up a tribute page, and the shock of seeing a notice of their upcoming birthday. You'll see a few links at the bottom of this post.

For years, surviving friends and family members have struggled with what to do about the deceased’s online accounts. Sometimes it’s the challenge of finding the password that no one else knew. Sometimes it’s proving to Facebook that that person died and their page should be archived. In addition, multiple tribute pages can pop up after someone dies.

Now we can all name our Facebook executor, who will be responsible for our page(s) after we die. That’s one less complication left for survivors to deal with: though, sadly, they will not have the power to delete those embarrassing selfies that you felt compelled to share with the world.

The other article was a column by Mary Schmich in the Chicago Tribune, about grieving for someone she only knew on Facebook.

A friend of mine compared Facebook friends to pen pals (remember pen pals?): someone we write to but never really expect to meet in person. It defines the friendship, but doesn’t diminish it.

Like it or not – and plenty of people don’t – Facebook and other social media are not going away any time soon. Our attention may wander from Facebook to Twitter to Google+ to Instagram to Tumblr to Pinterest…you get the idea. But go away? Not likely.

I hate turning on my computer and seeing a Facebook post or open an email like I did this morning that begins with “Sad news…” The email was about a former customer who became a friend, a passionate school librarian I hadn’t seen in over a year. I’d noticed her absence at a couple of meetings, but never got a straight answer about why she wasn’t there.

Knowing her, that was deliberate. Either she told no one or gave strict instructions to not share what was going on in her life. And trust me, if you’d seen ‘that look’ she sometimes gave (I saw it directed at others, not me), you would keep your mouth shut.

I’m sad not just that she’s gone, but that I didn’t know how ill she was. Maybe sending a card or email wouldn’t have meant anything to her, but I would’ve had the chance to connect one last night.

She didn’t have a Facebook page, so I can’t go there to post anything. At least I got the email from the librarians’ organization, so now I can attend her funeral. That news pushed me to email another former librarian customer who’s not on the email list, so maybe a little good can come of it all.

But I do miss that opportunity to go on Facebook and share a story or express my appreciation for the almost 20 years that we knew each other.

Keep that in mind as you consider appointing a Facebook executor. Maybe you’ll take the option of crafting final messages, maybe you won’t. But before you dismiss the idea of what your Facebook page will be like after you’re gone, take a moment to think of the friends left behind.

They may be a tight-knight group who all know each other in real life. More likely, they’re a far-flung group who have never all been in one place at the same time, other than your page.

Give them the parting gift they’ll appreciate the most: the chance to say goodbye, to say thanks, to say they love you.

Trust me, they’ll be grateful.

Here are some other posts about grieving on Facebook:

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Friend Grief and…Valentine’s Day?

Good. I got your attention.

Valentine’s Day is certainly not a day we associate with friends. It’s one designed to guilt-trip us into spending lots of money on flowers, candy, dinner, lingerie, etc. to share with a romantic partner. Friends? Not so much.

I remember when I was younger, that I hated the time between Thanksgiving and Valentine’s Day. The holidays were all about families, and I was single. The last holiday was the worst, because the expectations were so ridiculously unrealistic.

So let’s ignore all the hype and guilt and consider our friends.

I don’t know about you, but I found 2014 to be an unusually challenging year. So did a lot of my friends. Relationships, finances, health, or a combination of things brought many of them to the brink of despair. I couldn’t begin to count the phone calls, online chats, texts and emails shared about serious crises. Even watching the “In Memoriam” slide shows at the end of the year depressed me, seeing the loss of famous people I admired.

Last year I lost two friends, and I miss them both. Another friend had successful cancer surgery. And yes, I get that some of this is because, as my husband is fond of saying, “we’re at that age”. But that doesn’t make it any easier.

“We can’t keep putting this off any longer.”

I’ve heard that line a lot lately. In fact, in the last couple of weeks I’ve had a surprising number of conversations with friends – on Facebook, Twitter, email, and phone calls – about getting together. These are friends who are spread across the country; the shortest distance apart is about 400 miles. The shortest time I’ve been apart from one of them is almost three years ago; the longest separation is since the early 80s. And though no one has used the words, the motivation is “I don’t want to wait for a funeral”.

Tonight I’m taking out my calendar and penciling in a few dates. One will be the end of March, another sometime in the summer. My high school reunion is already set for June. The remaining one needs to be set soon, too.

I couldn’t have gotten through my challenges in 2014 without my friends, and I suspect you feel the same way.

So, how about this: make a date with your friends for Valentine’s Day.

Call them up, email them, text them. Share a picture of the two of you on Facebook or Tumblr or Instagram to get the conversation going. And make a date to get together.

No, it doesn’t actually have to be on Valentine’s Day. People are busy and sometimes it takes a while to come up with a time you’re both free.

But do it. No excuses. Tell them you miss them. Celebrate your friendship, which is – whether you admit it or not – based in love.

Valentine’s Day is about love. Show a little to your friends.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Story of a Pink Cloud – Guest Blogger Rebecca Bricker

Rebecca Bricker
My friendship with Rebecca Bricker is like many of those in the 21st century: online. We met four years ago (time flies when you’re having fun). We’ve never met in real life, though she may meet my daughter soon.

The story of how she wound up living in Tuscany is both funny and compelling. No, she’s not the author of Under the Tuscan Sun, but her Tales from Tavanti is every bit as entertaining.

If you’re like me, certain things will trigger the memory of a friend who died. For example, whenever I see a steel-grey PT Cruiser, I assume it’s Delle behind the wheel. Rebecca Bricker has a very deliberate ritual to ensure that she’ll remember.

My thanks to Rebecca for sharing the blog post she wrote last month about her friend, also named Rebecca, and how she remembers her. This is an edited version:

When I hear the news that someone dear to me has died, I go outside and look at the sky. I memorize the way it looks and each time I see a sky that’s similar, I pause to remember that person and send up a big hello…

I had a close friend named Rebecca. We had been Cub Scout den mothers and active volunteers at the school our young sons attended. When I met her, she was recovering from breast cancer and for the next couple of years appeared to be in remission. But then one day she said to me, “I went to the doctor last week – the cancer is back.”

She had 30 tumors in her liver. Her doctor put her in a clinical trial for a new cancer drug that seemed to have a miracle effect. Within a few months, the tumors were gone. When she got the news, we were sitting at my dining room table finishing a quilt for her sister for Christmas. She and I danced around the table.

And then she did something surprising to me. She essentially threw away the list she had made of the things she wanted to do before she died – like making that quilt for her sister (which we did wind up finishing).

“I’ve been given the chance to live my life again,” Rebecca told me. She wasn’t dying anymore. She was alive.

A talented artist, Rebecca began giving art lessons to young people in her home studio. She camped out on her roof one night to watch a meteor shower. I slept through it, but she told me all about it the next day. She was living her life each day with joy and zeal.

The drug’s cancer-quelling effect lasted almost two years. Rebecca knew, as the results came in from other women who had started the trial before her, that her cancer would likely return. And it did, with a vengeance.

On the night she died, just a few months later, her husband called me to tell me she was gone. I walked outside and looked up at the sky. The moon was bright, with Mars twinkling just above it. A billowing pink cloud slowly filled the sky. The air was still, not a breath of a breeze from where I stood. But as that pink cloud swirled around the moon and Mars, blown by a wind I couldn’t feel, I knew she was there. I envisioned her at heaven’s special-effects board playing with the buttons.

A few weeks before Rebecca died, she said to me, “I’m not leaving you for good, you know. I’ll be back to visit you, I promise.” These conversations always took my breath away. I couldn’t bear to think of life without her sunny face, her mirthful laugh, her joie de vivre.

The summer after her death, I took myself to France to celebrate my 50th birthday. I felt Rebecca’s presence on that trip. She sat next to me at the Basilica of Sacre Coeur in Paris and wandered with me through villages in Provence. As I stood knee-deep in lavender one day, she assured me this was as close to heaven as any place I could find on earth.

On the flight back from that trip I awoke from a nap and lifted the window shade. Next to the wing was a big puffy pink cloud.,

“There you are,” I whispered.

A few days after I got home, I had dinner with a friend, who had known Rebecca well. My friend said to me, “I had the strangest dream last night about Rebecca. She came to me, asking me to massage her feet. Isn’t that odd? She said her feet were so tired.”

I smiled. “That’s because she’s been with me.”

In my travels, Rebecca is with me often. She always wanted to experience the places I’ve been so fortunate to visit. Every time I see a pink cloud hovering, I smile at her and say, “Isn’t this amazing?”

You can follow Rebecca Bricker on her website.

Her book, Tales from Tavanti: An American Woman’s Mid-Life Adventure in Italy, can be ordered here

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Friend Grief and Shaming

Nicholas Kristof - NY Times
I’m not sure when it began, this need to feel morally superior. But we see it everywhere. “My beliefs/race/gender/income/profession make me better than you” permeates our society. And sadly, we even see it when we grieve our friends.

Perhaps it’s as simple as a need to find a logical explanation for something that doesn’t make sense. Assigning blame makes us feel a little better about what happened. Some of the responses I’ve heard when sharing the news of a friend’s death are:

“A bodybuilder? Steroids, huh?”
“Melanoma? Did they go to tanning salons a lot?”
“Heart attack? Well, they were overweight.”
“AIDS? They must’ve slept around.”

Your first reaction may be to dispute their assumptions. Or you may feel ashamed that they got it right.

If you’re like me, the cause of death is not often foremost in your mind. You’re reeling from hearing the news of your friend’s death. You’re trying to make sense of it. Maybe you’re even blaming yourself for not intervening in some way.

This past weekend, Nicholas Kristof wrote a painful eulogy to his friend, Kevin, in the New York Times, “Where’s the Empathy?”

“The doctors say he died at age 54 of multiple organ failure, but in a deeper sense he died of inequality and a lack of good jobs.”

You can argue Kristof on politics and job creation, of income inequality and the shrinking middle class. He would probably welcome such a discussion. But what you can’t do – must not do – is criticize him or his friend.

Kristof’s grief for his high school buddy is searing. “I have trouble diagnosing just what went wrong…” he writes of his friend’s downward spiral to a much too early death. Resist the temptation to ask why Kristof didn’t do something to help his friend. Imposing guilt – which seemed to be an undercurrent in his op-ed – is not helpful to anyone.

Kevin Green’s story could happen to anyone. In fact, it’s already happened to a lot of people. A factory job used to be the cornerstone of a solid, middle-class lifestyle. Now those jobs have dried up, and people like Kevin are the “collateral damage”.

When I was working in the AIDS community, I was often asked “how did they get it?”  That struck me as pretty offensive, just like the other comments I mentioned above. If someone says something stupid like that to you after your friend dies, you might want to respond as I did: “What difference does it make? They’re dead.”

Not polite, I’ll admit, but it usually shut them up. Your grief for your friend is yours and important. It should not be subject to someone else’s value judgment. Whatever the circumstances of their death, maybe this, Kristof’s closing words to Kevin, will help you focus on your friend, too:

“Those who would judge you don’t have a clue. They could use a dose of your own empathy.”