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.”

Friday, January 9, 2015

Celebrating Your Friends

There was supposed to be a party today.

“I want to make it to 90,” Pierre told me when he was 88. His parents had only lived to their 70s, but others in his family had lived longer.

“We should have a party,” I suggested. He liked that idea. I mean, if you’re going to live that long, you deserve a celebration. “You could have dancing girls.”

His eyes lit up. He liked that idea, too.

We never had a chance to discuss details. Pierre died last January, a short time after his 89th birthday.

We don’t always remember our friends on their birthdays. Sometimes we remember them on the day they died. November 22 is the day we remember President John F. Kennedy, not May 17, his birthday. September 11 is the day we remember those who were killed in the 2001 terrorist attacks. Those deaths were very public, so that’s understandable.

Sometimes we remember them on holidays because those are times we traditionally gather together and reminisce. My friend, Mary Ellen, was born on Christmas Eve, so that’s when I remember her.

But often we remember on their birthdays. Many of our holidays are someone’s birthday: Martin Luther King, Jr., George Washington, Abraham Lincoln.

And why not? Why shouldn’t we remember our friends on the anniversary of the day they came into this world? That’s the day that made our friendship possible.

It’s sad, though, especially the first year after they died. I’ve been thinking about Pierre all week, wondering if I could write about him today. After all, it took me almost a year to write about him at all.

But then I remembered that day at his house. I’d sent him a sinfully rich chocolate cheesecake for his birthday a few weeks earlier, so the topic came up easily (birthdays, not chocolate). He told me he was prepared for death whenever it came. His body had gone through a lot, and he wasn’t interested in staying alive just because medical science said it was possible.

He still saw beauty in little things: sitting in the warm sunshine on his front porch, watching the traffic speed up and down the Glen; a cozy cashmere sweater (or two); a funny story.

When he said he wanted to make it to 90, I knew it was a long-shot. He wasn’t going to have surgery just to get to that milestone, and that was his right. I also knew if he was told he wouldn’t make it, he’d probably just shrug that typically French, incredibly sexy shrug. I imagine he felt that making it to 89 was close enough. And it was, technically, his 90th year.

So I choose to remember Pierre today, on what would’ve been his 90th birthday, rather than later in the month, on the first anniversary of his death.

Maybe one of your friends died last year, too. And of course the first anniversary will be hard. But how about getting out your calendar and marking their birthday on it?

Decide to spend part of that day remembering them: do something you two used to do together, go someplace you both loved, dig out your photo album (remember those?) and wallow in good memories; call a mutual friend and swap stories.

It’s hard. I know it’s hard. But soon you won’t focus on how sad you are that they’re gone. Instead you’ll feel how very grateful you are that they were a part of your life.

Because that friendship – like all our friendships – made us who we are today.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Top Ten List for Friend Grief in 2015

The fireworks are over, the champagne is long gone. You woke up refreshed and ready to go…or not. But regardless, it’s a new year – 2015. And here at Friend Grief, it promises to be a very, very busy one. That’s why, instead of ending 2014 with a list of accomplishments (and there were many, thanks to all of you), I thought I’d start 2015 with a list of plans:

  1. Friend Grief in the Workplace: More Than an Empty Cubicle, the fifth book in the series, comes out in a few weeks.
  2. The second book in the series is updated each year with new statistics and resources: that means Friend Grief and AIDS: Thirty Years of Burying Our Friends will be re-released in March.
  3. A new website will be unveiled in February, with not only this blog, but discussion guides and expanded resources for each book.
  4. The sixth book in the series, about men grieving their friends, will be released later in the year. (I need a title, by the way, so suggestions are welcome.)
  5. More ways to find my books. In addition to Amazon, IndieBound, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, they’re now available from The Grief Toolbox; coming soon on iTunes.
  6. When the sixth is done, I’ll be bundling them into one volume.
  7. That complete volume will also be released in an audio version.
  8. More opportunities to see me at speaking engagements at nonprofit organizations and book-related events.
  9. More freelance articles like this one on The Grief Toolbox. Not all will be grief-related. After all, my first paid freelance article was about the trials and tribulations of being a St. Louis Cardinals fan married to a Chicago Cubs fan.
  10. Formal announcement of the somewhat intimidating book project that will follow the Friend Grief series. It’s been rumbling around in my head for almost a year now, and is moving forward more quickly than I anticipated.

Yes, it will be another busy year: sharing stories of people like you who grieve the loss of their remarkable friends. And as usual, you won’t be surprised to find that they use that grief to create a better life, not just for themselves, but those around them.

Wishing you all the best as we head into the great unknown of a new year: one that is full of possibility, excitement and hopefully, peace.