Death and Friends: Unacknowledged Grief

Death and Friends: Unacknowledged Grief
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Mondays are exciting days for me. Some people dread Monday as the start of a new workweek, or even get a "case of the Mondays." But Mondays are my favorite day of the week, because it is the day that my daughter, Heidi, and I interview amazing people who have written books, started foundations, made music, created art and done many other marvelous things in the service of honoring loved ones who have died and helping people who have lost loved ones to find hope. I perch in the sound booth at the Outback Studio on Green Street in San Francisco; Heidi calls in from her Manhattan office and guests call in from all over the United States, as well as other far off places such as Canada, Australia, and England. One of the questions we always ask our guests is, "How and why were you drawn to the field of loss and recovery?" I am always inspired and invigorated by our guests' answers, and this week was no different.

Our first guest today was Zaneta Gileno, the Director of Community Based Care for the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors of military loss (TAPS). At the tender age of nine, Zineta lost her dad to complications related to a stroke. Next, Mary Potter Kenyon, author of the bestselling book Coupon Crazy discussed her recent book, Refined by Fire: A Journey of Grief and Grace. In this book Mary details her process of grief and healing after the loss of her mother, husband, and grandson in a three-year period.

Our last guest was Bruce Postman, who has directed over 40 documentaries, many award winning, about coping with life-threatening illnesses. He is now working on The Longest Road, a feature-length documentary about bereavement.

As the show began, Heidi congratulated Bruce for creating and sharing his films, available on YouTube, related to sibling loss. Heidi shared that siblings are the forgotten mourners. She felt overlooked when her brother, and my son, Scott was killed in an automobile accident at age 17. Bruce was quick to acknowledge that the siblings he interviewed were anxious and eager to share their stories. Siblings welcomed the opportunity to talk about the impact of sibling loss. Bruce seemed to have an unusual empathy and compassion for the young adult siblings he interviewed, which I found a bit surprising as he had not discussed any particular reason that he was drawn to work on films related to critically ill and bereaved children.

When the interview ended, Bruce and I had time to chat. To my surprise Bruce wanted to linger on the line and proceeded to tell me that his friend was killed in a bike-automobile accident at the same age my son was killed -- 17. Well, I thought, talk about an unacknowledged loss: the loss of a best friend. I think the fact that Bruce did not see the loss of his friend as a connection with his work worthy enough to be talked about on the show demonstrates how discounted friendship can be in our society.

Because I didn't have the time to properly address the issues with Bruce, I would like to use this blog to talk about the loss of a friend. I have always thought that there is nothing tenderer than teenage boys and their friendships. My son was quarterback on the football team and catcher on the baseball team and how those boys did suffer his death. The football players wore black armbands and the baseball team retired his number. His sister wore his number for her softball team in what would have been his senior year.

Yes, Bruce, I consider losing a friend to be a huge loss, and that ranks right along with sibling loss. My daughter, Heather, and I discussed the difficult aspects of friend loss only a few months ago when we heard that one of Scott's old friends, John Jensen, was in town. Heather said that she thought Scott's death had almost destroyed his three best friends, John, Chris and Jim. Their senior year surely was not the fun time they thought it would be.

For Bruce, and all of you reading this blog, the good news is it is never too late to mourn and or celebrate those past relationships with friends that we have loved and lost. In fact right now, today, is a great time to deal with unresolved issues around those early friendships. Time to air, and release, regrets about not being a better friend, not being more loyal to friends and family, or even having some survivor guilt. We have all asked at times, "Why him and not me?" There may also be some issues around not protecting or warning them about the dangers of his or her actions. Acknowledging and respecting those thoughts today is your God-given right. Often, it is only once we consciously acknowledge how we feel we have wronged another that we can forgive ourselves and release the shame we have carried for so long. Remember we hurt so much because we love so much.

Ideas for remembering and validating deceased friends:

· Create a YouTube video: Film yourself talking about snapshots, memories, or telling a story about your friend. Almost all laptops now have a simple-to-use video camera, and you can share your film on Facebook or via email. Last year one of our family's dear friends, Tom Clifford, made a video catching us up on his marriage and two kids and ended the video telling a funny story about Scott and saying that he would never forget him. Remember it has been 33 years -- it is never too late to celebrate a friend's life. I have heard from many people asking whether the family would want to hear from them, to share a recently discovered photo or letter from the deceased, so many years after a death. These offerings are treasured by surviving family members, especially many years later when they feel that most of the world has forgotten their (and your) loss.

· Commemorate an anniversary: This could be your friend's birthday, the day you met or last saw your friend, or even the angel day (the day they died). Send an email or card to family and friends giving a special memory or saying why the person was such a great friend to you. Scott's friend, Suzy Whitmore, encouraged her parents to call us and we all went out to dinner on Scott's angel day. It was a special night as we shared some fun and special memories.

· Do something unique in his name: Just acknowledging him as a friend can make you feel good. Find a cause you like, preferably one that would be close to your friend's interests. Join Safe Kids Worldwide, dedicated to eliminating preventable injuries (the top killer of children), or cancer survivors. If your friend loved reading, consider giving books to his elementary school. Donate in your friend's name.

· Write a heartfelt note: If you can, visit her grave and read the note. Make a list of the traits that made her such a great friend. Write about your life and what you have done since she died.

· Plant a tree or a rose bush in a special place: Write a note talking about how much his friendship meant to you. Burn the note and use the ashes as mulch for your planting. Scott's friends, the Newcombs, planted a wonderful tree by our church. Whenever we visit, it reminds us of our friends and how much they cared.

· Plan a mini-reunion: Gather with other mutual friends, and siblings of the deceased, and share memories over a dinner together or a picnic. Play a game your friend liked, go on a walk in his favorite park, and plan a time for sharing memories. You can even perform a ritual like lighting candles that you hold while sharing stories, or writing down on slips of paper special moments that have happened since the death that you wish your friend had experienced with you -- weddings, births of children, graduations -- and burning the papers after you read them aloud to send them upward.

· Plant some wildflowers: My best friend and golf buddy, Belle Cluff, died a couple of years ago, and just this week my husband and I tossed some wildflower seeds behind the 16 green. I am looking forward to seeing the colors, which will remind me of the joy she brought into my life.

Remember that friends, unlike family, are the people that we choose to have in our life. It is often said that friends are the family we choose. We nourish these relationships over years, building deep bonds over laughter and sharing. Your friends are the first people you want to tell exciting news to, the ones to comfort you over life's tumults and disappointments, and facing life suddenly without them can be lonely and scary. They are probably the people most like us, so it isn't any wonder that we suffer so much when they are gone. Yet, we who are sometimes closest to them at the time of their death are not seen as legimate grievers as we are not seen as "family." It doesn't matter how long it has been, make today your Honor My Friendship Day by saying "Buddy, I really loved you."

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