Monday, October 8, 2018

Celebrity Encounters: Life Lessons We Can Learn

Sifting through old photos as I work on my long-postponed memoir, I recently came across a pair of vintage pictures that evoked some special memories.

In their youth, my parents both had well-publicized encounters with celebrities of the day. My father, a test pilot, appeared in a news photo shaking hands with Howard Hughes. My mother, a pioneer flight attendant for American Airlines, was pictured in newspapers nationwide giving First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt a tour of the airline's new Los Angeles facilities.

My father, Jim McCoy, and Howard Hughes

My mother, Ethel (later Caron) Curtis and Eleanor Roosevelt

My father, who had been a child actor in silent films, was nonchalant about his latest brush with fame.

"No big deal," he said. "Who cares? He may be famous, but he's just another person."

My mother was more inspired by her encounter with Eleanor Roosevelt. "She was just wonderful," she remembered with a smile. "She was so kind, so gracious. She made everyone else around her seem like a celebrity. She made me feel so valued, so much more clever and interesting than I probably ever really was!"

Both of them had an instructive perspective. My father was right: celebrities are just people. And my mother was right, too: some celebrities can inspire and delight us.

Celebrities have held a prominent place in our imaginations, particularly in the past century of advances in film, television and publishing. Although not all of us are prone to fandom, an encounter with a famous or semi-famous person can be memorable -- and instructive. Celebrity itself has been an evolving concept in recent years as so many build their brands, their You Tube Channels and flocks of followers on social media. And some -- like the Kardashians -- are famous simply for being famous.

In recent years, celebrity mania has seemed pandemic -- as supermarket tabloids obsess about the baby bumps, the contentious divorces and the scandalous secrets of the rich and famous, as a reality t.v. star inhabits the White House and books of advice on life and living, allegedly penned by celebrities barely old enough to vote appear on best seller lists.

Even those of us who don't tend toward fandom may have our occasional fantasies. What must it be like to have widespread acclaim and abundant resources? What must it be like to do work one loves?
What must it be like to work with and socialize with people who are household names? What must it be like to be known and admired by so many?

Living most of my life in Los Angeles, and having encountered quite a few well-known people in my career as a magazine journalist and in my adventures on the television talk show circuit, I've met a number of celebrities -- and learned some lasting lessons from these encounters.

1. Never make assumptions about another's life.  This was one of my earliest lessons, learned as a child.  I never missed an episode of "The Mickey Mouse Club" and adored the Mouseketeers. I thought they must have wonderful lives and I yearned to be one of them. My best friend Mary and I both had a crush on Mouseketeer Lonnie Burr and, having read that he lived in nearby Glendale, Mary looked through the local phone book and actually found a listing for him! She called, planning to just hear his voice and hang up. But when his mother called him to the phone and he said "Hello" she was mesmerized. Without thinking, she invited him to a party-- an event that didn't exist until that very moment -- the next week at her house and he agreed to come.

When Lonnie and his mother arrived for the hastily-arranged party, I quickly realized that his life was not perfect after all.  Like any 13-year-old, he was a little self-conscious, worried about acne (thus declining a piece of chocolate cake) and pretended not to hear his mother's narrative as he played party games with neighborhood kids. His mother, a children's talent agent, regaled my mother with the truth about his professional life: he was under great pressure to generate fan mail in order to stay on the show and so she hoped that all of us at the party would send him fan letters. She went on about his career accomplishments well before his current gig and her plans for him in the years to come. Overhearing her, I understood at once that his life was different from mine, but certainly no happier.

While he was unfailingly gracious at the party, I knew somehow -- deep down -- that his fame was no protection against loneliness or depression.

Lonnie confirmed this in a series of emails in the wake of my 2011 blog post about the party (Mouseketeer Party) and in a more recent exchange when I told him that I would be writing about the party again in my  memoir in progress. He replied, mentioning his own memoir The Accidental Mouseketeer: Before and After the Mickey Mouse Club, published a few years ago. I read his book when it first came out and found it both fascinating and chilling. Now a Broadway veteran, a college teacher and a writer, Lonnie remembers his years as a child star with horror. "It's a horrible thing to do to a child, no matter how altruistic the parent(s) may be" he wrote. "No child should be a professional until after the age of 18 or after finishing high school. Let them enjoy artistic pursuits for fun, as an amateur, until then. I began therapy at 20 after a suicide attempt, much of which, but not all, had to do with my childhood experiences of being in the 'biz.'"

So, thanks to Lonnie, I learned early on that fame is no guarantee of happiness or fulfilling relationships or even a positive self-image. In fact, the demands of a life in the spotlight, especially at a tender age, might make all of this more elusive.

2. Fame doesn't confer wisdom or altruism or make a celebrity trustworthy.  We're conditioned, seeing famous people doing commercials, product endorsements and political statements, to regard celebrities as experts with a certain amount of instant credibility. That trust is, too often, misplaced. It's true that some celebrities are wise and insightful. They probably always were. And some are ignorant and uninformed. And still others are just plain nuts. So overall, they're pretty much like all the rest of us.

Some. however, do put the platform of their celebrity to good use for charitable and or otherwise worthy causes. And there are others who will say anything, endorse anything or anybody, just to keep their name in the news.

I learned this during one of my first celebrity encounters as a young journalist assigned to interview Arthur Godfrey, a mainstay of early television and the spokesperson for an environmental group, about his concerns for the environment. During our interview over lunch at Hollywood's Brown Derby restaurant, I quickly discovered that he had no interest whatsoever in the environment.

"Who cares about that?" he said dismissively, wheezing as he slid over to my side of the banquette. He nuzzled my ear and whispered "I've had a vasectomy."

I stared down at my Cobb salad, aghast. Unbelieving.


He leaned heavily against me. "I've had a vasectomy, so I'm safe."

It couldn't be. It was topic. So bizarre. And he was so....old. I decided to play clueless and pretend this wasn't happening.

I smiled and said "That's interesting. Was it your concern about overpopulation affecting the environment that led to your decision to get a vasectomy?"

He stared at me for a moment, then sighed and moved back to his side of the banquette. And we both left the interview disappointed.

3. Celebrities are -- beneath the glitter -- just people and many revel in their ordinariness. I learned this from my father and also from numerous encounters with celebrities through the years. Some are very good people. Some not so good. Some, caught in a frustrated or angry moment, may be forever misunderstood. And some revel in moments of ordinariness.

I remember encounters with three very different older women in green rooms over the years.

In the first, I walked into a nearly deserted green room, lined with tables and vending machines, backstage at the Los Angeles Music Center, arriving early for a stint as a super in a performance of the Metropolitan Opera Company, on an assignment for Opera Magazine. There was a non-descript older woman, dressed casually, sitting at one of the tables. She had a bunch of postcards in front of her. She looked up with a smile.

"I'm trying to pick just the right postcard to send to my daughter," she said, motioning for me to sit down beside her. "Which one would you say is most typical of Los Angeles? I want her to have a real feel for this place." As we looked over the postcards, an older man walked through the room.

"Hi, Bubbles..." he said as he passed. And I realized with a start that the postcard lady was Beverly Sills, the acclaimed opera star. She didn't blink. "So," she said, as before. "Which one do you think would be best?"

And I realized that this ordinary moment was a luxury for her.

The same was true of another older woman sitting in the green room of the Sally Jessy Raphael Show some years later. She was eating a salad out of a plastic container and looked up as I came in. I was fighting my stage fright, as usual, with false bravado: "HI! I'm Kathy McCoy and YOU are...???" She gave me a funny look. There was a pause. And then she said "I'm Bella Abzug..." I was crestfallen not to have recognized her and made a lame joke. "Didn't recognize you without one of your hats..." I mumbled. She shrugged. "It's okay," she said. "Nice to be invisible sometimes." And she went back to her salad.

The third older woman was less sanguine. In fact she was pissed off big time. I saw her the minute I walked into the green room at The Today Show which was just winding down its live broadcast. The Falklands War had broken out that morning and several of the guests -- including me and this pissed off lady -- were told that, due to expanded war coverage, our segments would be filmed for future broadcast after the live show ended. I sat down and looked at her. Her face was familiar. She was wearing a dark print dress, her legs apart , the tops of her knee length stockings showing. She glared at me and then looked past me as Gene Shalit entered the room.  "It's not bad enough that I'm being pre-empted by some silly war?" she asked. "But I have to wait for HER...?" She gestured dismissively toward me. "SHE'S going to film her segment first?"

Gene Shalit slid by me with an apologetic look. "She's filming first because Bryant Gumbel has a plane to catch," he explained. "I'm truly sorry, Miss Merman."

I looked up. Ethel Merman? Yes, of course it was. Bryant Gumbel walked into the room and, sensing the tension, quietly asked an assistant to make a later plane reservation for him. Then he smiled at Ethel Merman. "You can go first," he said. "Kathy and I will wait. I'm black. I'm used to waiting." She didn't catch the irony, just nodded and said "Fine."

Remembering less tempestuous ordinary moments with well known people, I think of a celebrity junket one evening in the early Seventies from L.A. to San Diego and back. I had been invited to tag along on this adventure by a friend who, as a television series star, had been tapped for this decidedly non-glamorous event. It was like a fever dream with an odd assortment of celebrities who would be making an appearance to add glitz to a charity fundraiser with the cream of San Diego society. They were to mingle with attendees during the pre-dinner festivities, then disappear, whisked off in an old school bus back to the airport and the return flight to L.A.. Dinner wasn't on the celeb agenda. It wasn't even an option. Despite their hunger and weariness, not one of the celebrities acted like a diva or went into an entitled snit. On the bus to the San Diego airport, the people sitting closest to me -- Rudy Vallee, Margaret O'Brien, Loretta Swit and a young adult Jay North  -- were joking about this being the Starving Celebrity junket. "Right now, I'd give my fortune for a hot dog," Rudy Vallee said and everyone laughed. Loretta Swit, sitting beside me, picked up the narrative: "Yes, this is all really happening. The glamour! The excitement! The hunger....!" We laughed again. It was after midnight when yet another bus dropped us at the dark, deserted parking garage in the Century City area of Los Angeles where this fever dream had begun hours earlier. Jay North, who had morphed over the years from Dennis the Menace to a very gracious young man, walked Loretta and me to our cars. We were still smiling.

Perhaps my fondest ordinary celebrity moment was during a interview with James Herriott, the humble British vet who wrote a series of best selling books including "All Creatures Great and Small", spawning a popular television series based on his life. He was delightful. We were sitting in a booth at the Polo Lounge of the Beverly Hills Hotel and he was greatly enjoying a glass of fresh squeezed orange juice, a rarity where he lived. Then he spotted someone sitting in the next booth and his eyes widened. "It's Neil Armstrong!" he whispered. "Oh, my! I admire him so much. Now there's someone who has really achieved something! How incredible to see him!" He thought of going over to say "Hello" and maybe ask for an autograph. But he decided against it. "He's eating breakfast," he said. "I don't want to be a bother. It's a thrill enough just to see him."

4. Like the rest of us, celebrities are more complex than their public images.

Because they are, at once, so familiar to us and yet total strangers, it's easy to label, categorize, idealize or demonize a celebrity -- and be wrong each time. Some celebrities share much of themselves with the public while others give only a glimpse of the real and complex individuals they happen to be. Even more than we tend to see each other in black and white, hero or villain terms, we tend to label our celebrities as saints or sinners, good guys or total jerks. But, of course, it's rarely that simple. Meeting someone famous gives you only a tiny glimpse into the complex people they are -- and sometimes what you see is a surprise.

You might see goodness in a celebrity with a less than stellar public persona or a hint of steeliness and toughness or brusqueness in someone you had always imagined perpetually sweet and friendly. And you learn, if you look closely with an open mind, that celebrities, like the rest of us, are a combination of many different traits.

I've found this to be true over and over again in encounters with celebrities during my appearances on television talk shows:

  • Despite his sometimes controversial television reputation, Geraldo Rivera is very thoughtful and kind off-camera to his talk show guests. Unlike some hosts who don't bother to meet with non-celebrity guests prior to the show, he sat with me when I was in make-up, talking about the show and the topics he hoped we would cover. Noticing that I was having problems with my throat in the wake of a bad cold, he offered me a cup of hot tea and honey. And, during breaks in the taping, he would ask me how I was feeling and offer encouragement as well as more tea and honey.
  • Richard Simmons is just as sweet and kind off camera as he is on. He gave me warm hugs and re-did my eye makeup -- beautifully -- when I arrived to appear on his show. But he can also be a tough-minded boss with clear-cut rules. His daily show, back in the 1980's, had three segments: the interview, a cooking interlude and then exercise. The host, the guest and the studio audience always wound up the show all exercising together. Rule #1 was that no one was allowed to stand around and watch the exercise. You either joined in or left the studio. The day I appeared, there was a group of teenage girls in the audience who had come to the show with their somewhat thuggish boyfriends. The boyfriends scoffed at the notion of doing the exercises. With a few stern words, delivered with an air of quiet, no-nonsense steeliness, Richard banished them from the soundstage.
  • Katie Couric can ask tough questions on camera, but off duty, she tears up at unguarded moments. Once, in the makeup room at The Today Show, she was getting a touch up while I was getting made up. On the television monitor, tuned in to Today's live broadcast, was a previously filmed interview she had done with Barbra Streisand. Talking about her difficult relationship with her mother, Streisand suddenly fought tears as she said "My mother never told me that she loved me." Watching this, both Katie Couric and I teared up in tandem as both make-up artists cried "No! No!" and delicately dabbed our eyes with tissues to keep our eye makeup from streaking. She reached out her hand to me. "Oh, you're a crier, too!" she said. "I love it! So nice to meet you. I wish I were doing your interview today. Well, maybe next time..." and she squeezed my hand.
  • Oprah has a well-earned reputation as someone who has made a major difference for so many. She has been generous in her celebrity and championed causes that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. But her on-camera caring, while genuine, doesn't necessarily translate into off-camera congeniality, especially toward non-celebrity guests. She rarely meets with such guests before or after the show, though we did commiserate briefly about our shared weight fluctuations during a break in filming during my second appearance on her show and, afterwards, she did send an aide after me with an autographed picture as I was leaving the building. But mostly, she was all business, keeping tight control of every aspect of the show. She was extremely tough and didn't suffer fools  -- major assets, to be sure, in building a stellar career in a highly competitive field but a bit of a shock to the uninitiated. Both her caring and her brusqueness are all part of the inimitable Oprah.

5. When the power of celebrity is paired with kindness and empathy, some celebrity encounters can, indeed, be life-changing.

Most celebrity encounters are fleetingly memorable, but largely uneventful. Meeting a famous person makes an interesting story but doesn't usually change your life in any measurable or meaningful way.

Except sometimes. Sometimes you meet a celebrity who reaches out to you in a way that makes a major difference in your life.

The combination of kindness and the power of fame can be transformative to those who come in contact with someone so gifted.

In my youth, I was fortunate to have two life-changing encounters.

I'll never forget the kindness of Davy Jones during my interview with him (as a class project) when we were both 19 years old. I was a shy, scared sophomore journalism major at Northwestern and he a Tony-nominated Broadway star, not yet a Monkee. His patience and sweetness as I let nerves get the better of me, breaking into tears during our interview, helped turn our encounter into a delightful learning experience. Passing me tissues and holding my hand, he suggested that I put down my list of pre-prepared questions and we could just talk. So we talked and my fear began to fall away. This interview, rescued by his kindness, led to an article that not only got me an "A" in class, but also became my first published piece in a national magazine. This experience was critical to helping me overcome my fear of interviewing -- an essential step for a would-be journalist! (I wrote a blog post about this right after his 2012 death: Remembering Davy Jones)

And I'll always remember Cyril Ritchard, the Australian Tony award winning Broadway actor and television star who entranced a generation of kids with his Captain Hook in Mary Martin's "Peter Pan." I first saw the show on television when I was nine years old and fell in love with him immediately. He played the bad guy, but I knew he was kidding. I had a fantasy that someday he would meet my beloved Aunt Molly, fall hopelessly in love with and marry her and adopt me and my siblings, whisking us off to the safety and security we had needed forever. 

While this pivotal meeting of the hearts and thus my adoption never happened, he did soothe my soul nonetheless. We had a regular correspondence. Three years later, when he came to Los Angeles with the show "Visit to a Small Planet", he invited my brother, my friend Mary and me to visit in his dressing room after a matinee. (See my blog post about him and our encounter: Remembering Cyril Ritchard)

During our visit, he showed such interest in who we were and what we thought. I felt so safe and happy in his presence. Finally, I told him quietly, how frightened I was of my father. My eyes filled with tears as I looked up at him. He took my hand, an all-encompassing love and empathy in his eyes. Then he embraced me warmly, saying a quiet prayer asking God to be with me, to protect me, to keep me safe. He suggested that we could be united always in prayer, every day, and that his thoughts would always be with me. That was enough. I envisioned his prayers keeping me safe and that sustained me through many a dark night of my childhood and beyond. It was a brief, yet immensely reassuring connection that warmed me for a lifetime. 

Celebrity encounters can teach or reinforce some powerful lessons: about the importance of not making assumptions about others; about understanding that ordinary people, as well as celebrities, aren't always who they seem, but are complex, fascinating and unique; about the importance of critical thinking and making up one's own mind about an issue instead of simply taking someone's word for it -- whether this person is a celebrity or not. Most important is the lesson that kindness, whenever it happens, can be transformative to someone who so needs a listening ear, an open heart and a moment of caring and empathy. Such moments can, indeed, change a life -- whether or not fame is ever part of the equation.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Embracing Failure

The news was not a day brightener: the publisher of my book Purr Therapy is terminating our contract, taking the book out of print and destroying any leftover copies. The reason, four years after publication, is quite simple: relentlessly poor sales, despite some excellent reviews. As of September 30, Purr Therapy will be no more.


This development wasn't a total surprise. Sales for the book have been dismal from the beginning. The numbers have been so devastating, in fact, that my literary agent wished that we could deny the existence of Purr Therapy altogether three years ago, when we were putting together the proposal for my most recent and considerably more successful book We Don't Talk Anymore. We agreed we wouldn't mention Purr Therapy specifically in the proposal. But we were still aware of the fact that prospective publishers, checking the Neilson sales numbers of my previous books, would certainly stumble on the embarrassing evidence.

Purr Therapy, in short, has been one of my biggest publishing failures.

It started with love -- for the two cats, Timmy and Marina, memorialized in its pages. And there was so much hope. Cat books are supposed to sell well. One with two touching and compelling cat stories should be irresistible to a vast audience of cat lovers. Except it wasn't. Despite my efforts at promotion, it didn't sell. Despite signings sponsored by the vet to whom the book was dedicated and the Barnes and Noble bookstore in Valencia, CA. it stayed stubbornly in the sales figures netherworld. It never earned back its tiny advance. It was certainly not a financial bonanza for me.

I've joked for some time that my most substantial benefit from Purr Therapy was my three-legged black cat Ollie, whom I adopted as a kitten from Catoberfest 2014, an annual event in Santa Clarita, CA, where I did book sales and signings for Purr Therapy shortly after its publication.

During a lull in the signings, I spotted him in a cage nearby:  a tiny sad-eyed, crippled black kitten. He was the poster cat for the unadoptable and for animal rescue and sanctuary donations. He was missing most of his right hind leg and had a huge hernia. He had been rescued from a trash can where he had been discarded soon after birth. He would need future surgeries and lots of tender loving care.


Ollie at Catoberfest 2014

He was irresistible.  I ended taking him back home with me to Arizona. Ollie did turn out to be the most expensive free cat ever-- needing three emergency surgeries within his first two months in residence with us. But how can one put a price on love?

When I heard the news this week about about the demise of Purr Therapy, I felt sad but it didn't wreck my day. Instead, I thought about it as a disappointment certainly, but also an opportunity to learn and to grow.

Failure can teach us a great deal. Our failures can keep us humble and open to new ways of thinking and doing. Our failures present an opportunity to admit and accept what isn't perfect in our lives.

And I value that perspective. Like many people, I tend to learn more from failure than from success.

When things are going well, it's too easy to get a bit smug and self-satisfied with success. With a failure comes self-examination. You ask yourself what went wrong, what you might have done better and how you might like to take a different path in the future.

Perhaps most important is this lesson: when you embrace a failure, you learn that you can fail and life goes on. The sun is still shining. There will be other opportunities and new adventures.

Embracing a failure can teach us not to fear less than perfect outcomes.

So many of us have been raised to be phobic about failure -- and that can hold us back. Fear of failure can keep us from trying as hard as we might to achieve a goal or dream. It can keep us from trying at all. It can also prevent our recognizing small steps that may fall short of a treasured goal, but represent progress along the way. When we fear failure, we not only avoid risks but also fail to give ourselves credit for incremental progress.

In many ways this is learned behavior, honed by parents who expected perfection and nothing less. I'll never forget my father thundering "An A-minus is NOT an A! You failed! You failed to be the best!" when I proudly brought home a report card with an "A-minus" in an advanced high school math class. Math had been my weakest subject my whole school career. Taking the risk of tackling four years of high school math -- with a small group of math-savvy classmates -- had been a huge challenge and an exercise in humility. No, I would never be the best student in that class. But that "A-minus" was hard won and I was thrilled -- until my father told me that it was not enough. That only perfection would do.

Many of us get such messages from parents or teachers or bosses or society in general. Women get messages about needing to look perfect, to be at a certain weight, in order to be worthwhile people.

But embracing perceived failures or one's own imperfections doesn't mean giving up. This isn't a matter of saying "Well, that's just the way I am. Take it or leave it!" or "That's the way I was raised!" or "I'll never be any good, so why try?" It means recognizing the value of taking risks and of celebrating steps along the way to a long term goal. It also means embracing the fact that you are valuable and lovable whether you achieve a goal or expectation or not, whatever your weight or physical imperfections, whatever your strengths and weaknesses or widely varying competencies happen to be.

As time goes on, I'm learning, more and more, to embrace my failures and imperfections. I'm learning to accept the parts of me that I'd rather not acknowledge as part of my whole. While my bright, most visible side is loving with an open heart and open mind, funny, pleasant and compassionate, my darker side can be depressive and self-centered, judgmental and stubborn.  I'm learning to embrace all of what lurks within. Accepting my imperfections doesn't mean that I don't want to be better. I do strive daily to be more loving and less self-involved, more accepting and less inclined to judge others. Sometimes the diverse parts of myself struggle mightily. But accepting my dark side, embracing the fool within, takes away the covert power of the darkness. It makes me more comfortable with the imperfect person I am and more at peace with all of life's vicissitudes.

Accepting one's own strengths and weaknesses, learning from failures instead of considering these evidence of one's own hopelessness and/or victimhood or of the world's cruelty and unfairness, makes one more likely to enjoy life along the way -- whatever the outcome of one's efforts, goals and dreams.

I wish that Purr Therapy had been a huge success. I did the best I could at the time. And writing that book was a pleasure. What more could I really ask? There are a myriad of reasons why it failed -- some failures by others involved, some failures that were all my own. I have come to accept and own all of these. I'm learning and growing and writing better now. And I think I'm wiser today than I was four or five years ago.

Besides, Purr Therapy wasn't a total bust. It brought a little crippled black kitten named Ollie into my life. And he has turned out to be amazingly healthy and able -- running like the wind, jumping with strength and expertise. His missing leg doesn't hold him back. He is fully engaged with life, the crowd favorite among his three fellow cats in residence. Ollie is one of the most affectionate, wonderful cats ever, spending hours purring, cuddled on my shoulder or curled in my lap. And I never lose sight of the fact that we would never have found each other -- but for Purr Therapy.


It's true that Purr Therapy didn't live up to my initial hopes and dreams. But it did bring so many positives to my life. There was the thrill of writing about animals so close to my heart, the extraordinary Timmy and Marina whom I loved so much and lost too soon; the pleasure of reconnecting with the wonderful Dr. Tracy McFarland in Santa Clarita, CA, the best vet ever, and then the unexpected, incredible joy of Ollie.

So I am blessed. And life goes on...with the sun shining brightly and each day a new adventure.

P.S. Just got the news that Dr. Tracy McFarland, The Cat Doctor of Santa Clarita, CA, has passed away this week from an aggressive cancer. She was, indeed, the best vet ever and a wonderful person I'll never forget. She gave me Timmy and Gus, the best cat duo ever, back in 1998 and her last gift to me was my precious Ollie, after we signed copies of Purr Therapy together at Catoberfest in California in 2014. Every time I hug Ollie, I'll think of Dr. Tracy with love!

Dr. Tracy McFarland and me at Catoberfest 2014


Saturday, September 1, 2018

The Challenge and Joy of Seeing Each Other Every, Every Minute

There is a poignant, memorable moment in Thorton Wilder's "Our Town",  when the recently deceased Emily is given a chance to relive her 12th birthday and travels back in spirit, unseen and unheard by her family. Instead of joy, there is anguish as she watches family members treating each other so casually, not really looking at each other, unaware of the toll that time would take.

Through tears, she pleads "Let's look at each other...It goes so fast. We don't have time to look at each other...all that was going on in life and we never noticed. Do human beings ever realize life while they live it -- every, every minute?"

This lesson resonated for me in a new way last week when I flew to Chicago to attend and participate in the Celebration of Life for my friend and former Northwestern classmate Maria Kulczycky.

Maria Kulczycky - 1945-2018

When we were young, I saw Maria every school day for our five years as undergraduate, then graduate, magazine majors at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism. I saw her as an awesome mix of intelligence, fierce ambition, amazing strength, assertiveness and confidence combined with intriguing earthiness and European elegance.  I admired her, resented her and envied her as we competed relentlessly with each other on a daily basis -- in the classroom and in our shared affection for a certain male classmate Tim Schellhardt. Tim was blissfully unaware of the silent psychodrama swirling around him. He simply considered the two of us good friends and eventually resolved our situation by falling in love with and marrying someone else entirely while maintaining lifelong friendships with both Maria and me.

There were times in our years as classmates when I caught a glimpse of Maria's capacity to care, even if it meant doing or saying something hard -- like the time, sitting across a lunch table from me during our graduate year, she forced me to face the truth about something I hadn't wanted to imagine. In my feigned nonchalance, followed by tears, I was blinded by anger and embarrassment to the genuine caring in her eyes, though in memory, I see that flicker...

While Maria and I did not keep in touch for many years after graduation, our mutual friend Tim kept us posted on each other. I found myself rejoicing, in time, over Maria's success as a financial journalist, over the happiness she found in her marriage to Lamar Brantley, over her love for his three children by his previous marriage and over her joy when they were blessed with their daughter Nina, who grew up to be accomplished, adventurous and lovely, very much in the spirit of her mother. And so many times over the years, I wished we had been friends. We should have been friends. I had always felt a strong bond with her, given our shared ambitions and interests. But I never reached out to her until the year before our 50th college reunion.

Two things happened to make me reach out: the alumni office at Northwestern sent me a list of classmates to contact for the reunion and I was thrilled to see Maria's name and email address on that list. And looking through my small box of college mementos, I found a photograph that took me back years. It was a picture I had taken on assignment for my photography class, one I had churlishly discarded into my outtake file, somehow the only photo file that survived through the years. I had been taking a picture of Tim walking on campus when, suddenly, out of nowhere, Maria ran up and linked her arm in his just as the shutter clicked.  But now, more than 50 years later, I took a picture of the picture and sent the digital copy, along with an email, to Maria.

Tim and Maria, November 1966
She responded immediately and warmly and it was the beginning of our year long heartfelt correspondence leading up to the reunion. And in this year of building a friendship -- one that should have happened half a century before -- I began to see Maria in a new way: I saw her tenderness, her kindness, her emotional generosity. And I came to treasure her as a new old friend.

She changed travel plans in order to attend the reunion, where we fell into each other's arms in front of our smiling, if somewhat surprised, friend Tim. The three of us spent a glorious day together -- talking, laughing, delighting in each other's stories, lingering over a three hour lunch. It was then that I heard the details of Maria's back story. She had been born in the Ukraine in the waning days of World War II and her family then fled to a refugee camp in postwar Germany where they spent the next seven years, where her sister Daria was born and where the family's lifelong friendships with other refugees were formed before they all started their new lives in Chicago's Ukrainian community. Hearing about her early life, I understood, with new clarity, why she was so strong, so assertive, so fiercely ambitious at such a young age. She had to be.
Tim and Maria, October 2017

Maria and me, October 2017

When Maria was leaving the reunion at the end of the day, she kissed both Tim and me and hugged us tightly for a long time. I marveled at her warmth and her joy in sharing the day with us. Turning to Tim after she left, I said with wonder -- as if this were something quite new -- "Maria's such a wonderful person."

Tim look surprised for a moment, then smiled. "She always was," he said quietly.

We had no way of knowing that we had just said "Goodbye" to Maria in person for the last time, though many months of delighted emails would follow as she rejoiced in our good news and shared her own -- a wonderful trip with her husband to Patagonia and, a month later, her "best birthday ever!" and finally, an eagerly anticipated trip to Phoenix in May to see Lamar's youngest grandchild graduate from high school that would also bring a chance for us to get together again. They canceled the trip at the last minute because Maria was experiencing bouts of vertigo. She told me that it was probably nothing and that we would have our visit -- perhaps when Arizona cooled down a bit in the fall.

But that was not to be. Three weeks after our last email exchange, only eight months after our joyous 50th reunion, cancer claimed Maria's life. She had battled it, off and on, for some years -- something she had never told us because she didn't want to be defined by her disease or to be seen as an invalid when she was so very much alive, right up to the end.

And she came gloriously alive for us once more at her Celebration of Life on August 26 in Chicago. Tim and I attended and, at Lamar's request, we both spoke of our college experiences with Maria.

Speaking at Maria's Memorial, August 2018

Tim speaking at Maria's memorial, August 2018

 But we both quickly understood that our perspective was limited and that this celebration was a wonderful chance to see and know Maria with new clarity...

...Through the eyes of her beloved husband Lamar, who started his tribute with "Maria wasn't everyone's cup of tea..." but made it clear that she was the love of his life.


....Through the eyes of her daughter Nina who remembered her love, her sense of adventure and her quiet courage and who is living these splendid qualities of her mother's in her own amazing life.


....Through the eyes of her sister Daria who asked us to imagine what it must have been like to be the younger sister of this true force of nature, but who sadly noted in ending that she had missed having Maria there to tell her exactly what to wear for this occasion.


...Through the eyes of Nicholas, the grandson from Arizona, who expressed his love and gratitude for Maria, remembering how she always accepted and embraced him and took him to his first Gay Pride parade shortly after he came out to the family.

....Through the eyes of friends who had known her forever, since their days in the refugee camp in Germany and through decades of multigenerational friendships since, as their families became each other's extended families and who could look back in time to see her in her Chicago childhood as a Ukrainian Scout, then as a scout leader and a mentor to other young women growing up in Chicago's Ukrainian community. She never forgot where she came from and gave back, in so many ways, to those who came after her, time and time again.

We tend to see others through the prism of our own experiences with them. What a revelation and a blessing it is to get a chance to see someone we loved and thought we knew well through other, more knowing eyes. It was a special privilege to see Maria through the memories of those she loved most -- and to realize, with wonder, how much more there was to know and admire and love.
My brother Michael, who lives in Bangkok, Thailand, wrote a warm email in response to my glowing account of Maria's Celebration of Life: "I'm so glad that you were finally able to really see Maria after all these years before it was too the way that Emily in 'Our Town' wished her family could stop and see each with time going by so fast."

Yes. It was a joy to see past those early rivalries to glimpse the inimitable Maria and to know her even better as I listened to the stories of those who knew and loved her best.

And what a life lesson, Tim and I agreed, as we stepped out into the steaminess of an August day in Chicago. It was a lesson in looking at and truly seeing a family member or treasured friend -- the pain and courage and strength of another, the concern, the care, the love in the eyes of another. It was a lesson in savoring each moment of life with those we love and of looking beyond the surface to the truth of another. It was a lesson in saying what is true and necessary and urgent before time moves on,

I looked at Tim and saw, at once, the lovable young classmate and the loving grandfather, and, consistent through the decades, his brilliance and talent, his warmth, his unique sense of humor, his goodness, his kindness, his generosity of spirit. I smiled as I saw him in all his familiarity and complexity and his innate talent for being, at once, dignified and wonderfully funny.

"I love you, dearest friend, unconditionally and forever."

And we embraced, united in our celebration of Maria, and of the time, the years, we've been blessed to share as very special friends -- suddenly cherishing every, every minute.

Tim and me in a photo taken by Maria, October 2017

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

The Reality of Life in an Active Adult Community

When a reader recently wrote to ask what life is like in an "active adult community" and how she might begin to make a decision about whether or not to move to one, I couldn't help but think back on two real life scenarios -- one eight years back, one a few months ago.

When Bob and I moved from Los Angeles to Sun City Anthem Merrill Ranch, a new (still some years from build-out) Del Webb community designed for Baby Boomers and located in rural Arizona halfway between Phoenix and Tucson, the possibilities seemed endless. That first summer we lived here -- the summer of 2010 -- everyone else on our small street was new and excited, too. We were in and out of each other's homes, having parties and open houses, taking day trips together, spending long, languid afternoons in the community resort pool, talking, laughing and giving quiet thanks for our good fortune in finding this place and each other. 

The changes were minor at first. We saw a little less of each other as new, perhaps more compatible, friendships evolved. In some instances, a misunderstanding or dispute cooled our enthusiasm for getting together.

Then the big changes started happening: one neighbor died of cancer, another of a stroke. Yet another is suffering from untreatable cancer. And one, with heart failure and severe arthritis, has become house-bound. Not long ago, he called Bob to come help him get off the toilet. And another neighbor is sinking into dementia. It's beyond sobering.

When our next door neighbors Larry and Louise recently decided to sell their home and move back to Seattle, the contrast between the two healthy people they were just a few years ago and their growing disabilities was striking. Larry is going blind from macular degeneration and Louise is afflicted with a devastating neurological disorder.  Getting Louise up and out of the house when there was a showing of the house was a task Larry found overwhelming. So they stayed. As the months dragged on without an offer, their realtor sat down with them for some hard truths: first, staying at the house when he was showing it to prospective buyers was never a good idea, even under the best of circumstances. But, second, it was a particularly bad idea when Louise -- sitting in in the living room near the front door, surrounded by the accoutrements of her infirmity -- was the first sight prospective buyers saw.

 "The thing is," the realtor told Larry. "These prospects have a dream of an endless, active vacation here. They're buying this dream of active late adulthood just as you did eight years ago. They're buying a dream of being healthy and happy and functional for the rest of their lives. They don't need to see this."

Yes, the evolution from vigor to infirmity, from active adulthood to crippled old age, is hard to see. 

It is, to be sure, a reality wherever one lives. It seems magnified, however, when it is happening all around one.

This isn't a reason not to consider moving to an active adult community. But it is something to think about when weighing the decision.

Looking at pros and cons of active adult communities, it depends so much on what you expect, on your perceptions of aging and where that community happens to be.

For example, some active adult communities -- like the Del Webb communities in Illinois and Indiana -- are mostly populated by full-time residents and may be more cohesive. In the Sunbelt active adult communities, there may be a definitive split between full-time residents and part-timers (called Snowbirds). In our community, for example, about half the residents are here only three to six months a year. They are largely from the Midwest, Washington-Oregon and Canada. They tend to be more affluent than the rest of us and to hang together when they're here. Many are truly delightful people with whom we enjoy reconnecting when they arrive each fall. But with so many part-timers, our community has a very a different feel, something that we did not anticipate when we were  looking for a more cohesive community than the one we left in suburban Los Angeles.

Another thing to ask yourself as you fantasize about life in an active adult community: how much does the dream coincide -- or not -- with your current lifestyle? While you may find yourself becoming more physically active when you lose the harrowing commute and the full-time job, you may not change your ways quite as much as you imagine. I've found, by looking around and within, that as you age, you tend to become more of whatever you were before. While Bob and I envisioned ourselves being more socially active (we told ourselves that we weren't that social in L.A. because we were spending such long hours working and commuting), we really aren't especially social here either. He hates parties, dances, most social events. I sometimes go alone or with a friend. But more often, we're home. We read a lot, exercise, enjoy music. I have continued to work most days writing books, blog posts, etc. I've made some good friends here, though my closest friends are in L.A. and Chicago. We visit back and forth. But, day to day, our life here isn't all that different. We've lost the commute. Bob is retired. I'm still working long hours. And we've remained fairly solitary, even as social events and opportunities surround us.

Also, the concept of large, age-restricted active adult communities is beginning to change.

Our particular community is a hybrid active adult community: there is a Sun City part with its own rec center and two pools and then we have access to the all ages rec center that is part of the larger all ages community of Parkside at Anthem Merrill Ranch. When our neighbors' grandchildren visit, they go to the all ages rec center and pool. Other active adult communities have rules about the hours that children under 18 can use the pools. (Usually, adult children 18 and over can freely use any of the facilities.) Some of our neighbors have children and grandchildren living in the all ages section of our community. This may well be a trend for the future -- a move away from large age-segregated communities to smaller, blended ones.

An active aduIt community may be for you if:

  • You would enjoy having great fitness and recreational amenities close at hand.
  • You would like taking all kinds of different classes (from fitness to languages, local history, etc.) and learning new skills (from line dancing to quilting).
  • You and your spouse are social and would enjoy informal get-togethers, dances, parties, day trips and occasional overnight excursions.
  • If you have an interest in/are open to activities like all manner of card games, MahJong, trivia games, etc.
  • You enjoy socializing with people your age as well as entertaining visiting friends and family who are younger.
  • Your family is scattered geographically (or emotionally) or you have no children and are looking for a caring community of peers

An active adult community might not be for you if:

  • It would mean moving farther from children and grandchildren than you would like.
  • Your primary joy is being with kids and grandkids and old friends and you're not especially interested in making new same-age friends.
  • The idea of being surrounded by older people gives you the creeps.
  • You're not a joiner, would be unlikely to use the facilities and don't like the idea of a planned community with rules (like what color you can paint your house) or HOA fees. (Ours are $125 a month -- a real bargain for all the amenities we have and the beauty of the community.)
  • You find the possibility of two moves -- one to an active adult community and another to a retirement facility or back close to your kids when your health begins to falter -- overwhelming.
  • You're already old or infirm enough not to be especially active. In this instance, a facility offering independent and assisted living might be a better choice.

As Larry and Louise's real estate agent pointed out, the whole concept of active adult living is based, in part, on the fantasy that after retirement (or even before if you're fortunate enough to live and work close to such a community now), you will be active, doing all the things you love to do for the foreseeable future.

And that fantasy can become reality -- for a while. Some of us have a longer run of good times and good health than others. As we get into our seventies, we're beginning to see the stark reality that active adulthood doesn't go on forever. Of the original full-time residents who moved onto this street eight years ago, Bob and I are the only ones left. We feel very blessed to still be healthy and active. But we know, with new clarity, that it is all very fragile.

Now Bob and I, at 74 and 73 respectively, are the elders on the block while our new next door neighbors are in their fifties and early sixties, with three of the four still working full-time. So life goes on....

Would we make the choice to live in an active adult community again?


Would we choose to live in this particular active adult community?

Perhaps -- though, knowing what we know now, we might choose a community a little less rural. For all the joys of living in wide open spaces with a wonderful small-town feel and lack of traffic, the remoteness of our community can be a serious, life limiting problem for those who become unable to drive. A place closer to public transportation, medical centers, a variety of restaurants and stores might be more enticing.

Making the choice to move or to stay put, to grow older among extended family and long-time friends or to strike out for new adventures and some new friends, to live life as you have known it or to live an active adult resort fantasy -- at least for awhile -- is not an easy one.

 It's so much a matter of looking within and determining what makes sense for you, what would please you most, what would feel most congruent with your own cherished goals and dreams.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Six Life Lessons from Mr. Rogers

Fred Rogers (PBS #thanksmisterrogers)

Earlier this month, my brother Mike and his family flew from Bangkok and I drove from Arizona to meet in Los Angeles for our annual summer reunion. One day, with his kids visiting friends in Malibu and his wife out shopping, Mike suggested that we go to the movies. The movie he most wanted to see also topped my "Must See" list: the Fred Rogers documentary "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" which follows the life and the lessons of this extraordinary minister/television host who delighted and inspired several generations of children in his four decades on the air.

We weren't among those children nor were our children. Mike was in college and I was just finishing graduate school when the Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood show first aired. My brother's two children -- Maggie, 9, and Henry, 6 -- were born years after Mr. Rogers died and have been growing up in Southeast Asia, far removed from the possibility of reruns. But somehow, on the periphery of our consciousness, Mr. Rogers had made an impression on Mike and me. From afar, we admired his authenticity, his goodness. And somehow a movie celebrating goodness seemed just the thing on this hot summer day.

We were transfixed by the film and found ourselves occasionally tearful as his life and his message of radical kindness unfolded onscreen. We watched a clip from the late sixties, a time when swimming pools were all too often still segregated, when Mr. Rogers soaked his feet in a small wading pool with black actor Francois Clemmons who played a policeman on his show. They wiggled their toes in the water and then Mr. Rogers dried Clemmons' feet with a shared towel. We watched as, in a later clip, Clemmons, who was also a celebrated opera singer and playwright, sang a song to Mr. Rogers, describing the many forms of love that can bless our lives. And we watched, eyes brimming, as Mr. Rogers asked a severely disabled child for details about his medical condition, discussed happy and sad feelings with him and then they sang a song about liking and accepting each other. It was all so simple, yet profound, and typical of Mr. Rogers both onscreen and off -- living with deep respect and love for others.

Why our tears? Some might have been wistful tears, watching the gentleness we had never known as children from a man we had also never known. But it's more likely that these were tears of longing -- for times when people were more inclined to look past religious or political differences to embrace one another's humanity. We remember, of course, that differences, irrational hatreds and prejudice -- especially racism -- permeated our society both in our youth and in our present. But there was a time when people, overall, didn't seem quite so sharply divided. Mr. Rogers, a lifelong Republican, expressed sentiments that we liberal Democrats also hold dear. Watching him, we realized anew the importance of looking past or, better yet, discarding labels to embrace the essence of others.

We left the theater feeling that Mr. Rogers had so much to teach us. Fred Rogers may have passed away in 2003, but his lessons are timeless

1. Feelings are normal and natural and happy times and sad times are part of all our lives. So often we feel cheated and angry when good times stop, to be replaced by more challenging moments. We pursue happiness and see sadness and setbacks as failures of the spirit. We admonish our children and grandchildren not to cry. We fight our own tears and express embarrassment over getting emotional and showing our feelings. Maybe we should celebrate, instead, our ability to feel deeply and to experience these feelings in so many combinations -- feeling warmed by sweet memories in the midst of grief or wistfulness or a flash of melancholy during times of joy.

2. Listen with your heart when others speak. This is an especially important lesson in this electronically distracted age. Couples sit together in restaurants, both glued to their smart phones, busily texting, not making eye contact, not speaking. Children are mesmerized by their iPads, parents distracted by their phones and conversation comes only sporadically in between. When Mr. Rogers was speaking with a child -- with anyone -- his eyes and attention never wandered. For that time, the other person was his world. He listened intently. He noticed body language and cleverness and pain. How could we be satisfied with less? Focusing completely on another as he or she speaks is a great way to enhance communication and build closeness. And feeling another's caring through his or her attentiveness is a unique pleasure. No one was more important to Mr. Rogers than the person he was with. Turning off our phones and tablets and really seeing and speaking and connecting with each other can mean so much.

3. Don't demean another even or especially with humor. Mr. Rogers said that was the thing that bothered him most when he saw people treating each other badly in the name of humor -- with pie-throwing antics and worse on early television shows. So much that passes for humor is hostile and demeaning. How many times have you heard -- or expressed -- barbed humor followed by "Just kidding....!" There is a difference between gentle teasing and diminishing another to make a joke. There is a difference between laughing together over a funny story and poking fun at another in a way that makes him cringe. Humor can be healing. As a therapist, I found that many clients responded well to humor woven gently into our conversation -- often an observation hinting at the absurdities we face at times. But it never served to diminish the challenges at hand or the courage and resourcefulness of the person facing these challenges. Keeping a sense of humor about oneself and about life can go a long way toward easing pain. It's all in the intent: whether humor puts a person down or helps him rise above his current situation.

4. Deep and simple is far more essential than shallow and complex. Mr. Roger's memorable lessons were as simple as a wading pool or a song and or attentive listening. But in these moments of simple authenticity, he tackled the issues of racism or our marginalization of the disabled or our avoidance of troubling issues. The images are indelible. In our own lives, in the many shadings of what is real, the subtleties and absurdities of life in our times may tend to make us shy away from the simple. But there is an essential simplicity when you go deep. I remember my best ever writing teacher -- the wonderful Australian journalist Elizabeth Swayne -- telling our class that small, simple words -- like love -- meant great things and that if we didn't know what we were talking about, we should use big words -- because big words often fool little people. Going deep allows us to tune out distractions, conflicts, divisiveness and the urge to win others over to a particular cause or point of view. Going deep allows us, instead, to ask the essential questions: What is just? What is ethical? What is kind? What is loving?

5. Look beyond the surface to the "essential invisible" of one another. A quote from "The Little Prince" hung on Mr. Rogers' office wall for years: "What is essential is invisible to the eye." Looking past the obvious to the essential can be a revelation.

When my friend Maria Kulczycky and I were young and in college, more than 50 years ago, we should have been close friends. We had so much in common: we were fiercely ambitious, both majoring in magazine journalism; we both had graduated from Catholic girls' high schools; we both liked the same guy. Wait! That was a deal-breaker, besides the fact that when I looked at Maria, all I could see was someone whose personal style -- assertive, confident, passionate, earthy -- was so different from mine. And she was foreign-born -- in the Ukraine -- and had this worldly, sophisticated air, a European elegance about her that I found intimidating.

I didn't come to know the real Maria until, decades later, as a member of the reunion organizing committee, I sent her an email, urging her to attend our 50th college reunion. She responded with a warmth that surprised me. And through a delightful series of emails over the next year -- as well as a glorious day spent together at our 50th reunion -- I began to discover -- at long last -- the essential Maria: an immensely tender, kind, funny, generous and loving woman whose friendship I came to treasure. After our reunion day together last October, I turned with wonder to my dear, lifelong friend Tim -- the man Maria and I had both adored when we were young  -- and said,"Wow! Maria turned out to be such a wonderful person." He looked startled for a moment, then smiled and said quietly:"She always was." And I understood the truth in his words, a truth that had eluded me for so long.

When Maria died suddenly and unexpectedly last month, I cried for my new old friend for so many reasons: for the devastating loss to her family and others who loved her, for her own dreams for the future that will go forever unrealized, in gratitude for our belated friendship and in sadness for the years that we lost together because I had been unable, until it was almost too late, to see and appreciate her marvelous essential invisible. Seeing and knowing and loving another's essence is a singular joy.

6. Respect and love one another. This lesson has never been more important than in this time of divisiveness and identity politics. While we can't truly walk in the shoes of someone whose race or ethnicity or sexual orientation or life experiences differ from ours, we can listen with love and make a real effort to understand another's world view. We can respect our differences and learn from each other. People who are different from us have much to teach us -- and there is so much we all need to learn.

We may find in time, that our differences are less important than we once thought. This was a lesson reinforced for me by my friend John Breiner whose wife Mary is one of my dearest, lifelong friends. John and I were wary of each other when he first came into Mary's life 35 years ago. All we could see initially were our differences: he was a conservative Republican and I a liberal Democrat. The distance between us began to change when John fell ill, battling Parkinson's disease and dementia for the past decade. I started spending more time with Mary at home, with John, instead of meeting her alone at restaurants to catch up. John and I came to see and appreciate each other in new ways. Politics faded to the background. Then, just before Christmas 2016, John looked up from a gift catalogue and smiled at me. "I just found the perfect gift for you," he said, his eyes twinkling. And he handed me a page with a description of a Hillary Clinton nutcracker, with her pant-suited thighs as the working mechanism. I laughed. "Oh, John," I said. "I thought you had forgotten that I'm a wild-eyed liberal!" He smiled back. "I didn't forget," he said softly. "It just doesn't matter anymore." The joy of getting to know, love and respect each other, a lingering warm memory since John's death this past December, made anything else insignificant.

Looking past differences to what we share and value and cherish can add incredible richness to our relationships and to our lives.

Mr. Rogers showed us, in ways both simple and profound, how we can make a difference in the lives of others, in the world and in our own hearts. We need to take every opportunity to be present with and attentive to others, to be kind and, most of all, to reach out with love beyond labels and barriers and superficial impressions to embrace the true essence of others.


Monday, June 11, 2018

The Mystery and Tragedy of Suicide

No one can see completely into the heart, the mind and the pain of another, no matter how close one is to a person.

Sadly, too many people shock those they love by ending their own lives. In 2016, more than 45,000 Americans committed suicide. Behind each one of those statistics, there is a tragic end to a life with ripples of grief, anguish and guilt impacting family members and friends for years to come.

The recent deaths of celebrities Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain have heightened public awareness of a problem that has been increasing in recent years, with suicides up 25 percent since the turn of the century.

Some experts attribute this rise in deaths to a variety of factors: the decline of the middle class and diminishing prospects of attaining the American Dream, the opioid crisis, and people more likely than before to view suicide as an alternative to living with painful life events.

But suicide is more complicated and mysterious than that. There can be tremendous pain even in the absence of deprivation or drug-altered reality. Professional success, wealth and fame obviously offer little, if any, protection from the despair that can cause a person to end his or her life.

However, many of those who attempt or who commit suicide, have a diagnosed or diagnosable mental illness. This may be a major depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder. It may be the result of living with the pain of a chronic condition like Borderline Personality Disorder. Being in treatment with a mental health professional can decrease the risk of suicide. Being in a loving, supportive marriage can also be a protective factor. But neither is an absolute guarantee that a loved one won't end his or her life.

What can you do if someone you love appears to be deeply depressed and/or suicidal?

  • Be aware of common signs and symptoms: If a person is increasingly isolated from friends and family, is immobilized by depression, starts giving away prized possessions or talking of hopelessness or even mentioning ending it all, be alert. There is no truth to the saying that those who talk about suicide never do it. Mentioning suicide, even supposedly in gest, is a reason for concern. It can be a cry for help.
  • Listen to instead of disputing their feelings. Hopelessness can seem irrational when you look at the reality of a person's life. But it's important to listen to their point of view and let him or her know that you understand that, right now, he or she is feeling overwhelmed. Focus on helping this person feel heard and loved and not so alone. A loving touch, a willingness to sit with the pain and to listen, is a much better deterrent than arguing that this person has a great life that is well worth living. That may be so. But at the moment, he or she can't see that. If you can help him to feel less alone in the world, it may be easier for him to take the first step away from self-destruction.
  • If a loved one has been deeply depressed but is starting to seem better, be hopeful but stay vigilant. Someone in the depths of depression may not have the energy to complete a suicide. But as the depression begins to lift, they may have a lethal combination of renewed energy with continuing feelings of hopelessness.
  • When a loved one talks of depression and despair, gently ask about suicidal thoughts. Bringing this up is not likely to trigger action on their part, but may give you some clue about risk. Someone who has thought of suicide, particularly if he or she has a method in mind, may be at increased risk of suicide.
  • Urge your loved one to get immediate help: from a mental health professional, from the family doctor or, in a crisis, from a suicide prevention hotline. If he or she declines help and appears to be at risk, take matters into your own hands. Call 911 and ask for a crisis intervention unit. Take him or her to a hospital emergency room. If this depression and suicidal ideation is new and doesn't appear to be happening for any discernible reason, enlist the help of your family doctor in testing for a variety of physical conditions that can trigger depression. Make an emergency appointment with a mental health professional. If your loved one is already in therapy, encourage him or her to call his therapist immediately. If the person refuses, notify the therapist yourself so that he or she can contact the depressed person. Or call or encourage your loved one to call: The National Suicide Prevention Hotline number: 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
In some instances, however, there is no warning and no chance to intervene. You're blindsided by a loved one's suicide -- and your life changes forever.

You're likely to have a bewildering array of feelings: guilt that you weren't able to prevent it, anger at your loved one for giving up on life, loneliness in your profound and ongoing grief and, sometimes, feeling judged by others who make thoughtless comments or otherwise indicate that the suicide of a family member must mean that something was the matter with your family, with your parenting, with your marriage.

How do you begin to deal with this?

  • Know that as strong as your love has been, the feelings and circumstances that led to a loved one's suicide can overwhelm all that.  When someone is in the grip of a major depression or a depressive cycle of bi-polar disorder, your love for him and his love for you may not be enough to save him. When a person is feeling so hopeless or his thinking is so affected by substance use or abuse, and he or she has a plan or immediate means to follow through with a suicide, there may be nothing you can do to prevent it.
  • Realize that this death may always be a tragic mystery.  You may never know or understand why this happened. Some people go to great lengths both to plan a suicide and to keep those they love most, those most likely to interfere with their plans, unaware of their intentions. Some suicides are impulsive and come without any warning. In the wake of a loved one's suicide, you may find yourself desperately looking back: Were there clues you missed? Something you could have done? It's quite possible that there were none. Not knowing why is a part of the ongoing anguish of a loved one's suicide.
  • Don't fall into a pattern of blaming yourself. Even if the suicide victim left a trail of blame or others in the family are quick to point to you, don't accept the blame. This is much easier said than done, of course. Seek counseling or crisis group help in the wake of this tragedy. Living with the reality of a loved one's untimely death is painful enough. Don't pile further punishment on yourself. The person who committed suicide did this to himself for reasons that you may never know or understand. You did the best you could at the time for and with this person. 
  • Seek out a therapy group for bereaved family members. Or perhaps someone you know who has also lost a loved one to suicide. The special understanding that these others may have of your feelings and situation can help you feel less alone in your grief.
  • Know that healing is a relative term.  With time, the grief may be less intense, but it will always be with you. And you may find that it comes and goes in waves -- perhaps heightened at certain times like birthdays, holidays, or the anniversary of the death or simply triggered by a memory. With time and with help from those you love and, perhaps, from a mental health professional, you can live and function with your pain, knowing that, to varying degrees, it will always be there.
  • Reach out to help others in the wake of your tragedy.  Try to increase understanding of mental illness and/or suicide by participation in support groups, presentations through your church or community centers or volunteering with local organizations focused on suicide prevention. This isn't for everyone. But some people find new meaning and purpose in such activities, particularly if these can help to prevent other families from losing loved ones to suicide or comfort those who have experienced such a terrible loss.
  • Celebrate the person as well as grieving his or her death.  An important way to integrate this tragedy into your life and go on is to remember the person you've lost with love, with sweet memories, funny stories, tender comments. It's important that the person you've lost doesn't become a taboo topic or that thinking of him or her invariably brings up feelings of grief or anger. Let love back into your life. Allow all of the wonderful memories to return to you. Remember with others not how she died, but how she lived. Talk about what, in life, made him so special. Sometimes these moments will bring tears. But, in time, there will be smiles, even laughter, as you look back on this person with love, remembering someone who brought not only pain but also so many blessings to your life.