Victoria Noe

Award-winning Author, Speaker, Activist

Friend Grief When a Colleague Dies

Jeff Zaslow and The Girls from Ames
In the course of your working life, you will have worked with hundreds, maybe thousands of people.

Co-workers may play in the same band, or share a claustrophobic cubicle. They may work on a project together, or just pass by in the hallway. They may share living quarters, like firefighters or monks. They may work together for weeks or months or years.

Not all co-workers are friends: many are rivals. But often shared experiences, born from impossible deadlines or the excitement of creating something special, forge lifelong friendships.

Several people I’ve interviewed for my book have talked about their grief at losing a colleague. Others are talking about it this week, with news of the deaths of two journalists, Jeffrey Zaslow and Andrew Shadid. I knew Jeff a long time ago.

In 1990, Jeff had been chosen to be one of the successors to Ann Landers. He arrived in Chicago with a unique blend of genuine compassion and goofiness. He held huge singles events – “Zazz Bash” – on Navy Pier, hoping others would find someone to love as much as he loved his wife.

Jeff’s family was not with him in Chicago, and he asked his Sun-Times readers if they would invite him into their homes for dinner. You know, invite him for a typical family dinner and talk about whatever you wanted to talk about.

I was development director at Chicago House, a residential and support agency for people living with HIV/AIDS. I invited Jeff to come to dinner at one of our locations. Serious negotiations followed, to ensure that the residents’ privacy was not violated (not all wanted to talk or have their pictures taken).

There was still much hysteria about AIDS in 1990, and it was to Jeff’s credit that he didn’t shy away from my invitation. I remember his phone call the next day: how deeply he was affected by what these men had endured – not just the disease itself, but the prejudice, fear, and outright hatred. He asked to come back again a few months later, to follow up with the men he met.

Jeff remained a friend of Chicago House, although I had left the agency by the time he came for dinner a second time. I don’t think I ever saw him again after that, but his respect for the residents was something I never forgot. I followed his career, and read his books, including The Last Lecture and The Girls from Ames, and looked forward to his newest book, The Magic Room: A Story About the Love We Wish for Our Daughters.

When I found out he died in a car accident, I was shocked and saddened. In remembering his kindnesses, I found out that he had an impact on many he worked with. Three of them wrote about him after his funeral.

“’Do you want to write something?” an editor asked. I said “No.”…I wanted to honor Jeff by shutting up, an underappreciated art form. But silence felt worse…Silence has no utility, it isn’t a sharp enough blade to scrape at the icy loss that Jeff’s death frosts over the world. I wish I could wrap this up tidily, with an inspiring thought that counterbalances the tragedy in the world and leaves you with a smile. Jeff was so good at that. Alas, he is not here, a hard fact that touches on the often cruel nature of life, one that we lucky enough to have known Jeff will struggle with for a long time.” – Neil Steinberg, Chicago Sun-Times

“We take the measure of our regrets that we didn’t more often take the opportunity to see him when he was alive, that we let ourselves be lulled into complacency by presumed longevity, his and ours…The subtext of this and many other funerals is that tomorrow is a possibility, not a promise. Life is fragile and short, even at the longest. Soon enough you will be sitting in another pew witnessing the memorial of another friend – or they’ll be sitting there for you – so there’s no time like now to start appreciating and enjoying them.” – Eric Zorn, Chicago Tribune

“During his last lecture, Jeff modestly suggested that ideas, curiosities and relationships are the stuff of happiness, the building blocks of a well-lead, meaningful life. After the symphony of words ended, after the pall-bearers rolled the casket up the aisle, we rose from our seats and silently exited the synagogue – uplifted and humbled by Jeff’s example, still mesmerized by our loss but resolved to try to honor his ideals.” – Andrew S. Doctorff, Huffington Post

I checked Jeff’s website this morning, Jeff Zaslow, to see if it had been updated. It hasn’t. But I found an article on it that Jeff had written about Randy Pausch, the computer-science professor made famous in his book The Last Lecture. In the article, Jeff recounts how people reached out to Randy after his diagnosis and speech. One was a man who suffered from serious heart problems:

“The man wrote to tell Randy about Krishnamurti, a spiritual leader in India who died in 1986. Krishnamurti was once asked what was the most appropriate way to say goodbye to a man who was about to die. He answered: ‘Tell your friend that in his death, a part of you dies and goes with him. Wherever he goes, you also go. He will not be alone.”

I hope that wherever Jeff is, he knows that countless friends and admirers have left a part of themselves with him. And that part of him is with them, too.