Now his friends at the Grief Recovery Institute honor his life by continuing his work.
When Russell Friedman sat down to talk to you, he took his watch off and set it aside. It was a small action, maybe one that you wouldn’t think much about if you didn’t yet know Russell. But once you got to know him, you understood the volumes he spoke with that small gesture. “Time doesn’t matter right now,” Russell was saying when he took off his watch. “I have all the time in the world for you.”
It’s six months since Russell died, Nov. 26, 2016, after a brief but intense bout with cancer. He was 73, and his many friends weren’t ready to see him go. But the very nature of Russell’s life’s work helped make his passing a little bit easier on them. He was a grief support specialist — one of the best-known in the world as Executive Director of the Grief Recovery Institute.
The Grief Recovery Institute provides grief support groups and one-on-one assistance to grievers. With their international network of grief recovery specialists and their publications including “The Grief Recovery Handbook,” co-written by Russell, they’ve helped countless people over more than 30 years. The Institute was founded by John James, but Russell worked alongside him for decades as an integral part of its success.
Russell was a sought-after expert on grief, one who chatted about the subject with Anderson Cooper on CNN and Matt Lauer on NBC’s Today Show. He spoke to a shocked nation in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, reminding us that it was normal to grieve and encouraging us to talk through our feelings. When big, tragic events hit our national news and our population mourned, Russell was one of those to whom the television and radio news networks would turn for information on grieving.
But Russell’s work went far beyond being a talking head for a nation of grievers. He also spent countless hours talking to individuals who needed his advice and support. If you called the Grief Recovery Institute, you might get Russell himself on the phone, and he would always take the time to listen and help. When he took off his watch to talk to you, the subject was often your own grief.
Russell loved talking to people, and it turned out that he was very good at talking to people who needed his advice and support. He did it with the Grief Recovery Institute for three decades. But it wasn’t his first calling. Before he found his way to grief support, Russell was a restaurateur – and a very successful one. His life evolved over the years to bring him to the point where he needed the Grief Recovery Institute.
And, as it turned out, the Institute would be forever better for his presence.
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A native of New York who grew up in Miami, Russell discovered his love for the restaurant business in London as a young college graduate, but it was in 1970s Los Angeles that he put it into action. He opened a string of restaurants there, including the Budapest Hungarian, The Taming of the Stew, and Lost on Larrabee. His Rascal’s was a prominent gay bar in West Hollywood, the first to have windows open to the street. His businesses thrived, attracting famous clientele including members of the Beatles and other rock and rollers.
Even then, Russell had the gift of good conversation, and he turned some of those famous customers into friends. One was David Bowie, who was a regular at Lost on Larrabee for a time. Russell remembered their friendship in an article he wrote upon Bowie’s death, and it’s clear that the friendship was one based on a rapport discovered through Russell’s conversational skills. He identified what he had in common with Bowie – a love of London’s social scene – and found opportunities to chat with the musician about it. From this common ground, friendship blossomed.
Russell’s wife, Alice Yarmy, recalls another prominent customer whose story Russell loved to tell. “When he had the Budapest Hungarian restaurant, Marlon Brando used to come in,” she says. “When Brando came the first time, Russell was upstairs in his office doing bookkeeping and one of the waiters came up and said, ‘Mr. Brando wants to talk to you right now!’ Russell thought, ‘Oh no, what’s wrong? What did I do wrong?’
“He came down, and Mr. Brando said, ‘Mr. Friedman? You have a very, very nice restaurant, but there’s one thing wrong.’
“Russell said, ‘What is that?’ Brando said, ‘You don’t charge enough.’ And then, Brando went to shake Russell’s hand, and he put a $100 bill in his hand. And people don’t tip owners of restaurants. But Mr. Brando did.”
With stories like this to collect and tell, it wouldn’t have been surprising if Russell had stayed in the restaurant business for good. But fate had other plans in store, and his next round of success started with a series of events that could easily have felt like failure.
The year was 1987, and Russell was struggling both personally and professionally. His first marriage had failed, and so had one of his businesses – and as he navigated divorce and financial woes, he found his way to a conference in Los Angeles, intending to listen to a speaker discuss bankruptcy. But he showed up on the wrong day, and when he walked into the room where he thought the bankruptcy session was being held, instead he found a session on grief.
Russell wasn’t one to give up easily, so as long as he was there, he settled in to listen to the speaker. That speaker was John James, founder of the Grief Recovery Institute. As John spoke about grief that day, he noted that death isn’t its only source – grief can also be caused by other losses, including financial losses and bankruptcy. When Russell heard that word, John remembers: “His mouth came open and it didn’t close for three hours.”
Russell called the Grief Recovery Institute the very next day. John recalls that day, too: “This guy calls and he says, ‘I’d like to volunteer.’ And I said, ‘Sure, come on over tomorrow,’ and so forth, and I never expected to see him because, you know, a lot of people will volunteer and then they think about it for a minute and realize, ‘Dealing with grief all the time, that shouldn’t be very much fun.’ But he showed up. And as I like to say, he would not go away.”
Russell kept coming in to volunteer, and after a time, John trained him as a grief recovery specialist. When he kept sticking around – and demonstrated just how good he was at the job – John remembers, “I just said, ‘Look, why don’t you just be my partner and I’ll just give you 49 percent of this whole deal?’ And then that went on for another 26 years.”
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What was it about Russell that made him such an exemplary grief recovery specialist? Ask anyone who knew him, and they will tell you about his total willingness to take the time to listen. One of Russell’s best friends, actor Nick Searcy of the TV show “Justified,” is quick to mention Russell’s habit of taking off his watch before starting a conversation. It was an action, Nick says, that demonstrated: “This person is here to listen to me and hear what I have to say, and he is going to help me work this through.”
Russell often did that for his friends, “He was like a counselor as well as a friend,” Nick says. “It was kind of like if you were best friends with your therapist or something.”
He didn’t just reserve that for his nearest and dearest, though: Russell offered the same undivided attention to anyone who needed it. Once he discovered his talent in grief support, he enthusiastically devoted his life to it.
Cole James – John’s son, who’s now the executive director of the Grief Recovery Institute – shares his amazement at the scope of Russell’s one-on-one work with grievers: “I personally witnessed hundreds of hours of him talking to grieving people he’d never met physically, who weren’t paying any money at all. Just for free to help support people. And then at the end of the call, perhaps he would suggest going to the local library to find the book or to get into one of the Grief Recovery Method support groups in the local community. These were not 15-minute calls. These were one-hour calls, two-hour calls with people that needed someone to hear them when no one else would or when other people were tired of listening.”
Russell spoke to grievers on the phone; he wrote books tailored to the different types of grief they experience; he hosted webinars attended by thousands. Any way he could reach grievers, he embraced it wholeheartedly. When he received too many questions to answer over the course of an hour-long webinar, he would spend hours afterward personally emailing each and every griever who had a question, making sure they were heard and helped. He knew that, as Cole puts it: “Everyone’s question around grief is the most important question in the world, for them.”
Russell’s devotion to helping people extended to his colleagues, as well. Grief recovery specialists aren’t immune to emotional pain, and a full-time job of helping others work through grief can take its toll on one’s psyche. Even knowing intellectually how to deal with grief doesn’t exempt grief support professionals from feeling it in their own personal lives. Russell keenly understood this, as Cole noted: “I’ve heard this story from many people that when our hearts were broken as caregivers, he helped put us back together, too. He helped remind us of the tools that we share with others and remind us that when our hearts are broken, we’re not experts – we’re just grievers as well.”
As Russell worked with his colleagues on their own grief, he helped prepare them for the immense loss they’d feel with his passing. It’s a loss that’s deeply felt by many people. His memorial service, held in January, was a huge gathering attended by everyone from his best friends and family to the neighbors who waved at him as he walked his dog to movers and shakers in the entertainment world. John James recalls: “One of the big shots from the FX television network was there. And at the same time, the guy who came to pick up our dumpster at the office once a month, he was there, too.”
Loving and admiring Russell was something that came easily to a lot of people. Losing him, Cole says, left an “enormous hole in our organization” – but Russell would want the Institute’s work to continue despite his absence. And that’s just what’s happening. Even as they’ve mourned, his team have continued to offer support and healing to grievers worldwide.
“The Grief Recovery Handbook,” written by Russell and John and already available in more than 20 languages, is currently being translated into Russian, Ukrainian, and Serbian. New offices are being opened in the U.S. and other countries, and the Institute recently held its first international conference. What’s more, the organization is now offering a new method of grief support training: a weekend-long retreat where grievers can begin addressing their grief quickly, as an optional alternative to the Institute’s existing eight-week program.
Russell’s legacy as a grief support expert is a weighty one. The kind of work he did, the conversations he had – those are things that stick with people. Decades from now, there will be people looking back on their grieving experience and remembering the help Russell offered.
His friends and family will be remembering him, too – not just the grief recovery specialist, though they can’t easily separate his work from his life, but also the avid and fiercely competitive golfer who was a stickler for following proper golf etiquette. They’ll remember the punster who cleverly worked out his new puns before debuting them in the office to a chorus of groans. They’ll remember the dog lover who discovered dog agility in his later years and was so delighted with the sport that he made a champion out of his canine pal, Baxter. They’ll remember the devoted grandfather who adored his young granddaughter, Zoey. And they’ll remember the loyal friend who always had time for them and who always followed through when he gave his word.
John James offers a unique perspective on the legacy that any person leaves, one that he discussed with Russell as his death approached:
“We did talk about it once, about two weeks before he passed away. And he was saying to me, ‘Well, we really did make a difference over these years.’ And I said, ‘Yes, we really did.’ And then we got to talking. And I imagine that people, maybe a generation and a half of people from this point forward will remember him personally and they’ll remember his name and all that.
“But after about two generations, he and I, when I die, will just become footnotes in a library somewhere for people who are writing books about grief. And that’s how it should be. Because what we did, or what I started and what he helped me to grow, was an idea. And the idea will continue whether or not he and I are alive.”
In the meanwhile, John says: “I will miss him. Put it that way. I loved him, and I will miss him. And that’s normal.”
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