Grief doesn't sell.
"We were told that many times," Shelly Fisher said.
As a serial entrepreneur, she should have been alarmed, if not flat-out deterred.
But the venture was one she was determined to see to market, regardless of profit potential.
"I made a promise to my friend," Fisher, CEO of the West Conshohocken-based Pay It Forward Group, managed before tears welled up.
That "promise" is Breaking Sad, a compilation of more than 60 deeply personal recollections of loss by dozens of grieving parents, spouses, siblings, friends, and pet owners published in November as both a tribute and a guide to interacting with those who have experienced loss.
The inspiration is Stephanie Liem Azar, a Main Line native of extraordinary talent and devotion to bettering lives who lost her own at 26, less than a month after her wedding and while still in medical school. Fisher promised Azar's mother, Lisa Liem, she would write a book befitting her daughter's commitment to helping others.
Azar, whom Fisher held the day she was born, died unexpectedly in July 2013 from a potent virus. Fisher stood beside Liem that day bearing "witness to the awkward ballet of distraught looks, too-tight hugs, and tear-choked words that attend shattering loss," she wrote in Breaking Sad's introduction.
The 59-year-old Villanova mother of three recognized the discomfort of the well-intentioned, having experienced it in 2009 after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Those who were once friendly had trouble making eye contact, or avoided her completely, Fisher said.
Four years later, Fisher found herself an inadequate answer to her friend's broken heart and spirit. As so often happens with entrepreneurs, she had an idea — about Azar.
"It just hit me at that moment that there should be something tangible that would honor her memory," Fisher recalled during a recent interview. "And to have it be helpful for someone else would be a perfect fit with her." Azar had been an advocate for New York's Spanish-speaking immigrant population, among other causes. In recognition, Columbia University Medical Center, where she was training, established the Stephanie Liem Azar Community and Immigrant Health Leadership Scholarship. She also was awarded a medical degree posthumously.
After settling on the idea for Breaking Sad, Fisher enlisted a colleague's help. Jen Jones, 27, of South Philadelphia, has worked for Fisher for five years, starting in customer service and eventually heading operations of two companies until Fisher sold them over the summer: HopePaige Designs, a fashion-centric medical ID jewelry business, and 4id LLC, which makes LED-enhanced safety items. With a communications degree from Chestnut Hill College, Jones is also a writer.
She recalled Fisher stopping by her cubicle in Pay It Forward's offices in Tower One of the Tower Bridge complex one day in 2013, telling her about Azar's painfully premature passing, and casually asking, "So, do you want to write a book?"
After several meetings trying to figure out how to approach "such a sensitive topic," Fisher said, they settled on letting people tell their own stories. "There's no better professional than the person who walked the path," she said.
For willing contributors, they turned to a variety of social-media platforms, soon receiving essays and poems from "several hundred" people, Fisher said. A contact she had in California reached out to a few celebrities. Among those who wrote for Breaking Sad are actress Valerie Harper, who describes "the shocking finality" of her leptomeningeal carcinomatosis diagnosis in 2013, a rare, incurable cancer in the lining of the brain. For a person facing or experiencing loss, Harper wrote, " … simply be there as a best friend."
A death would again shake Fisher, forcing a temporary suspension of work in 2014. "I lost my father. I said, 'I can't read these right now,' " she recalled.
Herb Lotman was founder of Keystone Foods, developers of a mass-production system for making McDonald's frozen hamburgers. He was a profound figure in business and philanthropy, but to his daughter, who occupies his old office on the third floor of Tower One, he remains "my heart, the sun in my family's solar system," she wrote in Breaking Sad.
The book, which was published by She Writes Press, an independent publishing company founded to serve women writers, is available at Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and Target Online, with all proceeds going to the Herb It Forward Foundation, a scholarship program administered by Jones.
Few of the remembrances in Breaking Sad are more than two pages long, many are far shorter.
"My sister died last year, but the pain of her loss is a wound only freshly healed over. Beneath the new pink skin is tender flesh, filled with nerve endings firing at random. The ache isn't constant, but comes unexpectedly, triggered by the most innocuous things. The scent of peppermint. The taste of salty caramel. A glimpse of Miracle on 34th Street while clicking through to the news.
Some are achingly sad:
" … there you were,
thinking no one
would notice you
"How dare you
such a thing."
Others paint pictures of personalities that provoke smiles:
"You lived by theme songs —
Belting 'Colors of the Wind' through an
To annoy us until we joined in …"
Each is followed by a list of takeaways culled from four questions put to each contributor:
Best thing someone did or said?
Worst thing someone did or said?
Advice for someone going through a similar experience?
Advice for those surrounding the bereaved?
"I am so blessed that I told her many times how much I love her and that she was a child whom one could only dream of," Liem writes in a four-paragraph tribute to her daughter. She and her husband, Gie, "still ricochet between shock and reality."
In an interview, Liem said she has not yet made it all the way through Breaking Sad, but not out of aversion or lack of interest. Liem finds it an instructive refuge.
"When I don't feel that great, and I don't want to talk to anybody, I can just go to that book and turn to one page," she said. "There really isn't something in there that is not valuable. … People really write from the heart, so it was really powerful."
Liem offers these suggestions in Breaking Sad to those interacting with the grieving:
"Be patient. Don't offer comparisons, judgment, or advice. Just be there and listen."
Fisher, too, offers advice — in the book's epilogue, where she reveals another personal challenge: a bladder tumor, from which she will recover and "be just fine," doctors assure, after "quite a long path" of treatment.
"What is the best thing I hope someone WILL say to me?" she asks. "I am glad to know you are going to be just fine."