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Grief and the Kindness of Strangers

10 Jul

I was sitting at a supper party the other night with a woman who was still feeling very sad over the recent loss of her beloved mother (a mere few months is very recent in Grief-Time). The subject came up because she was explaining why she preferred to sit quietly and observe the party, rather than actively join in the boisterous fun.  

I told her about a woman I used to see in my Washington DC practice, decades ago – a feisty, intimidating, smartass curmudgeon of a senior citizen - who used to complain non-stop about her husband, until he died suddenly of a stroke.  This tough old dame was floored by how vulnerable and skinless she suddenly felt; and how upsetting she found it when a heedless driver would cut her off on the road or when a stranger would be rude to her in the supermarket.  She told me, “I just want to yell in the check-out line, MY HUSBAND JUST DIED, SO EITHER BE VERY NICE TO ME OR JUST LEAVE ME ALONE!!”

The woman at the party brightened and said, “That’s exactly right!”  She talked about how much sense it made to her, now that she was an adult, that the Italian grandmothers in her old New York neighborhood always wore black when a close relative died, because it announced to the entire community, “EITHER BE VERY NICE TO ME OR JUST LEAVE ME ALONE!!”  And the community did in fact take special care when the mourning signal was broadcast, through that severe, black fashion statement.

When you’re grieving, you want people to know, to take special care and make allowances, without having to ask.  It’s hard to get that kind of tender consideration when you’re just out and about, doing your errands in the big city.  You’ll get it in a small town or a tight neighborhood  (where, I grant you, the close ties, repeating faces and lack of anonymity present a different set of problems at less needy times.)  Being invisible in a big city or large corporation makes profound loss that much harder and lonelier. Bereavement is when community really matters – in spades.

This friend also said it made her think more about other people, passing her by on the street, looking cranky and unappealing or maybe even behaving badly… “We just don’t know what people are going through on the inside”, she told me.  “I try to remember that when somebody acts like a jerk and I want to respond in kind.”  

So maybe that’s the takeaway:  maybe we should all treat strangers as if they were wearing black (which you’ll find in New York, anyway ☺), having just lost their beloved mothers.

OK, take care and be well,

Belleruth Naparstek

Psychotherapist, author and guided imagery pioneer Belleruth Naparstek is the creator of the popular Health Journeys guided imagery audio series. Her latest book on imagery and posttraumatic stress, Invisible Heroes: Survivors of Trauma and How They Heal (Bantam Dell), won the Spirituality & Health Top 50 Books Award