Grief, Loss and Kindness from Strangers

The other night, I was seated at a supper party with a woman who was very quiet, still grieving the loss of her mother, who had died only a few months earlier.

With some effort, she explained that this was why she didn’t feel like talking, and certainly not the small talk at the table.

I told her about a woman from my D.C. practice, decades ago, who taught me a lot about grief. She was a cranky, sarcastic curmudgeon of a senior citizen, who used to complain about her exasperating idiot of a husband. Then he died suddenly of a stroke. 

All of a sudden, this tough, feisty old character was floored by how vulnerable, upset and distressed she felt without her life partner.  She would get inordinately upset when cut off by a heedless driver; or when somebody would be rude to her in the supermarket; or if she thought one of her friends had slighted her. She was very aware of her loss at all times. It was a perpetually fresh wound. She felt skinless.

She told me, “I want to shout at the top of my lungs to everyone, “My husband just died!!! Either be nice to me or leave me alone!!” 

My dinner companion brightened and said, “Yes!! That’s so right!!!”

She told me about how in her old Bronx neighborhood, the Italian grandmothers always wore black after the death of a loved one, realizing now that this was to proclaim to the community this very message: “Either be nice to me or leave me alone!!”

And it got the job done. The community responded with care, extra kindness and respect.

When we’re grieving, we want people to tread lightly and to make allowances, without having to ask. 

It’s hard to get that kind of social support from strangers nowadays, given the anonymity and lack of community so many experience. Being invisible in a large city or big corporation makes bereavement that much harder and far lonelier.

She told me it made her think twice about others – strangers passing on the street, looking mean or behaving badly. “We don’t know what they’re going through”, she said. “I’ve started thinking about this when somebody acts like a jerk and I want to jump down their throats.”

Perhaps that’s the takeaway: we should treat others as if they were clad in black, having just lost someone they loved dearly.

All best,

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