In October of 1988, a neighbor of mine lost her husband in a freak car accident. I first heard the news in a conversation with my son’s teacher.
“Did you hear about that accident the Friday night before Halloween? The most bizarre thing—a deer hit the car and went right through the windshield. Two boys from our school were in the car, thankfully unhurt. One boy was a friend. The other boy saw his father die. Fifth graders at our school. Unbelievable!”
Like everyone else in my Pittsburgh neighborhood, I sent a condolence card, something with flowers and soothing language.
The widow was not a close friend. She was someone I saw at the community pool in the summer, someone who might be in line behind me at the grocery, someone who might be outside shoveling as I cleared my driveway. Before her husband’s tragic death, she rarely crossed my mind. Now she was in my thoughts often. Yet I never considered knocking on her door.
That would bring me too close to death, too close to the fears that her tragedy had awakened in me.
By the time I saw her two months later at our local shopping mall, I was feeling normal again, no longer vulnerable to a similar experience. If we hadn’t been face to face, I might not have stopped to say hello. Expressing condolences in person was not easy for me.
We talked for about twenty minutes.
“My husband and I were together twenty-one years,” she told me. “Twenty-one good years, happily married. Not everybody has that.”
My memory of this woman is fuzzy. I believe she had short blondish hair, was medium height and weight. She was dressed neatly in a white button down shirt and blue slacks. I listened with my mouth open.
How could she be expressing gratitude for the happy years behind her, not anger over what had been stolen?
How did she have the strength to get out of her pajamas and leave the house?
Would I? If it had happened to me?
My opportunity to learn the answer to that question came in June of 1994, six years later, when I was no longer living in that suburban community of Pittsburgh. It was a quiet Monday morning. My husband Bill walked into the bathroom to brush his teeth while I combed my hair in a mirror nearby. I heard a loud thud and turned to see him lying on the tile floor. He sat up, holding his chest, heaving, unable to speak. I called 911.
He died of a massive heart attack before the ambulance arrived. Our sons, age 9 and 13, saw his lifeless body leave the house on a stretcher.
In the weeks after, I had many visitors, all wishing to console me.
People I hardly knew sent me cards and food gifts. I met the neighbor three doors down from me for the first time. She brought a chicken casserole and a lemon pie. The concern touched me.
It also reminded me of myself, when I had been the one who made phone calls to say,
“Did you hear what happened to so and so? I can’t believe it!”
Death makes everyone in a community feel fragile. Some of the people who visited me were so upset; I almost felt like it was my job to comfort them.
That’s when the words I had heard in that shopping mall, six years before, came back to me. I remembered my neighbor’s voice, reminding me to be cognizant of what I had been blessed to experience.
Dwelling on what I had lost hurt too deeply. Thinking about what I still had, and could always treasure, was a comfort.
“Bill and I had 17 good years together. Not everyone has that.”
I also told my friends how thankful I was that my oldest son’s Bar Mitzvah had occurred six weeks before Bill’s death. Relatives from all over the country had come for the celebration, making it a very memorable family reunion.
“The timing was kind. It happened after the Bar Mitzvah. We have memories and pictures of how happy Bill was that weekend.”
In middle-class America, an unexpected death is like a scarecrow on a suburban lawn—a surprising anomaly. It doesn’t matter how casual the acquaintance is, the mere fact that we know the family can bring a tragedy out of the nameless, faceless “other people” category and into the realm of “it could happen to me.”
Many of us find ourselves haunted by an image of the bereaved becoming hollow shells of their former selves, incapable of going on with their lives. After we express our initial condolences, we keep our distance, afraid to witness a grief we fear we could not personally survive.
I am grateful I did not avoid my widowed neighbor in that mall, years ago. While I can’t remember her name, I will never forget the gift she gave to me.
Or the image of her standing tall with a shopping bag full of clothes, purchased for the future.