Embracing Strangers In Grief

Raindrops falling on apartment window with blurry view of the city outside.
Raindrops falling on apartment window with blurry view of the city outside.

everal years ago, I went to a concert in the Seattle Symphony's Benaroya Concert Hall. It was a performance with a community orchestra, adult chorus, and children’s chorus. A neighbor of mine, singing in the adult chorus, invited me to the concert. And, being a violist and orchestra teacher for many years meant that I knew a few people performing in the orchestra as well. So, I had several people I wanted to say “hi” to afterward. But, there were so many performing that I couldn’t find any of the people I meant to talk to but the quest, kept me hanging around a little longer. I feel on this particular day, there was some guidance going on to put me in the right place at the right time.

Eventually, about an hour after the performance when the bigger crowd of the audience had already left, I wandered to the parking garage where my car was. Just as I walked in, I looked over to my right side to see a woman answer her cell phone. She listened for a few moments and then burst into tears. I figured some people cry over phone conversations so, I kept walking up the ramp to my car. I had also noted that the woman was with her husband and daughter.

As I continued to walk farther away from them, my pace instinctively slowed. I was getting farther away, yet her cries were increasing in intensity and when she ended her phone call, went into hysterical sobbing. My first thought was that she had her family there and I shouldn’t bother them. And then something told me to go check on them. So, I walked back down the ramp of the garage until the daughter first came into my view, and I saw that she had wandered away from her parents and was standing by their car. I then noticed that she was wearing the uniform of the girls' choir members that performed in the concert. I no longer had a doubt about reaching out. I realized the daughter, and the family needed me.

The mom continued to wail away still a good length from their car, she had collapsed to the ground in sadness. She was in shock over the news she received on the phone call and couldn’t stop crying. Crying in a way that you could hear reverberate through the entire multi-story parking garage.

I decided that I should wait with the daughter. I walked over to her and asked:

“Are you OK?” She was a bit shaken but nodded that she was.

“Would you like me to wait with you until your mom is doing better?”

“Yes.” She seemed to sigh a little bit of relief.

“Do you know what is wrong with your mom?” I ask.

“No. All I know is that she turned her phone on when we were walking to the car and she got a call and she started crying. . . and then this.” (She points to her mom doubled over — leaning into her dad and crying uncontrollably.)

I could hear the mom in the background, “This can’t be true. . .I was just there the other day.”

“No. She can’t be gone.”

I focus my attention back on the daughter, trying to keep some calm for her on what was supposed to be a joyful celebration of her performance, so I tell her:

“I was also in the Northwest Girlchoir when I was younger and now I’m a music teacher. I really loved the concert today. You should be proud of that performance. That’s a big deal to get to perform with these other groups at the symphony hall.”

“Did you enjoy the concert at least?” She looks happy for a moment.

“Yes.” and then back in the present she adds, “I just wish my mom was ok.”

“Me too,” I say. I don’t even know this family, but I have already bonded to them in this short time.

I see the husband, look up for a moment from trying to calm his wife and acknowledge me with a grateful look. I could also see he was getting weary and not sure what else to do. He eventually got his wife to walk towards the car. Guiding her as she kept crying, he asked her to sit down, which took a little while for her to pause enough to do.

I think we all let out a sigh when she sat down as the high pitch wailing was replaced with quiet sobbing. The crashing waves, that were violent, had come to a more manageable rhythm. Once she sat down, I switched places with the dad. I got down on my knees outside the car, looked the mom in the eyes and told her,

“I know you don’t know me. But, I need to give you a hug right now. Is that ok?”

She nodded through her continued sobs. I embraced her and held her. She held tight for quite a long time. I sent her calm, healing energy as we held each other. I could feel the husband relax a little as he got a break and was able to give a hug to his daughter as well.

I felt something shift when I let go of her. Some acknowledgment of her grief by a stranger, that was necessary for her to move on from that moment.

Death is a funny thing that way. It can strip us to the bone. It can make us feel every emotion and sometimes the sudden unexpected grief can catch us off guard. It strips us of labels that separate us and brings us together with strangers. I never got their names and I never found out what exactly happened on that day, but I am thankful that I listened to the little gentle nudge to go help out.

There comes a time in everyone’s life where you have to make a choice when you see suffering. You choose: to ignore or to get involved. The choice between being inconvenienced and doing nothing is sometimes more of a struggle than we realize. But if we wish for a better world: Then we must act, speak up and care about others’ lives. That often starts with simple steps backward- away from the car you were going to, and into a stranger’s life.

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