I was at a gathering of colleagues from around the country recently. We meet once a year to catch up with each other and exchange news, both professional and personal. One member had lost his wife a few months before and spoke of the experience in detail, her courage and humor, their adult children’s return home to be with her, their very special time together and her inevitable and final decline. He was emotional, of course, as were we who listened, but he was able to tell the story with control – until he talked about their friends and neighbors, old and new, and how generous they were, how they visited and supported the family in such beautiful ways. Here, he broke down. It was too much, remembering their kindness. It touched him deeply and in a different way from the experience of profound grief that infused his every cell.
I mentioned this to him, and he agreed. There is something particularly touching about “strangers” (non-family) who feel our grief and make an effort to meet us there in that sad place. Of course his friends and neighbors were not strangers; they were close and caring people. But they were not family members; they did not have to be there. I can imagine they brought food, cards, books, flowers, condolences. But their most important gift was their love and compassion. Our conversation reminded him of a visit to Israel where he saw a memorial walkway to non-Jews who helped Jewish people during the holocaust. As a Jew, when he walked between the plaques and trees planted in honor of each rescuer he was moved to tears in this same way. These were people who reached out because it was the right thing to do, the human thing to do.
Several years ago we made a trip to Japan to visit our new in-laws. My son had married a woman from Hiroshima and we wanted to meet her family and learn a bit about her culture. Hiroshima was an emotional place for us New Mexicans, whose home state was the birthplace of the atomic bomb. Every cab driver, every waiter knew New Mexico; not one made us feel unwelcome or responsible for the devastation of their city in 1945. But we felt a special obligation to visit the Peace Park and pay our respects to the victims of the bomb. Needless to say it is a very emotional experience for any visitor, and for us it was especially powerful. (more…)