Amidst the Unrest, One Thing Remains the Same (Part 2)
The following is a story we shared in our second book, Someone To Tell It To: Moved With Compassion called “The Cure for Loneliness.”
“She had more courage in the face of death than I had in the face of life.”
—A man who lost his wife to multiple myeloma
“The greatest disease in the West today is not TB or leprosy; it is being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for. We can cure physical diseases with medicine, but the only cure for loneliness, despair, and hopelessness is love. There are many in the world who are dying for a piece of bread but there are many more dying for a little love. The poverty in the West is a different kind of poverty — it is not only a poverty of loneliness but also of spirituality. There’s a hunger for love, as there is a hunger for God.”
Well, my wife passed away a few weeks ago. Painful. I wonder if Someone To Tell It To is active in the New York City area?
Peace & Love …
Messages such as these are always hard to receive. It’s impossible to imagine how he feels, by how much pain he was in, and we responded to him as quickly as we could. We arranged a phone call and set aside plenty of time for him to talk.
It was the day before the Fourth of July holiday weekend. We had completed several meetings about an hour’s drive from our homes and stopped at a beautiful park to make the call. We found a bench in a quiet area of the park. As we watched the ducks splash and swim, we invited him to share what the past few months had been like.
He was very open about the events leading up to his wife’s death and his feelings of grief and sadness. What struck us most after our call with him was the loneliness we heard in his voice. He never used that word; but it was clear—he was incredibly lonely. He had been married for 30 years. Now, he’s a widower in his 50’s.
He left his job as a counselor to care for his wife during her last difficult year. He ambles around the apartment they shared, now suddenly too large, expecting to hear her voice, to tell her some important news, to watch the sunset together. In the silence, he misses her more than he can say. His best friend. His partner. His life.
He described the day she died. It breaks our hearts to hear these stories. A trip to the emergency department, which began marked by hope, turned stunningly desperate with the words:
“We think you should come back to see her … ”
There was nothing more they could do. He was given time to say a final goodbye and then she was gone.
His loneliness was palpable as we spoke.
He said, “I just want someone to come and sit with me. Let me talk. Help me to go through all her things. I might cry sometimes. But just be with me.”
We quietly whispered to each other, “We could do that.”
So, we said to him, “What would you think of us coming up to the city to share a day with you? We’d be more than willing to do that.”
“Oh, bless you guys. You’d really do that for me?”
“Absolutely, we would. That’s what we try to do every day—sit with people, walk with them, and listen. We can’t imagine what this is like for you. But we can imagine how important it is to share it all with someone.”
“I warn you, I might cry.”
“You don’t have to apologize for that. Ever. Crying is God’s gift to help us release the pain.”
“When can you come?”
“We’ll check our calendar and then check with our wives. We’ll get back to you with some possible dates as soon as we can.”
“Thank you so much, guys. That means the world to me.”
We asked him about his support system. Who in his life can sit with him, and walk along side him so that he’s not all alone? We knew that he was a person of faith and we ask about his church. He answered, “I give myself space and I walk gently through all of this. The church knows me, but doesn’t really know me.”
We decided to explore that further when we meet face to face. We sat silently for a moment after the call, letting what we both heard penetrate our hearts. The loneliness he was feeling was powerful and quieting. We could imagine ourselves in his circumstances. Lost in our own homes. Adrift in our own lives. Disconnected from nearly everything that had been so familiar and meaningful.
It is a solemn privilege to be invited into the depth of another’s most emotionally intimate moments. It is sacred, We hope that we responded with the sensitivity and empathy the conversation deserved. We were both subdued for the rest of the afternoon. His loss and feelings reminded us of the fragile nature of life and of the relationships we hold dear. We thought about the holiday weekend.
We each had plans to celebrate with our parents, siblings, wives and children. We were looking forward to seeing them and to have some extra time to step away from work. But he wasn’t going to celebrate. He had no family in New York to enjoy. He no longer had a job to step back from. The holiday was just another day. Another day of hurting. Another day of darkness. Another day of being alone and feeling lost.
It’s incredibly hard, sometimes, to know what to say to someone who is in such pain. Platitudes, trivialities and clichés often add to the hurt, no matter how well-meaning we offer them.
Sometimes, the best thing we can do is sit quietly with someone. Simply allowing people to share their confusion, their unsettledness and their grief is often what helps the most.
We emailed him the next day:
We are so glad that we had the opportunity to talk with you yesterday. It was a meaningful conversation. We are so sorry for the loss you have experienced. We know that it’s incredibly hard. We pray for God’s compassionate arms of comfort and peace to embrace and surround you. May God’s tender care carry you through this season of sadness and grief…
We look forward to seeing you in NYC soon… we send our love.
It didn’t take long for him to respond:
Thanks a lot for your email. You are conveying that you care. This is so important for me right now, being that I have so few friends and/or family, particularly in the New York City (NYC) area. I haven’t received a phone call in what seems like days. But, I’m “hang’n in there.”… What’s so hard to get used to is the silence. I guess in many ways, I was so dependent on her. While she needed so much, particularly after she became so sick (over the past year), she became the center of my life. On the other hand, she tried to look after me too!
There is nothing like going to bed alone; and, then, getting up alone. She and I greeted each other in the evening; and, we greeted each other at sunrise. I’m getting used to it though. I need to take care of myself.
I took my bicycle into the repair shop yesterday: new tires, inner tubes and a “tune up.” I picked it up today. Hey, it rides nicely.
I’ve had a couple of people knock on my door yesterday and today. But, they both wanted something… My work is meeting the needs of others. I just need to carve out some time for myself.
Thanks so much and GOD BLESS!
Peace & Love …
P.S.(1) Here is a quote that I’ve shared with a few people: “She had more courage in the face of death than I had in the face of life.”
P.S.(2) I’m hang’n in there, though!
When we arrived in New York City, a few weeks later, he met us near Times Square, the vibrant heart of the city. He told us he had an “itinerary” planned and we started walking.
“Let me show you where she worked. It’s only a few blocks away.”
Slowly, we ambled through the crowds. People were hustling around us. But he didn’t hurry. Slowly, deliberately, we strolled. Time seemed to stand still. We focused intently on his words and on the passionate love he was conveying, as he told their story.
The traffic, the omnipresent noise of Manhattan, and everyone else on the sidewalks faded into the background as we listened. It was unlike any visit to the city that either of us had ever experienced. Neither of us had ever been so unaware of our surroundings before. We had never been part of such an intimate, profoundly personal conversation with someone on those busy and crowded sidewalks. We had never walked those streets slowly, ignoring the energy of the people and vehicles around us.
It was personal. As he took us through one of the beloved and special neighborhoods he and his wife enjoyed, it was as if we were sitting on their front porch and he was introducing us to the surrounding town. The rest of the world was blocked out. It was so simple, so human. Three guys connecting in a way that rarely happens. As we walked we could see him being filled with much-needed peace. He continued to point out the sights that were part of his life with her.
“Oh, that coffee shop there. She loved that place. She went there all the time!”
“Yes. There, across the street. We’d often meet at that place for lunch. I’d get the bus or the Lexington Avenue subway line from my office.”
“Look up to the right, that’s where her office was. I still haven’t been able to go in the building yet. Still too painful.”
Block after block we walked, stopping every few yards as he pointed out another favorite juice place, eating spot or a park or attraction they’d often visit together. He lingered as we walked, savoring the memories and delighting in sharing the lives they lived in that neighborhood.
He also stopped often to greet people experiencing homelessness. He’d stoop down, as they sat on the sidewalks, look them in the eyes, grasp their hands, and ask them about their situation. He’d reach into his pocket and pull out a handful of cash, giving each of them some money along the way. He formerly worked with and ministered to people experiencing homelessness and his compassion for them was evident. He’d ask:
“How are you doing, brother?”
“What can I do to help you, friend?”
“What happened to bring you here today?”
We realized quickly that his outreach to those who were in that vulnerable place was helping him to reach into his own place of vulnerability. When he greeted someone we saw both of them light up. We saw the darkness they both were experiencing melt away for a few sacred moments.
Those conversations were helping to heal him, to deliver him outside his own pain and grief. He was a wounded man, touching other wounded men with his spirit and grace.
As time for lunch approached, he suggested a restaurant where he and his wife both loved to eat.
“I’m buying,” he announced. “I’m just so grateful that you have come here to share today with me!”
All morning, he had been carrying a bag with him. He indicated that he’d share the contents of the bag at lunch. We were curious about what was in it.
As soon as we ordered, he opened the bag and pulled out a couple dozen photos: he and his wife on their wedding day; his wife standing in front of a score of scenic and historic lighthouses along the northeastern U.S. coast; and their extended families at reunions and special occasions. With each one, he offered a commentary about the day, the visit or the significance. Each photo brought his beloved wife back to life for a moment. Each one gave him pause—to smile at a memory, get lost in a thought or feeling, or wipe away a tear or two from his eyes.
“Our wedding was such a joyful day, you know. We actually got married on a Sunday morning, right in the middle of the regular worship service. There’s a liturgy for that in the Presbyterian Church. Our community of faith surrounded us. I loved that.”
“I have a passion for lighthouses. I belong to two historic lighthouse societies in the region. She indulged my passion. She was such a good sport. I am so grateful to have shared these trips with her. We always had fun together and loved to travel. I miss her. I don’t know if I’ll be able to get back into that again.”
“Here we are at one of her family reunions. A lot of good people. But not everyone has been keeping in touch since she’s gone. I don’t know why. I’ll be honest, that hurts. A lot.”
We sat at the table with him in quiet wonder. As we listened to his stories, as we laughed at a few of them, and as we allowed him to share his pain and speak of his loneliness, we were in the presence of the holy. The words of old hymns came to life as we felt the spirit of God at work:
Breathe on me breath of God, fill me with life anew …
Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, let me stand, I am tired, I am weak, I am worn, …
Sitting there, over lunch, sharing with us his precious photos of his wife and the life he cherished and once knew, he was allowing God’s spirit to breathe new life into his tired, weak and worn soul.
He repeated these words over and over during the meal:
“She had more courage in the face of death than I had in the face of life.”
We have no doubt that she had tremendous courage in the face of her disease and in her dying. As he shared their story, he described a woman of faith, strength and grace. But we believe he underestimates his own courage.
That day on the sidewalks of New York, he walked straight toward many of the places they enjoyed visiting together. He acknowledged them, reminisced about them, and faced the memories. He confronted the fact that his life will never be the same. He didn’t shy away from allowing tears to flow. He opened up the internal vault in which his anguish was most poignant and raw. He confronted the brokenness that has defined his life since she died.
He’s still trying to figure out what his new life will be like, what work he’ll do, whether he’ll stay in their spacious apartment, and how he’ll reconnect with society. It takes courage to pick up the pieces of a broken and shattered heart and start all over again. We saw his courage come to life. Walking by his side and sitting with him gave him the support he needed to begin to heal.
After lunch, we stepped back onto the busy, hot sidewalks, in the middle of Times Square. All around us sirens blasted, traffic rushed, and megawatt video screens bombarded our visual senses. We walked, listened, and continued to greet those with no homes, many of whom were slumped against walls for support. He searched his thoughts for what might be next in this new chapter of life. He talked about reconnecting with others in his church, nurturing supportive relationships, and following the passions he has for ministering to others in their pain. We knew that he could use his pain, eventually, to care empathetically for others in theirs. We had already witnessed that happening on the sidewalks that day. We listened with care and spoke our encouragement.
Suddenly, a heavy downpour stopped our walk. We rushed into a hotel lobby for protective cover.
“If you guys have a little more time, how about we wait out the storm in this little place right up here? We’ll get something more to drink. I want to talk about your next visit.”
“We’d love to,” we answered.
Another trip to New York. To share a little more, to sit with him again, and to be present as he continues to heal.
A half-year before our walk with him in New York City, we sat with her in a small private room in a local coffee shop.
In those moments her life was real again. In sharing this chronicle of her life she was remembered. With joy and with sorrow. In this sacred time his pride and his joy, his grief and his longing, was shared. In this sacred time, if even for a few moments, he did not have to carry it alone. It was shared. That’s what made it sacred. If only for a moment, his loneliness could be soothed and the ache of her heart relieved.
We felt as if we were part of her family in those moments. It was sacred to be invited into his pain, his grief, his pride. We believe we are all family, that we are all connected in sacred ways. On that day, in that moment, his pain was our pain, his loss was our loss. He was not in it alone.
None of us should ever be in it alone. Whether it’s grief, anxiety, fear, doubt, pain, disease or loneliness, none of us should ever be in it alone. We are all part of a shared humanity. We need each other, especially in those moments, to remind one another of our sacred worth, of our inherent, God-given value.
We never fully know what pain and loneliness someone else is carrying. But if we are willing to invite others to share and be heard, we allow them to invite us into a sacred place where our common humanity resides. There is nothing more profound than that. When that can happen, we see the face of God, a face of love and compassion and peace.
While it can be hard to sit with someone in pain, with someone who is broken, it can be the most important gift we can give.
To read Part 1 of this blog post, please click here.