Two days after my dad died, my mother-in-law and I walked in the squelching heat over to my parents’ synagogue with my almost 5-year-old, my 3-year-old, and my 3-year-old nephew. The kids were busy arguing over who could play in one of the play houses, which by the way, were exactly the same. I had no energy to deal with it. Worse still, they were not sharing well with complete strangers—two sweet sisters we didn’t know. I was embarrassed but frankly couldn’t muster the energy to care.
The girls’ mom had walked away and their dad proceeded to make small talk with me. He began by asking if we were there to pick up challah. I’m pretty sure that’s what he asked me. Looking back, I’m a little confused why they were picking up challah on a Sunday, one week before Rosh Hashanah. In any event, after staring blankly at him, I awkwardly mumbled something about walking over from my parents’ house. Even more awkward still, I inadvertently mentioned we were in that area because my dad had just died.
I’m generally a private person. Announcing this so awkwardly to a complete stranger caught me off guard. It caught him off guard, too. I wondered if it spilled out of my mouth almost as an apology for my extremely poor parenting on the playground. Who knows. All I know is I was dripping with sweat, dripping with sadness, and dripping with awkwardness over my overshare.
A few minutes later his wife came back and the family packed into their car. The three kids with us were ready to get out of the heat so we slowly sauntered along as well. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a minivan come to a halt next to us, and the wife got out of the family’s van and walked over.
The woman proceeded to give me a hug. A very warm, kind, compassionate hug. One I’m familiar with only from my closet friends. I was surprised and bewildered, especially after my awkwardness with her husband. She pulled away and explained she lost her father eight years before. Her husband had told her of my loss, and she wanted to express her condolences. I think she said something about condolences. I was confused and overwhelmed with the interaction. I know she went on to share a bit about her loss and her personal experience. She explained it gets better after the first year, which she said will just feel raw.
I was so touched. I had never before experienced such extreme kindness. Such genuine compassion for another human. Another human she didn’t know other than both being Jews in a synagogue playground with similarly aged children and the newfound shared connection of suddenly losing a father.
In the weeks that have followed, I have had further opportunities to connect with other parents of young children who also prematurely lost a mother or father. I was deeply touched when I read the card accompanying a children’s book a good friend of mine delivered to me one night of shiva. The card was from another congregant, a woman I like very much, but would not say I know well enough to call her a friend. The card stated she “found this book very helpful in talking to the kids” when she lost her dad. Her thoughtfulness and the positive connection she was able to bestow on someone else just 11 months after her own significant loss blew me away. How powerful to be able to show such kindness to another human at a time of great sadness. Her action alone helped me realize it will get easier. While I wouldn’t wish this on anyone, I look forward to the day when I can give back to someone else experiencing and feeling loss of this kind.
It is a terrible commonality on which to create a connection, but it is one that is very real and powerful. The kind woman on the playground showed me just how important that connection is on both sides. I imagine the pain won’t ever go away, so continually connecting with other women who have experienced a similar loss will help ease the pain as time moves on. It is a gift to connect with another on this level.
Because the Jewish world is a small one, I was able to find out her contact information through a mutual friend. In response to my email thanking her for her kind gesture, she wrote, “The best thing someone told me was that grief is awful, and the only way to get through it is to go through it. Eventually the rawness goes away and your heart just feels a little lighter. That helped me, so whenever I see someone in my situation, I try to share that with them.”
I cannot thank this woman enough for her kindness, words, and for showing me the power of this type of connection just a few short days after losing my dad.