Five years after my husband died, I had a deep, emotional meeting just when I needed it.
My sister, Kathy, and I were in the third week of a two-month road trip. We'd been told not to miss walking the Cape Flattery Trail to the most northwestern point in the contiguous United States, at the tip of Washington's Olympic Peninsula.
I was putting the leash on my dog, Sugar, when I noticed a couple in their 40s exit their car with a whitish, mop-haired dog on a pink, harness-style leash.
The woman had dishwater-blond hair tied back haphazardly and was talking continuously to her husband, the dog — I wasn't sure. She approached with a wide smile, cooing at my dog and wanting to talk — I could just tell from the look on her face.
The woman and I exchanged pleasantries while her husband and my sister started down the trail. It wasn't until we reached the trail's end and climbed up a viewing platform that we encountered them again. We were all a bit winded and settled onto benches to take in the sights.
We talked about our dogs. We chatted about the idiosyncrasies of our three breeds, each of us preferring her own, of course. The woman did all the talking for the pair in a nervous, anxious, not-at-ease-with-herself kind of way. Then she asked the standard question among strangers: "Where are you two from?"
Simply saying, "Medford, Oregon," still doesn't feel like a complete answer. Kathy and I hadn't lived in Medford a year yet.
Besides, I was overly sensitive to people's curiosity about two women traveling together, so I'd perfected a five- or six-sentence description of the events that resulted in our buying a house together. It noted we are sisters: She moved from Pennsylvania after retiring, and I moved from Texas after my husband died suddenly and unexpectedly. "Suddenly" lets people know he didn't linger, and "unexpectedly" relays the surprise and shock of it all. I also added that he died nearly five years ago.
On that note, her eyes dropped, and she said, "I'm so sorry. We're grieving, too. We moved here to get away from California after our son died two years ago."
Tears filled her eyes. Her husband's head dropped, losing eye contact but definitely still listening to our conversation. She and I stood and moved closer to each other then. Our words softened. It seemed as though no one else was there — just the two of us. So much about her behavior became clear. My mind flashed to the memory of what such rawness and vulnerability feels like.
She went on to describe her feelings of despair and hopelessness in the face of her only child's death. Caleb was 20, looking forward to being an architect, obviously dearly loved and missed. I saw tears well up in her husband's eyes. He remained silent but attentive. I didn't ask about the circumstances of his death. They didn't matter. She didn't offer. Her grief was what mattered.
I saw memories of myself in her face, her words triggering recollections of similar things I'd said. They had just marked the second anniversary of Caleb's death. I was a month shy of the five-year mark from Dee's death.
She peppered me with questions. "Did I have dreams of him? Could I feel his presence at times? Was I haunted by regrets? Did I replay all of my final interactions with him, not knowing they'd be the last?"
She seemed to calm down as I shared my experiences. Wanting to offer more comfort and hope, I relayed an event that had helped me the day after burying my husband.
I'd returned to the cemetery alone. The flowers from the graveside service lay over his buried casket. A headstone would be installed later. That day a placard on a metal post read: "Arvis Dee Rose, 7/27/1941 — 6/13/2005." Reading his name, I dropped to my knees and sobbed uncontrollably, letting go of the restraint I'd maintained to get through the rituals of death and to comfort family members. This chance to grieve honestly was all mine.
I don't know how much time passed. When I raised my head and looked around, I saw four women standing together nearby. For some reason, I walked over and asked, "Are any of you widows? I've just lost my husband and feel so alone. What can I expect now?"
The oldest one said, "We're all widows. We've bumped into each other so many times visiting our husbands' graves that we've developed a kinship. My husband's been gone 26 years, and I'll tell you things are gonna be OK. You'll be OK."
The word "OK" just didn't seem feasible right then. But I didn't respond. A second woman spoke up: "In the 15 years since my husband died, I've learned to do a great many things on my own. I still miss him."
That seemed more realistic, more like something I'd do over time. A third woman said, "Grief comes to me now in waves. A song, a place, a spoken phrase, even a smell will surprisingly take me back to my time with him and what I no longer have. It's been five years for me."
The last woman didn't look up as she wrung her hands together and shyly said, "I have young kids at home. I do all my crying in the shower and after the kids are asleep. My kids depend on me. I can't sleep right and find it hard to get up and going each day. I have to keep telling my kids their daddy's not coming home again. It's been less than a year since he died."
As I took her hand, the other women surrounded us and we hugged — strangers unified by a shared experience.
The blond hiker with the dog remained silent for a while after I finished relating the story.
"Thank you," she said.
We talked more about our losses and other things — even laughed when we described dreams we'd had of our loved ones. Before we parted, one or the other of us said, "We didn't meet here by accident." We agreed that both of us needed to share our experiences: hers still fresh and debilitating, mine more healed but vulnerable to reinjury.
Since then, I've replayed our conversation many times in my head. We didn't even exchange names or contact information, both satisfied with our brief but powerful encounter, both grateful for the gift received by opening our hearts to each other.
Whether consciously or not, I dreaded the upcoming anniversary of Dee's death, afraid I'd fall back into despair and anger and be immobilized by loneliness all over again. Instead, this meeting, our sharing, allowed me to appreciate the recovery I'd made in those five years — enough recovery to be empathetic to a stranger. Enough recovery to be "OK" with the contentment and happiness I feel about the life I've made.
The words of the women at the cemetery may be predictions of what lies ahead on my grief path. Time will tell. Evermore, the lady on the trail with the ugly dog marks the five-year point in my loss journey.
I will someday be OK.