I was one of the guilty ones.
I avoided approaching people who had suffered losses. I could handle making condolence calls, safe in the knowledge that my mere presence said I cared. But walk up to someone and tell them I was sorry for their loss? Not on your life! I didn’t know what to say. Didn’t want to remind them. Didn’t want to acknowledge my own vulnerability. Didn’t want to seem inarticulate. Didn’t, didn’t, didn’t.
Then I found myself on the other side of that silence.
On an April day barely two months after my daughter died, I kept a commitment made months before–before–to help out with an event for an organization to which I belonged. It was on my calendar, so I went. Reluctantly, I entered a lobby that swarmed with women, too many women, smiling as if happiness still existed in this world-turned-inside-out. Too much noise. Too much chatter.
I inched my way through the crowd, unable to fake a smile. Did not one of these women recognize me? Perhaps I looked as different as I felt. Surely they knew! It had been front page news: a drunk driver plowing into a group of pedestrians at a youth group convention, Ruth’s coma, my 12-day vigil at her bedside in a distant hospital. Yet not one soul spoke to me as I dragged myself down the corridor toward the auditorium.
If anyone had uttered a greeting, it would have bounced off my rigid face. Still, I wanted someone to touch the abyss where my heart used to be. Yearning for Ruth and for life as it was before, I desperately needed someone to rescue me before I collapsed into my own hollowness.
An acquaintance, Gert Wieder, answered my silent plea. I had come to know Gert, 15 or 20 years my senior, during my five years in Rochester. We usually sat near each other at Temple Beth El. We always exchanged a warm “Shabbat Shalom” (“good Sabbath”) and a few congenial words. I admired her lively mind and dancing eyes, envied her slim build, liked her no-nonsense approach to life.
As soon as Gert spotted me, she broke away from her conversation to give me a gentle hug. Not a word. Just a silent embrace. Her loving gesture penetrated and soothed my frozen body. Her hug gave me the strength to survive that afternoon, my first time in a crowd since…before.
I’m no longer one of the guilty ones. Gert taught me that a heartfelt hug says it all.