grieving

Sometimes a Hug Says More Than Words

Darvick-Chicken-Point-SedonaMy husband and I had just returned to Sedona, a place we both love and whose trails we have spent many months and untold miles hiking.  It was early February, unseasonably warm even for this mountain town.  We were hiking Broken Arrow on the way to Chicken Point which has a breath-taking overlook and a cozy spot for lunch tucked in among the red rocks.

As it was early in the season; the trails were pretty empty. Hiking for over an hour already, we’d not encountered another person.  We took a water break along the trail and while we were resting, another hiker came up to chat.  We went through the usual run of questions — exchanging where we were from, how long we planned to stay, what trails we’d done and the inevitable and grateful exclamations of how gorgeous red rock country is and how fortunate we were to be in this special place. All pretty standard fare for these brief exchanges before parting ways.

This hiker was alone, in his early forties perhaps. He was a big burly kind of guy in Sedona for the day, having just attended a work conference in Phoenix. He had a few hours to hike before returning to Sky Harbor Airport and his flight back home somewhere in the Midwest.  Just as he was about to start off again he stopped and said, “My wife died four months ago. I miss her so.” And then he broke down sobbing.

In a single moment a casual conversation on the trail, like dozens we had had before, veered onto another path. My husband and were both a bit stunned. This big muscled guy, shaved head, in a white T-shirt and a pack slung over one shoulder began to tell us about losing beloved wife of twenty plus years.  They were high school sweethearts. They had two  teenaged boys, one off to college in the fall. She had been battling breast cancer for over a dozen years. I did the math and realized she had been ill most of their sons’ lives.

“I feel so guilty for wanting her to die at the end,” he said through choked cries.  “Just so she would stop suffering. Am I a monster for praying for that?  She fought so hard. I love her so much. I’m so lost now.” This stranger, who was no longer a stranger but a fellow human being stripped raw by grief standing before us in such pain. A moment opened and I took a chance.

“May I give you a hug?” I asked. “It looks like you need a hug.” In an instant, this big burly man just fell onto me, collapsed onto me the way a child might, utterly spent and vulnerable. I wrapped my arms around him and held him for longer than I ever thought he would allow.  The moment passed. We all kind of awkwardly regrouped. We introduced ourselves properly, kind of laughing self-consciously at where we found ourselves. He mumbled something about the grieving process. I said something about how crucial it is to give himself the time and permission to grieve, that there is no timetable when processing such a life-altering devastation.

I shared that I was Jewish and had benefited from the structure of reciting Kaddish daily for the traditional eleven-month period of mourning. Having gone through the process when my mother died, I understood the wisdom of follow the timetable as our sages laid it out. I urged him to find a community, whether within his church or elsewhere in his circle, where he might continue to find a place and the support to grieve.

He walked on and we followed soon after, making it to Chicken Point and our little niche in the rocks for lunch.  We didn’t see our friend until we climbed back down and ran into him on the plateau below.  I was astonished to see how much lighter he seemed. He was smiling and came up to us, arms wide, and hugged us each once again with thanks for listening and being there.  We wished him a safe flight back home.

You never know where a seemingly simple conversation can lead.  A total stranger opened up and revealed his suffering right before us. I offered him a hug and held him as cried.  We had been put upon one another’s path by some Divine intention.  What an extraordinary moment of humanity and communion.

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This links to an interesting article about grief and the grieving process.

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