A Hispanic man about my age came through the line at work. As I rang up his groceries, I asked him how he was. With a quiet voice, he told me his mother just died.
I lifted my eyes from the register to look at his sad face.
“I’m sorry, what did you say, sir?
“My mother just died.
My Spanish is limited, and I struggled to find the words.
“¡Qué lástima!” “What a pity!”
I would like to have hugged him, but the counter was in our way, and I didn’t know if it would be appropriate. When I was a pastor, I would have come around the counter or even vaulted (well, climbed) over it to hug him. I’m not sure why I didn’t even think of it now.
I reached across the counter to shake his hand.
“Lo siento, señor” I whispered. “I’m sorry.” He nodded in appreciation.
¿Enferma?” I inquired, wondering if she had been sick.
“No sé.” He didn’t know. He told me in broken English that she was in Venezuela and he couldn’t go back to see her.
“Oh, that’s terrible!” I said.
He shrugged and said, “It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay.”
As he walked away, I said, “Dios te bendiga” which means “God bless you.” It’s not what I really wanted to say, but it was all I knew, and he appreciated it.
A forty-five-second exchange isn’t enough to help, but honestly, when you reach out to support someone who is grieving, no gesture is enough.
It’s interesting what we will blurt out to strangers.
When my father died, I went to work that day and didn’t tell my boss or coworkers for a couple of hours. In fact, the first person I told was a regular customer. She comes to the self-checkout most evenings to buy a bottle of wine after work. She asked me how my day was going, and I said quietly that my dad had just passed away.
She had been looking away and turned her head sharply to look at me.
“Wait!” she said. “What did you just say?”
I told her again.
“I’m so sorry,” she said. “Can I give you a hug?”
She wrapped her arm around my neck and told me she was sorry. Then she went on her way while I carried on at work.
A few minutes later, I told my boss and then some of my coworkers, most of whom hugged me, too.
Telling someone makes an event more real, I suppose. I shared it with someone I was familiar with but not deeply connected to… almost like a rehearsal before I told the more significant people in my life. Perhaps that’s what this gentleman was doing, as well. Starting small with someone safe at the grocery store.
But I also wonder if he had anyone else to tell. Since I left the church, I have found it harder to build my own community. How do people find their friends? And with whom do they share their griefs? Please tell me there are more people out there than the guy at the cash register.