Can You Be
The Perfect Stranger?
“Don’t talk to strangers.” It’s good advice if you’re a child and it’s difficult to know if a stranger is friend or foe. It might even be good advice if you’re older and it’s still difficult to know if a stranger is friend or foe. Strangers are scary, aren’t they? I’m a stranger to billions whom I have yet to meet, so I might be considered a foe. One person to whom I recently was a stranger does not think so.
The memorial service for a friend’s twenty-six-year-old son was a solemn gathering. Mourners filled the room, heartbroken, grieving for a life ended much too soon. The eulogy focused on how much life he had, how much life he brought to those who knew him, and how much they grieved his life cut short.
As people made a futile effort to wipe their tears away and comfort his family following the eulogy, I excused myself to step outside. My grandson was quite ill and I wanted to call to check on him.
The sidewalk in front of the service location was crowded with young people holding each other, grieving together. I stepped to the end of a long walkway so I could speak in private. I was relieved to learn that my grandson was on his way to wellness.
I headed back down the long sidewalk to return to the memorial gathering. As I walked, a young woman came toward me. She was heartbroken, crying, anguished. As I approached her, I noticed the intensity of her grief. She was gasping. I’ve had far too many panic attacks in my life, so I knew she was having one.
In our culture, we often shy away from strangers. We don’t want to “bother” people, especially people we don’t know who are upset. But my heart leapt out to her and I stopped as I neared her.
“Are you okay?” I asked. She began telling me that she was attending a memorial service for a friend. I nodded my head and said that I had been there, too. We spoke for a few minutes. I knew she was still panicky. I didn’t want to leave her, so I asked if it would be okay to walk with her for a few minutes. She said yes. We went to the end of the sidewalk and she began telling me about her friend. She hadn’t known him long and she was new to the area. She didn’t know anyone attending the service. She found out about the young man’s death from his mother, who answered a text message sent to him. She was numb and didn’t even know what to say to the mother. Shock combined with the feeling of being alone in her mourning sent her grief into a deep low.
I know a little bit about grief. I also know a little bit about feeling alone. I spoke gentle words to her about how she felt and how alone she must feel. I acknowledged that having no one with whom to mourn increased the depth of her pain. For those few minutes I spent with her, I did my best to let her know that she wasn’t alone.
As happens in conversations, we moved away from the loss and away from the immediate pain. We even spoke about relationships, about social media and how we strive to stay connected in whatever ways we can.
I sensed she was calmer. A friend was waiting for me inside and I didn’t want her to be concerned about me.
But first, I asked the young woman if she was feeling any better. When I was reassured she would be okay, I returned to the memorial gathering.
Later, as I sat at a table inside, I saw her again. She was calmer, no longer panicked. I saw her speak with the young man’s relatives. She came over to me and we spoke. She shared that, although still grieving, she was coping better. She then said, “Thank you for being the perfect stranger.”
I was touched by her gratitude and sweetness mixed with her sorrow. I don’t consider myself perfect at anything, but perhaps being what she needed that day made me her “perfect stranger.” We hugged as we said goodbye.
This story might seem like it’s about me. It isn’t. It’s about you. In your life, in these days when so many of us are hurting, so many of us are afraid, wary, grieving for deep loss within our country and our relationships, loss within our own hearts and lives, ask yourself this question:
How can I be the perfect stranger?
Ask yourself: How can I bridge the divide that separates so many of us? How can I soothe? How can I help? How can I heal? How can I dry someone’s tears? How can I let someone know they aren’t alone?
How can I be the perfect stranger?
I told this story to only one person—so far. A few days later, she called me to tell me the story of how she had been someone’s “perfect stranger.” As you become “the perfect stranger,” I look forward to hearing your “perfect stranger” story. Was there a time when “the perfect stranger” touched your life? I hope you will share those stories with me, too.