The noted psychologist, Carl Jung, defines “synchronicity” as the confluence of events (not because of cause and effect or deliberate action, but coincidence) that provokes a deep emotional reaction and has symbolic meaning at a point of important transition in one’s life. I had such an experience recently – just when I needed it.
My sister and I were in the third week of a two-month RV trip. We’d been told “don’t miss walking the Cape Flattery Trail to the north-western-most point in the contiguous United States”, meaning the so-called, lower-48. It’s at the north-western tip of the Olympic Peninsula of Washington state.
I was putting the leash on my dog, Sugar, when I noticed a couple exit their car with a whitish mop-haired dog on a pink rope harness style leash. The couple was in their late 40’s. The woman had dish-water blonde 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 to me. I could just tell from the look on her face.
I shared that my pup was a Maltese, suspecting hers was a designer breed – an odd combination of breeds to satisfy finicky owners. Sure enough. “She’s a Maltepoo, Maltese and Poodle combination”, she said. Just as I wouldn’t be frank with the mother of an ugly baby, I said “what a cutie”. Truth is, the pup could barely see through a top-knot of hair. It’s nose was elongated and hairless. And it’s coat curled in places and fell flat in others as though full of cowlicks.
The blonde and I exchanged pleasantries while her husband and my sister waited to start down the trail. They went ahead. It wasn’t until we reached the trail’s end and climbed up a viewing platform that we encountered them again. The trail wound through the woods, downhill and up, so we were all a bit winded and settled into benches to take in the sights.
Again, we talked about our dogs. Kathy’s Shihtzu was clamoring for attention too. We chatted about the idiosyncrasies of our three breeds, each of us preferring our own, of course. The blonde 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 amongst strangers, “where are you two from?” Simply saying “Medford, Oregon” still doesn’t feel like a complete enough 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 sequence of events that resulted in our buying a house together. It noted that we are sisters, her moving from Pennsylvania after retiring and me from Texas after my husband died suddenly and unexpectedly. You see “suddenly” lets people know he didn’t linger and “unexpectedly” relayed the surprise and shock of it all. Oh yes, 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 was now clear. My mind flashed to the memory of what such rawness and vulnerability felt like.
She went on to describe her feelings of despair and hopelessness in the face of her only child’s death. He was twenty, 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 to me right then. I saw memories of myself in her face, her words triggered recollections of similar things I’d said. They had just marked the second anniversary of their son, 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 that they’d be the last?” She seemed to calm down as I shared my own experiences with her. Wanting to offer more comfort and hope, I relayed an experience 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 time 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 in a nearby area of headstones. For some unknown 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, of a sorts. I can’t speak for everyone, but my husband’s been gone 26 years and I’ll tell you things are gonna be okay. You’ll be okay.” The word “okay” just didn’t seem feasible to me right then. But I didn’t respond. The 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. The 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 in the group didn’t look up. 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 that their Daddy’s not coming home again. It’s been less than a year since he died.” I reached out and took her hand. The other women surrounded us and we hugged. Strangers unified by a shared experience. Each walking our own grief path, but walking it none the less.
The blonde woman remained silent and still for a while. When she moved, she raised her eyes to mine and said softly and sincerely “Thank you”.
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 re-injury.
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 care about each other. Whether conscious or not, I dreaded the upcoming five year anniversary of Dee’s death; afraid I’d fall back into despair and anger and be immobilized by my 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 “okay” with the contentment and happiness I feel about the life I’ve made for myself. Dee is only a thought away. Now, the thoughts are mostly reminiscences of wonderful times with a best friend. The kind that bring a slight smile to your face, despite yourself.
The words of the women at the cemetery may be predictions of what might lie ahead on my grief path. Time will tell. Evermore, the blonde lady on the trail with the ugly dog will be my marker of the five-year point in my loss journey. I will someday be okay.