It never ceases to amaze me how casual conversations can deepen, and sometimes help another person. One of the most important I ever had took place outside a restauant.

An elderly woman I really only knew by her face and name began telling me about her son who had recently died. He worked there and I had enjoyed a few casual conversations with him, so there was just enough connection for her to feel able to open up to me. I’m sure she didn’t start out intending to tell me the intimate, painful final moments of his life, but I could see the lingering shock and pain easing from her features as she spoke. By the time she dried the tears that crept down her cheeks, she stood a little straighter and smiled with relief.

As we all but shivered in what very nearly amounted to freezing, blustery wind, she prepared to leave. I will never forget the moment when she thanked me, calling my presence that day a blessing, a slightly different person living behind the wise, grateful gaze. I honestly didn’t know what she was thanking me for. I had just paused to offer my condolences, and listened to what she wanted to say. Then as she told me how much she had needed to talk to someone who had known her son enough to understand, yet not so well that her deep grief would add pain to another’s, I realized that on rare occasions family and close friends can actually be too close.

People who carry burdens we can’t see often won’t ask for help. They live in a kind of silence that becomes almost a prison, and are only released from it when the perfect opportunity presents itself. I was moved to be able to do something so profound for a person secretly in need, however inadvertently. 

I was reminded of that long ago moment today at the grocery store. The clerk looked very young and carefree, but, as we spoke about how heavy grocery bags can be, she told me that she had curvature of the spine as a child. She was hospitalized for surgery that left her with more than a dozen metal rods in her body. It was very painful and she had to relearn how to walk, but today she stands straight and tall. To look at her now you would never think her life had been anything but fun and happiness. Yet she suffered as a child to attain that illusion.

I had been in a bad mood, day to
day irritations and disappointments dragging me down toward a week that threatened to be all Mondays. As I left the store I realized the bubbly checkout girl had inadvertently reminded me that other people face great adversities that reveal life’s little ups and downs as the trivialities they truly are. It turned my bad mood around.

I’ve also realized that being willing to listen to another person’s problems and telling others of our own adversities in a positive way can make a real difference in other lives. It’s a good thing to help someone else when we know they need us. It’s a wonderful thing to accidentally lighten burdens we can’t even see.