What a complete stranger taught me about grief and losing someone you love 

Today, I met a woman with a tragically beautiful story.

I boarded a discount flight this morning from Concord, NC, to Sanford, FL, and sat next to a woman who was trying to keep her daughter with special needs occupied in the seat on the other side of her.

I quickly took my seat — I get anxious if there are people behind me in the airplane aisle and I feel like I’m holding them up. The woman, who had her back turned to me, spun around and greeted me with a kind smile and a hello before turning back to her daughter.

Shortly after take off, it became apparent that the two older children in the seats behind us were hers as well.

Typically, I don’t speak to someone I don’t know unless they engage with me first. And that’s just what this woman did.

She asked if I was traveling alone today and I told her yes. She asked if I’m from Concord and I responded with “Yeah, kind of. I live in the Charlotte area, but this is my first time flying out of Concord.” Looking back, that response makes absolutely no sense in relation to her question.

She introduced herself and her daughter, and the little girl stretched her hand in front of her mothers body to shake my hand in a very polite nice-to-meet-you fashion.

Side note: Flying out of Concord Regional Airport has been an experience in itself — one “terminal” in a tin building and the bathroom is a portable toilet on wheels out back. We boarded the plane on the Tarmac. I was told that this is only temporary and a new facility will open in September.

The woman shared that this is her children’s first time flying at all and her first time flying out of Concord, too.

She then offered up information that broke my heart and made me smile at the same time. Her husband passed away at Easter and she has made it a point to keep her children busy since then — to just keep them moving. So, this week they are traveling to Disney World for a few days.

I told her I was so sorry to hear about her husband and commended her on staying active with her children.

I wanted so badly to know more about her story, though, but didn’t want to appear nosy so I didn’t ask. I wanted to know how her husband died, where they’re from, what her daughter’s diagnosis is, and a list of other things. That’s just the former journalist in me breaking through.

After a few moments of silence, the woman freely offered more about her situation.

I learned that her husband and three children were in a car wreck that took his life. Her children were injured but lived.
She explained that since then, it has been her mission to live life to the fullest. She said, “He was taken from me instantly. You’re not guaranteed tomorrow, so don’t waste your time here on Earth.”

That’s a beautiful outlook to have during such a tough time.

A few weeks ago she rented a beach house outside of Charleston and family came to stay with them, but this Disney trip is her first time traveling alone with her children since her husband passed away. She called the trip bittersweet and admitted that she is scared to be on their own traveling for the first time, but is confident they will be fine. Disney World is no small trip for her first solo vacation with her children.

All I could do is sit and be amazed at the strength and bright disposition this woman displays as she faces what is possibly the most tragic time of her life. She hasn’t let the pain of the world break her down. I couldn’t believe that she was able to tell me about her husband’s passing without crying — to this day, I can’t even tell someone that I miss my mom without breaking into tears.

She smiles, keeps moving forward, and holds on to her children.

The reality is, we all have grief. We all have experienced tragedy or will experience it at some time in our life, and we all respond to grief in different ways. This woman is a prime example of that.

Watching her smile, laugh, and take photos and videos with her daughter next to her and her two children behind us, it occurred to me that this woman has no time to think about her own grief — she has three children to care for. I’m sure she would probably love to lock herself in a room alone and cry until she can’t cry anymore. But, she can’t. She has to be strong for someone else — three someones. I hope her children grow to learn how strong their mother is if they don’t already know.

Then I realized how lucky I am that I am free to grieve the death of my mom without thinking about someone else’s grief. If I want to lay in bed and cry all day, I can. I got to tell my mom “bye.” I had time in the days leading up to her passing to prepare myself — not that “preparing” yourself makes a difference when you lose a loved one; it still hurts like hell. Perhaps, having that time before her passing affected my long-term grieving process and outlook on life?

This woman got none of that. Like she said, her husband was taken in an instant. Yet, here she is, pushing through her most difficult days to make sure her children are taken care of physically and emotionally.

Shame on me for never thinking about what a blessing these things are in relation to death and how lucky — if anything about losing a loved one can be lucky — I am to have been there for my mom’s final moments.

I thought I knew everything about the grieving process, but it is clear now that I only know about MY process of grieving.

Yes, I got all that from a 10 minute conversation with someone I have never met. Thank you, airplane stranger, for teaching me something new just by sharing a fraction of your story.

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