The Stranger in the Cemetery — and Why I Wish I’d Done More

I wish I had stayed longer that day in the cemetery when a woman threw herself down on the earth in front of a gravestone and began sobbing.

I was walking my dog at the time. All had been sunny that spring day until this person had come running into the cemetery from the street. I saw her go down.

My immediate thought was that she was hurt — that something physical had happened. Should I call 911? I urged my dog forward so I could check things out. But I also felt cautious. What was up here?

As I approached, I saw no blood or obvious tragedy, but I heard wailing.

The woman was sprawled face down on the grass in front of a grave. Her shoulders were shaking as she cried and yelled out.

I said, “Hi, are you OK? Do you need help?”

She heard me and looked up.

She was maybe 50. She had light-brown hair and wore jeans and a T-shirt. Her anguished face was streaked with tears.

But for a moment, her face loosened. She said, “Oh, no, thank you. Not really … Well, maybe.”

She was in severe emotional pain. I wasn’t sure if I should stay or go. I hesitated while she gazed at the grave in front of her and at similar stones nearby.

She started sobbing again.

I decided to stay.

When my husband and I first moved near this cemetery, some people joked that it “sure would be quiet.” We should be glad it wasn’t a gas station or a strip mall, other people said. “It could be worse.”

Living down the block from a cemetery never bothered me. Not only that, but over time I’d actually come to find it a pleasant place to take a short walk with our little cockapoo. Some cemeteries don’t permit dog-walking, but ours had no restriction. Other neighbors with dogs also visited. We were always respectful and careful, and I never let my dog off the leash. We kept to the paved sidewalks and hilly, stone-lined steps of the 20-acre site, with its curious levels and gentle paths. After I’d taken my dog back home, I sometimes returned on my own for another brisk walk later in the day.

Now and then I would pause at particular headstones to read the inscriptions. Sometimes I prayed for these souls. Often I thought of my own dad, who was buried in a cemetery in another state more than three hours away. I wished he were closer while at the same time knowing he was “with” me always.

A lot of things happen in cemeteries. People of all ages arrive in profound grief to bury loved ones, to pray, to pay respects, to groom gravestones, to think, to spend time with those they miss. At holiday time, people leave flowers or put up small decorations. For Memorial Day and the Fourth of July, the plots of deceased military sport American flags. At Christmastime, wreaths abound. I’ve seen rainbows in the distance and planes jetting overhead in the broad, open sky.

Birds fly. Squirrels romp. Geese sometimes gather. At night, coyotes stalk deer. A friend who lives nearby hears them howling at night.

But I’d never seen a woman crying on the ground by herself in the middle of the day out of the clear blue.

I stayed and talked to this stranger for about 20 minutes. Her diagnosis was serious, she said. She hadn’t yet told her teenage son. She was divorced. She said she needed to guard his well-being, to watch the timing of her announcement.

She’s the one suffering, but she’s thinking of her son — now that’s a mom, I remember thinking. I did my best to comfort this fellow human being. She clearly needed someone. If you were in her position, how would you feel? I asked myself.

Finally, I felt it best to move along and leave her to her privacy.

I began to say goodbye.

“Thank you for talking with me,” she said.

“You’re welcome. I’m sorry for your pain. I wish I could do more,” I said.

“You’ve done a lot.”

I didn’t think so.

That was three years ago. I’ve never seen her again, but I’ve never forgotten her or the exchange we had.

Even so, I know God was guiding our interactions that day. 

Maureen Mackey is an editor & writer in New York. Her work has appeared in Parade, LifeZette, Fiscal Times, Yahoo Finance, AARP, Reader’s Digest, New York Times and more.

This article originally appeared in Medium and is used by permission. 

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