I recently met an 88-year-old woman named Sheila at a party. Within moments she was telling me her life story, and I couldn’t get enough. Sheila told me about the recent death of her husband of 66 years. 66 years! How could someone be married for such a long period of time? What would it be like to be so close to one person for so many years, then have to go on living when he was suddenly gone? It was unfathomable to me.
She told me that the party was the first time she had ventured out alone since his death. It was time to step outside her comfort zone so, cane in hand, she hailed a cab and got herself to her friend’s apartment. I admired her courage. And her humor! Sheila kept cracking these sarcastic little jokes. She had me in stitches. How wonderful that this woman in the throes of grief could maintain a great sense of humor! One of my mottoes is that you’ve got to have a sense of humor in this life.
When it was time for me to leave, Sheila asked if we could walk out together. She seemed to be moved by my sincere interest in her life. We ended up sharing a cab. I walked her to the door of her building, where her trusted doorman took over. We exchanged numbers with the promise of seeing each other again.
When I got home I was grateful for having made a new friend. Beyond being lovely and fascinating, Sheila had validated something I’ve been thinking for a long time: We have no help or preparation for certain parts of life. We’re encouraged to focus on the first half of life—education, career, relationship, home, and so on—but we’re not prepared to cope with the rest: the empty nest, retirement, illness, and death. When that part of our lives begins, we may not know what to do with ourselves or how to grieve the loss of people who’d been the center of our worlds. These changes could leave us lonely and alienated.
I hope to be able to give some of that necessary support to Sheila, and I’m counting on her to rewire me on the process of grieving and death as we share more funny and moving conversations.
Have you ever befriended someone in a very different age group? What kind of perspective did the person offer you, and were you surprised that you could be close to someone whose age was so far from yours?