I saw him one more time during the holidays – the red bucket man. Fayetteville after all is a pretty small town. It was the week before Christmas. He was out in front of Hobby Lobby with his Salvation Army bell. My first thought was to try to find a parking space somewhere (not an easy feat at that point), get out and thank him for being such an inspiration for me. I thought, “I will tell him that I wrote a blog post about him and what he said to me that day”. All of a sudden, that quick spark of wanting to reach out was squashed with, “Well that will probably freak him out” or, “That’s too complicated to get into in the middle of the day in the Hobby Lobby parking lot”. So instead I rolled down the window, smiled, gave a donation, and thanked him again. He smiled back, waved, and continued ringing the bell. I drove away.
That was a mistake. That left it all about giving to the Salvation Army, worthy as that is. I should have let him know that I appreciated him. I might have learned more about him, learned about who he really was. My heart and soul would have celebrated if I had done what my instincts told me to do. What is it that stopped me? Some of you might say self-consciousness but in this situation, that wouldn’t have bothered me a bit. So I did an okay thing, but with a little more effort, I could have done a better or different thing. What would have made it better? In my mind, it would have been more engaging. Maybe that is where the fear or discomfort comes. As long as I leave him alone, I don’t risk as much. I don’t find out more information. He stays “the red bucket man”. I remain “another lady with a donation”.
This reminds me of conversations I have had with many patients struggling with grief. People are there for them at first. Some just say, “Let me know how I can help”. Others act by bringing massive amounts of food to the home, running needed errands or picking up kids. But soon after the funeral is over, the trial is past or the divorce decree is final, the vast majority of those folks are gone. Not all but most. It is the unusual individual who remembers to ask how things are months afterwards, who sincerely wants to know and listen. The person who can cope with the idea that grief is unique for every individual and may take a very long time to truly heal is hard to find. Most folks just don’t ask anymore. Those that grieve become lonely and stay quiet.
My theory is that we humans fear our own lives getting out of control so much that we will do almost anything to avoid that reality when we see it in others’ lives. It is too scary. So if people trying to cope with recent death (or really any kind of trauma) are avoided, they stay “the recently bereaved” or “the kind of people that sort of thing happens to”. The one doing the avoiding? He or she clings to the idea, “that won’t happen to me or someone I love”.
I noticed this in myself when I turned about 30 and it got even easier to recognize when I became a mom. For example, the first question that would pop out of my mouth when I heard someone had been diagnosed with cancer was, “Did she smoke?’, knowing that I didn’t smoke. Or when I heard that someone’s child had died in a car accident, “Was the child in a car seat?’, reassuring myself that I always put my child in his. Silly questions designed to comfort myself that bad things would not happen to me or my child. Questions to put a layer of protection between me, my world and the victim to whom something horrible had happened. Just being a parent innately creates more ambiguity to cope with in life and thus more fear. Wish that had been in the pamphlet on parenting that I forgot to read….
So what does all this mean Doctor? I can only say what it means for me. Realistic precautions aside, I try to allow the ambiguity and the not knowing to be okay. Maybe it was growing up as the daughter of a funeral director and hearing about death every day. Maybe it is now being a therapist and hearing about lives of people becoming chaotic in an instant, many times not of their own doing. Frankly, I don’t know if I would have the courage that I have seen in some of my patients. I would hope so but I don’t know.
I think I feared that day that the red bucket man had a story that might be difficult to hear.. I didn’t have time to bother. I hope next time I will stop to hear it, if he even chooses to tell me. I hope I choose to engage.