Q: I live in a close-knit rental building on the Upper East Side where neighbors exchange phone numbers and pick up parcels from one another. The woman who lives below me lost her husband in August after an illness. Since then, I've heard her howl, talk, and curse to themselves, obviously desperate. The neighbor below can hear the noises too, but we don't know how to go about it. I've offered the widow help with errands when I see her so she knows we're there for her, but she refuses, and I don't think that would really help anyway. Any advice on how to deal with this?
A: Grief can be a long, lonely process made lonely by a pandemic that has denied us the opportunity to spend time with the people we love. At another point in time, your neighbor may have had more sources of comfort than she does now. Or she now has a strong support network and just needs the room to mourn at home alone.
But you don't know if she's okay, and as a worried neighbor, you could certainly offer your support. Even if she has support, she may need more.
They have been kind to offering help with her errands, but as you suspected this may not be what she needs. "People don't need help, they need company," said Dr. Katherine Shear, founder and director of the Center for Complex Grief at Columbia School of Social Work. "It's very sensible to run errands or get things, but it's not quite the same."
Stop by her apartment to let her know that she was on your mind. Ask if she is okay and if she has friends and family nearby who are spending time with her. Remind her that she is not alone in the building. Ask if she might want company. The flowers are in bloom, the days are getting warmer – suggest taking a walk or sitting outside together.
People who grieve "are not good company themselves, but they just need the presence of someone" willing to "share this very human experience," said Dr. Shear, a psychiatrist.
Your neighbor can reject your original request, but you can keep trying. The other affected neighbor could make a similar offer. When you meet them in the lobby, remind them that the offer is still open. "Gentle persistence is what I would call it," said Dr. Shear. "Let your compassion be your guide."
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