The Neighborly Thing to Do

Several years ago, an older lady and her husband moved into my neighborhood.

They kept pretty much to themselves and soon earned the description “unfriendly.”

‘They won’t speak,’ one neighbor told me.

‘They’re not very neighborly,’ said another.

I’m ashamed to admit we were judging prematurely. For the husband was ill — terminally ill, to be exact — and the wife was his only caregiver.

She didn’t have time for over-the-fence gossip sessions. Or chatting on the phone. Or inviting other ladies in for coffee.

About the only time she left the house was to get groceries or transport her husband to a doctor’s appointment.

I know first hand what that’s like, how stressful full-time care giving can be. Especially for someone untrained in that area, someone who doesn’t choose to be a caregiver. Someone like my mom, who was Daddy’s only caregiver because he refused to have strangers in the house.

Life takes on a different appearance when you’re faced with a loved one’s grave illness. Besides the ever-present cloud of death, there are medical specialists to deal with. And procedures. And pain. And fear and worry.

The upside is you have a chance to bond, to spend quality time reminiscing, to selflessly give to another in imitation of the way God has given to us.


Earlier this month, my neighbor’s husband finally succumbed to his illness. True to form, he didn’t want any notice to appear in the daily newspaper, didn’t want to bother anybody. Most of us found out by word of mouth.

But did we convene on this poor woman’s porch, casseroles in hand, to mourn with her? No, we opted to “respect her privacy,” to give her time to grieve.

Taking the easy way out.

Was it the right thing to do?

Probably not. People need each other, and I for one felt great comfort by the kind, sympathetic things people did for us after Daddy passed on. We should have done the same for this woman.

I saw her the other day, and she’d gotten a little dog. Someone to take for walks, keep her company, and amuse her with its antics.

We chatted a bit, and she didn’t seem at all “unfriendly.”

Just lonely. And still grieving.

She’ll be that way for a while, but at least she’s trying. Can her neighbors afford not to try, too?

26 thoughts on “The Neighborly Thing to Do

  1. Oh my gosh, Debbie, what a poignant story. It brought tears to my eyes. You are asking all the right questions. There’s always a reason people act the way they do and in this case, this lady was carrying the entire caregiving burden. Who knows why she never learned to ask for help? That’s probably another story. But that’s the main reminder you give us today- we all have a story and there’s always reason we behave as we do. Best to give each other the benefit of the doubt rather than jump to judgement. We all are fighting some battle and can use a little compassion. I’m glad you had a chance to talk with her. She is lucky to have you as a neighbor 🙂

    • Thanks for your kind words, Kathy. Unfortunately, I don’t believe I merit them — I didn’t take any food over to her house, either! But yes, I do believe we all carry a burden (some more serious than others), so kindness is the best reaction!

  2. We don’t always know the load others are carrying, do we?
    Perhaps it’s better to offer a hand and be returned down than to never offer at all.

    • You’re absolutely right, Suzi! It’s very much as my late dad used to say: There’s enough pain and misery in this old world for all of us. I’m just as guilty as the rest of my neighbors for avoiding this poor soul and her situation — guess we were cloaking selfishness under a guise of letting them have their space.

  3. Asking for help is hard-knowing what to give is hard too. But I know what I would do now….buy a toy or some novel biscuits for that little dog and then leave it on her porch welcoming the pooch to the neighborhood—maybe signed with a paw print from the Domer Pup. And I wouldn’t worry about what the pup is allowed to eat, or play with… I would just do it.

    • What a splendid idea, Katybeth! I think I’ll give it a try — and let you know what happens! Yes, a dog-warming present would be just the thing because I could just see how much that woman dotes on her little addition. Thanks for your suggestion!

  4. It may actually be helpful to her for you to reach out after there’s some time and space for her to grieve. In the immediate time after the passing, there are plenty of casseroles and other gestures of support. It’s when all that settles down that the grieving can sometimes be harder.

    Plus, she might enjoy having her new relationships form around this new stage in her life. Good for you for thinking of her.

    • You’ve brought up an interesting point, Hipster. From observing my own mom’s situation, it’s true that afterward is when the deep grieving begins — and no amount of casseroles or friendly visits is forthcoming then. I appreciate your suggestions and will have to pass them around to my other neighbors — this could be helpful healing for her!

  5. Hi Debbie,

    I’m here from Kathy Pooler’s site. Reading this post was timely for me today. I had a conversation with someone who read my book and who knew me well during the time some of the difficult experiences I wrote about took place. He said that he really had no idea of what I was going through at the time. Oftentimes we keep to ourselves because that is our personality or because we’re hurting, and it’s those times we really need people around us more than we admit. And to ask for help? Forget it.

    Perhaps this is an opportune time for the two of you to build a great new friendship.

    Love your blog, btw. I’m subscribing in my reader so I can visit again.


    • Hi Linda, and Welcome! I suppose many of us have become quite adept at camouflaging our hurts and insecurities. We fear being rejected, so we close ourselves off from others and pretend we’re strong. Asking for help simply reinforces in our mind that we’re vulnerable, something we don’t want to appear to be. I hope some of this woman’s other neighbors will join me in stepping up to help her through this difficult time. Thank you for reading and subscribing; I’m off to check out your blog now!

  6. Seems like you all were trying to do what you thought she wanted. It’s going to mean so much that you picked up on the opportunity to try something new when she needs it.

    • Thanks for understanding, Oma. Sometimes it’s hard knowing just what a person needs, especially when they won’t let others get close. Perhaps those are the ones who need it most of all??

  7. I have to admit, I’m a keep-to-myself type of neighbor, but then my neighbors are pretty much like that, too. Between that and the fact we don’t see much of anyone between May and September (folks don’t exactly linger outdoors in 110 degree heat) it makes it difficult to know if anyone is struggling.

    In your situation, I think you all were just taking the ‘I want to be alone’ cues. If she didn’t reach out either, I don’t think anyone could be blamed for not forging a friendship. That being said, I love Katybeth’s idea of the dog gift. That could be the perfect friendship starter (when/if she’s ready.)

    • I loved her idea, too! It’s thoughtful and inviting without being “in your face”! Like you said, when/if she’s ready. I know what you mean about the heat, though. Because it’s been up in the 90s, one with a dog has to get out early if one is going to walk.

  8. It’s never too late to be supportive. So as she goes through this new stage in her life she will likely appreciate building some friendships. Like the dog gift idea. Maybe ask her if she wants to go to a concert or a movie or some other event you’re going to. Introduce her to friends. Have a block get together in your back yard and invite her. She might not accept everything, but she’ll get to know that she’s a valued member of the community.

  9. Debbie, this post demonstrates how easy it is for many of us to come to conclusions without actually having the facts. I think it’s wonderful that this lady now has a furry friend to keep her company. I can’t think of anything better to help her through the grieving process and force her out to exercise and get a breath of fresh air. I think Katybeth’s idea is wonderful. While you may not have come forward before matters not. What matters now is that this lovely pup be welcomed into the neighborhood and in the process, his owner as well! I say it’s never too late if our intentions are good, lady! 🙂

    • Well said, Bella! It’s always nice to greet a new pup, and I’m sure this little one will be good company for my neighbor. She’s wise to choose a new interest to keep her from falling into a depression in the midst of her grief.

    • Bella, I clicked on your name and saw your great blog, which led me to Gabi Gregg, which led me to the Today Show clip, which I then had to share with my friends…God, I need a nap! Seriously, though, thanks for the enlightenment and entertainment. And thanks, Debbie, for this poignant blog post. I know your neighbor will be comforted by your kindness.

      • Thanks for reading, Lynne — I’m delighted to introduce you to Bella. She has wonderfully interesting, entertaining posts, and I’m sure you’ll enjoy them!

  10. Debbie, you are a southern girl and recognize human need. 🙂 Just buy some doggie treat, make a pie and knock on her door. the visit will do you both good.

    • You’re so right — it IS a Southern tradition to help one’s neighbors! That’s why none of my Yankee neighbors have bothered with this poor woman — they just don’t know better. Would that our Southern traditions of care and concern spread around the land!

  11. Debbie, this is such a great reminder to not judge, draw conclusions based on outward appearances, and to help a neighbor in need. How sad for her, but we both know getting a dog is a step in the right direction, toward healing. There’s nothing like the love of a good dog, that’s what I always say.

    • I do believe folks do better if they have something to tend and love — preferably something alive, that can love them back! This is an older lady (at least a generation older than I) so she’s probably past the shopping-with-girlfriends stage, but we don’t throw away our seniors just because they’re old. Perhaps this little dog will get her out and about, meeting new people and seeing things differently. Thanks for your thoughts, Monica!

  12. -Debbie.-This blog post is an education for all of us.
    When people do not acknowledge our grief & loss, it is like putting salt inside the wound. YES. bring the cakes over, the hot-dishes, the cookies, bring the smile … and just say, “I’m mourning with you.”
    That’s all. No need to have a long conversation…
    Btw, people may think the same way about me. Grief makes one a bit isolated…. but I’ve had several angels who have never given up on me


    • Wonderful, caring suggestions, Kim, and I know they come from personal experience. Yes, true friends will mourn with those who mourn and reminisce when a person needs comforting memories. Blessings and hugs to you!

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