It's late at night in the editorial office of a major metropolitan newspaper. The office, near the top of a high-rise building, is nearly deserted. There are only a few lights on. It's very quiet except for the clacking of a single computer keyboard. A lone reporter sits in his cubicle putting the finishing touches on his latest assignment. In a pause-to-think moment he stops typing. Sitting quietly, he hears the sound of a woman crying. He gets up from his desk and follows the sound trail like an emotional bird dog. In a darkened corner of the room he sees a woman slumped over a desk, sobbing into her crossed arms. He realizes that she is one of the cleaning crew who come in like gnomes in the night and whisk away the day's debris along with yesterday's news. He has been so quiet that she does not hear him approach. He stands stock still for a few moments, unsure of how or whether to proceed. He wrestles momentarily with the decision to leave her to cry in private or to offer an ear to listen. He decides to try to talk with her. Quietly he says, "Excuse me." She jerks her head up to peer at him in the half-light. Shocked and embarrassed she says, "Sorry Señor," with more than a hint of a Spanish accent. She says a few more words in very broken English, trying to excuse herself, and then lapses entirely into Spanish. She is clearly afraid that she will be reported and fired. As fate would have it, the reporter is himself of Mexican heritage and speaks Spanish. He calms her down as best he can, assuring her that he will tell no one of her unauthorized break. After she relaxes a bit, he asks her what has made her so sad. All in Spanish now, she tells him that she's crying because Michael Landon died. As you might imagine, her answer takes him by surprise. He has no way to understand the profound emotional connection between this woman and the TV star who had died just the day before. So he asks her gently,
"Did you know Señor Landon?"
"No, no, but he was like a father for my children," she says.
"Oh, had he visited them at school?" the reporter asks.
"Oh no. You see, I have three young children. My husband, their father, died two years ago in an accident. Since then we have struggled to keep our hearts and finances together. I work cleaning houses in the daytime. At the end of the day I go home to take care of my children and get them to bed. Then I come to work here cleaning the building, just so we can have enough money for food and rent and clothes. It's very hard to make up for the money that my husband used to make. I don't speak English very well, so I can only clean."
She pauses to wipe away the tears that accompany her story.
"In the short time I have with my children after dinner, we sit down in front of the TV and watch reruns of "Highway to Heaven." Mr. Michael Landon's character on that show has become a kind of father figure and role model for my children. They barely remember their Papa because they were so young when he died. They desperately need someone to look up to. When I heard that Mr. Landon was very sick, I was afraid to tell my children. I didn't want them to worry. But now he has died, and I have to tell them. I am so afraid of how they will react when they find out."
And she bursts into tears. The reporter reaches out and wraps his arms around her and she sobs and sobs. He just holds her and rocks, saying nothing, realizing that words would have little meaning at that point. That's a true story. That young reporter was profoundly affected by the events of that night. He knew he wanted to write about it, but before approaching his editor, he wanted to find out more about grief and what he might be able to do to help that woman and her family. He called The Grief Recovery Institute and talked with us for a long time about the various ways the deaths of celebrities affect so many people. We talked to him about one specific question that had been part of his interaction with that woman. If you recall he had asked her, "Did you know Señor Landon?" While the technical answer is that she had never met Michael Landon, the emotionally accurate answer is that she and her children knew him and his TV character very well. They'd just never met him. And like most people, they'd never written a fan letter to tell him what he meant to them. Although it's unlikely that they would ever have met him or spent time with him, his death robbed them of the hope of someday meeting this wonderful man who had been their surrogate husband and father.
Unresolved grief is about undelivered communications of an emotional nature. The death of someone we admire from afar can provoke a well-spring of emotions. Think about the outpouring of emotion when Diana, the Princess of Wales, died. She was one of those public figures who had captured the emotional fantasy of millions of people around the globe. It's easy to imagine the number of people who would have loved to met her, spent time with her, and just get to know her a little. Sometimes it's an untimely death as befell John Ritter or the death of a famous elder celebrity-statesman like Bob Hope, who lived to be more than 100. In either case, it's normal and natural that many people will feel robbed of meeting and communicating their respect, admiration, and affection. The deaths of public figures generate tremendous understandable emotions in those who loved them. When death ends the physical aspect of a relationship, there are inevitably unrealized hopes, dreams, and expectations about the future. This is clearly true about the people who have been a direct part of our lives. But it also affects us when someone famous dies. The cleaning woman and her children truly knew Michael Landon, they just never got to meet him and tell him what he meant to them. With our guidance, the reporter was able to encourage the woman to help her children write a completion letter to Michael Landon, telling him how they felt about him. That letter, like the thousands written by others who loved Michael, helped that family complete some of their grief about the death of a man who had been so important in their lives.