How would you respond when someone tells you about her grief and loss?

Most people I know (including me) would launch into heartfelt expressions of, “I’m sorry for your loss” or, “Stay strong”, followed by a minuscule pause, as they wait to see how the other would respond before deciding what to say next.

After exchanging a few more platitudes – variations of, “Let me know how I can help” and “I’m here for you” – the conversation would taper off and the person who’s grieving is left alone with his or her pain.

Digging deeper to ask what happened is “unkind” and almost taboo, as you assume that the pain is too fresh and raw for them to dive into – and it is true.

But when my grandmother died a few months ago, I realised that there was comfort to be found in confronting grief openly and honestly. And it took a chance encounter with a compassionate Uber driver to show me that.

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Earlier that day, my parents and I received word that my grandmother had suffered a sudden heart attack and would most likely not make it through the night. A few hours later, we were advised to make our way to the hospital to say our goodbyes.

We missed her last breath by a mere 10 minutes.

The next three hours were spent sorting out my late grandmother’s funeral arrangements. When we were done, I booked an Uber to take us home.

Our driver was cheerful and friendly, so I waited for the inevitable question: “So, what were you guys doing at the hospital?”

After a brief hesitation, my mother cleared her throat and told him that her mother-in-law had just passed away.

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As I’d expected, he offered us his condolences, and there was silence after that. I settled back into the seat and stared ahead, bracing myself for a long, awkward journey.

Then our driver looked up, caught my eye in the rear-view mirror, and gently asked: “What happened?”

He was looking directly at me, so I felt I had to participate in this difficult conversation.

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I told him what we had just been through and thought that would be the end of it. But instead, he shared his own story of losing his father some years ago, and how it took a long time for him to come to terms with it and realise that the living must not only move on, but also be happy.

“It’s what our loved ones would want for us, you know?” he added.

It was my turn to dish out belated condolences. He accepted them with a smile and did not speak further.

By then, I was beginning to find it interesting that our driver didn’t withdraw from an awkward conversation and even felt comfortable enough to share his personal story with a stranger.

This time, it was I who picked up from where we left off.

I asked him what he did before becoming an Uber driver (turns out he was a former prison officer who worked with death row inmates) and whether he enjoyed his jobs – past and present (an affirmative “yes” to both).

The conversation took on a different, but no less personal, note when I asked him more about his erstwhile profession: What was it like working so closely with death row inmates? Did you end up becoming friends with some of them? How did you feel when you took them on their last walk? Is it true that they could choose whatever they wanted for their last meal? (I blame the movies for this last inane question).

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He laughed, then told me that indeed, I did watch too many movies.

No, they didn’t get to choose what they wanted to have for their last meal, he said sombrely. And then, as if to help me put it into perspective, he asked: “If you knew you were going to die in the next couple of days, would you have any appetite at all?”

He paused, letting that sink in, before telling me about sharing a laugh or joke with the inmates, being their listening ear, and holding them up physically when they broke down knowing their hour had come.

“They’re human, too, even if they’ve made mistakes in life. And by the end, we were probably the only friends they had left.”

After this, our conversation did peter out and five minutes later, we were home.

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Just as the door was about to close on one of the most meaningful conversations I’ve had with a complete stranger, he told us to take care and said that he had enjoyed our mini heart-to-heart talk.

I didn’t have the time then – nor the presence of mind – to thank him for what he’d done for me in my time of grief.

But I appreciated his not shying away from making me talk about my grandmother’s death, instead of letting me grapple with it silently during the 40-minute drive home. I appreciated his caring enough about my loss to share his own, and how he managed to get through it.

Most of all, I appreciated his readiness to engage a stranger and indulge my inquisitiveness patiently and openly. Perhaps he sensed it was a way to distract me from my pain.

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And I know that I felt lighter than I did before I boarded my ride.

I’ve since often wondered about the coincidence of meeting this particular driver on the night of my grandmother’s death. Call me a romantic, but because I had narrowly missed saying my last goodbyes, I wanted to see it as her way of sending me comfort when I needed it most.

And while I remain thankful for all the support and condolences from my family and friends over the next few days of the wake, I will always remember that it was from a random act of kindness and show of compassion from a stranger that I first drew solace.

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