What Do You Do When You See A Stranger Crying?

While I was in New York last week, I was on the subway platform waiting for the train when I realized that the woman to my left was crying into her hands. She wasn’t sobbing and it wasn’t audible, but she was clearly upset and when she glanced up, her face was blotchy with tears. I hesitated for a second. There weren’t many people around, but based on her body language (curled up, concealing her face), it seemed like she wanted to be left alone. Still, my instinct was to comfort — what if she and her boyfriend had just broken up? What if her grandfather had just suffered a stroke? I was completely drawn to her and felt filled with empathy and, strangely, warmth.

“There is something beautiful about a disarmed stranger,” writes Melissa Febos of the New York Times. “We usually only get to witness that kind of vulnerability with friends or family, when something — sympathy or apology — is expected of us.”

One time years ago, after a terrifying gun incident, I broke into sobs and was SO relieved when a stranger asked me if I was okay. I was desperate to tell someone and to be comforted, and he stayed with me for awhile until the shakes subsided. He was a dad, he told me, and his daughter was twelve. He didn’t mind being late to work, and I still think of him, how he searched his briefcase for tissues. On the other hand, if I were crying because of a personal issue, like boy problems or bad news, I might feel embarrassed and not want any attention, and even be grateful that New Yorkers, generally speaking, act unfazed by pretty much everything.

Have you ever approached a person crying in public? Do you give them space or offer a lending ear? The few heart to hearts I’ve had with complete strangers have been surprisingly intimate and rejuvenating — and those connections, however brief, have stayed with me for years.

Illustration by Nigel Van Wieck

12 thoughts on “What Do You Do When You See A Stranger Crying?

  1. Last fall I was sobbing in my car while waiting for my therapist to call me back in Santa Monica, CA. I suffer from pretty bad anxiety due to childhood trauma and was in a particularly rough spot that day due to some sad news. An older gentleman notice me in my car and promptly knocked on my window to bring my both tissues and a bottle of water. It was truly one of the kindest gestures I’ve ever experienced. So lucky to feel love, especially that base, “you’re human, I’m human, too” kinda love. Great post!

  2. Thank you for this article, Joy! I am a notorious subway crier (whether I’m feeling really happy or really sad). One time a girl asked me if I was okay and I ended up telling her everything that was going on with me, and we even exchanged phone numbers, after finding we had a lot in common. It’s easy to feel nervous when you see someone upset on the subway, but I say go with your gut– if you want to offer them support, don’t be afraid– all that can happen is that they will say yes or no.

  3. This was such an interesting post. If the person seems open to it, my instinct would be to softly ask the person if she/he is ok. That way, they can easily indicate if they want further help or not. In the end, I can’t help but think that the simple act of expressing human caring will help the person feel a bit better, even if they don’t accept help.

  4. When I see a stranger crying in public like on the street, in the subway or bus, I always offer them tissues, so they can “clean up”. I want to show them that I understand how they feel, and that they are not alone. Sometimes they want to want to talk, sometimes they stay silent, but they ALWAYS take the tissues.

    • It just happened to me and I did not know what to do is just so frustrating, I just told her whatever it is you are going to be fine she respond it’s ok and I left. I wish I knew how to react or say now I have a weird feeling. I prayed to God for her.

  5. Saw a young lady crying in her car today and i was unable to do nothing cause am new to the area and was scared and now i feel very sad for not knowing what to do

  6. I had a situation today where I was driving and there was a woman sitting in a public space crying. I feel bad that I did not stop to comfort her, but it was a real tug of war. I am a large man, and that kind of attention I have to remember can seem threatening, especially because she was kind of isolated. Do you think it would have been better to risk approaching (at a safe distance) anyway?

  7. I say unless it’s very obvious that they want to be left alone, you should try and go up to them. You never know, you might be a halo for their head that day :’)

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