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Toilet Paper Angel

Toilet Paper Angel

One of my very first outings alone after my husband’s death was to the local grocery store.  Seems pretty normal right?  You need food, you drive to the store, get your shit and head home. Just like always.  Easy.  Well, it should have been, but it wasn’t!


It was a 30-mile drive to the store, so I had some time to prepare myself.  I knew being in public alone for the first time was going to be hard on my anxiety, so I put on some music and tried to concentrate on going to the store, getting what I needed and coming home.  No talking to anyone, no dawdling, just grab a few groceries and go.  I was trying to pump myself up and convince my anxiety to step down for a minute.

When I got to the store, I parked, took a deep breath and headed in.  Anxiety was coursing through me, (my pump-up didn’t work), I grabbed a basket and, for the first time, tried to buy food for just one.  As I roamed through the aisles, I could feel the tension building.  My stomach clenched into a tight ball, my chest felt heavy and my palms started to sweat.

As I walked through the produce section, I repeated to myself, “I just need one dish of hummus, a bag of pretzels, coffee and toilet paper” with the added mantra of “you’ve got this” humming in the backdrop of my mind.  I MAY have muttered this out loud a few times though; I got a few looks. 

Buying groceries for one was harder than I thought!  Every item I put in my basket was a reminder of what I wouldn’t be sharing with my husband.  My chest got tighter with every step.

I didn’t know it at the time, but this was the beginning of my first debilitating anxiety attack.

By the time I got to the toilet paper aisle, my anxiety was through the roof.  I peeked around the aisle first, making sure no one else was there, because people equals possible interaction and that is to be avoided at all cost!  (Anyone with anxiety knows what I’m talking about!)  No one was there, so I went to the middle of the aisle and suddenly, I realized that for the first time in 22 years, I could buy whatever toilet paper I wanted.  Holy crap!  I didn’t have to buy the kind Jeff liked or the kind the boys liked, just me and y’all, I had no idea what to buy!  What.  The.  Hell?

I stood there amongst a thousand or so rolls of glistening white toilet paper and I MELTED DOWN.  It suddenly hit me that from now on, there was no one to help me make choices and decisions, not even an easy one like which toilet paper to buy.  I had to rely on myself and that was terrifying!

So, there I was on the toilet paper aisle, alone.  Widowed.  No husband to consult about paper thickness or durability, just me, deciding what paper would feel best on my bum.  I JUST COULDN’T.  

In that moment, I missed Jeff so much that I couldn’t breathe.  It really hit me hard that I no longer had my life partner.  My chest got super tight, my throat started to close and the next thing I knew I was on the floor gasping for air and sobbing.  Straight up ugly cry y’all! 

Now, I don’t cry much at all, and never in public, but there I was in a ball of sweat and tears on the toilet paper aisle floor.  This was the first of many huge anxiety attacks and I had no idea what was happening or how to handle it.  I was mortified to be crying in public at all, let alone this mess sitting on the dirty floor, tear soaked with snot running all over me.  Hello embarrassment! I was sad, exhausted, scared and NOW, humiliated because I was crying on the toilet paper aisle floor and I had no clue how to stop my pain.

Enter my Angel!

As I rocked back & forth on the floor, eyes closed tight, completely unaware of what was happening around me, I felt warm hands on my shoulders and the sweetest lady said, “Honey, how long has he been gone?”  She knew.  She recognized a grieving heart and stopped to help.  That was powerful y’all.  All I could do was look at her tender smile and sob.  I couldn’t speak.

That sweet lady sat on the floor and held me until the tears slowed down.  She gently stroked my hair and kept telling me that the pain would get easier with time.  She just held me and let me cry it out.  That adorable woman was truly an angel that day.  She gave me hope for the first time.  She helped me see that there were still kind people in the world.  Bless her beautiful soul!  I soaked her shirt. 

When the tears slowed, she let go of me long enough to grab a box of tissue from the shelf, opened it, wiped my face and gave me another tissue with the motherly instruction to “blow”; which made me giggle; which then made me cry more.  She handed me another handful of tissue and then tossed the opened box into my basket and said, “Sweetie, you’re going to need a lot more tissue in the coming years, but you will get through this.”  My Toilet Paper Angel then gave me some sage advice on shopping for one and after another long hug and her words of, “I’ll be praying for you,” we went our separate ways.

I didn’t get her name and I never saw her in the store again, but I’m so grateful to her.  She could have kept walking or avoided the aisle entirely, like anyone else who saw a sobbing lady on the floor would have done.  As embarrassing as it was to be breaking down in public, I’m so glad she stopped.  She didn’t make me feel bad about my grief, she just lovingly helped.  She was caring and kind to a broken person.  No judgement, just a loving heart.

My Toilet Paper Angel showed me that there was still compassion in what seemed like a really cruel world.  At a time when being around people was extremely difficult, she showed me that there were in fact, still caring souls out there.  She didn’t have to stop and comfort me, but she knew what it felt like and reached out.  If more people were like her, we’d have a much better world to live in.

So next time you see someone crying in the store, be kind.  Give them a tissue.  You don’t have to hear their story (unless they feel the need to share it), you don’t have to say anything;  all you have to do is be kind, show some compassion and you might just change someone’s day or even their life.  She sure changed my life.  After that day, when the shit got really bad, I’d hear that sweet ladies’ voice saying, “you will get through this.  I’ll be praying for you”, and it’s pulled me through some tough times.

Grieving is a rough road. Anxiety makes that much worse.  The compassion of others is what helps those of us grieving or dealing with anxiety get through the bad days. 

Stay compassionate and kind my friends.  Try to be someone else’s Toilet Paper Angel, you might just save a life.

About Sarah Johnston

Hi! I’m Sarah. I’m a suicide loss survivor who also happens to be dealing with severe anxiety, PTSD and depression. What a ball of fun right? Maybe someone else out there can learn from my triumphs and disasters as I trip and panic my way through grief, loss and mental illness.

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  • Douglas Finer

    Your toilet people article is poignant. Made me cry. Thank you Sarah.

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