I was relieved to see my smiling neighbor the other day. She was outside shoveling a light layer of snow as I walked my dog around the block. I hadn't seen her for many weeks and I worried when she didn't show up, as planned, at a holiday party.

But I didn't e-mail or call her during that time. I didn't want to pry.

Turns out she'd been sick. We joked about the "balmy" weather — in the mid-30s! — and about how strange it is that we all disappear from one another's lives from November until the first thaw in March or April, living worlds apart despite close proximity.

Even when we want to be good neighbors, we're often unsure about what that means.

How to be friendly without being overbearing, how to borrow or lend appropriately, how to point out that teenagers are being too loud, or that a lawn needs mowing, without sounding judgmental.

Being a good neighbor is tricky in the best of circumstances, and wintertime in Minnesota is not the best of circumstances. It's hibernation time for most of us, and bolt-for-Florida time for the lucky ones.

So I have only empathy for the neighbors of the Crowley family of Apple Valley, who are likely haunted by wondering if there was anything they could have done.

The young family was found dead on Saturday in an apparent murder-suicide. The father, 29-year-old David Crowley, his wife, 28-year-old Komel, and their 5-year-old daughter may have died as long as a month ago.

I felt sick at first hearing about it. "Dead a month?"

Then I thought about all the people on my block, many of them young families, others too frail to walk, who I haven't made a point to see since our lively National Night Out potluck last August.

The Crowleys' neighbors likely assumed (as I would have, if I'm being honest) that the family was on vacation, or that Crowley, a filmmaker, was off pursuing a movie project.

One neighbor generously shoveled their driveway more than once. When he later headed over to pick up their pile of packages, he looked inside the large front window and spotted the horror. A handgun was found at the scene.

The answer to "why" hangs heavily over all of us and, particularly, over two grieving families. According to news reports, a work colleague and even David Crowley's father made repeated attempts to contact him, without success.

Was Crowley, an Army man who served in Iraq, haunted by memories? Dealing with undiagnosed mental illness?

We may never know. But it wouldn't hurt any of us to reset our good-neighbor skills. Here are a few ideas:

Trust your gut. Are there lights on when they're usually off? Off when they're usually on? Curtains drawn for a long period of time?

"The most common reaction is, 'We had no idea,' " said Liz Richards, executive director of the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women.

"Over time, as we talk to folks who have started to think and ponder, they say that there were things that were unusual. I don't know if it would have made any difference at all in this situation but, in general, we still encourage people to stop on by, to reach out, to make connections."

Ring the bell. The United Nations created this simple, yet potentially lifesaving effort. If you're a good Minnesotan who doesn't want to intrude, but you are worried, ring the doorbell.

When someone answers, make a benign request. "May I borrow a few eggs?" "We baked cookies. Please share them with us."

"Isolation is often a part of the pattern of abuse and control. To make connections shows that we are aware," said Richards. "We care. You're part of our community. If there's nothing going on, it's not like it's embarrassing. You haven't accused anyone of bad behavior."

Create a block club if you don't have one, especially now in the coldest months. Broaden the concept of National Night Out to weekly or monthly gatherings.

"The benefits of being organized, even on a surface level, are huge," said Minneapolis crime prevention analyst Luther Krueger.

"These clubs get people to know each other," he said. "You don't have to be best friends, but you know that these are the habits of my neighbor and that a pattern just doesn't fit, such as, 'Hey, no one has shoveled.' "

Also, remember each end of the age spectrum. We tend to be better at checking in on our elderly neighbors when we don't see them for a while. We don't want them to slip, so we shovel their walks.

But let's also remember the stresses of being young, particularly in Minnesota where most people have extended families they can turn to for support.

"This family had recently relocated," Richards noted. "She had no family nearby. They were starting a business, they had a young child — all the pressures.

"We don't do a good job of saying that we all struggle."



Follow Gail on Twitter: @grosenblum