About an hour after my father died, I wandered away from my parents’ den, where he lay in a rented hospital bed, and went outside to be by myself for a while. On the horizon of the cold dusk sky the January sunset was a deep blazing red, more vivid than I remember seeing before or since. I imagined Dad shooting through the sky like a flaming arrow, for he was straight and true. Or like the Greek sun-god Helios arcing across the firmament in his chariot, for he was like the sun to me. Or Old Testament Prophet Elijah spiraling up to heaven in his fiery chariot, for Dad had (briefly) suffered, and deserved this final reward. Or all of these things at once.
These images were felt by me instinctively, and I didn’t share them with my mother, my sister or my daughter - partly because they were so intense I didn’t feel I could speak them aloud, and partly because a little internal voice said that I might be perceived as being melodramatic or even superstitious. Dad was an atheist, besides, and an academic family such as ours generally needed provenance, logic, or science to believe such things, surely?
It turned out that we needed none of those things, and a few hours later any doubts I had of such ideas were firmly swept away. Sitting in the dark on the family porch, I was startled by a lone goose, who flew down unusually close to the house, only honking when right in front of me, and then flapped away. It felt like a visit, and I went inside to tell my family about this “amazing phenomenon” before returning outside to the still night air.
About half an hour later Mum came to join me, and literally as she stepped through the door, a chevron of geese swooped down lower than any ever had before, all honking wildly as they flapped by. This had to be a sign, right? Lo and behold, when my sister came out to look for us another half hour later, yet one more goose suddenly appeared out of nowhere to make its presence known.
We all clung to the belief that this had to mean something, because believing the geese were visiting for a reason, that they might even be Dad saying goodbye, brought us comfort in that bleak “dark night of the soul”.
Since then, half the birds of the northern hemisphere’s skies have become ‘symbols of Dad’, such is our wish to remain connected to him in as many ways as possible. My sister and I have talked about this – she lives thousands of miles away, on another continent, and yet she sees the same ‘signs’.
For me, noble hawks always seem to circle overhead when I need his strength;
bright, persistent cardinals pop up in the nearby hedgerow when I want to chat to him;
mated-for-life swans scud silently by to remind me of his marriage proposal to my mother on the second day they met (married five weeks later, they were soul mates for 60 years);
never-shy catbirds hop right up close and train their beady eye on me in the same piercing way Dad always did;
squabbling blue jays even bring back family silliness, when we were a family together;
ephemeral, iridescent hummingbirds are rare and colorful visitors to my yard, but he was rare and colorful too.
And the seminally symbolic geese always bring me right back to the seismic shift in our world on that evening, when at one moment he was alive with us and in the next he had wrenched himself away.
Accepting and allowing that he was gone, in intensely painful slow motion, was like a long difficult labor, delivering a new reality.
Why do human beings believe that signs and symbols from the natural world represent the presence of, or messages from, our loved ones after they are gone? For instance, many people believe that butterflies are deep and powerful representations of life. Butterflies are often thought to be a symbol of their departed loved ones or of eternal life, perhaps because of their metamorphosis from chrysalis to butterfly. Recently, Dmitri, a Connecticut Hospice staff member’s son, felt it was symbolic to release the 6 new butterflies from his Butterfly Garden on the site where hospice care first began in the United States.
Dragonflies are said to symbolize change and transformation, and are connected to signs from loved ones. Feathers, storms and rainbows are also often imbued with special meaning after a loss.
There are websites devoted to supporting the bereaved through the sharing of personal stories of ‘signs and symbols’ they have experienced. Click here for an example: signs of a deceased loved one
People often tell the recently bereaved to “look for signs – you’ll see them all around”, to reassure and comfort, and because they believe it to be true.
It seems that we try to hold onto someone we dearly miss by creating a physical manifestation where there is no longer a physical presence. That so many of these ‘messengers’ are animate entities of the natural world – animals, birds, insects, sometimes even flowers and trees – appears to bear this out.
It is well documented that nature has the power to bring solace and rejuvenation to us whether or not we are grieving, and it is plausible that we instinctively understand this capacity when we so readily ascribe special meaning to its creatures and its beauties.
Nick Cave writes
“The paradoxical effect of losing a loved one is that their sudden absence can become a feverish comment on that which remains. That which remains rises in time from the dark with a burning physicality — a luminous super-presence — as we acquaint ourselves with this new and different world. In loss things – both animate and inanimate – take on an added intensity and meaning”.
Nowadays, when Mum and I sit on the porch together, we sometimes talk about the ‘Great Creative Force” that connects all things. As an artist and woman of great wisdom, my mother can find symbolism and interconnection everywhere. Where once the anecdotes we heard about ‘signs’ from departed loved ones were possibly feasible, but mostly abstract, ideas, our family now knows and feels the truth of them.
We lost him but now he is everywhere.
To read Nick Cave's entire piece, click here: how to understand the experience of loss
To read an essay on birds and loss, visit: the birds scattering blue
What is the 'dark night of the soul'? To explore its interpretations, click here: the dark night of the soul - understanding amidst the absence of meaning
To hear the exquisitely beautiful "Dark Night of the Soul", Ola Gjeilo's composition for chamber choir, piano and string quartet (approx. 13 minutes), watch: Youtube: Dark Night of the Soul, Ola Gjeilo
Learn about and listen to catbird songs: All About Birds: Gray catbird sounds
All about Helios and how he is different from Apollo: Wikipedia: Helios