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Reinvesting in Life
All the passages below are taken from the book, “Leaving This Life With Hospice: Stories of Wonder and Hope” by Margaret Ledger. It was published in 2005.
What we have once enjoyed and deeply loved we cannot lose; for all that we love deeply becomes a part of us. —Helen Keller
In loss, bereaved people cannot imagine their pain will one day lessen. Nevertheless, time does heal, though no one can tell how much time each individual requires for the healing process. I’ve heard people say they were going through the motions of life without any real enjoyment, they “fake it ‘til they make it.” Then one day they noticed they did something they actually enjoyed and didn’t think of their loss for a while. Gradually, once they felt comfortable talking to people again they found they could return to doing more of the things they used to enjoy. Slowly they began to make a new life for themselves. That doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t love to go back to the life they once had, but slowly they begin to adjust to a different situation and construct a new life for themselves.
The following stories are from people who are getting on with their lives in one way or another. Death of their loved one is no longer a primary issue in their minds but some experience reminds them of their connection to the departed. Some of the experiences were comforting and some were truly life changing. They do suggest the on-going connection stays for a lifetime.
Visits of the spirit
My father died when I was 40. The event triggered my own mid life crisis as I began to sort out who I was when I was when I was no longer my father’s daughter. After my father’s death, I went through therapy and saw the relationship with my father more clearly, both the good and the bad. I had worked through my early feelings of anger at his absence when I was small.
Four or five years later I was in a meditation group and saw a very clear vision of my father saying he wanted to talk to me. (My visions are crystal clear, although I don’t see that clearly normally.) I wasn’t about to take in that energy myself, having worked so hard not to let his beliefs and assumptions drive my behavior. After the session I told the leader about my vision, and she said, “Oh he’s here now. He says to tell you that you are going to be all right, that your mother is okay, and that you will see her in three weeks time.” (The leader had no way of knowing that I would be seeing my mother in exactly three weeks.) She added, “He just came to tell you he loves you.” As she spoke I could feel my father’s presence and a special energy penetrated my skin by about half an inch. I felt at peace. Everything became crystal clear to me and I am happy in the knowledge that it was a peaceful resolution and the appropriate closure of our relationship.
In this new and comfortable state of awareness, as I was driving home, I found I could sing. I must emphasize that all my family tells me that singing is very definitely not one of my strengths. I walked into the living room, told my husband I could sing and promptly did so. He said on a scale of 1 to 10, I was normally a 2 but this singing was an 8. Neither of us could understand it and within 24 hours the ability faded.
It wasn’t until several weeks later that I put two and two together and made the connection between my sudden gift of song and the visit of my father. I felt I was given something demonstrable to prove to me there was something there, which I could call real. This event brought me peace over both my father’s death and on the impact he had on me as a developing child.
For a year I joined a group that met once a month to meditate on world peace. The leader was a joyous, jubilant man, generous in girth and spirit named Chas. He was very much in touch with the call of spirit, of love and empowerment. Successfully, he facilitated workshops for people to see the wondrous side of themselves.
Unfortunately the world wasn’t quite ready to pay sufficiently for his services, so he struggled with some of the practical aspects of the physical world. He loved so many people, and so many people loved him. Furthermore, he also loved food and knew he could have been kinder to his physical body.
Chas was only in his forties when he had a sudden heart attack and died instantly. His funeral was particularly special with many attendees. Amongst these was an old friend who delivered a glowing tribute to him and an honest appraisal for a eulogy.
Several years later his widow, Allison, recounted this story of a visit from Chas. “Last month I was lying in my bed in our apartment and Chas just appeared sitting on the edge of the bed. He was wearing a white robe. I felt quite calm and asked him what he had been doing since he left. He said something like he had been in school learning how to take care of himself. He said he was learning the things that I had tried to get him to do when he was here. He said something about my not needing to carry on his work.”
Allison had been waiting for such a sign from Chas. Knowing the intensity of the spiritual connection he had felt when alive she felt sure he would eventually find a way to communicate with her. Thus she came to a newfound peace. Many friends, too, were fascinated to hear what Chas was up to in a life beyond.
One woman from our woman’s group, Diane, had been a very close friend of Susan’s for years. When Susan died Diane felt that she was supposed to keep a connection with her and that this would somehow be made possible. A psychic had suggested Diane try automatic writing. Consequently, Diane bought a special journal and a purple pen similar to the one that Susan had always used. Diane sat quietly and emptied her mind and eventually found that she could start writing. She had no idea what she was writing at the time, but when she read it through afterward it seemed clear that this was a message coming from Susan. Among other things Susan “dictated” about how it was beautiful where she was, but she had a job to do which was to work with children.
When the remaining group met for a weekend, Diane wrote page after page of Susan’s communication early on the Sunday morning. Later that morning Diane read her writing to the group. There were special words to each one of us, both celebratory comments, and advice on our next steps. At one point Diane read Susan’s words: “I am in the hummingbird, God is in the hummingbird.” Within minutes a hummingbird came to the window and hovered longer than I have ever seen a hummingbird hover. He flew farther along the window and hovered again. He seemed to get a look at each one of us in turn and bow his head.
That was the first hummingbird seen by anyone of us that year, and it was the first time the homeowner had ever seen a hummingbird at that location. Each one of us felt we were in connection with the divine. We had no doubts about that. Still, I wear the hummingbird pin we bought as a reminder of the occasion!
On the whole our American culture teaches us to rely on a scientific approach to life. We are rational, logical, believe in the miracles of modern technology therefore issues of death and spirit are very far from our acceptance and understanding. This is not necessarily so in other cultures. In some parts of the world death can be viewed quite differently. The specific religion practiced in any culture provides the framework with which they live. Not only do they accept death as part of life much better than we do in this country, they are open to concepts of spirits and on-going connections.
Many people celebrate a “Day of the Dead.” The whole family takes a picnic to the cemetery and people dress up the tombs and generally have a good time whilst remembering their ancestors. Why not? What a great way to be remembered.
I had an opportunity to visit a Peruvian Quechan family living in an old Inca stone house. In the one and only room there was an arched niche in the wall, and there, in the position of honor was a skull with a lit candle adjacent. We asked our guide and interpreter questions about it. The skull was that of the wife’s mother. After the body had been buried for 3 years, their custom was to dig it up and bring it into the house. There it was revered. The adults would confer with it and ask advice and guidance from it, and felt they received it. The skull was used to baby sit when necessary. The grandchildren still believed that grandma was watching and they had better be good.
What a wonderful way to feel continuity within the family. Both adults and children believed their relative took a new form, but believed that she continued to be just as concerned about the surviving family’s welfare after her death as she was in life.
At eighteen, my daughter spent a summer as a counselor at a summer camp. She and another girl her age lived with and supported twelve eight-year-old girls in a cabin. One child, a beautiful Puerto Rican, was having a hard time sleeping in this hut in the woods.
My daughter talked to her to try and understand how best to help her. The girl was happy to explain that at home the spirit of her dead grandmother would sit in her rocking chair bedside her bed every night and her presence gave the girl a warm sense of feeling of security. At camp there was no rocking chair and no spirit of her grandmother and she missed her! This was perfectly normal to that child and her family, and the sense she had of her grandmother’s love and the constant connection and security that provided for her didn’t disappear with her grandmother’s death.
The treatment of the remaining body can be very different in some cultures. The Indian method was to set alight a funeral pyre and scatter the ashes in the holy Ganges River. Tibetans performed sky burials, where the body was ceremonially divided and fed to vultures. Both these cultures clearly saw the body as the unneeded shell that remains after the spirit has departed.
Many religions used to considered suicide to be a serious offense. These days, suicide tends to be viewed in a more compassionate light; it is seen as an act taken as a result of deep stress or mental imbalance. Religions such as Roman Catholicism and Judaism have relaxed their refusal to give suicide victims a normal burial. Hinduism and Buddhism teach that the person who has committed suicide will have an unfortunate rebirth.
In the circumstance of suicide, the grief of the survivors is severe. Often they often tremendous guilt and wonder what they might have been able to do to prevent their loved one taking their own life. The examples of suicide in my own experience are as follows. One young man I knew at college committed suicide; I had even said no to his request for a date a couple of months before his death. At the time it was natural for me to wonder if, by accepting that date, I could have made a difference to him and helped him want to live. A man at work died suddenly, without us ever being told how he died, and we were left to suspect an act of suicide. As his manager, I had to wonder if I could have provided more support. In my role as a bereavement coordinator, I have tried to support three different people, each of whom had a child take their own life.
In hospice we see dying as a final stage of growth, therefore I don’t see any room for the justification of suicide. My sense of the people I knew or heard about directly who committed suicide, was one of a deep anguish and emotional pain in their circumstances, which they were unable to face. I can only feel compassion and trust that their “God” deeply loves. The bereaved, left in their wake, need all our understanding and compassion, too.
All these stories continue to demonstrate the on-going connection between the living and the dead. In particular they are interesting because the receivers of these experiences were already moving on with their lives. For them the pain of loss had receded and they were no longer looking for signs or connections. The experiences seemed to have happened to give the bereaved a sense of completion.
To reiterate, our American culture is so focused on the scientific, on the practical and on the physical, we routinely dismiss these kinds of stories. Some other cultures accept the concept of spirit or energy continuing after death, and that the love and concern for loved ones lives on. We are so often told it’s just in our minds or in our imagination. Maybe it is. But maybe we need a new definition of “mind” and of “imagination.”
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