“People break down into two groups. When they experience something lucky, group number one sees it as more than luck, more than coincidence. They see it as a sign, evidence, that there is someone up there, watching out for them. Group number two sees it as just pure luck…..But there’s a whole lot of people in group number one………they’re looking at a miracle. And deep down, they feel that whatever’s going to happen, there will be someone there to help them. And that fills them with hope. See, what you have to ask yourself is what kind of person are you? Are you the kind that sees signs, that sees miracles? Or do you believe that people just get lucky?”
The above is a quote from the 2002 movie, “Signs,” written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan. The main character, Graham Hess, portrayed by Mel Gibson, is talking to his brother about how to view a supposed alien invasion.
The true conflict of Graham Hess has little to do with aliens and more to do with his grappling with intense grief after losing his wife in a tragic car accident. The last words his wife spoke to him, as she was pinned between a car and a tree, were “to see.”
Prior to his wife’s death, Graham was known as Father as he served in his vocation as an Episcopal priest. But the intense grief of his wife’s death, coupled with his anger at the driver of the car who caused the accident, led Graham to lose faith in God and chalk his wife’s last words up to delirium as the blood and oxygen supply was cut off from her brain. After the accident, he retired his collar and decided it was impossible to believe in a loving God who was looking out for us in this life to prepare for the next.
My struggles with complex grief began with the birth of my fourth child. It’s a strange thing to grieve the loss of a child who is standing right in front of you. But this grief is a profound reality for most parents of children with special needs and for caregivers in general.
But nothing has taught me more about grief, life and eternity than the death of those I have loved. It’s almost as if learning to grieve as a caregiver/parent helped build endurance for the death of loved ones.
Last summer, I embarked on a pilgrimage of mercy across the country to pray for family and friends, our country and the world. It was a month-long inspiring journey — I have yet to fully realize its impact on my life. It was grief that motivated me to make the journey. My mother died last spring, almost nine months to the day following my sister’s death.
This summer, I’m working through the painful effects of grief once again. I lost two close friends just three days apart. One of my friends died of cancer and the other died suddenly in her sleep at the young age of 52. My younger friend’s death was a profound shock, and my older friend’s anticipated death also hurts very deeply.
And even though we were prepared for my friend’s death from cancer — saying goodbye is just so hard. In her life and in the fight against cancer, my friend became a sign of hope for me and countless others who followed her journey. Even when she spoke about being a cancer survivor, she shared her assurance with others that earth was her temporary home. Her life became a sign of hope both for today and for eternity — to fix our eyes on heaven.
My younger friend who died suddenly in her sleep was like a sister to me. We’d known each other for 27 years. My friend and her family were our extended family. Taking the role of a doting aunt to my kids, my friend was always there when we needed her. She was a giving and selfless person.
This friend’s EMT training was especially helpful when I was in labor with my third child. As we rushed from Thanksgiving dinner to the hospital, she jumped in the back of the station wagon for a stressful ride. She held my hand right into the delivery room and was with us when my daughter was born just 10 minutes after we arrived. Her’s was the first face that greeted my daughter outside the womb and their eternal bond was formed in the delivery room.
The morning I received the call about my friend’s sudden death, I was spending a final weekend beside my other friend as her time drew near. There was no preparing for that shock and grief. I was letting go of one friend and praying her into the next life, not knowing that suddenly, and sooner, I would lose another dear friend.
After rushing to the side of our grieving family and dealing with the initial shock of sudden loss, I returned to the quiet bedside of my dying friend to spend the night with her in her final stages of life. Though it would seem I was surrounded by death — grieving the sudden death of one friend as I stood by another one preparing to die — in truth, there was so much life in those grievous days.
That night, as I stood vigil at my friend’s bedside, I envisioned my other friend standing beside me — trying to comfort me. In tears, I asked her to pray with me at my friend’s bedside. They knew each other from parties at our house and from conversations with me. Now, as I knelt in prayer beside my friend who was dying, I had this profound sense that my friend who died suddenly was joining us in prayer. And for a brief moment, it was as if heaven touched earth. I knelt between my two friends in prayer — one already in heaven and one beginning the journey home.
Somewhere in the midst of this powerful prayer, my dying friend opened her eyes and looked on my tear-stained face with deep compassion. I told her I loved her and she whispered, “I love you too.” I will never forget this profound experience of friendship and prayer that united heaven and earth.
The courage of those who loved and supported her through her cancer battle was a testimony to the power of love. My other friend lived a quiet but ever-present life of serving others through extensive volunteerism that few people really knew about. At both of their funeral services, people came out from everywhere to honor each woman and share how they touched their lives.
And each of my friends, in their own way, are sending signs from heaven.
After her mother died, my friend who battled cancer would see feathers everywhere, especially in the most difficult times. They were a sign of her mother’s presence and prayers from heaven. As she neared death, she promised to send us all feathers. Feathers began appearing right after her funeral — at a luncheon reception by the water. As friends and families began to disperse, I looked up in the sky to see a tremendous cloud that clearly was in the shape of a feather — leaving nothing to the imagination. It was clearly a sign from God that this beloved wife, mother, sister and friend was in heaven watching over all of us.
Since that time, many of us friends and family members are finding feathers everywhere and in unusual places. In one of my porch prayer times, I watched in amazement as a tiny feather fell from the sky and playfully landed on my dog’s head. I might not have believed it except I saw it happen before my very eyes.
My younger friend’s signs from heaven are quieter and constant — like a melody behind the scenes — much as she lived her life of loving service to others. After we laid her body to rest, a song played in my sleep every night. It was a song about being free and made new in Christ’s blood. One night I woke certain that it was she who was singing to me. I was happy for her but still so crushed in spirit over her sudden and untimely death.
I couldn’t stop thinking of her and that song in my dreams, as I drove back home from a medical appointment in Manhattan. Alone in the car, I talked out loud to God and to my friend and told them I needed to know that the song was from her. My request was very specific. I asked that if this song was indeed my younger friend’s song from heaven, that I would hear it as I drove past her exit on the expressway.
My younger friend frequently chatted with me on the phone when I drove these long journeys to NYC back home to the North Fork. She commuted in and out of Manhattan for many years. She was a friend who most frequently visited my daughter and me in our stays at NYU — something few friends could do. So I thought this an appropriate request for my sign from heaven.
The song began playing on Christian radio as I neared the exit on the expressway. I wept aloud even as I sang out this verse while I passed the exit for her house:
“What was dead now lives again
My heart’s beating, beating inside my chest
Oh I’m coming alive with joy and destiny
‘Cause You’re restoring me piece by piece” (Clean by Natalie Grant)
There is no question in my mind. Jesus played me the song that my friend is singing in heaven. It was a sign I could see and hear.
This week, people throughout the United States were looking up to the heavens to view “The Great American Eclipse.” I read with great interest that even people who don’t consider themselves religious were profoundly moved, feeling a heavenly connection that seemed not of this earth. The eclipse got us all looking up to the heavens, instead of down at our phones.
I see that as a miracle.
My sweet friends’ deaths are keeping us all looking up for signs from heaven. I am looking up for feathers floating from the sky, for mourning doves and butterflies, and I’m listening for still, small voices whispering I love you’s in the summer breeze and singing songs from heaven.
As far as the movie quote from “Signs,” I’m in group number one — the people who see signs and miracles and believe that we are not alone. And so was the main character when he realized his wife’s last words to him — “to see” — were a call from before and beyond the grave to see the signs from heaven and believe.
Death is not the end. Earth is our temporary home. Heaven and our loved ones await us all. There are signs all around us. We have only to believe and see.