“Papa, Can You Hear Me?”
Seeking Reassurance When Bereaved
Please, give me a sign…
To know that you’re all right…
To know that you’re safe…
To know that you’re at peace…
Many of us have pleaded in this manner with deceased loved ones. Sometimes, our prayers are answered, sometimes they are not. Even when answered, the response doesn’t take the form that we long for so desperately — to have the person we have loved back in the flesh: breathing, healthy, and alive. We instead have to settle for something less obvious, more understated, and definitely less well understood.
We hear stories every day of “coincidences” and signs that reassure the grief-stricken that their loved ones are safe and at peace. These occurrences are part of the bereavement process for many individuals. Many cultures, in fact, actively support the seeking of signs from “the other side;” in some cases, such signs offer a means for resolving what has remained unresolved with a deceased loved one, or allow the seeker to move on with life.
A woman named Janet had an experience several years ago that has since offered her great comfort. Visiting her father’s gravesite on the first Father’s Day after his death and wishing to know that he was all right, she again asked him for a “sign.” This wasn’t the first time that she had asked. In the eleven months that had passed since his death, she asked for it many times and was now frustrated and angry. She wasn’t asking for much. After all, Janet, a nurse, cared for him throughout his illness. She had worked very hard to make him as comfortable and pain-free as possible. All she asked for was some way of knowing what we all long to know when someone we love has died. Where are they? Are they safe and at peace? Do they see or hear us? Will we be together again someday?
Janet looked up and saw what at first appeared to be a bird that had perched on her father’s gravestone. Only it wasn’t a bird — it was the biggest dragonfly she had ever seen! At that moment, she remembered the story of Water Bugs and Dragonflies, a booklet that she had purchased many years earlier.
The story has a simple, but profound theme — that there may be reassuring signs all around us that we just don’t recognize. In this way, we are like water bugs; as water bugs become dragonflies, their fellow water bugs no longer recognize them. The water bugs are frustrated that they don’t know what happened to their friends who have “gone to the other side.” The dragonflies can see their friends beneath the surface of the water and try to get their attention, but because they have assumed a different form, they are no longer recognizable to those they wish to contact and reassure.
From that moment on, Janet stopped looking for what she called “thunderbolts.” She came to see that there may be less dramatic signs all around us that we don’t recognize, signs that help us to know that our loved ones are at peace and that somehow, after their physical death, they still exist. She later learned that the dragonfly is a symbol of immortality.
There are so many mysteries in the universe. What is a “true” sign? What is a mere coincidence? We long for answers to our unanswerable questions. It sometimes seems that all we have to go on is our own instincts, our “gut” reactions to what goes on around us. And yet, by trusting our instincts and believing in ourselves, we find the courage to face the unknown with both a sense of resolution and wonder.
Paula D’Arcy, a nationally recognized author and lecturer on the subject of grief, wrote about the life-enhancing insights she gained on a “vision quest.” She spent three days in the woods, secluded from civilization but surrounded by nature. The Gift of the Red Bird offers readers a vicarious experience of the physical challenges and the spiritual insights gained from communing with nature.
At the D’Esopo Resource Center for Loss and Transition, we constantly hear stories about “messengers” from nature. For some, it may be a dragonfly, for others it may be a red bird. Skeptics may discount these as mere “coincidences” but, for many, the essence of faith is believing in things that you can’t prove, but that you somehow just know. And it is this “knowing” that allows one to heal from loss and meet the future with hope and reassurance.
D’Arcy, P. (1996). Gift of the red bird: A spiritual encounter. New York: Crossroad Publishing.
Water Bugs and Dragonflies booklets are available from the D’Esopo Resource Center for Loss and Transition, located in Wethersfield, Connecticut. A donation to maintain our supply is appreciated.
On 3 Oct 2005
By John M. Grohol, Psy.D.