I always brought the broken pieces of my heart to my parents, especially to Mom. As she sat on her couch by the living room door, I collapsed in the cushioned seat across the room. My woes tumbled out. Boyfriends. Career decisions. Health struggles. I’m sure I didn’t follow her advice to the letter, but all I ever needed was her love and listening ear—two things she always gave freely. I didn’t realize how much of a best friend she was until she died. Where was I to take my shattered life then?
To Mom. She’d been dead two years in 2011 when I lowered myself into that same seat with the solemnity of sliding onto a church pew. I emptied my soul of regrets and struggles and pains, and as I spoke, I saw someone who wasn’t there. The glint in her eyes. The tilt of her head. A divine, enlightened, all-loving smile. My skin tingled. I knew I was reassembling her mannerisms in my mind as humans do in dreams, but I was wide awake.
While her image soothed me temporarily, the event didn’t exempt me from bouts of raw grief for years to come. Though I never experienced the same dream-like reanimation of my mother again, I encountered my parents over and over in ways no less valuable to my navigation of life after their deaths. In fact, I sought out these encounters. I experienced them primarily as I sifted through their belongings at their home. I prolonged the task for eight years, afraid to lose the connection that bridged the abyss of death.
“Death ends a life, not a relationship,” wrote Mitch Albom in Tuesdays with Morrie.
I discovered the quote in Albom’s 1997 memoir long after I had experienced its truth. The continued relationship with my parents after death was one of the surprises of grief. I often felt them with me. Not in the same way they had been in life, of course. Their physical absence, in fact, accentuated my loss. Yet at times I sensed their guidance or simply a presence. I sensed their comfort, their love—as though it had never left me.
I wondered whether I was weird. I clung to my parents’ home, rummaging through every piece of paper, photograph and junk drawer to “find them,” as I articulated it early in my grief. A decade passed, and other people’s grief began to draw my attention. I noticed a common thread in the popular posts and tweets on grief—a search for and celebration of connection.“We reassemble our loved one in dreams. We put up photographs of deceased parents, grandparents, husbands, children. We keep their room just as it was. Or we put energy into a cause that was near to their hearts.” – Toni Lepeska
As my awareness aroused, I discovered people everywhere seeking out connection with loved ones who’d died. Not people who were talking to the dead through a medium, but daughters and wives and mothers telling stories about what we call “signs.” Their faces alive with wonder, excitement and hope, these women were certain their loved one had guided or protected them, or simply showed up to say they were doing fine.
We may not be satisfied with one “sign.” The blissful incidents of connection I sensed were temporal. The reality of loss always broke through, and I sought out new events. We want a continuing bond. We want a resurrection.
We generate connection so many ways. We reassemble our loved one in dreams. We put up photographs of deceased parents, grandparents, husbands, children. We keep their room just as it was. Or we put energy into a cause that was near to their hearts. We go to their favorite places, or plant their favorite flower, or visit their dearest friend. We look at a newborn and say, “He’s got grandpa’s dimples.” We volunteer to raise money for cancer research. We wear our mother’s sapphire ring. We visit Facebook pages and scan posts of a brother who died too young. We scour the collective spiritual wisdom of the world for evidence that our husband’s or father’s soul is alive—that it was only their body that died.
That craving for connection, I believe, is the driving force behind the popularity of mediums. While with the breakup of a romance, the possibility of a reunion remains— though perhaps slight—the physical departure of a loved one feels intolerable. It is an absolute silence. And upon this backdrop, some people grasp at those who claim to be able to reassure them that their loved one’s spirit is still alive and with them, for a price. I did not seek out a medium, who I believe at best do not connect us to our actual loved one, but to a disguised entity.
Though not a year ago I finished cleaning out my parents’ house and sold it, I continue to find connections to my mother and father. I can’t help but smile when I put on the enormous rhinestone earrings my mother partied in as a single gal. She was bold and daring, and the older I get, the more I become like her. As I shift gears and zip through traffic, I feel connected as I remember Dad bracing himself against the door—but not scolding me. He’d taught me to drive but not to drive like that. The sense of connection may show up in profound ways, in the heart-bursting way I love two motherless children. Gosh, I think. This is how my parents loved me? Wow. Or it may show up in trivial ways, as it did a night in January when I reached for a clothes hanger.
I plucked the aged wooden hanger from the rod and glimpsed the print on the neck. “Gate #2 Yokota.” Japan. This was one of the hangers I’d brought from my parents’ home. They’d lived in Japan in the late 1950s when my father was stationed on an Air Force base. My heart used to sink when I’d happen upon a potential trigger, but that night I grinned. For an instant, my parents were part of my daily life again. No, no, not for an instant actually. They are a part of my life. Every day. I sense them all the time now, 13 and 10 years after their deaths. And while the cumulative weight of connections builds that sense of their presence, it means nothing without the confidence I have that their souls are safe with, I believe, a God who allows these bits of reassurance in my life. Ultimately, for me, my faith bridges a gap no human can.
Whatever a person’s viewpoint of the source of connectedness, it’s clear it springs from a bond that death cannot kill. The indestructibility of this relationship, paired with our incredible brains, reanimates a husband in a dream, recalls the past wisdom of a mother’s refrain for insight into the present, and prompts a search of the heavens for a being powerful and loving enough to reunite souls after death.