Love Beyond Death
“…it becomes so simple when you surrender grief to the ongoing act of living, to being, to becoming.”
– Richard Wagamese (p. 24, Embers)
Happy Birthday, Linda, Jim said. I’m nearby.
Given that my husband had been dead for eleven months, it unnerved me to hear him.
The moment I heard his voice in my mind, a lightbulb directly above me on the garage ceiling blew out with such force that sparks showered around me bouncing to the damp concrete floor.
I don’t usually experience my thoughts as voices. If anything, they have the quality of my own voice. This thought came in Jim’s voice, no mistaking it.
I had just lugged a 5-gallon white bucket filled with bird seed across a muddy path around the side of the house Jim and I had built in the wooded hills of West Virginia. Jim had loved watching birds nibble at feeders. He had hung two of them from a tall Sycamore toward the back of the house just above the bottom of a hill.
Jim was gone and the job of tending the feeders was now mine. Sometimes this was just one more thing on my plate, along with loneliness and grief. Sometimes it was a comfort, connecting me to him and at the same time pulling me forward into my new life, one task at a time.
Can you see me, Jim? Feel me? I had wondered, as I scooped seed into the feeders. It was my first birthday as a widow. I was 47. Jim had made 25 of my birthdays special. On this one, there would be no rose, no funny card and no excuse for not making a birthday cake.
After topping off the seed I had shrugged my shoulders to ease the kink created by the weight of the pail. I had paused to listen to the silence.
In the right weather conditions, the sounds of a siren or the engine of a 16-wheeler throttling down to manage a curve could carry from the faraway two-lane that hugged the ridge surrounding my forest home. In that moment there was just silence broken only by rustle of a small animal in the leaves and the distant caw of a raven circling dead meat, probably a deer felled by a bobcat.
Smoke from the fire burning in the wood stove wafted on the air. I felt grateful that Jim and I had found our way to this isolated, wild place. “Thank you, JP,” I whispered aloud, “for teaching me to be so present to nature.” I slid the muddy eight feet down the hill and headed for the garage.
I looked up to the garage ceiling and sighed. I hated ladders, having broken my body in a fall from one years ago, but nobody else was going to change that light. Resigned, I retrieved a replacement bulb, hefted the clumsy ladder off the wall where it hung and climbed toward the blackened fixture. I wondered if simultaneously hearing Jim and the demise of the blub were connected.
Task accomplished, I dismounted the ladder and made my way to the door of the laundry room. The hum of the dryer soothed me as I moved toward the kitchen, which was shadowed with dusk.
As I flipped on the light switch, the bulb in the sconce fixture on the far left flashed forcefully, popped, and went dark. Two thoughts competed for my attention: Jim is present here. And, “The wiring is malfunctioning. I’ll have to call the electrician.
My hand had frozen on the switch. Most of us have “flashbulb” memories, moments of such emotional charge that we remember where we were and what was happening with extra clarity. For many of us, the moment we heard about the assassination of John Kennedy, or saw the picture of the Challenger disaster or heard about the attacks on 9-11 have that flashbulb quality.
This memory of the light bulb blowing out in the kitchen nook is one such memory. The air shimmered with a presence. I sensed that the veil between the invisible, the spiritual, and the visible, the human, was very thin.
I remember the Microsoft screen saver on the computer perched on the desk in front of the window. A half-drunk cup of tea sat next to it in a mug lettered “MOM” in bright orange. A Lipton tea bag was plastered to the inside of the mug. It was as though something other than me breathed even though I was alone in the house. I was a little afraid, the feeling was so intense.
Moving in slow motion, I retrieved another light bulb and screwed it into the fixture. I tested the light to be sure it worked and walked toward the darkened living room so that I could stoke the fire in the wood stove. I flipped the 3-way switch that would turn on a lamp to light my way. The bulb in the swirled ceramic-based table lamp blew out with such force that sparks cascaded to the parquet oak table supporting it.
Jim’s voice rang emphatically in my mind, I really am nearby, Linda. I love you. I will always be with you. I felt both comforted and incredulous.
I approached the lamp cautiously and peered over the edge of the shade. The blackened bulb had blown with such intensity that the metal neck around it had melted. They were fused. The lamp was useless.
JP, I’ve got it, I thought, You ARE here. Chuckling, I said aloud, “Honey, amp it down a bit! I’m on my last light bulb!”
The sound of Jim’s laughter rippled in my mind; in that instant the heightened energy in the room dissolved. Colors returned to their normal hue. Sounds became less distinct. The subtle sense that my body was vibrating went away. The house felt empty again and still, but friendly. Whatever presence had been there was gone. I was left knowing that Jim’s spirit was alive. Our love was forever. I sat and bawled.
Several days later, the tousle-haired, friendly electrician with the age-crinkled face who had wired the house, arrived to explore whether a malfunction had caused three bulbs to blow out in quick succession. He found nothing. Poised above the melted lamp and scratching his head, he drawled unpretentious wisdom: “Who knows why that happened?” he shrugged. “There ain’t nothin’ wrong with the wiring. Some things are just mysteries.”
* * *
I don’t know what happens after death. But I am certain that Jim, as a distinct and conscious energy within me and within life, was present in our home, innocently blowing up my light bulbs.
Intellectual knowledge cannot explain my experience. What matters to me is the feeling it left: a soulful, heart-warming certainty that love endures beyond death. That knowing vanquished concerns about Jim’s well-being and substantially eased my fear of dying.
During my years as a counselor, people often shared similar experiences. Sensing the presence of loved ones who have died is common, though not universal. What is striking is that people mostly keep such experiences secret. They hold them close to the heart, perhaps confessing them in a therapist’s or priest’s office, in the confidentiality of a grief group, or among trusted confidants. Why are we reticent to share them?
Ours is a culture that values rationality and empiricism. We distrust the intuitive, heartfelt, and subjective. And, yet, it is precisely what can be felt, and not known by intellectual means, that heals. Understanding the reality of infinite love is the ultimate healer.
Months after my husband died, I befriended a Native American medicine woman of the Crow tribe. Her First Nation wisdom and humor stirred me. Because of her, I experienced group drumming, spontaneous dancing and came to claim my “snake” energy: the power to help myself and others through transformation, times of shedding one skin for another.
One evening, over a steak she had grilled on a flatiron in her kitchen, she said to me, “Linda, Jim hovers near you and your daughter. He sees you as wobbling tops, at risk of spinning out of balance.”
The overhead light in the small dining room was dimmed and we sat at a rectangle table covered in a lace white cloth placed in front of a large window, beyond which dusk fell. A dreamcatcher hung in the window, cascades of red and yellow beads falling from the woven circle in the middle.
My teacher had put her steak knife down and cupped her hands around a space as though to demonstrate what she meant. The gesture was tender. She continued, “It’s like he has his arms cupped around both of you, to steady you. She paused and looked directly into my eyes. “Once you are righted, he will move on. He has important work to do in another level of reality.”
As she spoke, the flame of a small candle in the middle of the table flickered wildly. This drew our attention. My friend smiled. “Hmmm, yes.” Her eyes closed, opened and then widened. She was silent for a moment. “His love for you is unlimited. He is here and wants you to know he wishes you only happiness.”
She said this as though the presence of spirit consciousness was as natural, as ordinary, as the bread and butter on the table. Nothing special. Just a part of life. Evidence of the oneness of consciousness, knowable in a feeling.
Linda Sandel Pettit, Ed.D.