Jul. 28, 2017

Close Encounters

Newly grieving people often report experiences of having seen, heard, or otherwise felt the presence of their loved one after they have died. We are assured these types of things are part of the normal grieving process but are not actually happening. Those of us who have had these encounters are quick to disagree. "They" continue to believe we are out of touch with reality. We continue to believe that they are out of touch with the new reality that is our world. Neither point can be proven definitively.

Like many long-married couples, Butch and I could connect at a non-verbal level that was pretty crazy. When he was driving long haul routes, it was well before mobile phones. After he had been gone for days, I would wake up in the middle of the night and start cooking his dinner on just an intuition that he was back in town. He would walk in as I put the food on the table. He would say he had been imagining "coming home." for 30 minutes.

One time we were laying in bed on a Saturday morning, awake but not yet jumping up to begin our busy day. I asked myself what to give to the boy whose birthday party my kids were attending that afternoon. My eyes had just fallen on a perfect gift on a shelf in my closet that I had purchased for a party later that month. At that same moment, Butch said, "We could give him that toy in the closet.” He was answering a question I had not asked out loud.

Another time, I was in Albuquerque, NM, traveling with my mother and my sons. I was unable to get to sleep so I decided to practice "coming home”. I imagined kind of flying cross country and landing in our yard. I walked in the front door, noticing the mess and dirty dishes on my way down the hall. I saw the clothes piling up on the floor. I climbed into bed, snuggled up behind him, and immediately began to doze off. About that time, my mom, who was my bed mate in Albuquerque, let loose with the loudest snore in the world. It felt like I was yanked from my warm bed at home and slammed into bed with her. First thing in the morning, I received a call from Butch, asking if I "came home" the night before. He said he had been startled awake suddenly and was so sure there was someone in the house that he checked the doors and windows twice and slept the rest of the night in his recliner in the living room.

Based on many such events, it seemed only natural to reach out to him like that the morning after his heart attack. He was miles away, in a medically induced coma, undergoing a body temperature reducing procedure designed to help his brain heal if it could. I imagined floating into his head, wishing I could tell him we were out here, fighting for him and we needed him to fight too. It was the most amazing experience. I thought at the time that he was telling me he was in there and we should not give up on him. Ten days later, as I was describing it to the Kaiser chaplain that I realized he had been telling my goodbye. I just didn't want to hear it. It felt like he was telling me he was so glad I was there and he had counted on me "coming home" because there was so much he wanted to share with me. He wanted me to know that "it's amazing". He had no regrets. He knew how much we loved him and wanted us to know how much he loved all of us. He told me to "Give them my love because they will need that most of all." It felt like I dropped into the place in his brain(?) where he held his love for us and I was watching his life go by in visions of loving moments between him and all of us. That was all that remained of us for him and he wanted that to be known. I felt so energized and positive in my belief that he could get well and come back to us.

Since his death there have been multiple incidents when my granddaughter seemed to see and engage with him. I have experienced him in strange yet tangible ways over and over. They all sound like the kind of things that experts assure us are typical of what grieving people experience but are not really happening. But for me, they are happening.

One of my grieving clients refers to them as gifts. The most recent "gift" happened last week while I was vacationing with my brother, his wife and kids, and her very lovely family in Puerto Vallarta. They booked a room with two queen beds for their kids and me to share. I serve as a surrogate grandmother for their kids and we have gone on road trips together in the past. I booked a single room with a king bed for them to use. It took the hotel a minute to get us as close together as possible and figure out the room switching arrangements. We went to our rooms to settle in and then met her family for dinner. I never gave the room number a thought. It was not until the next day, when I was trying to give my room number to a staff member that spoke limited English that I realized what had happened. I told her my room number was fourteen thirty-four. She didn't track it stated that way, so I slowly said one-four-three-four. It was at that moment that it hit me. In an earlier post I talked about how Butch loved nicknames and numeric codes. From the time we were 18 years old and he was writing from basic training in the Army, he had been writing 1434 on everything. It was the numeric equivalent of "I love you more". I had not seen it written in that way since he wrote it on my birthday card two days before his heart attack, so I missed it until I said it out loud. My randomly assigned room number, including a room switch with my brother was 1434. Every time I came to my room it was like a little whisper from Butch reminding me that he would always be with me. He wasn't riding next to me in the plane or fishing with me on the boat, or sharing the view of the Pacific Ocean out my window, but he was there nonetheless.

Becoming us without them requires that we walk the fine line between holding on too tight, and loosing them altogether. We come to the realization that we can't ever lose them because they live in every cell in our bodies. It means allowing ourselves to look for and receive these close encounters as gifts without worrying too much about what they are or aren't. It means slowly healing to the point that an encounter with them or their memory feels more like a sweet caress than being stabbed by a hot poker. It means reminding ourselves over and over that the best parts of them and the best parts of that treasured "us" lie below the pain. It mean coming to terms with the reality that it is by fighting our way through the pain that we expand our overall emotional capacity. The pain that seems to be such pure agony is building the infrastructure for deeper understanding of ourselves and others and for that peace that passes understanding that is so hard to believe in now.

The greatest "gift" that Butch seems to be giving me is the understanding that he is one with God now. When I look into God's eyes, I see not only the depth of God's love for me, but I also see Butch and his love for me. It is when I look into God's eyes that Butch can see me and send his love into my soul as part of how God has loved me in the past and allow me to believe that amazing things wait for me in the future in this world and beyond.

Rather than finding answers to all my questions, these encounters open me up to a world that is beyond my ability to understand, even if I could figure out the right questions to ask in the first place. I am awakened to indescribable mystery and wonder and faith in new ways each step of the way.