We live in a society that is uncomfortable with discomfort. Technology and progress are geared towards efficiency. The focus is on making our lives faster and easier, making our consumption greater, eradicating any waiting. When it comes to grief, however, there are no shortcuts. There's no new gadget that allows us to bypass the suffering that comes with loss. There's no easy way out; there is only through. We have to sit with the ache. Grief teaches us that sometimes discomfort is a necessary part of progress.
When we're grieving, it can feel like we are shutting down. As if all parts of us are withdrawing, far away from the world that we'd previously inhabited; a world that made sense to us. And that may be true. But I think simultaneously, we are experiencing an opening. This withdrawal is also a removal of the interference and the distraction of everyday life. A distraction that often muffles our deeper connections and stifles the soul's voice. I believe in some way grief can allow us to get quiet and find a stillness where the whispers of spirit can come through. Where we are clear enough to hear them.
The first person I knew who died was my grandmother; I was 8 years old. Her favorite flowers were African violets, a fondness for which my mother acquired. My mom was never very good at keeping plants alive (I grew up with a lot of dead ferns hanging around), so when the African violet in our kitchen started to brown and wilt on the same day that Grandma died, I didn't think much of it. But then when we returned from her funeral a week later, miraculously, the flower was in full bloom again. As if it had been replaced by a new one. I remember my mom catching her breath when we walked into our kitchen to be greeted by this flower, now vibrant purple and thriving. Mom said simply, "Grandma’s here." I didn’t understand what she meant then. But I certainly do now.
To me, part of the reason these kinds of connections with our loved ones in spirit are so powerful is because there is no interference. That static has been removed. I look at them like direct, pure, unadulterated communications. In all of my experiences with this, as varied as the details may have been— the who, the what, the where, the when—there is always a consistency to the way it feels. Like a pure, all encompassing sensation that is more powerful than anything I've experienced in the physical world alone.
I've had lost loved ones reach out to me in varying ways. Through music, through other people, through psychics, through dreams, through random acts in the physical world. When I was writing my book Wake Me When You Leave, a memoir about losing my father to cancer, I felt the nudges from him constantly. Sometimes in small ways, like a brief sensation, a sense of ease or peace washing over me. And sometimes in very concrete and jarring ways, via otherwise inexplicable events.
One such event occurred when I was writing the chapter about a visitation dream I had with my father. The dream opens with a girl walking a horse on a sidewalk in a sort of idyllic suburban neighborhood. A horse on a sidewalk in the physical world is a somewhat unusual sight, but in the dream it was nothing out of the ordinary at all. At the time I was writing that chapter, we lived across the street from an elementary school in a flat in the Marina district of San Francisco. This part of the city has a sort of suburban feel— no traffic lights, only stop signs. Relatively quiet, wide, streets. I would write in our living room that had a big picture window overlooking the street outside. At this particular moment I was feeling discouraged about the whole project— the book and the film associated with it that I was trying to get off the ground. I remember shutting the computer and saying out loud, "This is just never going to happen. Horses on the sidewalk?! This is stupid and no one will get it. What am I thinking?!" Tears started to well up, when I heard a strange sound coming from outside on the street. I thought it sounded like… horses hooves on pavement. I couldn't and didn't believe my ears. Until the sound got louder and louder and I looked out that window and sure enough, there they were: Not one, but two policemen on horseback. One walking in the middle of the street and one on the sidewalk. Needless to say, there were never horses in our neighborhood (nor were there ever policemen for that matter). In fact I had never seen a horse anywhere in the city whatsoever. I jumped up, flabbergasted and mouth agape, as I watched them mosey on down the block like it was the most natural thing in the world. Clip clop, clip clop. I felt that all-encompassing sensation throughout my body, flushing through me. A heightened yet softened reality, and I sat back down with a reassurance. And kept writing.
Just before Wake Me When You Leave went to the printer, I was in the midst of doing my final author proofread when dear friends of ours experienced an unimaginable tragedy—the violent loss of a 9-year-old son. As a parent myself, this is the unthinkable. I don't know that anyone has the proper words to articulate what that kind of loss does to you. I think of my friends—the boy's mother and her partner—and their loss daily, sometimes hourly. I long to help them. I so deeply long to have the magic salve that will relieve this mother of her grief, and to be able to comfort her partner who had planned to become the boy's stepfather. My logical mind tries to assemble the perfect concoction of words that will alleviate their pain. But every time I attempt to, I am stung by the harsh reminder that I cannot take away a mother's grief. I can't pick up the pieces of her shattered heart. And I can't remove the weight her partner feels supporting her, while simultaneously trying to process his own trauma. I see that it feels insurmountable for them both. So I do what I believe is the only thing I can do to assist them through this unfathomable time: I check in with them, I tell them I love them and am thinking of them. I listen. I am a witness to their pain and I acknowledge it, trying to reflect back the fierce love they have for that boy. Neither of their lives will ever be the same. But how they will be different remains to be seen, and is up to them.
I've been told that when a child that young is taken from their mother so tragically, that they will return back to her. My heart deeply hopes this will be true for my friend. It is still very recent and so fresh, but there have already been inklings that perhaps he might. Shauna, the owner of The Crystal Shrine in Los Angeles, helped me choose some crystals and stones for my friend. All I told Shauna was that I had friend going through unimaginable grief and loss, and I wanted her to have something she could carry with her to help process her grief. Without knowing me or my friend and the specifics of her situation, Shauna said, "Oh. Was he very young? A little boy with dark hair? He's letting me know it's him." She went on to say that sometimes the spirits will come through to her like that, but not always. Shauna's own husband had died suddenly and unexpectedly years earlier, and she believes that he often helps her with this kind of work.
Children also seem to be closer to these sorts of connections. My daughter, who is now 8, has always had a very tangible connection to the other side. I've been told that she met my own father over there, that he held her in his arms, before she was born to me in this life. And when she was 4, she knew that my father-in-law had passed before anyone else did. Then, coming out of the shower just the other night, she told me she had a "crazy dream" that we got all dressed up to go and meet our friends' new baby— the friends who recently lost the child. "Why would we get dressed up to meet a baby??" she laughed, as if that was the strange part, and not the fact that our friends had privately just told us that they are thinking about having a baby. They know that having a baby will not replace their loss, nor will it extinguish their grief, but if my daughter's dreams are any indication—perhaps the soul of that boy will indeed come back to them.
I often picture my father on the other side laughing with a kind of giddy glee. Like he's urging me to let go of my tedious frustrations and fly— to understand that there is so much more than this physical world we inhabit. I think our loved ones long to reach us to share with us the peace and clarity to which they've moved on. To help ease our struggles in this life and free us from the multitude of attachments that we cling to within it. And the companionship their spirits can provide us while we walk the path of this life is an unrivaled kind of support. They can help us to know we are being looked after. That we are okay. That we are enough. That we are free. Although there is a huge emptiness we feel when our loved ones die, I do not believe that it is really the end. In saying that, I do not mean to disregard the deep feelings of loss; sitting with the stages of grief is vital to moving through and beyond them. For me, going through that painful process is how I eventually came to give it, and consequently my whole life, greater meaning. So yes, that loss changed my life forever, but perhaps that's part of the point of this life. If we can reframe how we look at loss, maybe we can shift its legacy into something beautiful.
Sometimes it still makes me sad to think of all of the things that my dad has missed in my life. There has been so much joy and so many big moments in recent years… But then I remember that he probably hasn't missed anything at all. He's been with me the whole time.
Elisa Donovan, known as an actress for her roles in Clueless, Beverly Hills 90210, and Sabrina The Teenage Witch, graduated from Eugene Lang College at The New School University in NYC, where she studied dramatic literature, ...