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How to Connect With Loved Ones After They Die

9 minute read

My first encounter with someone who thought you could connect with spirits was with my middle-school art teacher, Ms. Boudreaux, devout wearer of butterfly hair clips, butterfly jewelry, and butterfly print clothing. The rumor was that Ms. Boudreaux’s husband had passed away, and she believed he was reincarnated as a butterfly. She also wore a stack of bracelets up each arm, which spawned a rumor that she believed that if she took off a single bracelet, someone else would die. Back then, we thought Ms. Boudreaux was “crazy” and “weird.” At that age, I couldn’t empathize with her because my brain wasn’t fully formed and the only grief I had experienced was finding one of my Barbie dolls beheaded. Now, though, I understand Ms. Boudreaux, at least a little bit.

For millennia, humans have “seen” or communed with or sensed the dead. Whether you take this literally and visit a psychic medium, pull out your Ouija board so you can ask your grandmother for her secret lemon-icebox-pie recipe, or see someone in a dream, staying connected with those we’ve lost is one way to cope, and maybe even celebrate them. Today, most psychologists believe in “continuing bonds” that promote a healthy attachment to the people we mourn. A 2013 study published in the Journals of Gerontology on the afterlife beliefs of widows and widowers found that some sort of spiritual continuing bond, whether it’s a belief in reincarnation or some other sense of an afterlife or connection post-loss, can be “universally protective” for a bereaved person. Of the 319 participants who lost a spouse during the study period, 68% said they believed in an afterlife where loved ones are reunited.

I wore my mom’s cobalt-blue colon-cancer-awareness bracelet every day for over two years after she died. It was a “linking object,” something that belonged to her, that helped me feel connected. If it accidentally fell off, I would frantically search until I found it. I didn’t think anything bad would happen, but something panicked me about losing it. That piece of circular blue rubber linked me to my mother and reminded me of what she had endured. Eventually, when I did lose that bracelet, my search wasn’t frantic. I heard my mom’s voice in my mind, saying, “Honey, stop wearing that ugly old bracelet and put on some pretty jewelry. It’s time to move on.” She (or I?) didn’t mean move on from her, but from that bracelet. Letting go of that object felt right, at that time. It took a while to get there, but I was ready.

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When my mom was sick, she would sometimes tease us by saying, “I’m going to come back and haunt you girls.” Our response was always, “Please do.” When she died, my sisters and I each waited for her to haunt us. We actually get a little jealous if one of us is “haunted” by our mom or my sister Jackie, who died less than three years later, in a dream. The night we found out Jackie died, my dad had a dream that he saw my mom standing in a white dress, looking sad and alone. It’s the only visitation he’s had from her, and it rattled him, seeing her so lonely. I told him I thought it was her telling him that she’s there with him, mourning Jackie alongside him. I don’t know if my interpretation is true, but it’s more comforting than his take.

My friend Alisa Weinstein, whose father was kidnapped by al-Qaeda in 2011 and killed in 2015, told me that several months after her father died, she went to a medium to try to connect with him. The readings were not something she previously believed in, but she missed her dad and desperately wanted to “see” him in some way. The medium told her that when she or her mom saw a gathering of birds, that would be her dad. “I was skeptical at first,” Alisa says. “But a few months later I went to visit my mom and we noticed all of these birds gathered in an azalea bush outside her house, so we were like . . . maybe it’s Dad.” She says birds are now a way for her to feel her dad close to her. “I’ll be walking in downtown San Francisco and a hummingbird will dart in front of me and I’m like, ‘Hi Dad,’” she says. “I know it’s ridiculous, but it just gives you a moment to think of them, for whatever that might be worth.”

Joyal Mulheron from the bereavement nonprofit Evermore says that snowfall is the sign that helps her feel her daughter Eleanora’s presence. On the one-year anniversary of Eleanora’s death, it snowed, which Mulheron says is uncommon for Washington, D.C., in October. When she later delivered her son, it snowed for the 20 minutes he was being born. Now, snowfall always connects her to the daughter she lost, and brings her comfort, even in her sorrow. She also has Eleanora’s ashes in an urn, which her son has covered in Spider-Man stickers. “He has become quite connected to her,” she says. “It’s a way of integrating her into our lives. It’s those little things you have that you try to hold onto that help you make it to the next day.”

Read More: Grief Is Universal. That Doesn’t Make It Less Isolating

My mom might not literally haunt us, but she has visited my youngest sister Kathryn, apparently many times. After the funeral, Kathryn started sending photos of butterflies to the family text chain. She would follow the photos with texts like: It’s Mom! I was not aware of how many different butterflies there are in Texas until I started getting these near daily texts. Photos of monarchs that read, look, it’s mom! Or maybe an image of a Painted Lady butterfly, simply accompanied by: mom! My dad, Amy, and I wouldn’t discourage Kathryn’s texts, because we knew it brought her comfort, and it helped us, too.

She did stretch our beliefs one day when the butterflies turned into something less ethereal. It’s mom I swear! And then, I guess to explain why she was texting us a blurry photo of a rooster: She always loved roosters. This random rooster ran across Kathryn’s path, and she was convinced that it had something to do with our mom. Or that it was our mom. At that point, the butterfly and rooster texts became a running joke, but one we treated with respect. We longed to be in the presence of our mom, too, so we understood the need to seek her out anywhere you could. I don’t know if that rooster was my mom reincarnated, but if my sister wanted to believe it was, then who was I to tell her it wasn’t?

A study of Japanese widows showed that their continuing bonds, in the form of lighting candles or leaving out food for the dead, actually help them find strength in the face of grief. I don’t leave cheese plates or chocolate out for my mom and sister, but I do toast them sometimes. On my desk, I have a photo of my sister Jackie, next to a small stained-glass lamp that my mom gave me, so in a way that’s like a little shrine, and a way to keep them close. When I tuck my son in each night before bed, I list off the people who love him, and I always include “Cici and Aunt Jackie.” My son will never know his maternal grandmother or my sister, so this ritual is my way of making them present for him. Hopefully, he’ll know them through the stories I tell and the photos I show him, and he’ll form his own bonds with them. They might even visit him in a dream. Maybe they already have.

There’s an old European custom that’s been traced back to Celtic mythology called “telling the bees.” Bees have long symbolized the link between our world and the spirit world, and this tradition of “telling the bees” has been documented throughout Western Europe, and in parts of rural New England and Appalachia during the 19th century. If a death occurred, a family member would have to notify the beehive of the death. They would often drape the hives in a black cloth, or place a black cloth on a stick next to the hives. Failure to “put the bees into mourning” meant that more loss and death would occur. Over the years, painters captured this custom on canvas. John Greenleaf Whittier wrote an entire poem about the tradition, called, for good reason, “Telling the Bees.” A Victorian biologist and author named Margaret Warner Morley writes about it in her book The Honey-Makers. When Queen Elizabeth II died in September 2022, the Royal Beekeeper reportedly went and told the palace bees, so in some circles, the tradition may live on.

When you lose someone you love and yearn for their presence, it may be comforting to look to signs or symbols you once laughed off. As silly as my sister’s moment with that renegade rooster might seem, I believe that if she felt that my mom was there in that moment, she was there. Sometimes, in grief, that’s all the proof we need.

Excerpted with permission from So Sorry for Your Loss: How I Learned to Live with Grief, and Other Grave Concerns. Text © 2023 Dina Gachman. Cover photo © 2023 Union Square & Co., LLC.

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