This post is either going to land with you, or it’s really not. You may nod along with happy agreement and recognition, or you may roll your eyes or think I’ve lost the plot. But here goes anyway.
All the time I have been doing celebrant work, I have had experiences, or heard of the experiences of the people I work with, which they and I find comforting. These experiences feel like a nod from the dead; a little nudge to say ‘hey, I see you and I love you’.
I can’t tell you what I believe happens after death. I really don’t know. But what I do know is that I can’t (and don’t want to) explain away the things that I’m going to share here. They are too special and too personal to ignore or disregard.
The inspiration for this post came from a recent funeral I conducted for a beautiful woman, Sarah, who died too young. When I went to meet her brother and her son at the flat she had lived in and filled with her artwork, I felt a tangible sense of her presence. It wasn’t in a spooky way – it was the opposite of that. It was calm and loving – like the feeling of being hugged.
I’m lucky enough to work in front of a window through which I can see lots of the birds that frequent our garden and there are sometimes robins among that number. However, occasionally, I’ll be working on a funeral and a robin will come up right to the window, sit on the ledge or on the fence nearby and look at me. At first I thought it was just a coincidence, but I’ve realised over the years that some funerals just seem to make this happen. It won’t be all the time, and it won’t be every funeral, but just when I’m talking on the phone to the family, or writing the script, there will be the robin.
My Nana was widowed when my dad was just 17, so I never met my paternal grandfather. But Nana was convinced that he came to visit her in the form of a robin every year on her birthday and their anniversary. So maybe I’ve had this in my head all along, but I’ve also heard from bereaved families about visitations from robins. I’m not going to rubbish their experiences, and my own follow too much of a pattern now to disregard too.
Anyway, back to Sarah. Working on her funeral turned me into a robin magnet. She had many, many connections and, after I had had the meeting with her brother and her son, I had further phone calls with several other people. Each time I was on the phone and talking about her, I noticed not one robin but two or three sitting on the fence by my office window, looking at me. Eventually, when I was talking to her longest-standing and closest friend, I couldn’t help sharing with her what I was seeing – this was just getting ridiculous. There were seven robins watching me as I spoke to her.
She loved it! It brought her great comfort and she felt that Sarah would have been all over it. I carried on working on writing the script, and the robins never failed me (talking to her friend was the only time I saw that many though).
Fast forward to the day of the funeral. As we stood around her grave, the sun shone warmly in the sky after a spell of cold and cloudy weather. Then Sarah’s dad noticed something. ‘Look at the sun!’ he exclaimed. We did, and we all witnessed a beautiful full-circle rainbow around it: something I now know is called a sun halo and is caused by the refraction of light through ice particles in cirrus clouds.
But whatever the science behind it, it felt like a small miracle that afternoon. The rainbow has always been seen as a symbol of hope, and to have a full circle one, just at that very moment when all hope seems lost, was a thing to behold. As we marvelled at it, I told Sarah’s brother about the robins too.
Shortly after I got home, he sent me a message. ‘You said about robins…’ it read. ‘Well this is Shoreham Beach, Clayton Wood and the Falkland Islands at exactly the same time after the service.’
Attached were three pictures – one of the sun halo we had seen at Clayton Wood burial ground, another sent to him by the wild swimming group Sarah had been part of, showing them forming a circle together in the sea, and a third sent to him from the artists’ community she had been a part of in the Falkland Islands, who had created a circle of stones as they thought of Sarah at the time of her ceremony.
A coincidence? Maybe. But what a beautiful one! Yes, you can read all sorts of symbolism into the circle of life, or completeness, but what was really important was the feeling that Sarah was sending some kind of nod to her loved ones. Even the biggest cynic couldn’t fail to be moved by what had happened there that day.
Another common experience is finding white feathers. I have heard many families sharing stories of how they have found white feathers in the most unlikely of places or just as they were thinking of their loved one.
The very first wedding I conducted was for a gorgeous couple who had both been widowed young and found each other some years later through a group of people in their situation. They told me how they had often felt ‘nudges’ from their late partners, and felt that they approved of their relationship. And one time, when they were standing outside a house they’d just viewed, discussing whether to buy it, a white feather had drifted down between them. There were no birds passing, and the sky above them was clear. They took it as a sign from their lost loves that they should make the purchase.
I too have had a white feather experience. A few years ago, a recently-retired funeral director friend of mine called me up and told me she’d like me to conduct her funeral.
‘Oh I’ll be retired by then myself’, I said, only to be told that she was calling me from the hospice she had worked alongside for many years.
It was both devastating and a huge honour at the same time to be her celebrant. We worked on the script together over several visits. She was so poorly and tired but wanted to make sure that she included everyone and said everything she wanted to say. She had always been known for being super fastidious about every ceremony she worked on (or, as she preferred to put it ‘I’m a fussy bitch’!) and her own was no exception.
I had read my friend the first draft of the script and she had been really pleased with it, but I still needed to speak to some other people she’d known and make some tweaks. I left, promising I’d come back with the updated version in a couple of days.
Except that, a couple of days later, she was too ill to see anyone and she died soon afterwards. A mutual friend and I went to see her in the chapel of rest and I read her the final draft as we sobbed together. We then joked about how fearsome she had been about any mistakes, and how we hoped she liked it or she’d make it known.
I needn’t have worried. As I stepped out of the front door of the funeral director’s place, a large white feather floated down and landed right in front of me. I took it as confirmation from my friend that I’d done a good job of telling her story.
The conclusion of this post? Well, I don’t really have one. Except that I took great comfort in that message I felt my friend had sent me. That Sarah’s loved ones (and I) witnessed something that felt like a miracle on the day of her funeral. That my lovely couple felt witnessed and reassured by their late partners. And that many other people have felt affirmed and loved by similar ‘messages’ from their loved ones who have died. Whether it’s confirmation bias, coincidence or heavenly communication, it’s how it lands that really counts. And it has counted enormously for these people.