So much has happened in the twelve years since I wrote those final words. Where to begin? The dove. The memory of it continues to give me comfort, as does my discovery, after completing Fireflies, that what my family, my friends, and I experienced that morning in the mausoleum was not unique.
My first hint of this came in a letter from Father Andrew Greeley, who responded to a manuscript of Fireflies I had sent him. In addition to being a priest and a best-selling novelist, Father Greeley taught at the University of Chicago ’s Social Science Research Center. Studies there demonstrated, he wrote, that experiences of the type I described had happened to forty-two percent of the population. The figure rose to sixty percent when applied to widows and widowers. Our society is so close-minded on the subject that many who have these experiences don’t want to let others know about them for fear of being ridiculed, he pointed out, but perhaps my book would console these people, letting them know that they aren’t alone.
He was certainly right that they aren’t alone. After Fireflies was published, I gave interviews across the country and was astonished by how many people came to me with personal stories that paralleled mine with the dove. The phone calls and letters were equally plentiful. No other book by me has received so many responses. Thousands. Yet in a way they were one and the same. Various birds, animals, and insects had behaved like the dove.
As I tried to understand, I came across an observation by the psychologist Carl Jung, who noted that when humans are in a crisis, they sometimes experience a phenomenon called synchronicity, in which psychological states are mirrored by physical events. These events usually involve objects that have deep universal symbolic significance. Emotions and events that have no causal relationship match so directly and powerfully that to claim the parallel between the inner and the outer world happened by chance is inadequate.
What I learned is that there is a lot of it going around. The following are some versions of synchronicity that stay vividly in my mind. A novelist friend lost his adolescent son in an accidental hanging. The boy had refused to eat what was being served for dinner. After a family disagreement, he stormed to his room and pretended to hang himself, expecting to shock his parents and receive sympathy when they came upon the staged scene. The ruse went terribly wrong. What they found instead was his corpse. When I heard, I immediately phoned my friend to tell him how sorry I was. In passing, I asked whether anything unusual had happened after the boy’s death.
“Unusual?” he asked. “What do you mean?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” I said, not wanting to lead him. “Anything out of the ordinary.”
“Now that you mention it…” He paused, as if unsure I would believe him. “There was something. My wife and I had our son cremated. We went up into the mountains and sprinkled his ashes over a ridge. When we walked back along the trail, a group of deer came out of the trees and stopped in front of us.”
This wasn’t synchronicity. True, in the wilderness deer normally avoid humans, but not always. Sometimes, on a hike, I’ve come across deer, and they look at me with as much curiosity as I look at them. The event didn’t have the “meaningful coincidence” factor that Jung wrote about any more than the appearance of a rainbow would have. Rainbows appear all the time, but doves don’t normally behave in the manner I described. There has to be something outside common experience.
My friend must have heard the hesitation with which I said, “Yes, that sounds unusual.”
“I’m not explaining this very well,” he said. “As you know, my wife’s legally blind. She shouldn’t have been able to see those deer, but as long as they stood there, she could, and then they stepped back into the forest, and my wife stopped seeing again.”
Another account that stays with me was told in a letter and involves a couple whose son Brad died when he was twenty-one. Brad liked to write poems, the best of which was about the sorrow that resulted from killing a dragonfly. The poem was read at his funeral. Afterward, a neighbor who had herself lost a child gave the family a pamphlet, “Water Bugs and Dragonflies (How to Explain Death to Children).”
The story was beautiful, the mother wrote to me. It told of water bugs crawling along the bottom of a dark, muddy pond. Every now and then, one of them climbed the stem of a lily pad and disappeared. They eventually made a pact that the next water bug to disappear would come back and tell the others where it had gone. One day a bug crawled up, reached the pad, shed its ugly shell, sprouted wings, and became a beautiful dragonfly. It soared off, delighting in the sun’s warmth and freedom. Remembering its promise, it tried repeatedly to dive into the water, but its wings wouldn’t allow it to go through. The obvious moral is that our loved ones assume new forms and so cannot come back to tell us where they have gone after death.
Not long after reading this parable, the mother went out to the family’s mailbox, where what she described as the most beautiful creature she had ever seen soared toward her. There was no doubt that it was a dragonfly, but it didn’t have the thin body and narrow blue-green wings that she was used to. This one had a wingspan of at least eight inches. Its body was thick, like a butterfly’s. Its color was a patchwork of deep purple and pale lilac that glistened and reflected the sun. It dove toward her, barely missing her head. It bounced off the car antenna. It bounced off the garage door. It twirled. It lunged. It did flips. The sight was so amazing that it reminded her of the Blue Angels aerial acrobatics team she had seen earlier in the summer. The experience went on for ten minutes, and what most delighted her was that the dragonfly looked like it was using its wings for the first time. It reminded her of a child’s first experience on a two-wheeler, weaving and crashing into trees. She laughed, sharing its joy, inwardly hearing the words “Look at me, Ma! I’m so happy! I’m having a ball! Don’t feel sad for me!” Eventually, the dragonfly disappeared into the trees. The mother went into the house and stared out the window, hoping to see it again. Nothing happened for five minutes, until she said, “Bradley, if that’s you, please come back,” whereupon the dragonfly zoomed past the window. As the mother carefully explained, the family lived five miles from the nearest body of water. They had lived there for twenty years and had never seen a dragonfly in the area. But after Brad’s death, an identical dragonfly put on a similar demonstration for her husband, her other son, her younger daughter, and another married daughter who lived ten miles away. The mother herself never got to see that dragonfly again.
A similar account came from a mother whose twenty-five-year-old son, Jeff, died from a brain tumor. He had told his sister that his body was only a cocoon and that soon he would be a butterfly. The symbolism was clear: Butterflies are graceful and beautiful and represent a change from one kind of life to another. But as far as the mother was concerned, the symbol soon became much more when, after Jeff’s death, her husband was washing Jeff’s car (the family couldn’t bring itself to sell the vehicle) and a large black and gold butterfly perched itself on a bush at the side of the driveway, staying there for an hour. The rest of the family approached, watched, and took photographs. All the while, the butterfly didn’t move. Its black and gold colors reminded them of the Iowa Hawkeyes, a football team to which Jeff had been fiercely loyal. Amazing everyone, the pattern on its back and outspread wings was a huge smile. Throughout the coming summer, it returned often. Sometimes it showed up at Jeff’s grave, “buzzing” the mother when her troubled thoughts brought her there to talk to her dead son.
As autumn approached, her husband was again working in the yard when he came running into the house and told her to hurry outside. The butterfly had collapsed in midair and died at his feet. At the same time, a second black and gold butterfly flew upward into the sky. In her letter, the mother noted the further symbolism: the fallen butterfly, not alive but always with her; and the flying butterfly, soaring upward-free-to a better place. She and her husband had never seen two comparable butterflies together before. They never saw any again. Accompanying the letter was a photograph of the butterfly, a wide black and gold smile on its back spreading magnificently onto its wings.
As many accounts of this type as I received, I still wasn’t prepared for what I learned when Bill and Judy Guggenheim wrote to me in response to Fireflies. Influenced by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s seminars on death and dying, they had embarked on a seven-year study of what they called “after-death communication,” eventually collecting thousands and thousands of accounts comparable to mine. Their research and numerous examples of these incidents were eventually published in their book, Hello from Heaven! In essence, the accounts have the same tone and substance as those I just mentioned, and in every case, the message is basically the same. “I love you, and I miss you. You’re hurt, and I’m sorry. But everything’s all right with me now. I’m okay.”
Given how widespread the phenomenon is, what are we to make of it? Jung merely described it; he didn’t explain it. So we’re on our own. A skeptic would say that it’s wishful thinking, that grief prompts people to impose a hopeful message on any strange event that happens along. The viewpoint can’t be dismissed, and yet, having been on the receiving end of one of these events, I can only say that sometimes truth is a matter of having been on the spot, of having seen for oneself. Could it be that in some people, the power of grief is so extreme that it can influence exterior events and make a bird, an animal, or an insect behave in a way that gives reassurance? Emotion over matter? Or could it be that there is a universal force, a spiritual one, that underlies all things and that responds to our own spirit, behaving synchronistically with it, when our need is great? I’m referring to the overwhelming transcendental spirit that Emerson and Thoreau wrote about and that van Gogh depicted in his paintings, a sense that inside and outside, psyche and matter are one. In this regard, the greatest poem was written by Einstein. E=mc2. Energy equals mass times the speed of light squared. Everything in the universe is identical but in a different form, connected on a primal level. There’s no way I can prove this notion, but it works for me. The dove has made me feel that the world is full of infinite possibilities if we can merely, as E. M. Forster said, “connect” with it.