© Dreamstime.com/Louise Roach
"Give me a sign, Lord,"
I prayed, my tears splattering
the wood floor of the
Carmelite chapel near Santa
Fe, New Mexico. "A sign that Dad is
I had just moved from Minnesota
to Santa Fe to research and write a book,
a book that I promised Dad would be
dedicated to him. Today was the
anniversary of his death, and my heart
ached with grief.
I left the little chapel, a cool oasis on
this hot October day, and began walking
down the monastery road. I noticed
the chamisas (a ubiquitous bush in these
parts) were done blooming. But then I
spotted one chamisa with mounds of
yellow flowers that seemed to be bowing,
almost genuflecting, in the wind.
That's odd, I thought, and went to
The blossoms were loaded with butterflies—the Christian symbol of new
life—their brown wings folded together
as though they were in deep prayer. I
stared in amazement. There wasn't a
single butterfly on the chamisas nearby.
Then I looked up and saw a stop sign.
"Stop grieving," God seemed to be
saying. "Your father is with me—and
Moments of Grace
I have often felt my dad's presence
around me. I sensed his comforting
embrace on that windy autumn day
when my family buried him on the
Minnesota prairie. When I enter a
church and bless myself with holy
water, I sometimes feel he's doing the
same. His presence is so palpable at
times that I want to reach through the
veil separating heaven from earth and
pull him back into our atmosphere.
"But why so many butterflies, Lord?"
Suddenly, I understood. Love is eternal,
and the butterflies represented my
family—my personal communion of
saints—in heaven. The big butterfly is
Dad, and here's Richard, my brother
who was killed at age 30 in an accident
in South America. This butterfly is lucky, card-playing Aunt Kate, who
stepped into eternity at age 101 (but not
before winning one last card game!).
These two are my paternal grandparents.
The littlest butterfly, barely out of
the cocoon? My niece, Danielle, who
I'm not alone in experiencing what
many believe are mystical signs from
deceased loved ones. According to surveys
conducted in the 1980s by the
National Opinion Research Center at
the University of Chicago, an estimated
50 percent of Americans will experience
some extraordinary occurrence or
sign related to a deceased loved one
that can't be explained.
"I believe these experiences are
moments of grace and healing for
the bereaved," says Linda M. Cherek,
president-elect of the National Catholic
Ministry to the Bereaved (www.griefwork.org) and a licensed clinical social
worker and bereavement therapist in
White Bear Lake, Minnesota. Americans
don't like to talk about death, but
"it's fairly common for the bereaved
to receive some sign or assurance that
their deceased loved one is O.K."
Linda and her husband, John, director
of The Catholic Cemeteries for the
Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis,
know personally the inner healing these
experiences can bring. In September
1993, they suffered the untimely death
of their 19-year-old daughter, Kristen.
A sophomore at Marquette University
in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Kristen had
just finished her first night of RA (resident
assistant) duties at her dorm when
some boys came in drunk and pulled a
prank fire alarm. Kristen went into cardiac
arrest and died.
"My greatest fear was whether
Kristen was scared. Did she cry out for
help?" Linda asks. "On my journey of
grief, I did receive a message from
Kristen that said, 'I really didn't know
what was happening, so I just decided
to go with it.' That was hugely comforting
to me as a parent because I didn't
have to keep thinking, 'Was she
A few weeks after their daughter's death, John received a dream-visit from
Kristen, her face radiating a magnificent
smile. "I asked, 'What are you doing?
You're supposed to be dead,'" John
says. Kristen continued to smile and
then began walking down a long corridor
that gradually filled with light.
Kristen looked back at John, smiled
again, walked through a door and was
"In the dream as well as when I woke
up, I had this sense of peace and calm
that she was O.K.," says John. "During
my waking hours, I kept returning to
this sense of reassurance that she was in
a good place, which was ironic because
my mind was continually wrestling
with the fact that she was dead."
When Linda learned about the
dream-visit, she wanted one, too. She
even asked Kristen to visit her in a
dream, but no dream-visits came.
"We can't will into our consciousness
a dream-visit or force a sign from a
deceased loved one," Linda and John
caution. "They simply happen and we
need to accept them as a gift, as experiences
These signs also affirm the Catholic
belief in the Communion of Saints,
"that the Christian household includes
both the living and the dead," John
adds. "That gives us hope and comfort
knowing that death does not end our
relationships with loved ones. Our relationships
may have changed, but not
our love for each other."
These mystical signs—or after-death
encounters, as some people call them—are as varied as the personalities of the
deceased. Some bereaved report finding
crooked pictures on the walls of their
homes inexplicably straightened. Other
bereaved find pennies in unlikely
places—"pennies from heaven," they
Parishioners at Risen Savior Catholic
Community in Albuquerque, New Mexico,
found a sign in a trash can.
Shortly after his ordination on June
7, 2003, Father Edward Rivera, parochial
vicar, was diagnosed with pancreatic
cancer. "While battling the disease, he
brought many people closer to God
due to his deep faith and acceptance of
his impending death," says Deacon
Mark Bussemeier. "He told a number of
his family and friends that he would
send a rose to let them know when he
had made it to heaven."
In our grief and sorrow, Lord,
we humbly ask that you quickly bring
our deceased loved ones home to
you. We know the closer we earthlings
are to you, Lord, the happier we
become. And in heaven, a soul's
happiness must be uncontainable!
And when we earthlings are happy,
our happiness spills over to others.
Lord, may our loved ones in heaven
be so filled with happiness that their
happiness spills over to us here on
With his family and closest friends
keeping vigil at the parish rectory,
Father Ed, 47, entered eternity on June
14, 2004. He had been a priest for one
year and one week. After the funeral
home had come to take Father Ed's
remains, the family found a single red
rose in a trash can in his room.
"There were no roses in the room
during the vigil, nor had anyone
brought him a rose," Deacon Mark says.
"Those gathered immediately felt at
peace, knowing that Father Ed was safe
in the arms of God."
For the Smith family (not their real
name) in Washington State, it was a
zany bird that gave them hope in the
afterlife. Kathy and her sister, Susan,
had enjoyed a humorous relationship,
and when Susan was dying of cancer,
Kathy asked her to send a sign if there
was indeed life after death.
"I don't know how I'm supposed to
do that," Susan joked. "I don't know
the rules of coming back to visit!"
After Susan's funeral, her family went
to a lake cabin for solitude and to grieve
their loss. While there, a wild bird
landed on the shoulder of Susan's husband,
then flew over and perched on
the porch swing that Susan had loved
to sit in. Suddenly—and strangely—the bird made a noise that sounded
like Susan's laughter! The family felt
consoled, and Susan had the "last
When Dora Gonzales of Albuquerque
first experienced her mystical sign, it
was before her mother, Mary, died.
After spending the day comforting her
mother, Dora stepped outside in the
early morning hours to get some fresh
air. The moon was full, and at Albuquerque's
mile-high altitude, the stars
seemed especially near.
"Lord, I need a sign," Dora began to
pray about a decision the family needed
to make. Then, in the twinkling of an
eye, she saw a falling star—a star whose
own life was coming to an end. "My
heart stopped," says Dora, tears welling up. "I knew it was time to take Mom off
The falling star also confirmed a
dream that Dora had had days earlier:
Jesus holding her mother Mary in his
arms, just as the Blessed Mother is seen
holding her son in Michelangelo's Pietà.
Mary died that day around 3 p.m., the
hour of Our Lord's death. She was
indeed in the Lord's arms.
Since then, Dora has seen several
falling stars, but one star is etched in her
memory. One evening Dora went grocery
shopping and inadvertently locked
her keys and cell phone in her truck.
The only way home was to walk
through a dark and dangerous neighborhood.
Dora began to pray.
"I looked up and saw a falling star,"
Dora says. "It seemed to light up the
whole neighborhood. I felt my mother's
presence and knew I would be all right."
Marriages made in heaven are not easily
broken—not even in death. "Many
elderly widowers and widows often
sense the presence of a deceased
spouse," says Linda Cherek, who presents
conferences nationwide on grieving.
"Widowers often say they wake
up at night to see their loved one in a
white mist, or widows awaken to feel
their husband's hand on their face,
telling them they're O.K., that everything
is going to be all right."
Many elderly are reluctant to talk
about these experiences because they
fear others may think they're "losing
it." But not Lillian V. Salvey, 88, of
"People scoff and just call them
dreams, but they're more than that,"
the great-grandmother insists. "They
are so real that it feels like Norm is
standing by my bed. He always seems
so happy, and I'm sure he is. He was
ready to go, and he did love the Lord
with all his heart."
When Lillian's first husband, Ernie,
was killed in North Africa during World
War II, he appeared that night to Lillian
in a vision. "People kept telling me
that it was a dream, even though I had
a brick in my heart," she says. A
telegram arrived five days later, informing
Lillian of Ernie's death.
"If we can pray to saints with a big
'S'—such as St. Thérèse of Lisieux, who
often leaves roses as her calling card—to help us with life's problems, why
not our deceased loved ones?" Linda
Cherek asks. "They're saints with a
small 's.'" Based on anecdotal evidence,
it appears the "small saints" do help
us—and in ways that can border on
In the fall of 2004, Dora and her husband
Roberto Gonzales were getting
ready to travel to the Heard Museum in
Phoenix, where Roberto had been
invited to display his religious folk art.
In their hurry to get on the road, both
thought the back door was locked.
When they arrived home five days
later, they found the back door open.
Fear shook them. Had they been
robbed? Dora walked into the kitchen
and saw an apparition of her deceased
mother seated at the kitchen table. "I
was here, and everything is fine," her
presence seemed to say. Not one thing
was missing or out of place.
Just as an earthly mother protects her children, Dora believes her mother
continues to walk by her side. "Our
loved ones are always with us," Dora
says, "but now their prayers and intercessions
for us are even more powerful."
The Cherek family also experienced
an unusual incident that they attribute
to their daughter Kristen. One afternoon
John put pork chops in the oven
for supper and then went to join Linda
at a meeting. When the meeting ran
late, Linda called home just as their
daughter Elizabeth was walking in the
"Turn off the stove and take out the
pork chops," Linda told her.
"Haven't you been home?" Elizabeth
inquired. "Because the pork chops are
done and the stove is turned off."
"Kristen was very efficient and
responsible," Linda explains. "Just as we
need to be aware of God's presence,
we need to be aware of encounters with
our deceased loved ones. They're closer
than we think. If we can imagine them
close, perhaps we can also experience
It's no coincidence that Catholics celebrate
the feasts of All Saints and All
Souls on consecutive days. On November
1, we commemorate the saints—that great cloud of witnesses in heaven
cheering us on. The next day, we pray
that our deceased loved ones will join
the saints and enter into eternal joy.
When I attend Mass, I often like to
ponder the invisible Communion of
Saints gathered around the altar—big
saints like St. Francis of Assisi or St.
Teresa of Avila and little saints like Dad
and Aunt Kate. When I eat the bread
from heaven and drink the cup, I'm
one with God and the saints, one
with my family in heaven. They've
been redeemed—God's still working
One day the veil will rise, and I'll
fly away to join them at the great banquet
in the sky. And what a glorious
family reunion it will be!
More Mystical Signs
WHILE SIGNS from loved
ones beyond the grave are
indeed mystical, they're
transmitted through earthly objects.
After all, we're still wearing our
"earth suits." These life-after-death
stories are filled with love and concern
for those left behind.
Our stories, told to someone,
may be just the comfort and answer
they need," says Janet Janson Kemp
of Newport, Washington.
In January 2004, Janet's brother-in-law died of a massive heart attack.
He had suffered with diabetes for
many years and his wife, Janet's sister,
tried hard to give him a good
diet. Shortly after his death, Janet's
17-year-old daughter woke up to
find her deceased uncle standing at
the foot of her bed.
"Take care of your Auntie the way
she took care of me," he told her.
Janet told her sister what happened.
"She began to cry and said it
was an answer to what was troubling
her," Janet says. "She was worried
that maybe she should have
done something more for her husband.
This was a message to her
from him saying, 'You took care of
me really well.'"
In his book, Whispers of God's
Love: Touching the Lives of Loved Ones
After Death, Mitch Finley relates
more than 80 stories of after-death
encounters, including one from his
grandfather. After Mitch and family
had buried Grandpa Walter in a
country cemetery in central Oregon,
a spring rain began to fall as
they drove away.
Mitch writes: "'Look!' I exclaimed
to my wife, our three sons and my
mother. 'A rainbow!' The rainbow
towered into the sky, was visible in
its entirety, end to end, and all its
colors were vivid....I took this as an
epistle from my grandfather, a word
of hope and promise, as the rainbow
was for Noah after the deluge.
"All is well, said the shimmering,
colorful, mile-high rainbow from
my grandfather; all is well, and all
manner of things shall be well."
Do you have a story about an
experience with your own personal
communion of saints? If so,
we'd like to hear about it. You can
share your story at www.americancatholic.org/communionofsaints.aspx.