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Surrounded by Saints
By Marion Amberg
Many people feel that their deceased loved ones have sent them signs they are at peace. The Communion of Saints is very real.

Q U I C K S C A N

Moments of Grace
Signs of All Kinds
United in Death
Calling All Saints
A Family Reunion
More Mystical Signs
Prayer for Deceased Loved Ones


© 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 with you."

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 investigate.

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 with you."

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?" I asked.

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 was stillborn.

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 scared?'"

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 gone.

"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 of love."

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."

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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 say.

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 earth. Amen.

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 laugh."

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 life support."

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 Steilacoom, Washington.

"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 the miraculous.

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 door.

"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 them close."

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 on me.

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.

 

Marion Amberg is a freelance author from New Mexico. She has written numerous articles for this magazine.


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