Every Wednesday

Every Wednesday, I will post something about grief. Sometimes it will be a reflection on an aspect of grief’s landscape. Now and then I will share from my own journey of grief, because in the sharing of our stories we find strength and build a community of people that support one another.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

When the Spirit Opens

“I don’t know when the spirit opens itself to the river.” Kathleen Dean Moore

I wondered about this movement of the spirit when I sat by Evelyn’s bed in the ICU sixteen years ago on April 6. Was she still present, or had she departed and now existed somewhere else?

Neurological tests done yesterday indicated no activity in her brain. Machines were keeping her body alive until they could repeat the tests 24 hours later. I felt that Ev had waited for me to arrive so that she could say goodbye before her spirit left, but this may be wishful thinking. When I received the call at work that the paramedics were working on Ev, I sensed that our connection had been broken.

If her spirit was gone, when did this happen? Did she leave when the paramedics were shocking her heart to reboot its rhythm, or when the oxygen levels in her brain bottomed out? I don’t know. I will never know THIS.

Evelyn was tenacious. She did not give up on anything – strained relationships with friends, public schools that didn’t focus on students, helping me be more emotionally expressive, and her struggle the last ten years to get back to full health. She had turned a good corner on this recently, then she died of a heart problem we didn’t know about.

It probably doesn’t matter when her spirit left her body. Yet the when may help me interpret the signs I was perceiving. Perhaps I was aware of her saying goodbye, a final gesture of love to provide strength for what I would have to face next. We had been together for 18 years, sharing thousands of thoughts and feelings, and I wanted to stay connected for as long as I could. Maybe there was something I could do to help her.

At the point of death, some religions believe, if they believe in the continuation of individual souls, the spirit/soul separates from the body but hangs around for 3-49 days as the future is worked out. Then it departs. Even if Ev was no longer united with her body, her spirit could be near, watching me sit by the hospital bed talking to her, hoping that the sound of my voice would be the horn from a lighthouse and either guide her out of the fog and back to me, or guide her on to her new destination.

Ev would fight to stay until the decision was taken out of her hands, because she would worry about me.

And yet, if she had enough consciousness remaining, and had a vote about whether to stay or go, she may have decided that she didn’t want to deal with another health problem, said enough was enough, and simply let the reins on her body go slack.

I would not begrudge her decision, if she made this one. It was her choice. Some say that we are in this world to learn all we can, and when we do, then it’s time to move on to the next. If compassion for all beings is the greatest lesson we learn on earth, then Evelyn was ready.

When this battle was lost, whenever it was lost, her spirit opened itself to what came next. Maybe she noticed the light, or saw her father in the distance waiting for her. Maybe the discovery she made two months before in the desert of Arizona, of finding her spiritual home, prepared her to open to something more, something unknown. When she saw it approaching, she simply said, “Yes.”


It is good and helpful to remember and honor our loved ones each year. Doing so keeps them part of our lives. Doing so says that they were an important part of our lives, and will always be so.

In the Jewish tradition, a “soul candle” is lit on the day of death each year (yarhzeit). The Japanese celebrate all their ancestors during the summer Bon festival. In China, the Qingming “Sweeping the Grave” festival is held in early April. In the Mexican culture, the departed are honored on the Day of the Dead in late October.

Those beginning days of grief sixteen years ago remain etched on my flesh. Curiously enough, today’s post is also the 400th on Widower’s Grief. The universe has a sense of symmetry.


  1. Perfect! I loved every line of this post, Mark. I remember wondering when death actually happened myself, watching my father, watching my daughter, waiting with my hand on pulse, searching their eyes that seemed to look beyond me. And I remember sensing a closeness for a time after my daughter's death, like she was still with me somehow, until I started talking to her life-sized portrait on the wall and noticed she'd "left" at some point. Thanks for sharing the photo of you and Evelyn as young 'uns. So sweet. Cheers!

  2. Thank you, Robin. And thank you for sharing your experiences. It is a big question, isn't it?

  3. I loved reading this. I have watched and wondered and felt so many of these same thought. Death is so hard to interpret.

    Robin Lee

    1. It continues to be a mystery to me, too, Robin. Thank you.

  4. I don't know traditions of soul after death in other religions. I never got to hold my 29 yr old son's hand as he departed, but 'that' morning when my thoughts turned to where he might be, I felt a tremendous feeling of peace and knew he was ok. But no more than a half hour later I was besieged with absolute terror. I felt it enough to make me put down my pen and stop everything. As I did, suddenly the terror was gone and tremendous elation took its place. It was like being suspended. I felt light, love and all of him. And then, as suddenly, he began to dissipate, pieces faded and disappeared -slowly at first and then all-at-once - until I was there alone. I searched for him with all my heart but could not find him. Two hours later, I found out he died about that time. He left no note, but I believe he decided his course of action with resolve and determination. He drove 45 minutes and crashed into the uprights of a bridge where he died, they said, immediately. I know I was there with him. I know he was able to take me there but I don't know if he knew. Wherever he made it to, he cannot reach me now. Because if he could, he would. This was about 5 years ago and his memories remain, my longing to touch, see and talk to him linger, but I don't feel him. And I know he is gone.

    1. Oh Marilyn, such a thing to have to experience, both wonderful and terrifying! My heart goes out to you. Even though you feel him now gone, hopefully that amazing connection during his last moments brings you comfort.

  5. Thank you for this, and for the quote at beginning. A river is a good metaphor for these events, I can remember back and apply it and it brings comfort.

    1. You're welcome. The river, death, life and grief all seem to flow together. Tactile.

  6. Thank you for this posting and this blog which I just discovered. I lost my young (51) husband to cancer four weeks ago tomorrow. I was walking today at lunch and thinking about the spiritual realm and wondering where he is really, begging for a sign that he is still with me. My husband died in a beautiful hospice facility. He was suffering from liver failure and had very little lucidity in his last few days. I was with him when he died and it was the most peaceful, quiet departure. Maybe 10 minutes earlier he woke me up with uncharacteristic labored, heavy breathing, I think to get my attention. I lit a candle, put on some music, and laid next to him, holding his hands and chest and telling him it was okay to go. I wanted to feel his spirit go somewhere to feel it in the air around me. I didn't, but I also felt very at peace and so grateful his transition was easy. After I laid with him for a good while, I knew it was time to go, and drove home with the brightest crescent moon I'd ever seen hanging in the sky in clear view my whole drive. The moon had played a significant role for us in the last few months. He wore a bracelet I made him that said water & moon to remind him of a Rumi poem that expressed my pain at seeing him suffer and wanting to connect. It is even more significant today. Thank you for the opportunity to share...

    There is a path from me to you
    that I am constantly looking for

    so I try to keep clear and still
    as water does with the moon.

    ~ Rumi

    1. A beautiful sharing! Your husband died way too young, and you know that, but the way you said goodbye to each other is precious. Most of my losses haven't gone that way. And I love the Rumi quote. Thank you for taking the time to share your experiences.