Last week we got the news my wife’s grandfather passed away. It was not a shock since he had been in hospice since late last year and had, very recently, stopped eating. This would make the fifth passing in two years with the other four being my own grandparents. During two of them I had the great honor of being at their bedside when they passed. Those two events changed me on a fundamental level.
Although knowing a loved one is close to passing, knowing he is in hospice, knowing the end is on it’s way, the news always surprises you. One minute you are getting ready for work, for a normal day, and thirty seconds later everything is different and all your priorities change.
When you hang up the phone the world is a much different place.
The card for the end of my week last week was the six of swords. A man is leaving by boat, a new journey is underway and a transition is occurring. Though depressing or sad, the card marks a time of change and/or travel. At the time I wasn’t sure what it meant. I had my thoughts but had decided to wait it out. The minute I heard my wife’s voice answering the phone I knew and I rushed to be by her side.
Funerals are spiritual times and, dare I say it, magical spaces. We want magic to be sparkly wands, candlelight, and happiness. Unfortunately, or, well, fortunately, there is a balance in all things and magic is also Death. The catch is remembering that even though it’s death it is just as amazing as birth. It is a transition. Unfortunately, we are taught from an early age that it’s unavoidable and oftentimes a bad thing. It is THE END. Because it is the greatest unknown our initial primal move is to move away from it, to fear it, to not even look at it. However, in my experience, this is not necessarily the case. For the soul departing, particularly one in pain or discomfort from old age, it is a happy time. I am much more prone to follow the lines of the New Orleans wake than a dour, grim funeral.
Regardless, what we feel on this side, the grief, the emotions, the confusion also remember that those hectic, draining, grieving days of funeral, as well as the days following, are a transitional and communal space for both the living and the recently passed. It becomes a sacred space. If you stay open to them, if you can ground yourself and put the often overwhelming grief to the side, messages are sent and received. The interplay of synchronicity, personal emotions and the spirit of the loved one play themselves out in a intricate and touching dance. They are transitional, foundational and beautiful moments in time.
The best advice I can give anyone who has been thrust into these turbulent spaces is “Keep your eyes and your heart open. Keep it all open.” I’ve had things fall off of walls, doors locked that shouldn’t lock, people saying things they never would have said normally, amazing sunsets, and animals appearing out of nowhere and oftentimes out of season. These magical spaces and rituals are a time where communication takes place but it’s rarely as we would expect it.
During his funeral, I took my own advice. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for but I was keeping my eyes open, not only for myself but for what others in the family might miss. I was being purposefully and full bore open to anything. The wall behind the casket was all window and a beautiful blue sky shone through it. I felt compelled to keep my eyes locked to that sky though I did not know why. I watched the clouds move along and I watched, I listened. I held my wife’s hand. I kept the tissues going and kept an eye on the kids. I cried but not for the man but for his family’s grief. I didn’t cry for her grandfather because I knew he was in a much better place.
After the service and just before the casket was closed and military rites began, I saw it; a butterfly. It fluttered outside the window, bounced a few times against it, and then flew rather purposefully directly above the casket. It flew there for moments while completing a handful of circles, occasionally drifting down towards the casket. I don’t know if anyone else saw it. I nudged my wife and she nodded quickly. Then, it flew up and away from the window. In a flicker it was upwards and out of site at the precise moment the naval officers flanked either side of the casket. Taps was played. No other butterfly flew by during the entire event.
It wasn’t the first butterfly I had seen in connection with death nor, I was certain, would it be my last. For me, it’s not the cloaked man or the raven or the owl which is the symbol of Death. For me, after the death has occurred, the butterfly is that perfect symbol of transformation. A butterfly goes through immense struggle as it completes that final transition from knobby caterpillar to beauty and grace. As it hangs drying its wings it’s at its most vulnerable point. Then, the wings spread and it’s flying. A butterfly at a funeral is a simple and ecstatic message for me.
“Hey, everyone, look! I made it!”
It is best to keep your eyes and heart open. You may be surprised by what comes to you.
Afterword – I sent this to my wife after I had written it. Since it involved her and her family, I wanted her approval to post it. After reading it she sent me a small reminder of something I showed her once and I wanted to share it here. It’s a parable from the Taoist Chaung Tzu.
Once upon a time, I, Chuang Tzu, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Chou. Soon I awaked, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man. Between a man and a butterfly there is necessarily a distinction. The transition is called the transformation of material things.