Anatomy of "A Sign"




I've been waiting on a sign from my daughter. I asked for one a couple of days ago. This happens periodically when I feel the crushing fear that she is really, truly, permanently gone, and I need reassurance that my fear is not fact. Or, as in this case, when I ask for her help. And I need to know she heard me, she's listening.


So it has me thinking about signs. About what constitutes a sign versus an ordinary event. I know I've received them from Evelyn. And I've heard countless stories from other grieving parents, indeed from other bereaved people of all variety, of their own remarkable signs. And I've also heard the skepticism in another's voice, the ways in which nonbelievers invalidate these experiences for those who so desperately need them. I think, regardless of the stance—whether it's a stake in a particular belief system or a stake in the lack of belief altogether—that we have a way of feeling threatened when confronted with something so outside the realm of our personal cosmology, and a driving need to put that threat down at all costs so the world can go back to making sense to us according to the ways in which we've defined it.


But I digress... The point of this post is not to debate the existence of signs from the other side, but to discuss the hallmarks of those uncanny events—to distinguish what makes a sign a sign and not just a figment of imagination or a random but mundane occurrence. In other words, why is this feather special and not that one? Why is this butterfly or this Cardinal or this penny different from all the rest? And how do we hush the skeptic in our own mind when the moment of elation has passed, and the faded nature of memory seems to wipe the shine from our experiences, inviting doubt, dread, and despair?


I've landed on eight solid qualities that I think all signs share, regardless of when or where or to whom they appear. If you read this and think of more, please share them in the comments. In no way do I offer this post as the definitive list. Rather, I offer it as an opportunity to dialogue about something we all hold incredibly dear. And to remind us of the little miracles we've received in the wake of our loss that serve to let us know our beloved goes on.


1. Probability:

I think the overarching quality that distinguishes a sign from an ordinary event is probability—the likelihood that this thing would occur at this time in this place in this way. All signs carry a sense of low probability. Maybe for merely one reason, such as the unlikelihood that it would occur at a certain time or in a certain place. But often, for multiple reasons. Meaning, it occurred both at an unusual time and in an unusual way. Butterflies are common enough. But a butterfly turning up in your living room the day of your child's memorial is less probable and therefore more noteworthy. You can think of it in terms of coincidence. Coincidences happen all the time. And this is often the skeptic's rebuttal. But coincidences with a significantly lower probability are harder to brush off, and often force us to question our rigid understanding of a world and a universe far beyond our ability to fully quantify.


2. Timing:

Timing is, I believe, the second most important factor when considering a sign. Though I usually guard against making sweeping statements, I would argue all signs occur at significant and compelling times to the witness. We receive them on an anniversary or a birthday. Just before, during, or after a time that had meaning to our deceased beloved or to us in particular or to both. Maybe, as in the previous example, during a memorial service or at the grave site. In my case, the most compelling signs I've received have come right after I spoke to my daughter or asked a question or made a statement—as if they are in response to my cry. Think back on the signs you've received. I bet, if you consider it, you will realize the timing of each was exceptional.


3. Specificity:

Another trait that many signs share is that they are symbolically specific to the deceased and/or the witness. Perhaps your child loved rainbows, and one appears on their birthday. Perhaps they knew you loved horses, and whenever you think of them, you always see a horse nearby. Perhaps it is a favorite song of theirs or yours that comes on the radio at just the right moment. Or their birth date or age at the time they died. Maybe even their name. It can be any number of things. In some cases, it's the same thing that comes up again and again. Like unicorns for us and Ev. In other cases, it's something different each time, but all are unique to you and/or your beloved. These signs are specific. They relate to you, your person, or your relationship. The thing to remember, is that on it's own, specificity is usually not enough to demarcate a sign. Horses are not rare. Rainbows happen. That song they loved plays on the radio all the time. What makes it significant to you in most cases is that it is coupled with remarkable timing. A blooming rose is not a life-altering event. But a rose that blooms weeks ahead of time on your child's birthday is something altogether extraordinary.


4. Random:

The online definition for the word random is made, done, happening, or chosen without method or conscious decision. I would go a step further and say that random indicates something out of pattern. Our brains are marvelous at patterns, which means random usually stands out to us as something out of sync with the norm. In and of itself, it already carries a significance to the human brain. Randomness can play into the timing of a sign or the place. It can affect how a sign appears, or maybe more than one of these. It is the thing that appears when or where or how it shouldn't. Or it is the thing that does not appear when or where or how it should. The sun rises and sets at a certain time each day. It follows a pattern. A solar eclipse could be viewed as a break in that pattern because we experience darkness at a time when there should be light, albeit for a scientifically explained reason (and one that can be calculated and thereby follows its own pattern). And yet, the event is no less noteworthy to us. When the thing that always happens doesn't, or the thing that never happens does, you are experiencing random. When that happens in relation to your deceased beloved—such as entering their room and seeing their computer come on for no reason, or having their ringtone play on your phone, or having the light on their side of the bed go out without explanation—you are likely to see it as a sign.


5. External:

It might go without saying, but I'm going to say it anyway. Signs are typically external, meaning they occur outside of us and our influence. It's not that there are never internal signs. Some people report hearing a voice in their mind or perceiving a thought they believe did not originate with them. But those experiences are harder to vindicate and easier to doubt because they are subject to our influence. The song that plays on the radio is completely outside of the range of your influence. The license plate bearing your child's birthday, the bird that flies in your window, the graffiti spelling your beloved's name—all of these cannot be traced back to your doing or your influence. They are external, outside of you. They occur without your say so or your direct action.


6. Tangible:

This trait is similar to the external nature of signs. It is one we often take for granted. Essentially, what it means is that signs can be perceived by one or more of our five senses. It is something we see, hear, can touch, smell, or maybe in even stranger cases, taste. The tangibility of a sign is how we quantify our loved one's spiritual or energetic presence in a physical world. It is a marker we can point to when the skeptics outside or inside of us make us feel hopeless and disconnected from our deceased beloved. It is also how we consider their continued place in the natural order, the vast web of life.


7. Remarkable:

All of the aforementioned qualities add up to this, the seventh marker of a sign—remarkability. A sign is notable. It's unusual. It stands out. It insists that we—and often those around us—take notice. In short, it is remarkable. In some way, often in multiple ways. It cannot be easily dismissed. Not by those experiencing it. A penny is just a penny until it is stamped with the year your child was born or died. Until it shows up next to you on a church pew just when you were praying for a sign your loved one is okay. Now, that penny is remarkable. It is set apart from all other pennies. To you, at least. It is less a penny and more a sign.


8. Numinous

This final quality of a sign is a little harder to define, but one I think many people will relate to. Signs are often, if not always, numinous. It's an intangible distinction that is felt. It's the hairs rising on the back of your neck or along your arms. The goosebumps across your skin. The butterflies in your stomach. The overflowing of the heart. It is the deep and unshakable knowing that you are in the presence of something more, something miraculous, something divine. The internet defines numinous as having a strong spiritual quality. It's a slippery thing to nail down with words, but you know it when you sense it. There is nothing quite like the numinous. It speaks directly to our soul. Signs seem to whisper to the deepest parts of us, reassuring the weary that they are never truly alone. In this way, interaction with the numinous reinvigorates us for the journey, enabling us to rise and carry on. It gives solace to the heart and sustenance to the spirit.


I hope you'll share some of your signs in the comments. I have found that in the absence of my own, the stories others share of their signs are often nearly as encouraging and soothing. Signs can come in all shapes and sizes and forms. And at the end of the day, only you know if your encounter is a sign. But when it is, it is precious indeed. A drop of blessed proof that your deceased beloved, your beautiful child, is still with you.

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