Present While Absent

I was positioned, ready for the light sedation that would block pain and full awareness of what was going on during my foot surgery. The anesthesia did its job. Although I was aware of the lights, activity, and people talking, I couldn’t register words or pain. Suddenly I became aware of my three sisters alongside the surgery table. Elaine had died 17 years ago, Sylvia four years, and Lee seven months ago. They aligned themselves along my side in caring attendance. I saw them. They said nothing. I felt their calming presence and reassurance that all would be well. They stood guard to make sure I would be taken care of. They were not an illusion. I felt a flow of supportive energy between them and me.

Many times I’ve heard questions: “Do our loved ones somehow remain with us after they die? Do they care about us? At times, do they let us know they are still with us, though they are physically absent? Can we trust our experiences to answer, ‘Yes?’ Do we dare to talk about what seem to be strange encounters? How can people who have died and are now absent still be present?”

Lisa escorted her dying grandmother over the threshold to her transformed life. It was winter. Lisa glanced out the window. A monarch butterfly, a Christian symbol of death and rising to new life, had attached itself. The night after my dad died, my siblings and mom restlessly roamed around our home. We all felt his energy. He was present. Years later, for about a week before my mother died, she felt the presence of my dad who was deceased. She would turn to talk to him and find he wasn’t there. In my Benedictine community, we know instances of dying sisters seeing something or someone that brings them joy. Sometimes they talk with the “someone.” They are radiant and calm. Sometimes a recognizable symbol of the deceased person lingers. A brilliant red cardinal, a word, the digits 11:11 on a clock, a song, a fragrance can become signs that someone such as a deceased child, teacher, spouse, parent is touching in to let us know they are present. They are still with us.

Such experiences of presence in absence challenge our rational minds that believe presence and absence cannot coexist. I wonder if such instances draw us into ways of being and experience that take us beyond our daily, common-sense ways of participating in life. There are ways of being beyond those that are functional and logical. Might we be moved to greater openness to new ways of knowing and relating with people who have died and the events of our daily lives? While I wonder, I also know that for me, the answer is, “Yes.”

Mary Reuter, OSB

Photo: A monarch butterfly on a Black-Eyed Susan