The first few weeks of grief after losing a child are a mixture of rage, sadness, helplessness and fear: An unstable concoction that can react and explode at any given moment. As someone who can now count himself among the unfortunate fraternity of those who lost a child I am sometimes asked by people to reach out to others who have recently suffered the same loss. The almost universal inquiry that follows is if I can say something , anything, that will help them or guide them along their path. Sadly, it is in those early days that words will have little or no effect. I cannot describe the hysteria that is felt in the immediate aftermath other than to say it is a wheel of emotions in perpetual flux. You are in an unnerving state of constant emotional change and nothing can stop that wheel from making its revolutions. One thing I do tell these grieving parents is that it is important to feel every single one of those emotions in order to begin the process of healing. Just as in chemistry, the reactants must come together to form a new product. As the reaction proceed energy is released – sometimes furiously. The products can only form in the wake of tumult and chaos. There is no other way to produce the end product. Similarly, the grieving parent must experience and acknowledge every ounce of rage, sadness, helplessness and fear, as those feelings catalyze the synthesis of the “new normal” they will eventually find themselves in.
Often times when I speak to grieving parents (myself included) they recognize the fact that their friends and family want to help them – either through actions or words, but that very little resonates; at least at first. Most people’s instinct in the wake of child-loss is to say things that they think will help the grieving parents. Paradoxically, at least to those who never suffered the loss and don’t truly understand it, those first few weeks are the worst time to hear advice on grief. The reaction that child-loss generates is so volatile that our first thought is to “help” our hurting loved ones and try to say anything (and often everything) that we think will “make it all better”. In a way, our loved ones try in vain to keep the reactants of sadness, anger, rage and hopelessness away from the grieving as a means to avoid the combustion that follows. Although the intentions of our loved ones is pure, they really can’t fathom what the grieving parent is going through. For our loved ones recognizing the magnitude of the loss you experienced, coupled with their intrinsic fear of it happening to them, results in the subconscious thought that they don’t want to even imagine what you are going through. This is not an indictment of those we love, rather it is simply a function of the brain’s coping mechanism for something often described as unimaginable.
Outliving our children is not unimaginable, every parent has imagined that scenario and then tucked the thought away as quickly as it appeared. No, losing a child is simply nature’s greatest cruelty and it represents a primal fear we simply do not ever want to face ourselves. When a loved one loses a child there is no hiding, no tucking away of the thought. We are forced to witness a reaction that is explosive and violent: Of course we want to put out the flames, it’s only natural. This natural need to try and fix that which is broken in those we care about leads to statements like: ”Look for the signs and you will see he is with you…”. Those very words were uttered by countless people in the wake of Rees’ death. To be honest, at the time and from my perspective, they offered very little comfort and often times just deepened the wound his absence caused. I remember resenting hearing those words from people. I knew they meant well. I know they said it because they cared.
Regardless of intent, the first reason I resented those words was because I was not yet ready to hear it. My mind and heart were not in a place to accept that as an answer. The second reason I despised it was because I simply did not really believe it to be true – at least at that time I didn’t. Despite having an unexplainable experience with “signs” after my father’s death, I was still somewhat entrenched in my belief that death was final and anything that could be considered a sign was merely a coincidence. I was so angry that Rees was stolen from me that I had no reason to believe there could be anything out there to explain his loss other than the cruelty of an uncaring and ambivalent natural order dictated by chance and probability and nothing more. Whatever minimal hopes I previously held regarding the potential of an afterlife seemed to evaporate away like cold water on hot asphalt. It was so bad that I even disregarded the “sign” my father gave me after he passed: (below is an excerpt from my blog entry goodbye and the sign I got from my father)
About a month before my father succumbed to the cancer that ravaged his lungs, we had a conversation about death. At the time I was incredibly uncomfortable about the topic, as I knew my father’s own end was imminent. My father tried talking to me about his and by extension my own, mortality. I remember my father’s dismay when I told him I believed that when we died that was it – nothing more, a one way ticket to nothingness. Ever the showman, I stood up and turned off the lights in the room and told my father “You want to know what happens when you die? You just saw it. Light’s out. The end.” My father shook his head, but instead of a look of disgust or horror, I saw a smile on his face and the twinkle in his eye that he reserved for when he was keeping a secret that he knew would drive others crazy. My father knew something and he couldn’t wait to prove me wrong.
“You are wrong, Richie”. Those were his simple words – words that anyone who knows me irritate me to know end. “I feel sad that you don’t feel comfortable talking about this, but I KNOW there is something else after I die and I am going to prove it to you, Mr. Science!”, he said. My father then went on to describe his grand plan to prove to me that there was something more after death. He rationed that the only way to make me, the ultimate skeptic, believe that there is more to life after death was proof. I remember scoffing at the idea, asking my Dad how he could possibly prove it to me. As I stared him down, growing more and more frustrated with the direction of our conversation, I saw the light bulb go off in his head. ” Well”, he added with a smile of satisfaction ” we will just have to perform an experiment: Here’s the plan..”
The plan was amazingly simple and effective. My father’s idea was to give my wife, Samantha, a secret password that only she and he would know. Upon my father’s death he vowed he would return to me in some way and utter the password and I would have the proof I required. I remember laughing out loud at the notion and only went along with his plan out of sympathy and a sense of appeasement. At the time I did not realize that I had already forsaken my beliefs in science as I had a preconceived outcome that I was SURE of – a scientific no no. My father told Sam the password after I had left the room completely and went upstairs to our bedroom. I returned only after Sam had given me the ok, and for the remainder of our days together my father and I honestly never spoke another word about his grand experiment.
I was at my father’s side on the day of his death. My memory can paint a perfect picture of my father’s eyes the moment I walked into his room that morning. Though we didn’t speak, my father’s eyes actualized a fear that I had never before seen in them. The man I had looked up to as the epitome of strength and courage, a real life Superman, looked weak and afraid. To see my father whittled down to a husk of his former self and struggling mightily for mere wisps of breath filled me with hopelessness. I am sure my eyes belied the false sense of strength I was attempting to convey to him.
As things settled and my father became aware that both my sister and I were at his side the look of fear resigned to one of contentment. As I stood there comforting him and telling him how much I loved him the look of fear morphed into a look of peace and contentment. Though functionally mute for several days, he managed to hoarsly utter his last words to my sister and I: “I love you”. Not long after I felt the life slip from his large, once powerful hand, and I knew he was gone. I said, “Goodbye Dad, I love you”. I said goodbye to my father without a moment’s hesitation. It was natural, and poignant. According to everything I knew, my smug assurances told me that the light had turned off forever. Everything my father ever was ceased and he entered oblivion. Goodbye, Dad.
Exactly one month after my father passed I awoke from the first dream I had about him and found myself unable to get back to sleep. I quietly and stealthily slipped out of bed and walked down the stairs to our kitchen and sat at our computer. I sat there for about an hour or so before Sam must have awoken to realize that I was no longer in bed with her. She immediately came downstairs and found me at the computer and asked me what was the matter. I told her that I had a nice dream about my father, and went on to describe the dream.
In the dream my father was not dead, far from it in fact. In the realm of my unconscious mind he was alive and well with my family and me seated next to him at his picnic table at his house in upstate New York. In the dream my father was doing exactly what he would have been doing had he been alive: holding court. He was telling jokes, teasing people and playing his guitar. I remember the satisfaction I felt of seeing my father alive and all seemed to be right in the world. Then things changed. Like a storm cloud that sneaks over the top of a tall mountain changing the weather in an instant, my dream clouded over with the realization that my father was dead. All of the merriment ceased and my family all disappeared. I was left at the table with just my father, and in my dream I asked my father what was the password. He never answered. Instead, I was greeted with seemingly nonsensical images of dogs and world war fighter pilots and I awoke in disappointment.
I remember looking at Sam’s face as I described the dream, her sympathetic eyes filling me with an easiness to press on and tell the whole story. She smiled and acknowledged the salient points with a chuckle and continued to smile throughout… that is until I got to the last part. Never before in my life had I seen mere words draw the blood directly out of someone’s face until that moment. Ironically, it is I who would have been able to say I had seen a ghost, as her face took on the alabaster hue of an apparition. Upon hearing my description of dogs and fighter pilots, Sam immediately gasped, placed her balled up hand to her mouth and shook her head as if to dislodge a thought that had no reason being in her head. She hesitated a second and then uttered the words I will never forget: “The password your father gave me, I, I can’t believe this”, she stammered, “the password was Snoopy and the Red Baron!”.
We both stood there in awe and disbelief for several minutes. Ever the skeptic, I asked, and re-asked if she was sure. Samantha said that she wasn’t sure if the password was just Snoopy and the Red Baron, but she knew that was the main idea. She was without doubt on that. Unable to shake my skepticism, I then asked her if my father put her up to acknowledging any password I may have heard or seen just to mollify me and give me a sense of peace. I felt guilty about the inquiry, but needed confirmation. Sam vehemently denied that she would ever deceive me, and honestly her reaction was as genuine as can be. My father and Snoopy along with the Red Barron had given me pause. The reality of the ultimate finality of death that I was so sure of was now shattered and I scrambled to put the pieces together into a new mosaic of reality that incorporated this phenomenon. While I will always stop short of saying that what I received that day was proof (after all some part of my subconscious could have known the password somehow already) I now had evidence to doubt my previous belief. My father didn’t give me faith that there is something more after we die, but he did give me doubt that there isn’t anything at all. For a scientist, doubt is healthy. It keeps us honest. It gives us hope. A month after his passing, my father gave me the greatest gift he ever did while alive: the gift of possibility.
dreaming of snoopy and the Red Barron…
The sign my father gave me did in fact give me doubt that I was correct about the finality of death, but it did not convince me. Where doubt is flexible, belief is firm and unyielding. Before Richie died I held out a tenuous hope that my father did somehow visit me, providing me with doubt where once there only existed a belief it was a true end. Rees’ death very nearly obliterated that hope. With all the emotions I was experiencing, with the magnitude of the loss his absence created, I needed more. If I were to believe that some part of us goes on after death I would need proof. The more I thought about it, the angrier I grew as I asked myself, “how could my father reach out to me from beyond the grave to help me, and not do something to save my little boy from wandering into that pond?”. If my father could “visit” me from beyond the grave, surely he could have protected Rees? My doubt was dangerously close to becoming belief again. If I were to believe that some part of us is eternal I would need the very signs I didn’t want to hear about in order to “prove” it to me…
Signs are tricky thing for someone who has been trained to look past coincidence and confirmation bias. A scientist is trained to eliminate as many variables as they can to try and reach the truth. ”Truth” is only something a scientist can claim after a series of controlled and reproduced experiments validate it. For a scientist to find the “truth”, they must eliminate the impossible, and whatever remains, regardless of how improbable, must be the answer. Along the same lines of thought is the principle of Occam’s Razor: The idea that the simplest solution to a problem is most likely the correct solution. When you apply this line of thinking to the idea that life somehow persists after death it would outwardly appear that Occam’s Razor slices this idea to shreds. After all, what is simpler than the idea that when you die, ALL of you dies? How does one find the truth in something that is inherently beyond our ability to test? How does one get proof?
Applying Occam’s razor does not in itself answer the question or provide any proof. It is simply a road map of apparent solution. If one wants to prove something they must have evidence to back it up: Proof. Scientists are always cautioned about proof. When analyzing data, a scientist must be sure to look at all sides of the problem and the “proof” that confirms or denies it. One of the most difficult things for a scientist to overcome is their innate confirmation bias that is built into every single human being. A confirmation bias is simply the tendency of humans to look for things that confirm what we believe to be true, and to ignore that which goes against that belief. An example I use with my students when teaching about confirmation bias is the idea that we live on a “Small World”. Say for instance you are travelling overseas and sitting at an outdoor cafe’ in Berlin, Germany. As you are eating your meal you hear someone behind you speaking English with an unmistakable accent that is just like yours. You turn around to the person and ask them where they are from and you find out they are from a town not far from you. As the conversation progresses you find out that you actually know their nephew because he attends the same school as your children and is close friends with them. Amazed at the odds that something like this would happen you proclaim “What a small world this is!”. Indeed, the fact that you had this experience does seem to give evidence that it is indeed a “small world” – as no other explanation would explain it.
In reality it is not a small world. At all. In fact, the Earth is pretty damn big. Here is the fatal flaw in that scenario: The people described in that situation only used their one, isolated, experience based on a previous bias that it is a “small world” to confirm that which they already believed. To think like a scientist would and prove whether or not it is indeed a small world they would need to take samples from EVERYONE gathered at the cafe and see if they had similar findings, or at the very least that the majority of the people their shared something with them that would lend credence to the theory. If you polled everyone else at that cafe’ you would find that you shared just about nothing with them. Would you then feel compelled to proclaim that, because you shared nothing with the majority of the people there, that it was in fact a “large world”? A normal person would not, but a scientist/researcher would. A scientist is trained to look at both sides of a problem and the potential that another answer exists outside of our bias. It is for this reason that the “proof” of something must be thoroughly tested, examined and re-tested to eliminate any bias.
A grieving father who just lost his only son hoping that there exists some possibility that his son’s life-force persists in some way could not be any further from unbiased. If I am told to look for signs that he is there the scientist in me would also be compelled to look for signs that he is not. I was not ready to perform a scientific experiment to prove something I found dubious to begin with and as such I really started to default to the idea that Rees was gone, in every single sense of the word. My own personal Occam’s razor was apparently ready to sever the vestiges of my connection with Rees entirely simply because it was the easiest thing to do.
The first two or three days after Rees passed found me in a dark place that my own thinking was partly to blame. I was angry, bitter and resentful – all the reactants that are expected. I didn’t want to hear about signs, or heaven, or God or anything like that. I didn’t believe there would be any signs, so I didn’t look for them – and of course that is when the first one appeared…
second star to the right…
It was three or four days after Rees had passed and a couple of days after Superstorm Sandy that I walked outside and looked up at the moon right outside our kitchen door. It struck me for 2 reasons: First – the moon was incredibly bright and situated right over the walkway that lead from the door. The moon was literally in the “picture perfect” spot for me to see it. Second – the clouds that rolled past the moon that night moved with a haste that no doubt was caused by the remaining turbulence in the atmosphere left in Sandy’s wake. I called Samantha to come outside to look at the moon and the “Peter Pan Sky” as it was reminiscent of nighttime sky depicted in the film. She came out and I put my arm around her and told her that Rees was our Peter Pan now… the boy who would never grow up. It was at that moment that I noticed that there were only 2 stars visible in the sky from our vantage point – and they were directly to the right of the moon. I told her to look to the second star to the right and straight on till morning and that is where we will find our little boy. We hugged, we cried and we smiled. I think it was the first time we really smiled since his passing. There was a comfort to that moment that I cannot describe, and to try and do so would take away from majesty of the moment; suffice to say it was special. As we started to walk back into the house I turned my head over my shoulder again to look up and noticed something else; the stars we could see were actually part of the constellation Orion, my favorite constellation.
I didn’t see that natural spectacle as a sign. It was just a special experience between two parents who needed something special to put our hearts at ease, if only for a fleeting moment. Sam and I never shared that moment with anyone. It was ours and Rees’ and no one else’s. The sign came after the fact… Flash forward a couple of weeks later and the following arrives in our mail from an anonymous donor (and yes, they are still anonymous!):
a star in the constellation Orion? After I only told this to my wife… wow, what a coincidence…
As soon as Sam showed me I turned to her and asked her if she told anyone about our special moment that night. She replied “No, no one…”. I really couldn’t believe it. I thought, what were the odds that someone would do this and it just happened to be in the constellation Orion? Sam immediately called it a sign. I wasn’t so sure. The skeptic in me still reigned supreme. A sign? Perhaps, but not likely, I thought. Instead I rationed to myself that it was more likely to be some cosmic coincidence; merely a confirmation bias. I did not rule out that it was a sign, but I wasn’t convinced. I guess Rees knows his Daddy, because that wasn’t nearly the only sign he sent me. I guess I am as tough a nut to crack as Samantha says I am.
The next sign was something that shook me. It was a little over a week after Rees had passed and I took a drive, alone, to pick up some items I needed from Best Buy. On the way to the store I turned my radio dial from sports radio to a music station. Anyone who knows me knows that I almost never listen to music in my car. It’s so bad that Samantha jokes that my radio would probably die of shock if I were to change the station. Yet, on that day, I changed the station. I recall that as I did I was talking out loud in the car and asking Rees if he was there. ”Can you hear me, Richie?”, I asked, ”Will this idea of ReesSpecht Life be a way to honor your life and the kindness we received?”. The song that came on the radio at that very moment was “Hall of Fame” by Will.I.Am. As I listened to the lyrics they fit the very question I asked Richie at that moment. I was in shock… As the song ended I questioned Rees further, “Was that you, Richie? Was that a sign???”. At that very moment I was looking at some of the pictures of him that we printed but did not use for his memorial service the night before that were strewn across the passenger seat in my car. The next song that came on the radio? Photograph, by Nickleback. A song about pictures and saying goodbye… Oh my God, I thought as I arrived at my destination.
I still don’t recall what I purchased that day, but I do remember getting back into the car and hesitating to start the car back up. Would another song be on the radio that held a special meaning? I was afraid to turn the key for fear of not hearing something that fit, thus confirming what I experienced was nothing more than me searching for meaning in something that had none. I finally mustered the strength, turned the key and there was no song on the radio, just an add. I was disappointed and ready to turn off the radio and then the next song played: ”Time after Time”, by Cyndi Lauper.
if you’re lost you can look – and you will find me
Time after time
If you fall I will catch you – I’ll be waiting
Time after time
After my picture fades and darkness has
Turned to gray
Watching through windows – you’re wondering
If I’m OK
Secrets stolen from deep inside
The drum beats out of time -
If you’re lost you can look – and you will find me
Time after time
If you fall I will catch you – I’ll be waiting
Time after time
As I listened to the song I started to sob uncontrollably. I felt a connection so strong I just could not shake it. It was primal, it was tangible. He was there – so much so that I swear I saw him sitting in his seat behind me, smiling at me with a reassuring smile that everything was going to be ok. He was there. I had my answer. My soul shook, and my brain trembled at the experience. It defied logic and reason. Sure, it still could be dismissed as just another confirmation bias; my subconscious tricking me – but the feeling was so real that even I, the devout skeptic and non-believer, was beginning to rethink my doubts…
A fair amount of time separated those signs from the next ones. Scattered between them were what I like to call “inklings” – not really signs, but things that make you wonder. Among these were reports from friends who saw psychics with Rees coming up in both. The circumstances described in both cases were eerily correct regarding Richie and the events that unfolded that day, and if I actually believed in psychics I would rate them higher than mere “inklings”. Another of these “inklings” occurred during our first family road trip after Richie’s passing. I recalled looking back at Rees’ empty seat behind me, an overwhelming sense of sadness and hopelessness overtaking me. I started to tear up but thankfully my sunglasses masked the waterworks from Samantha and the girls. I recall asking silently “Are you with us Richie?” and immediately getting my answer. Not one second after I asked, a car pulled next to us with a travel container on top made by Reese. The timing could not be more perfect. A coincidence? Maybe, but maybe not.
There have been other “inklings” at different times as well. More recently, on our 14th wedding anniversary, Sam and I went out to register for baby items for baby girl Specht. Just as we started our “scanning” the song “Respect”, by Aritha Franklin came on the radio. It was such perfect timing. A coincidence? Maybe, but maybe not.
Another example was during our family trip to Berlin, Germany last summer. I had just found myself the recipient of an act of kindness by a man who did not need the photo-pass he purchased for a tour of Charlottenberg castle. He turned around and gave it to me because he saw I had a camera. I was so thankful that someone would do something so kind (and generous!). Once we walked into the first room I was ready to take a shot with the camera I was now allowed to use and what do I see out the back window? A tractor. Parked right there for all to see and distactingly out of time and place for a location that transports you to the past. I took the picture below and called Sam over to see it. She was sure it was Rees – especially since once we went to the next room with a window the tractor was no longer there. I thought maybe it was Rees, but maybe not.
A tractor out of time – and in a place you would never expect…
Speaking of tractors, I now see them all over. The rational side of me realizes that there are no more tractors now than there were before Rees passed, it’s just that I am now acutely aware of their presence. I never realized how ubiquitous tractors were until Richie passed. At least now I am beginning to understand why he got so excited and said tractor all the time… THEY ARE EVERYWHERE! I don’t see every one of these tractor sightings as signs or inklings, but some are. Just this past weekend, while upstate at our family property, we were out shopping for supplies and I saw this shirt:
love never dies either…
Why was this shirt an inkling? While we were in the shop I commented to myself that Rees would have loved it. They had tractors everywhere and I mean everywhere. It would have been heaven for him, I thought – and it made me incredibly sad as I realized he was already there. Of course what was the very next thing I see? That shirt. Tractors never die. Well, I can assuredly attest, neither does love. Doubters can doubt all they want, but I just don’t think they are ALL coincidences anymore. Me, the rational, skeptical, non-believer, now can’t help but see SOMETHING. A coincidence? Maybe not.
I know there have been other little signs here and there that I am leaving out. To be honest, there have been so many now I really cannot keep track of them – they are now a milieu of random happy sights, sounds and fond memories. While I cannot recall all of those little signs, there are four big signs that I can recall with clarity, and by big I mean smack you in the face, punch you in the gut, you can’t ignore me signs…
1) The Rainbow:
a rainbow is shaped like a smile from Heaven’s point of view…
I took that picture of THE Rainbow while at my property in Upstate NY over the memorial day weekend of this past year (2014). Why do I call it THE Rainbow? Simple. This rainbow was a sign, plain and simple. For those of you who have read my blogs, or know me personally, you know that the one place on Earth that puts me at ease is “The Hill”; our family’s 76 acre slice of a mountaintop in the Catskills of New York. It is the most special place in the world to me, and nothing made me prouder than to share it with my children – especially Rees. I saw in Richie the chance to share the experiences I had with my own father on that sacred ground and pass a legacy of father and son on to him that he would in turn perhaps pass on to his own son one day too. I know this is the place where Rees found his love of tractors. Every picture I have of him up there his happiness is apparent and palpable:
Oh, the trouble you would have gotten into!
Looking out on the world…