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Mysterious Happenings After a Death

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Many of us experience some kind of unusual phenomenon when we are grieving.

Mystery. There were mysterious happenings. One day while sitting in a fifth-floor office at my publisher’s, editing a chapter of the book, I saw for the first time a note in the margin in Greg’s hand: “Get butterfly haiku.” Only the day before, I had called my graduate assistant in Texas and asked her to find a short poem for the text, and she had give me this Japanese haiku:

Spring Scene
On the temple bell
Has settled, and is fast asleep
A butterfly.
—Anonymous

Reading Greg’s note, “Get butterfly haiku,” I think, “I’ve already done that. I did that yesterday!” I was so stunned by this coincidence that I turned in the swivel chair to look outside. There I saw, hovering against the glass, five floors above Third Avenue in New York City, a bright orange butterfly.

—Excerpt from "Seven Choices" by Elizabeth Harper Neeld


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Many of us experience some kind of unusual phenomenon when we are grieving. Often we are embarrassed to talk about these unusual events. What if people around us think we are crazy?

But we aren’t crazy. Ordinary people—and lots of us—experience most extraordinary occurrences when we are grieving. For instance, the editor of the book I wrote, "Seven Choices," told me the story of what occurred to her shortly after her husband died:

I was riding in a taxi. Elliott had just died. I was going home from the hospital to get burial clothes to take to the mortuary. Suddenly the taxi was filled with the smell of violets. I looked out the window to see who might be carrying flowers, or where the flower stall was located. But there was no sign of flowers anywhere on the street. “The violets must be in the front seat with the driver,” I thought.

“What a beautiful smell,” I said. “Where are the flowers?”

The driver looked startled. “I was about to ask you what perfume you’re wearing,” he said.

Neither of us could come up with an explanation for the sudden smell of violets that we were both experiencing. It was one of those weird, unexplainable occurrences. In some strange way, though, that mystery was comforting to me. I was uplifted by the smell of those violets. I felt as though I’d been touched by Elliott, or by the hand of God.

There are many theories to explain this kind of strange event. A physicist might talk about “implicate order” and “morphogenic fields.” A scientist might talk about “laws of seriality” and “object-impact interactions.” A Jungian scholar might mention “synchronicity.” A theologian might talk about “grace” and “a higher Being.”

I especially like these words from Albert Einstein:

"To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, which our dull faculties can comprehend only in the most primitive forms--this knowledge, this feeling is at the center of true religiousness... There is, after all, something eternal that lies beyond reach of the hand of fate and of all human delusions."

The most useful way to hold these mysterious events, especially early in our grieving, is not to try to understand them but merely to acknowledge and reflect on them. Just because we experience something strange does not mean that we are “making things up” or losing our logical faculties. We don’t have to be able to explain something in order to take comfort from it or to marvel at it.

There’s a wonderful poem by Adam Zagajewski called “Try to Praise the Mutilated World,” where he says:

Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew.

In my own life, I have found the mysterious events that occur during grief something like a June long day or walking barefoot in the dew. These occurrences are like an oasis in the dry desert of pain and loss. They are like a momentary uplift out of the dreary dark of dealing daily with the loss (though often very long-lasting in their impact on my spirit). They are events that are gifts to be received, moments of grace to be honored.

Clearly, one thing we realize when we experience moments of Mystery is that we do not know everything, that there is Presence that we cannot explain. We have come, now, face to face with the truth that Life does contain mysteries. And that it is possible to be impacted most positively by something even if you can’t begin to understand it.


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Dr. Elizabeth Harper Neeld offers wisdom and practical insights born of personal experience to people rebuilding their lives after suffering grief and loss. As an internationally recognized and accomplished consultant, adviser, and author of more than twenty books—including Tough Transitions and Seven Choices: Finding Daylight After Loss Shatters Your World—she is committed to work that helps lift the human spirit.


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