In June 1981 I moved from New York to Florida with my first husband and six-month-old son to be near our families. In December 1981, about a week after my son’s first birthday, my stepfather died.
I flew to New Jersey with my mother to attend the graveside ceremony. It was a small gathering, also attended by my brothers and a few cousins. We flew home the same day and my mother observed shiva, the traditional one week of mourning in the Jewish faith.
She called me early in the morning on the day that would have been the final day. My mother told me that she had been awakened by my stepfather’s voice calling her name. When she ventured out of the bedroom to investigate, she saw that the sheet covering the mirror in the entrance hall (a practice observed during shiva) had fallen to the ground.
We interpreted it as my stepfather stopping by for a final visit before crossing into the light. He was telling her it was time to stop mourning and return to life.
You probably have stories of your own similar to this. I’ve heard accounts of smelling scents associated with the deceased (cologne, cigarettes or cigars, coffee, etc.), a favorite song coming on the radio at an opportune moment, and other signs that the departed was sending a message or paying a visit.
For me, the visitations started immediately. Joe came home from hospice with me. I saw his shadow in our bedroom that first night I spent in our bed without him.
Like my mother's experience, I was awakened by his voice, but for me it was the very next morning. The second morning, I felt a nudge that woke me, and I started laughing. As I became conscious and opened my eyes, I felt the echo of a snore, something that happens for me when I sleep on my back. Joe would nudge me gently to prompt me to turn over. Apparently, he could still do it.
Over the next months, I felt his presence many times. Music, scents, old emails from him popping up on my phone, and photos of us or with others showing up in my featured photos/memories at the most appropriate times.
Although I had many experiences this past year of feeling comfort or receiving guidance from him, I also felt what I can only describe as a constant heaviness in my chest. During our last 16 years together, we had been with one another practically 24/7… separated only for hours at a time.
We did everything and went everywhere with each other. So this past year, it was difficult for me to be without him at home or outside. I almost couldn’t enjoy any outing without feeling sad that he wasn’t there to enjoy it too.
The truth is that I loved being with him so much that it made everything we did better, simply because I was with him. It’s been especially difficult on beautiful days, the kind of days we’d be out enjoying the scenery or an outing of some sort. After his death, if I ventured out on a day like that, I could appreciate the visuals but would be overcome with grief and sadness because it was no fun for me without Joe.
Autumn this year has been difficult, with every sign of the new season bringing back unpleasant memories of his illness a year ago. The last week prior to the one-year anniversary of his death was particularly emotional and unpleasant.
I spent four days, Saturday through Tuesday, compiling the photos to be used for the presentation that would be shown during his Celebration of Life. I took Wednesday off to get out of the apartment and enjoy some fresh air. It was a beautiful Asheville fall day. The colors were popping in the bright sunshine and the temperature was comfortable in the 70s. Yet I could scarcely breathe, I felt so miserable and lonely without him.
Friday, November 12, was technically the one-year anniversary of his death. I spent Thursday, November 11, writing the talk I would give on Sunday. I wasn’t difficult to write in the sense of knowing what to say. I’d had it in my head for months. But I had to take frequent breaks as I became overcome with my grief as I wrote.
I was done late afternoon and just reviewing my latest draft when I happened to glance up at the top of my laptop screen for the time. It was 5:29pm and before I could blink, the digital clock advanced to 5:30pm.
Exactly one year before, not on that date, but on a Thursday, I saw the time change from 5:29pm to 5:30pm on the wall clock in our hospice room as Joe drew his final breath.
This year I felt an immediate energy shift in my body and in the room, almost the same as I had experienced the year before.
But instead of grief, sadness, and pain, this time I felt a calm peacefulness. I knew instantly that Joe had just crossed into the light after spending this year with me. What I was feeling was his sensation of the final spiritual transition back to divinity.
The feeling stayed with me all evening. When I awoke the following day, the one-year mark on the calendar, I still felt an overwhelming sense of peace and calm. It was another beautiful Asheville day, similar to Wednesday. Yet this time, as I drove around town doing errands, I felt the joy I had in my past as I observed the vibrant colors and the commanding mountain views and breathed in the fresh autumn air.
To be honest, it felt a little weird. It was the anniversary of my beloved’s death and I was having a great day. Was something wrong with me?
When I returned home, I lit candles and settled in my meditation chair to reflect on what I was—or wasn’t—feeling. The moment I drew in my first deep breath, I got my answer. Joe and I are still connected at the soul level, just as we were connected in life. I feel Joe’s joy at returning home. There is no reason for me to feel guilty or weird about it.
The feeling remained with me through the weekend, the Celebration of Life, and even now as I write these words. The message I’m receiving is that is that it is possible to feel Heaven on Earth if we allow ourselves to connect with All That Is through our hearts, where our souls reside while we’re here in form.
There’s another Jewish tradition, observed at the one-year mark after a death. It’s called an unveiling. I truly don’t know what the historical roots of the tradition are, but I do know it’s a ceremony typically observed at graveside, and the headstone is ‘unveiled” after prayers and remembrances are recited.
For me, this was an unveiling in another format. In spiritual and indigenous belief systems, all that separates the worlds of form and spirit is a thin veil. That’s why psychics, mediums, shamans, and spiritual practitioners can connect with other realms. The truth is we all can, if we open ourselves to the possibility. Perhaps Joe set this all up so that I could be true to my Jewish heritage and still observe as I currently choose to experience my spirituality.
This was Joe’s version of “unveiling,” and the sign that the period of mourning is over. He reminded me that we come to Earth to experience the contrast that human life offers. Grief is not a punishment; it’s a rite of passage, and for me, it’s time to embrace life fully once again.
In Memory of Joseph Anthony Gemignani, January 8, 1946–November 12, 2020
From the song Morning Has Broken by Cat Stevens
Mine is the sunlight, mine is the morning
Born of the One Light Eden saw play
Praise with elation, praise every morning
God's re-creation of the new day
Image: Barn Tucked Away ©Gemignani.
Text ©Shelley Lieber
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