White Feathers by Henrietta Job
A white feather drifts on the summer breeze, turning and twisting on the wind’s currents, tantalizing, spellbinding.
We always notice white feathers.
‘Lily is preening her wings,’ someone will say, and one of my children will pick it up, absorbing an essence of their sister for a moment. As they sense Lily’s presence, hovering, radiant, just out of sight; they feel comforted and reassured that she has not entirely left them.
As a family we have developed a connection with what lies just beyond the gossamer veil which shimmers between our physical world and the next. That unknown realm which is just a moment away. Death is so close, so unpredictable, so mysterious, so terrifying.
It has been four years since my eldest daughter Lily fell from a sycamore tree on a bright day in June. After a busy morning and a relaxed family lunch of soup and pancakes, I was clearing up in our little home in the woods near South Brent in South Devon. At the weekend, seven year old Lily had found a goose feather, which had been fashioned into a quill for her. With a bottle of ink, she sat quietly at the table drawing with her beautiful feather. A nest, an egg, a bird.
It was the last thing she did. I didn’t see her slip out to play on the rope swing, just metres from our front door, but a few moments later, my eldest son Freddie, rushed in to say that his sister was lying unmoving under the sycamore tree where the rope swing hung.
She was unconscious and one eye was horrifically swollen shut. She was vomiting and squeezing my hand as I tried to comfort her. An hour later, I was in the air ambulance, and as we came into Plymouth and counted ten hospital staff streaming out to meet the helicopter, I realized, half numb with shock, just how serious this was.
In Frenchay Hospital
In the early hours of the next morning, after a transfer to Frenchay Hospital in Bristol; my partner Hugh, Lily’s dad David and I, knelt together in the waiting room, willing her to survive. As we did, a scene appeared in my mind.
Lily was on a magnificent white horse, scrabbling up a steep rocky mountain. The animal’s hooves slipped and faltered as it gained the summit. As they reached the top, the ground became a beautiful meadow carpeted with lush grass and wild flowers. Optimistically I took this to be an image of Lily’s recovery, but I now believe that this was the moment that her spirit took flight and found peace.
Soon after, the neurosurgeon emerged after hours of surgery to say that there was little hope, and Lily was on life support. Later that day, final brain stem tests were done and she was pronounced dead.
I haven’t screamed much but I did scream then.
When I bore my children I didn’t imagine I would be holding a bloodless hand as cold as the winter frost. I never knew how pale a dead person’s lips are.
We returned home with only three children, but it took a long time to stop setting six plates on the table, a long time before I was able to change her bedclothes and take her clothes out of the wardrobe. A long time before I could fully absorb that Lily was not coming back.
Blessed by Angels
We came home to hundreds of flowers and a home which felt as if it had been blessed by angels. The support for our family was overwhelming. Every day, friends brought baskets overflowing with food, flowers, cards and poetry. Lily’s death awoke an enormous surge of love in the community of the Steiner School which all my children attended. More than 200 people attended the celebration of Lily’s life, wearing their brightest clothes as we released seven white doves, one for every year of her life, to the summer skies.
I wrote and illustrated a story, ‘Lily Rose becomes an Angel’, initially for my three remaining children, to comfort them, and make a beautiful narrative of where Lily had gone when she left. I read it at her ceremony, and after many changes and rewritings, I am now looking for an agent in the quest for publication.
Lily’s funeral and burial was facilitated by Rupert and Clare of The Green Funeral Company, who offered beautiful, informal, wonderfully irreverent support and love through the strangest time I have ever lived.
Time Out of Time
It was a surreal time which seemed infused with that same indefinable energy which surrounds the birth of a new baby. Time out of time. The sun shone tenderly on our woodland clearing and visitors commented on the hallowed, hushed feeling they experienced as they walked past ‘Lily’s tree’ to our home.
Unusual animals appeared boldly as we walked those three weeks between the accident and the funeral; a golden lizard on the decking, a dawn hare eyeing me from the edge of our clearing, an enormous red fox nearly stepping on my toes in some nearby woods in Dartington. The biggest snake I have seen meandered at her burial site. These animals had never appeared before, and slowly, as the weeks turned to months and years, the sightings diminished.
We all felt that it was Lily’s way of being with us, and that in the rawness of immediate grief following her death, we were opened to contact from the spirit world.
Birth and death are gateways from and to these worlds, and people closest to the newly born or newly deceased have unusual access through these portals.
The Many Layers of Existence
In the years that have followed, I have learnt to be quiet, to meditate and connect with Lily this way too, but it takes time and stillness away from my busy life to achieve that. It also takes belief that she really is still here. Before her death, I had never considered this sort of deepening connection with anything beyond the physical, material nature of everyday life. But for both my partner Hugh and myself, our lives have been immeasurably enriched by our deeper connection to the many layers of existence which lie beneath the superficiality and materialism of our 21st century lives. We know that there are infinite diaphanous layers beyond what we can see and touch.
We have also started to dig deeper and find what we are really supposed to do.
We have found the strength to start to throw off restrictive patterns of behaviour which have sabotaged our efforts to fulfil our true paths in life.
A Connection with Spirit
Losing a child makes us realise that we must seize the day with all our senses and live every moment to the fullest; but I also know that Lily’s death is in vain if I am not finally true to myself and if I don’t follow the path which has always called me to be a writer and artist, in whatever form that takes. I am just beginning to explore how my connection with the spirit world will inform and shape this, and it feels both challenging and very exciting!
For somehow, however strange it may sound, I believe that in some unknown way, Lily’s passing was not a random accident, not some unjust freak of nature which I must rage against and question. I think that it was part of life’s pattern that she died at seven, and most tellingly, several people have told me things that they witnessed which support this. A dear friend who has close connections with the spirit world, and who is also the mother of one of Lily’s old class mates, told me how, a month before the accident she came face to face with Lily in her classroom. She was shocked by a sudden realisation that Lily was not supposed to live very long, and was never supposed to grow old. Several of her school friends also commented that in the days before she fell, Lily seemed to have withdrawn, was quiet and dreamy, content but detached. I too noticed this, on the final drive home from school, as she sat holding a white origami dove that she had made that morning. I remember asking her several times if she was ok.
Did Lily know? Was she prepared? Or was she as shocked as us?
Perhaps I will never know for sure but I am sure the universe knew, and I think that Lily passed as quickly and easily into spirit as she moved into earthly realms when she was born. She was born after a 30 minute labour!
More to Life
It’s hard to remember that death is part of life that will happen to us all, and we never know when it will come; it can be sudden and shocking. In our world today we are focussed on physicality and material concerns, and because of this, death is very much feared and dreaded. Birth and death are just movements from one state of being to another. In times when people were more connected with their ancestors and spirituality, death was not the taboo subject that it can be today.
I am hoping that through my writing and art, for children and adults, I can play a part in redressing the balance, reminding people that there is more to life than our physical existence.
That connection with the spirit world is possible, and natural, and very easy to forget in the bustle of our busy lives.
My children found it really helpful to be reminded of the angels’ (or whatever we choose to call ourselves in spirit) sadness when one of their number becomes a physical being and leaves for a while. And the joy they feel when that soul returns to them.
Grief Tending Ceremony
The other connection which can be missing for us in our busy lives is the connection with each other, with community. A year or so after Lily’s death, I took part in a grief tending ceremony on Dartmoor, lead by Maeve Gavin of Way of the Village, and for me this was a turning point in the way I approached grieving. Slowly, the realisation that crying alone was not what humans are designed to do sunk into my consciousness.
At the ceremony, we shared and expressed our grief together, supporting each other and forming a temporary ‘village’ to hold each other and our feelings and emotions. The ceremony is an adaptation of a tradition of the Dagara people of Burkina Faso, where grief is ‘tended’ and expressed on a weekly or monthly basis in the community. A flowing, moving tide which is fluid and healing. A deep connection with other people. Since the ritual I have made huge steps towards connecting with others. My family now lives in a community in Devon, and both Hugh and I are involved in groups and movements which support and inspire us on our journey
We feel huge sadness at the loss of the physical presence of our beautiful Lily Rose, but the joy of her spirit in our lives.
We are on a healing journey, for ourselves and for others. We cannot return to our former way of living.
We also feel the joy of a new baby among us. Little Finch, my fifth child, was born in July 2013 and was, we are sure, already very well acquainted with his big sister before he came over to our side of the crystal bridge! One of my children thinks that it was Lily’s idea that he chose our family…..!!