Much of the joy of the holiday season comes from being with those you love. But along with that comes the longing for those who are no longer with us.
Delta Township’s Debbie Metcalf understands the second part all too well.
In 2018, she lost both of her parents just three months apart, first her father, then her mother.
A baby robin comforted Debbie Metcalf of Delta Township May 18, 2019. Before her mother’s death, Metcalf asked her mother to send her a sign after death in the form of a bird. (Photo: courtesy)
When her mother, Avis Smith of Grand Rapids, was dying in September 2018, Metcalf and her sister asked Smith to send them a sign after she was gone, letting them know that she was OK.
Her mother’s name, in Latin, means bird. Her sister asked for a sign in the form of a cardinal. Metcalf’s request was more general.
“Send me a sign in the shape of a bird, and I’ll know it’s you,” Metcalf told her.
Metcalf said her sister got her sign right away, with two families of cardinals moving into bushes near her house.
But it took Metcalf several months for a sign that was so strong she had no doubt. Though she said she believes in life after death, she wanted to be reassured that her mother wasn’t suffering.
Metcalf said she hadn’t grieved her mother very hard. Her mother was the “life of the party,” Metcalf said. She enjoyed a long, happy life, living to age 96, though she suffered at the end.
“I hadn’t really cried. I hadn’t been really sad. She went through so much, and I was glad she was at peace,” she said.
A baby robin comforted Debbie Metcalf of Delta Township May 18, 2019. Metcalf asked her late mother, before she died, to send her a sign in the form of a bird that she was OK. (Photo: Courtesy)
But in May, months after her mother’s passing, Metcalf was in a Dollar Tree store. Her mother enjoyed going with her to the store when she was alive. Metcalf was hit by a terrible, unexpected wave of sadness. She missed her mother.
The next day, a sign came along that was so real it left no doubt in Metcalf’s mind that her mother was telling her not to be so sad.
“I think I’ve had a lot of unusual coincidences in my life, but this one tops them all,” she said.
Metcalf and her husband, John, attended a high school baseball tournament at Potterville High School to watch one of their grandsons play.
They sat the top of the bleachers.
“We noticed a young robin sitting down from us that just stayed there and we worried that the bird might be injured,” Metcalf recalled in a story she included in her Christmas newsletter and shared with me.
Another fan in the bleachers called an animal rescue group and was advised to leave it alone, as it was likely a fledgling learning to fly, not a displaced nestling.
Metcalf didn’t pick up the robin but it allowed her to sit next to it. At one point, it hopped away to the end of the bleacher to the stairs.
She sat below it on the stairs and talked to it before it fluttered under the bleachers.
When she rejoined her husband at the top of the bleachers, she was surprised when the robin reappeared on the bleachers.
A baby robin rests near John Metcalf of Delta Township at Potterville High School May 18, 2019. The bird comforted his wife, Debbie, who asked her late mother to send her a sign after death in the form of a bird. (Photo: Courtesy)
“That thing just hopped right back up and sat between us,” she said. “I didn’t reach toward it…All of a sudden, it’s on my finger. I’m looking at it, it’s looking at me.”
For six hours, the robin stayed. The Metcalfs didn’t leave, even for a two-hour break in the games.
Instead, Metcalf talked to the bird, sure that her mother had sent it to comfort her.
“I said, ‘Mom, I’m so glad to see you,’” she said.
The experience left her elated.
“It meant so much to me. It was so personal to me,” she said.
Metcalf isn’t alone. When the robin visited her, she had just finished reading a 1996 book, “Hello from Heaven” where the authors examine more than 3,000 cases of those who have had “after-death communications.” They fall into such categories such as animal and flower symbols to dreams that feel real.
Avis Smith, shown a year before her death, died at age 96 in 2018. Her daughter, Debbie Metcalf, said she asked her mother to send her a sign after death. (Photo: Courtesy)
While talking to your dead mother through a bird might evoke the word “fruitcake” or worse, I’ve had enough experience with grief to know you need to suspend judgment of others.
As for signs from beyond, in my head, I think they are likely coincidences. In my heart, I hope they are true.
At Thanksgiving, our third holiday season without my mother-in-law, my sister-in-law made gelatin-pretzel salad. It is a weird and surprisingly delicious dish that my late mother-in-law enjoyed making.
On Christmas Day, I put out the blue glass bowl that my mother, gone 12 years, liked to use for desserts.
Though it was really just a salad and a bowl, they made me feel as if the departed were still part of the family celebrations,
So, if something as innocent as talking to a baby bird eases the pain of loss, embrace it.
I’m not going to judge.