I’ve read there are those who believe their loved ones were given a warning that death was approaching. Some were visited by loved ones who had already passed. Others felt the overwhelming need to prepare for a trip. And some people received a sign to escort them, or coax them, toward a bright light. The warning could be a consolation for the end of their life, to complete unfinished business before they pass away. These warnings seem to be universal, occurring throughout many cultures.
I found it to be a nice sentiment but never believed it until it happened in my life. I was with my father when we got such a warning.
I have always been fortunate enough to have my birthday fall the day after my father’s. As a child, it was in particular a bonanza to me. We would have a grand party every year, and the entire family would come. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, and all the cousins… how could they pass up a summer barbecue to celebrate two birthdays? That meant more people came, and better – more presents for me!!!
As an adult, my father and I tried to spend at least one of the days together. Once we spent the day in Estes Park pretending we were tourists, going to all the places natives usually avoid. For my 39th birthday, we got a couple of cabins up Poudre canyon for the weekend. The birthday was just as fabulous as past birthdays. My father had a heart attack two and a half hours after my birthday ended. I have always found it to be a blessing he hadn’t died on the day of my birthday. But thinking that didn’t make the loss any easier.
His death seemed to occur without a warning. Dad seemed to be the healthiest amongst us. We spent hours fishing that afternoon. When it started raining, he ran up the hill to the car ahead of all of us. At dinner in Walden, he enthusiastically ate a healthy meal and shared in the evening’s joviality. Before getting in the car, he stopped to take snapshots of the sunset, taken with the fading light and colors.
The canyon grew spooky as we drove back to the cabin. Shadows surrounded the road as silhouettes of the trees sped by. The sky was somber – the moon just a sliver, the stars a soft scattering across the sky. The only light we had was the headlight of our car in front of us, and those few approaching cars occasionally from the other direction.
With the darkness of the night and the road’s curves, the speed of our car was slow. We coasted around one bend, and what we saw stopped us. In the middle of the road was an immense white owl. I assumed the bird easily stood three feet tall, with a wingspan of ten feet. My boyfriend Dennis found this hilarious. I was never proficient with spatial estimates. But at the time, it seemed feasible.
The owl dined on a smaller animal in the middle of the road. Towering over the carcass, the bird robustly enjoyed its feast. As we inched forward, it gradually turned its head around. I swear it met us all in the eye. And it glared at us. The intensity of its stare astonished Dad; I was rendered speechless and felt strangely apprehensive. For something so natural, the whole thing felt eerie and outside reality. With our headlights glowing off the owl’s white feathers, it lifted from the ground, a ghost floating over our car and away. A haunting vision.
Three hours later, we woke to my stepmother pounding on our cabin door.
After the funeral and time passed, I didn’t feel settled. I was still in the stages of grief. And the episode of the owl occupied my thoughts, making me constantly anxious. What we witnessed was mystifying, and I couldn’t let it go.
A friend suggested the owl was trying to get our attention. How could that be? It was a bird. I couldn’t believe an animal would have something to say to us. A dog, maybe. But a bird? No, it didn’t seem normal for an owl to have a message.
But the more I thought about it, I just wanted to know what happened. I did research about owls, confirming what I thought to be true. The owl’s behavior was unusual. What we observed was not what just anyone experiences with owls, and from what I read, it is less common to see an owl while it is hunting.
Also, the way the bird intensely stared at us in an unsafe place isn’t typical. Owls typically feel threatened by humans; they wouldn’t stay in place like ours did. Our headlights had nothing to do with it. An owl has very adaptable vision, so he wouldn’t have been frozen in place by our bright light. And if in fact it was threatened by us, the owl would have flown away from us, not over the top of our car.
Digging deep, I stumbled upon the folklore and traditions about owls. A believer in the supernatural, my interest peaked. Owls have a prominent place in Native American cultures. Although many cultures see owls as a symbol of wisdom, some Native American groups consider the owls a symbol of death.
Others believe owls are messengers with the implication a change in life is coming, including illness and death. With owls being nocturnal and able to see in the dark, it is believed they can see things people can’t. Within this belief, owls are considered a sign of approaching evils in life. Because of this, many superstitious people will not look at an owl and especially won’t make eye contact. Reading this gave me chills; all four of us in our car had looked at and made eye contact with the owl that night.
Eventually, I reached the acceptance stage of grief, and I came to accept a different meaning for what we saw. The owl indeed had a message to deliver from the supernatural world. But I came to decide the message had been for me, and not my father. Someone, or something, was sending me the warning there was going to be a change in my life.
My Dad’s death was that change. A traumatic loss, but just a change. Sure, it was an ending to a part of my life, but death is the nature of life. And I have always tried to find comfort in that.