In 1979, Sheldon Vanauken published a book, A Severe Mercy, within which he tells the story of the death of his wife, Davey. The book is a vivid account of a most powerful romance—one cut down while still in full bloom by Davey’s premature death.
This story has intrigued many people, both because of the extraordinary relationship which he describes between himself and Davey before her death and because of the relationship between them after her death.
Subsequent to her death, Vanauken describes how he still felt very strongly and vividly Davey’s presence. She was gone, in that brutal and irrevocable way that death always takes people away, but he felt her presence—as really as he ever had before she died.
In the early months after her death, her presence to him was constant, warm, guiding, sure, consoling, and on the same plane as it had been while she was alive. She had died, but, in the silence of his heart and soul, he felt her present to him—as wife, lover, best friend, moral companion.
During those months, he carried always in his pocket her wedding ring which he fingered tenderly many times each day. Touching it always helped centre him and make him aware of her presence.
One day, while on a ship crossing the Atlantic, he felt her presence change. In the silence of his heart and soul, it was as if she was speaking to him, telling him that, up to now, he had needed that kind of presence from her, but that now this needed to change. They needed to move to a different plane in their relationship. ·
To do this, she was “letting him go” in the way she had been present to him and she was asking him to ”let her go” in the way that he had had her. It was a difficult moment, but Sheldon understood its meaning. He took the ring from his pocket and quietly dropped it into the ocean.
From then onwards, Davey was still present to him, but in a new way. Her presence now was more inchoate; not more distant, but less the presence of the earthly wife, lover, best friend, moral companion and more the presence of a person who loves you and holds you in a way that is harder to describe.
Thousands of persons who have lost loved ones to death, including myself, identify with that story, both in terms of feeling the presence of a deceased loved one within the silent recesses of heart and soul and in terms of feeling this relationship gradually develop and move to a new plane.
In my own case, I lost both parents when I was 22 years old Initially, for a period of more than a year, like Sheldon Vanauken, I felt their presence inside of me as sure, guiding, and parental (they were still very much my mum and dad and they were still very much with me); though, in my case, it was not a fully consoling and warm presence, the pain of their loss would occasionally bring me to a type of tears that cannot be described as warm.
However, somewhere between the first and second year after their deaths, this changed. For me, unlike for Vanauken, there was not one clear moment when this happened. Yet, gradually and imperceptibly, their presence to me and within me changed.
Very parallel to Vanauken’s experience, what I experienced was a shift in presence from one plane to another. I still felt their presence, just as before, but now something clearly had let go, even as something else had developed.
I felt their presence now as a deep consolation and their loss no longer hurt as before. I no longer felt a need to pray for them… though now I felt a need (which I still feel today, 20 years later) to pray to them.
They were still my parents, but something had changed. I hesitate to use words to describe this which sound vague and pious, but what I felt can only be characterized as follows: They were still my parents—alive, deeply concerned for me, and more present in my life than they could ever be while still in this life.
But now I felt that presence as something higher, more eternal, more universally shared with others, and more tied to God’s love and presence to me. It became harder to differentiate their presence from the general feeling of divine providence that I sense about my life,
I come from a large family. Basically all of my brothers and sisters had the identical experience. As well, my ministry affords me many privileged occasions wherein people share with me their stories concerning how they continue to feel their relationships with their deceased loved ones.
Vanauken’s story of our ongoing and developing relationships with those who have died is paralleled everywhere. Relationships continue to grow and develop, even after death.
Weird stuff, right? No! Not if we believe one of the essential articles of our creed which affirms that we believe in “the communion of saints… and continued relationships (life) ever after!”