When someone you love dies are they able to hear you when you believe you are speaking to them alone? Also, are there signs that they are with you and ways they may be trying to communicate with you, and what are they? Can a deceased loved one see what’s in your heart for them and can they help you and be your guardian angel? How can you know they are there? — Laura, South Carolina

Dear Laura,

Your questions speak to the heart of anyone whose loved one has died and who faces into the great unknowns of that experience. Your longing, your sadness, and your ongoing desire for connection pour through your words. My impression is that you have someone in mind and that you miss him or her terribly. Whether you miss someone now or anticipate future losses, though, grief is great in this world of losses.

Likewise, consolation can and does come strongly to people, as the hope behind your questions suggests. Do we control how and when it comes? No, but we can set up conditions that allow reassurances to find us. These conditions are vitally important, because they affect our ability to receive the gifts that life is bringing us. Let me lay them out one at a time:

* Each of us needs to trust that our own unique way through our uncertainties – no matter what their nature – holds far more power than swallowing whole what anyone else tells us. People along the way can guide us, but at best that guidance takes the form of reflecting back to us things we already know. When you hear wise words from someone you trust and you have an “aha” moment of recognition, you acknowledge that their words are true for you. But the center of gravity needs to remain within your own heart and mind, even around the people you trust the most. We’re all human; we’re all finding our way; we can all help each other; and we unfortunately let each other down from time to time, being human. Each of us needs to take careful responsibility for his or her path, in the good company of others. You can think of this as a dance in which each dancer must know her own part thoroughly and understand how it relates to the rest of the troupe. If each dancer takes on this sense of accountability, then all can work together to insure the beauty and harmony of the dance.

* To know what your ongoing connection is with a loved one requires a clear heart. And a clear heart comes at the high price of grieving fully. Don’t be afraid to mourn. Without experiencing someone’s absence, it’s hard to fully appreciate his or her presence. This is true even with the living: You fall unbearably in love, and when your loved one is away you feel wrenched to the core. That wrenching can tear you to pieces, or it can tear away the veils that blind you to realms of being that go beyond the tangible, visible, and audible ones. Or, often, both happen: You get torn apart and that’s exactly what opens you to something more in life that you had been missing.

* The nature of the “something more” is one of those mysteries you can only find for yourself. When psychologist Abraham Maslow studied the qualities that made people psychologically healthy, he found that people of sound mind and heart recognized and valued what he called “peak experiences,” moments of feeling tuned into the wonder of the universe. Such a moment could literally be a mountaintop experience, when you drink in a vast view of the world; or it could be a moment of making love; or it could even be a surprise that flashes through your mundane moments, like William Butler Yeats’ experience of sitting in a normal café and suddenly feeling his body “blaze” with the awareness that he was blessed and could bless. You might want to think about when you’ve experienced this sense of something that draws you beyond your immediate situation and into an expansive feeling of awe and belonging.

* That “something more” is a gift that death in particular offers us. It gives us a direct experience of the fact that nothing can take away life. Death and birth are opposites, but as philosopher Paul Brunton astutely observes, “Life remains what it is, deathless and unbound.” Even at this moment, as your heart beats steadily and breath fills and empties from your lungs, you can see that you did nothing to bring about this experience of life. It comes to you freely, gratis, and it always has. You can trace back to a time when life appeared to begin in this body, and you can anticipate an end when this body no longer serves you. But to say that the life is the body or that death ends your life doesn’t match up with a scientific understanding of the way the universe recycles matter and energy, much less with a philosophic or religious understanding.

* When a loved one dies, you wonder, “Is this really it? Are they completely gone forever, and is my bond with them entirely severed?” This very wondering – the fact that finality doesn’t quite ring true to you – may be a clue that it’s not the whole picture. That does not alter the acute sadness of being left on earth without a loved one’s physical presence, as we lay his or her body into the ground or offer it into the fire. But as you say, what you feel in your heart is still overwhelmingly alive. You even feel that you can talk to your loved one and expect that the message reaches him or her. And why not? Most of us have had experiences where we are thinking of a living friend and suddenly he phones us. Even in life our relationships are not merely physical.

* Knowing that our relationships go beyond the physical and that we must find our own path in this life, the time after a loved ones dies can be a time of opening and exploring. You can ask, “What is my communication with this person now like?” You can look for ways that your loved one might be trying to reach you. Certainly there are many recorded instances of people feeling that such a message came through without any element of doubt. You can find a safe, private space and speak words of endearment to your loved one and see what happens in your own heart and mind when you do so.

* Even while setting aside time for this kind of exploration, remember to connect with people still on earth for comfort and support. As human beings we take on the tremendously challenging, invigorating task of drawing together two poles: our physical reality and our spiritual being. Both deserve attention, all the more so during an important time like that of grieving a death. In traditional cultures, it’s taken for granted that death is a communal experience: that during the wake and the funeral and for at least a year afterwards everyone’s in this together – not only in the sense of grieving, but also in the sense of reflecting back to one another aspects of the loved one that each has incorporated into his or her own self. The more we can bring this paradigm into our more fragmented modern world, the less lonely and isolated we will feel about death. Your longings for help and guidance are real; and whether or not they can be met by someone who died, they can surely be met by the living.

With sympathy,