When delusional thinking brings back the magic of someone lost

Lynne Hinton's new book is "The Arms of God."_credit: Bob Branard.
Lynne Hinton's new book is "The Arms of God."_credit: Bob Branard.

My patient’s wife searches for signs. She seeks evidence that her husband has not really left her. Unfortunately, the reality is that he has. He died six months ago after a long battle with cancer, and she knows he is dead, but she does not want to think of him as gone. Some grief experts call this delusional or magical thinking; some might say that by not fully accepting the loss she is complicating and prolonging her grief.

She believes he has visited her since he died. She has found coins and small toys on her morning walks, shining from sidewalk cracks and left in forgotten places like pockets of old coats. She has discovered timeworn letters from him that she doesn’t remember receiving, and she has seen unfamiliar birds resting upon branches of trees or flitting around the windows of her apartment.

Each time she finds a penny or a note or sees a hummingbird she thinks they come from her husband, that he is close by, and she finds comfort in these little treasures. They ease the sting of death, if only for a few hours.

She asked me once if I believed these were signs sent to her and if they were in fact from him. Without hesitation, I agreed they were. After all, what do I know about the activity of a soul when it leaves a body? What evidence do I have that he is really gone for good and will never again linger around his beloved? I know no more about the next world than anyone else still living on this one. And so, I say yes to her, yes, he is still present with her, still close by, and she seems satisfied that I believe her.

Truth be told, I long for signs too. And more, I long for her faith. I wish I could feel my father’s presence, wish I could stumble upon some coin in the parking lot or folded poem in the pages of a book that just happens to fall open and be convinced that he is near.

I, too, wish for a visit from time to time so I could remain connected to him, just so it wouldn’t feel as if I have lost him for good. I know too well how it is to long for just a little something more.

So maybe the grief experts who doubt these interpretations are right. Maybe my patient’s wife will take more time to move through her acute grief. Maybe her suffering will last longer than others who do not see signs, who do not seek and find connection with the dead.

For now, however, although still broken as we all would be, she is comforted by these visitations and finds solace in her faith. And after spending time with her since his death, I think that perhaps a little delusional thinking isn’t so terrible. I have concluded that a bit of magical thinking might, in fact, benefit us all.

Lynne Hinton is a minister and author: