The ‘Random’ Practice That Changed How I Grieve the Loss of a Loved One

Photo: Jamie Feldman / Well+Good Creative
It started, as they say, on TikTok. It was January 2021 and I was still a skeptic, a 30-something feeling like I’d perhaps aged out of the increasingly ubiquitous world of short-form video before ever even learning how to use it. But it was the second season of what had become a much-longer-than-two-week pandemic, and I had already painted two walls in my small studio apartment and wallpapered another. I was running out of things to do. And so, I logged on.

If you’ve ever used TikTok, you know that the algorithm figures you out—fast. Pretty soon I was scrolling through a perfectly personalized, curated mix of funny animal videos, healthy-ish recipes, and a sprinkling of spiritual teachings. That’s when I saw a video that impacted me in ways I could have never predicted.

Experts In This Article
  • Jill Cohen, CT, Jill Cohen, CT, is a family grief counselor based out of New York City, and is certified in Thanatology, the study of Death, Dying and Bereavement, through ADEC, the Association for Death Education and Counseling.

The post (which I have since tried to find again to no avail), offered advice about connecting with a departed loved one. According to the person in the video, the best way to make contact is to be direct about wanting to (aka saying it out loud). What’s more, they advised viewers to pick something in the world to be a signal that the person is with you—something specific but still in the realm of possibility.

Why not? I thought. I’d been on the lookout for signs from my dad, who died when I was 11, for years. And I’d even gotten some. But, save for one intense phone experience with a medium on my 30th birthday, I’d never really gotten intentional about it. So one night, I stood out in the street and asked him to send me a sign.

Initially, I settled on uniquely colored cars as my “signal.” I think I had seen a lime green car go by as I was meditating on it. Plus, my dad worked in car sales. Soon, though, I realized there are way more funky colored cars on the road than you might think. So, in an effort to narrow it down, I randomly tweaked the signal to just orange Subarus. I had no connection whatsoever to the particular car, I’m pretty sure I had just seen one, one time, and thought, Huh. That’s an unusual looking car.

Life went on without consequence. But soon, a few curious things started happening. I was home one evening and had a sudden urge to check an email address I don’t typically use or look at. I opened it up to find an email marked the same date I stood out on the street asking for a sign from an old friend of my dad’s. “I just found an old photo while I was cleaning out a desk drawer,” the email read (with a photo of my parents and I from 1991 attached). ”I think you may recognize it. If you do, it means that I knew your father from ~1970/71, until I left Brooklyn in 1983.”

I, quite frankly, lost it. Could it have been coincidental timing? Sure. But in grief, and in life, my motto is to take what I like and leave the rest. I couldn’t shake the feeling that my message had been received. If this worked, I thought, maybe the whole signal thing would work, too.

Shortly after I connected with my dad’s friend, my mom and I set off on a month-long, cross country road trip. It was a bucket list item for both of us, and—having been recently retired and recently laid off, respectively—there was no better time to take an extended trip. I mentioned the orange Subaru thing in passing, and to our delight and surprise, the next two weeks on the road brought at least one of the cars into our sights every single day.

Toward the end of the trip we planned to meet with the friend from that fateful email for lunch. When I didn’t see my signal on the 45 minute drive, I reassured myself that it was okay. That it didn’t mean anything.

But as we pulled into the restaurant, there it was: An orange Subaru, pulling out of the parking lot as we were pulling in.

Spotting these cars in the wild has become sort of a love language between friends and I. If I’m with someone who knows about it, we’ll point (scream) it out. I’ll often open my phone to find photo messages of orange Subarus spotted by friends and family. There are a few in my neighborhood that I now recognize by license plate.

Signs are a common source of comfort for people experiencing grief. As New York City-based grief counselor Jill Cohen, CT, pointed out to me, they’re usually happened-upon as opposed to being sought out (as in my case), but she is always moved by the impact they have on a grieving person.

“I can’t tell you what kind of comfort it brings to my clients when they tell a story about seeing a sign,” she said. “They will be in the middle of a tear-filled moment, and there’s this smile in the knowingness. It’s an inexplicable phenomenon that happens quite a lot, and the comfort it gives is unmatched by many other ways of comforting.”

A few people have asked me how I picked my signal. And while it’s true, there is no big, meaningful story about how and why I picked this very specific, quite frankly super random sign, what I think matters most is the big, unexpectedly meaningful results yielded by incorporating the practice into my routine.

It’s not always easy to find a way to keep someone’s memory alive that feels good to you. There is no right or wrong way to remember a loved one, but, in an effort to avoid painful feelings, there have certainly been times where I admit I avoided—or felt unable to—remember him at all. As I’ve processed my grief, it has become easier. I have filled my home and my life with his belongings. I ask my family questions about him. I have his favorite things tattooed on my body. I listen to more than my fair share of Grateful Dead.

But incorporating this small practice has made me feel close to him in a totally new way. No matter what is going on in my life, if I see an orange Subaru drive by or parked on the street, I stop, smile, and think of my dad. If I’m ruminating on a decision, the signal helps me feel like I’m making the right choice. Each sighting feels like a “hello” or an “I’ve got you.” It’s a small prayer, a brief moment that helps him stay front of mind, even for just a few minutes. And no matter what you believe, that mini meditation and moment of connection is comforting, meaningful, and yes, pretty powerful, too.

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