Death is a facet of life I became familiar with at a very young age. I recall being as young as two, learning about my Great Grandma Marika’s passing. When I would ask, “Where’s Grandma?” my mom or grandma would say “she’s with God now.” The next thing I remember doing is leaning into an incense censer my Grandma Athina used and calling into one of the crosses on it, “Grandma Marika! Grandma Marika! Where are you? I miss you.” Needless to say it had both my mom and grandma in tears – I fell asleep believing she went back to her home in Greece.

As I got older, my learning experiences with death, loss, and grieving continued onward when at eight- years-old my Uncle Jimmy (Great Grandma Marika’s son) passed away. I remember being at my Uncle Jimmy’s wake and looking around at everyone who was at the funeral home – From my Mom who was in shock at being at her first American wake (apparently in Greece the body of the deceased is not viewed) to my Aunt Athena who believed she was awake in a bad dream about the loss of her husband. It reminded me of myself at two-years old when my Grandma Marika passed and how different my view of death was. My eyes opened to a new understanding of grieving where people mourn a loss of presence – The belief that a loved one would no longer be near.

My understanding of grieving and loss broadened further when as a nine-year-old leukemia patient, I was not only faced with the possibility of my own death, but also experienced how ephemeral life is when one day I am making friends with another kid while stuck in the hospital, only to learn that days later they had succumb to their illness. As difficult a time that was for me, I can say that experiencing the “moving onward” of those friendships, as well as the feeling of my dad beaming with delight at the hint of my passing (why he wanted me dead – and even told me so to my face – to this day I do not know) gave me more drive to live and learn more about this intriguing gift I have – LIFE.

The most difficult and significant lessons on death I learned in my early twenties, when one year after the next, both my maternal grandparents passed away. I was very close to my Grandma Athina and helped her and my Grandpa Michael through some of the discomforts of their old age. My grandparents were always there for me when I was battling leukemia and at every other upturned moment in my life when I needed a good ear or shoulder to cry on. I felt more akin to my grandparents as my parents than my own because I received most of the positive support and encouragement that I needed from them and hardly ever from my own parents. What I found to be ironic about the circumstances around my grandparent’s death is that when my grandfather passed, I was the one who waited for my grandma to wake up to tell her the news and when my grandma passed, everyone else waited for me to wake up to tell me of her passing.

At this point in my life, especially after all the loss and grieving I had already experienced,  I came to a place within my own mind where I began to believe that life is like a big school where we all graduate to a different level. I started to feel this at my grandmother’s wake while I paid my final respects. I put my hand on her arm as she lay there in her coffin and felt no “life force” in her as I had while she was alive. The “life force” I once knew and felt in my grandma was a truly unique energy in itself – it’s almost like your cell phone vibrating when someone calls.

A few days after my new realization about death and dying started to sink in, my Grandmother visited me in one of the most profound dreams I have ever had. The images and message she left me with were powerful to the point were I woke up crying.  Grandma knew what I was thinking and feeling and came to me in my dream to show me otherwise.

Complements of my Grandma Athina’s dream message along with lessons I learned from my mom and her friends also helped me to get past my mom’s passing. I now know that to pass from this life is only to move forward to a new level of existence. The “presence” we mourn is the physical loss of is the multi-colored shell that God created for our Spirit to live in and learn through while we live in our now present plane of life. The shell may wither, but the Spirit always lives on and even though we may not all be aware, be it out of fear or an unpreparedness to experience, our loved ones are always around watching over us. Once you allow yourself to see, as I now have, you begin to find small signs from your loved ones, signs significant only to you, letting you know that the sadness we feel in their parting is truly for naught.