Hope With Red Feathers

“Hope is the thing with feathers.” This quote from Emily Dickinson never made a lot of sense to me; my primary association with it resulted from Woody Allen’s poking fun in one of his 1970’s books. Recently, an odd experience, maybe some would say a coincidence, caused me to see this pronouncement in a new light.

In the six years since my 41-year-old brother died, I often found it difficult to feel a sense of hope. Dictionary.com defines hope as “the feeling that what is wanted can be had, or that events will turn out for the best.”  A simplistic definition at its heart, but accurate; however, this concept is hard to grasp when one is grieving the loss of a loved one. Whether that scarcity of hope is for the future or relates to a sense of faith, mourners feel loss so intensely that frequently any sense of things “turning out for the best” gets replaced by fear, anxiety, or emptiness.

At least that has been my own personal experience, and it can take a long time for hope to replenish itself. Most of us in this situation start looking for lifelines, searching for a sign or a guidepost that lets us know that hope can still be found. The psychological researcher Curt Richter once tested this theory of hope on hapless rats, and he found that those that had been previously rescued from a vat of water would struggle mightily when placed back in the liquid—much more so than rats that had been left to flounder on their own. It seems that even animals need to feel there is the potential for a positive outcome—the light at the end of the tunnel—to keep on fighting.

Recently that life preserver came to me in the form of a “thing with feathers.” A few weeks ago, I noticed a post on social media that referred to cardinals. This post made the claim that the red birds were signs from loved ones, and that they may appear to us when we need a spiritual connection to those that have passed. As the skeptic that I tend to be, I didn’t pay much attention to this post, other than to admire the beauty of the birds pictured. At the time, my 80-year-old mother was in the hospital, struggling with respiratory issues. She and my father loved birds, and I usually purchased items with cardinals for them at Christmas.

So in some ways I associated the birds with my mom, but I didn’t think much of that at the time I read the post. I few days later, I was standing in my college classroom teaching an early morning class. From my podium, I could see outside the window—a view I had observed numerous times. As I was talking to the class, something caught my eye—a bright red cardinal. It was odd, not because it was unusual to see cardinals around my area of Pennsylvania, but because I took notice while I was teaching. My mind had wandered just enough to notice the bird while I was otherwise occupied.  A fleeting thought, and then I continued with the lecture.

A few minutes later, class was over. Returning to my office, I noticed several missed calls from my father. I listened to his hurried voice message; my mom’s health was slipping. I left immediately for the hospital, but by the time I reached my car, I received the message that she had passed away a few minutes ago. A few minutes ago–when I had noticed the cardinal.  Coincidence?

Of course, I have no way of knowing if there was a real significance, and if so, exactly what that meaning would be. There are those around me that believe it was truly just a coincidence. But I choose to believe it was more. For me, that fleeting glimpse of the cardinal was a sign that this fleeting life on earth may not be all there is—there is hope for peace and contentment.  Just like Richter’s rats, I needed something to hold on to and something to believe. The red “thing with feathers” provided that for me when I most needed it.

Sue Lawrence

More Articles Written by Sue

I, Sue Lawrence, am a psychology professor at two colleges, the assistant director at a local childcare facility, an professional development trainer, a mother of three grown children, music enthusiast, and a sibling loss survivor. My career has spanned 3 decades, in which time I worked as a therapist, preschool teacher and administrator, and psychology instructor. My experience has been extensive working with children and teaching to all age groups. Because of my personal situation, I have always been interested in the topic of sibling loss, and that interest has fueled my desire to reach out to others. My book, which has been years in the making, is one attempt to help adults working with bereaved children. Likewise, I am leading a research group this semester at Ursinus College in studying childhood grief and trauma. In addition, I have been taking courses in trauma, neuropsychology, and thanatology in order to broaden my knowledge base. I spend much of my "free" time reading and researching anything that helps me to better understand the topic of sibling loss.


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  • Paula Cho says:

    The title of this article caught my eye and I immediately knew what it was going to be about! My dear first husband died of cancer 12 years ago. The afternoon of his death, there was a cardinal on a branch right outside of our bedroom window (where Julian died) all afternoon. That bird sat there for at least 4 hours. This is unusual because I live in the southwest in an area where there are typically no cardinals.
    I was visiting my parents last week. My father has been very ill and close to death. Friday evening, I looked in their back yard. Yes, there was a pair of cardinals flitting around in the back yard. I knew what that meant. Daddy died early the next morning. Guess what was in the back yard? Yes, the cardinals!