Long before my brother Jeff died, I was fascinated by the topic of life after death. So was he. It was one of the many metaphysical topics we loved to ponder during our long phone conversations between his home on the West Coast and mine on the East.
My interest intensified during my years as a hospice social worker. My search for proof of life beyond this one even brought me to a few meetings of a Near Death Experience (NDE) group. The accounts were mind-blowing, and the take-home message from near death experiencers was this: when we die, we’re encapsulated in an indescribable light, and experience a sense of love beyond anything experienced in our physical lives.
When I was in the room with near-death experiencers, or when hospice families recounted story after story of a dying loved one talking to deceased relatives in the days leading up to death, I was all in. But day to day, my rational, analytic brain would take over, and I’d generally lose faith in the possibility of life after death. I just couldn’t wrap my small brain around the mechanics of how this spirit-without-physical-body business might work. Still can’t.
Fast forward ten years to when Jeff died suddenly, by suicide. What was a peripheral, conceptual fascination with the afterlife got personal. I desperately wanted to know where my brother was, if he “was” at all, now that he wasn’t with us anymore as he’d been the morning he died.
After Jeff died, my family cocooned for two and a half weeks at my parent’s lake house in New Hampshire. As everyone else left, I decided I wasn’t quite ready to depart, not yet prepared to leave the place where I last saw my brother. So I lingered a couple days longer in New Hampshire before returning to my home in Boston.
The afternoon that everyone left, I was truly alone-alone for the first time since Jeff had died. After my family’s car pulled up the steep dirt driveway, I slumped against the garage door, dropping to the ground, sobbing. This was the same spot where I’d had my last, deeply tender conversation with Jeff on the morning he died, which concluded with a hug and him thanking me and telling me loved me. I had no idea he was saying goodbye.
Now, crumpled against the garage, I begged, pleaded with him to reveal something, anything, to me about where he was now. I yelled out loud, “I can’t feel you…I can’t sense you…where the fuck are you?” I asked him to send me an irrefutable sign to let me know that he wasn’t as far away and permanently gone as he felt.
That same evening my brother Kevin drove back from his home in Maine to stay overnight with me because it turned out that I wasn’t ready to be alone. Kevin and I sank into our respective couches, the same spots where we’d huddled for the prior 17 days.
To survive tragedy, it’s essential to periodically numb the pain through normal, mindless activities. On this evening with Kevin, I found myself on the Apple (computer) website researching iPods for him. A few days earlier I’d been on the website researching a laptop computer for my mom.
At that time, the Apple website was designed so that every time I went to the page it would say “Welcome, Kyle” in the upper right corner, even if weeks went by between visits to the site. Once logged in to your Apple account, users stay logged in until going through a few not very obvious steps to log out. Earlier that week when I was on the website researching laptops for my mom, the “Welcome, Kyle” greeting was reliably there.
But on this night, sitting in the living room with Kevin, debating how many gigabytes he should get for his iPod, when I opened the Apple website, the “Welcome, Kyle” had been replaced by “Welcome, Jeffrey.”
I stuttered to Kevin, “Oh my god…What the fuck?…Why does it say “Welcome, Jeffrey” on my computer?” I turned my laptop so Kevin could see it. We both sat there, looking at each other, in total shock, covered in goosebumps. I remembered five hours earlier when I was sobbing outside, begging Jeff for a sign.
Before long our minds tried to create a rational explanation for what was happening. The most obvious explanation would be if Jeff had been on my computer before he died. My brother was severely mentally ill by the time he died, and trust me when I say there’s zero chance he was on my computer. Also my computer required a password which he would not have known. Plus, I’d already been on the Apple website after he died, and it had said “Welcome Kyle.” Remember, it was onerous to log out, which I never did. The only other possibility was an amazing coincidence that somewhere in cyberspace someone named Jeffrey was logging in and somehow that had shown up on my computer. But that would be the first time that’s ever happened in my life. And I bet it’s never happened in yours.
We called my mom on speaker phone, who quickly got my sister-in-law on the phone with us, and reported what happened. They encouraged us to just savor this literally unbelievable message and gift. My mom was always better at faith than I am.
Getting off the phone, the poetry and beauty of the combination of the words “Welcome” with my brother’s full birth name “Jeffrey” started to hit me. Was he saying that he’d been welcomed to another world and that the use of his birth name was a reflection of the fact that he was finally healed and whole again? Was he saying that we should welcome him into the space with us here and now because that’s where he’d be from now on?
In the letter that Jeff left to our family, explaining his decision to end his life because his suffering had exceeded capacity, he included this: “I am convinced there is something beyond what we experience here. I believe those that have come back from there saying that when we cross over we are met by those that we’ve loved in this life. That they give us love and support as we go through this life. If I am correct, know that I’ll do everything I can to help and support you…”
I’ve navigated countless challenges in the years since Jeff died. Honestly, I can’t say that I regularly feel his presence, but I suspect that’s on me, not him. I’m still so sad not to be able to actually talk to him and hear his physical voice that I think I shut myself off to the other ways he may make his presence known to me. But still, every single time I recall what happened on that couch on the Apple website, which I tend to think of when I’m walking alone at night, and see a full moon, I am filled with a certainty that my brother is with me, even if I can’t feel him, and that gloriously, he will welcome me when it’s my time to cross over to wherever it is he is.