When Grief Turns Superstition Into Compulsion

Photo by Kristina Tripkovic on Unsplash

CN: Death of a child


Superstition ruled my mind. More than I realized. 

Was it left hand over the right shoulder for spilled salt? Or was it the reverse?

Heads up coins go in the right shoe. Tails up coins are given to the first person I see. 

Dropped silverware always signaled company was coming. But my mind would launch into who was about to ring my doorbell — a dropped knife was a man, a dropped spoon was a woman, and nd the dropped fork was a couple. A new boyfriend? A girlfriend? My mother? And I’d wait for my doorbell to ring for few hours until the next “sign” showed itself. 

Then my superstitions turned a little compulsive. And then a little more. And then one day I found myself at the laundromat staring at a wall of numbered dryers.

Choice paralyzed me. 

I irrationally thought that whichever numbered dryer I threw my wet clothes into and then inserted my quarters into and finally threw a handful of dryer sheets into could determine the course of my life. I began to sweat and feel weak and even shed a few tears.

The next day I called a psychiatrist. I explained to the receptionist that I couldn’t decide on a dryer at the laundromat and I couldn’t decide on anything. I was stagnant. And more afraid than I realized.

But I wasn’t afraid of everything. In fact, I was pretty brave and independent. I went to Sunday matinees of Broadway shows alone; single tickets were always great seats. I went to museums and cafes alone, staring at people. Regular people. People who could choose a dryer without a second thought.

I adopted a nine-year-old dog. My first dog ever. We’d walk through downtown at all hours of the night. She was big, and I felt safe. But choosing a dryer was still terrifying.

I dated and dated and dated. I hid my preoccupation with superstitions from men as they carelessly put shoes on a table or a hat on a bed. They’d put stray pennies in their pocket instead of their shoes. They’d be annoyed if a bird pooped on their car as we came out of a movie, while I was secretly thrilled thinking that could be a lucky sign, that this guy was the one I’d marry. Didn’t they know? Bird poop was good luck!

And then I met the one I married. The signs were fast and furious. Discovering matching coffee cups in our respective kitchen cabinets. Finding matching childhood souvenirs of vacations shared without even knowing. Discovering his cousin Sarah was my childhood friend. Calling each other at the same time resulting in a busy signal. “Bashert” as they say in Hebrew. The one who is destined for you. 

And then one day, even after all the superstitions had been abided by and all the good luck signs showed themselves, my formula for luck let me down. On a beautiful afternoon in July of 2010, with the sun hidden behind the clouds just enough to keep me from squinting up at the sky, I begged God to help us. But my begging didn’t work. I was suddenly a childless mother. Our two-year-old son, Noah, died in a swimming pool accident that day. He silently walked out a door that I never thought he would or could. It all happened in minutes.  

Just that morning, I’d frozen a moment in my mind. I stared at Noah holding the lawn sprinkler over his head and laughing. A handheld waterfall pouring onto his face as he looked at me sitting in the patio chair. I smiled at him, and he smiled at me. My mother had died three months before this moment, and we’d started moving some of our things into my father’s house that day. We were going to live with him for a while — to keep my father company and to save some money. 

Noah looked at me, and I looked at him. His intense giggles gave me a sign of sorts at that very moment. They said everything would be okay. His giggles told me that my mother had left me with all the tools I needed to go on mothering without her. But I had no idea, within hours, there’d be no child to mother.

And then he was gone. And we were childless. 

I was 42 years old. Getting pregnant with Noah at 39 without any problem, I’d learn a few months later as we dipped our toes in the rough waters of the fertility world, was an anomaly. A damn miracle. Less than 5% possible. 

And within days of Noah dying, the signs and superstitions began to rule me again. 

Random socks appeared when we were sure we’d packed up all his things out of our sight. I still keep a mismatched pair in my glove compartment. His name would continue appearing on souvenir spinning racks of toy license plates and shelves of mugs and shot glasses. It’s not an uncommon name, I know. But it was always eye level. Like these things were just waiting for us to see them.  We’d find a misplaced NOAH souvenir keychain hanging at a rest stop on one of our drives to nowhere. 

Dragonflies did insane dances and posed in front of our car windshield a week after we buried Noah. It was such a display of hovering and spinning and erratic movement that we took out our phones and searched the “symbolism of dragonflies." What could the dragonflies be telling us right there in our parked car outside of Starbucks? We hoped that a strong shot of caffeine would alleviate our headaches from endless crying. 

Could this clear cut sign of Noah really be happening?? We were stunned at what we were reading on our phones, held in shaky hands while wiping away free flowing teardrops from the cellphone screens. 

We were in those early days of desperation. We looked for signs everywhere we went. We lived for signs.

The dragonfly is a universal symbol of change. But not like a new house or new job kind of change. Dragonflies tell us that there will be a change in our core — how we see ourselves and what we’re capable of. This incredible dragonfly ballet/interpretive dance was telling us everything we needed to know at that moment. The dragonfly is also announcing through its appearance that you are now on a different plane of understanding. And I took it as Noah was now, even at his simple age of two, privy to understanding every mystery of the universe. And he sent us dragonflies to let us know he was okay. And maybe even he was one of these dragonflies? 

The grief-crazed mind seeped in with the Wikipedia information we had just digested. What was the truth? What was desperation? Could they be the same thing?  

“The traditional association of Dragonflies with water also gives rise to this meaning to this amazing insect. The Dragonfly’s scurrying flight across water represents an act of going beyond what’s on the surface and looking into the deeper implications and aspects of life." — Wikipedia

The September after Noah died, on what would’ve been his second birthday, we found ourselves at the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire. How we did it, I don’t know. I remember waking up in the B&B we stayed in and walking out onto the little deck. We quietly said “Happy birthday Noah” into the wind.

The faire was a lovely time mixed in with some paralyzing moments of watching little boys running around dressed in their pirate outfits. We scanned the crowd for one that looked like Noah. We’d always see one little dark haired, blue eyed, chubby-cheeked, stocky bodied boy with the sweetest grin. We would usually spot this doppelganger at the same time and give each other a look. “Look, a little Noah,” and we would just watch him for a few seconds. It was both a hard punch in the gut and a sweet stroke on the cheek.

 

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We were in those early days of desperation. We looked for signs everywhere we went. We lived for signs. We lived from one sign to the next. Souvenirs with his name popping up in gift shops, dragonflies buzzing around, others that only made sense to us. We became curious about a path we hadn’t tripped down yet. The fortune teller. The psychic. 

Could someone really tell us if he was ok? If he can hear us or see us? If we would ever have a child again?

As I tried on a brocade corset (because that’s what you do at a renaissance faire), we chatted with the owner of Ye Olde Corset Shoppe.

“Are any of those psychics over there for real?” Hal asked as he gestured towards “Mystic Row” or some cheese-filled name like that.

“Actually, there’s one guy that kinda blew my wife’s mind,” Corset Guy said. 

He told us not to bother with the four others sitting in their tents — that this one guy was the real deal.

We were so afraid to start down this path. I didn’t want false hope.

I didn’t want to piss off God. We were clinging to our Judaism. We were going to temple, reading Jewish books for any comfort we could find. We decided we would try it. Just this once.

We waited for our turn at the tent of Robert Moyer (RM). He looked a lot like The Ghost from The Ghost and Mrs. Muir TV show. He wore a Carnac the Magnificent-like hat, a white puffy shirt, and gold rings. There was a little sign about his services — palm reading, tarot cards, and runes. 

Hal went first. He sat down in the simple chair, and I stood behind him. RM bowed his head and said a little benediction as he held Hal’s hands in his. My remembrance of it all is a bit spotty, but I remember the most important revelations. We did the tarot and palm reading combo. 

He started by telling Hal he had two children. Hal said no. RM was confused. RM laid out the tarot cards. There was a card that showed a flaming tower with people falling off, waving their arms and screaming. Chaos. RM said something traumatic happened this past summer. We both inhaled. RM  asked again about children and Hal still said no. RM seemed like he couldn’t continue. Whatever it was had him halted in his thoughts. 

RM told us we'd been together in three past lives. It started to feel very intense and real and important. RM again asked about children. Hal and I looked at each other. 

“Tell him,” I said. 

I had felt very strongly about not saying a word because I didn’t buy all this psychic stuff to start with. I wanted to see what RM could pick up on.

“Tell him?” Hal confirmed.

“Yes.”

RM looked confused. Then we told him what happened to Noah. He had tears were in his eyes; he had a hard time holding them back. He told us how sorry he was; he'd known there was something. It began to feel more like a therapy session than a parlor game or fortune teller trick. He said we had lost children each time we were married in our past lives — once by sickness, once by water, once by a freak accident of some sort. 

Noah’s death was predestined. It was unavoidable. Somehow it would’ve happened. I found this comforting at the moment, and eight years later, I still want to believe this.

I think the universe has a way of giving you something to cling to when it seems there’s nothing left. Superstitions, symbols and lucky numbers give us the sense that we have some control over this world and our lives. 

Next, I got my tarot reading. We still hadn’t told RM too much else. RM repeated the benediction, holding my hands.

“Your mother is standing behind you. She is right there. Clear as day.” 

I hadn’t told RM my mother had died three months before Noah. I confirmed that she’d recently died also and he assured me again she was close by. RM asked what my question for him was. 

“Will we have a child again?” I asked.

I was terrified of the answer, and I think we all knew that we were going to believe whatever RM told us. This was the moment of desperation. I think Hal and I knew Noah was okay — wherever, however, whoever — and our faith gave us that comfort. But we needed to see the future. It was the only way we could go on with the present.

RM’s words were cryptic. I think even he was a little confused by them. He said we would have another child. Just one more. I would give birth. But there would be more to it. He was not sure exactly how it would happen but it would. We were confused and asked for assurance again. I guess in retrospect it gave us the courage and determination to enter the fertility treatment world. After all, RM said it would happen.

Over the next two and a half years until Miriam was born, we would sometimes say to each other, “remember what the psychic said.” 

We never went to another psychic as much as we were tempted. Not only did we not have the money to spare, but what if someone told us something completely different? It was not a path we wanted to go down. 

In our travels, we came across a few support groups that had some opportunistic psychics that were looking to communicate with your dead child for you. It was so disturbing. I’m sure most of those parents were at their lowest — wanting to hear anything. I know that for a fact because some days we are not so far away from being those parents again too. Even eight years later, something can trigger those earliest days.

As I spent many early mornings in the waiting room of the fertility clinic, listening for my name to be called for endless bloodwork, there was a magazine table that played games with me. No matter how neat or askew the magazines were, there was always one playing peekaboo with me. It was an issue of Family Circle with a big vase of pink peonies on the cover. They were exactly like the silk peonies in the faux acrylic filled vase I gave my mother not long before she died. Peonies were her favorite flower. She even had a single tile in her kitchen above the sink of a hand-painted pink peony. This magazine taunted me and encouraged me every morning I was there. And even as magazines were updated, thrown away, and quietly slipped into purses for reading later in the day, that Family Circle was always there. 

Early on after Noah died, we chose names for our future child. A boy would be Micah. A girl would be Miriam. We would meet this child — somehow. It hurt to even think much further into it. But I guess assigning a name was a way we could direct fate or medicine or God to make it happen. Imagine my tiny arm hair-raising shock when the nurse I was assigned for our final fertility cycle was named Miriam. And she told me her mother’s name was Miriam too. Through tears, I said to her that if we had a girl, that was the name we had picked out. Of all the names in the universes... it had to be another sign.

Last year we went back to the Renaissance Faire. With Miriam. And there he was. The psychic was in his tent. Puffy shirt, Carnak the Magnificent hat, gold rings. We had to wait quite a while. He had a very long reading with two ladies. Lots of discussion and questions, it seemed. We watched from the dirt path and thought about how we would explain all that’s happened. Would RM remember us? 

Hal was finally able to get his turn to tell him our news quickly. I waited on the path with Miriam in her stroller. RM was even more hard of hearing than he was in 2010. Hal yelled into his ear amid royal trumpets sounding and jousts nearby, “You were right!” Hal gestured to Miriam and me, and I waved. 

RM looked thrilled and surprised. I saw RM and Hal shake hands and we mentally crossed that big thank you off our list.

Was RM the real deal? I still don’t know. We have this image of us being married in three different lifetimes. Beshert is the Hebrew word… “the one intended for you.” We have the theory that there was nothing we could do to avoid losing our child. That’s comforting in a tragic way. 

RM gave us the gift of hope. Is that only a psychic ability? Doubtful. 

All of us have the power to give hope and validation to others. Are the signs real? Yes, I think they were. And still are. I think the universe has a way of giving you something to cling to when it seems there’s nothing left. Superstitions, symbols and lucky numbers give us the sense that we have some control over this world and our lives. 

Hope in the fertility world is extraordinarily fragile. I honestly don’t know what made us keep trying. Money didn’t matter anymore. We used all our savings. We ran up every credit card we could to pay for medications and doctors. We were reckless yet entirely in control. “Eye on the prize” we would say, but we never dared think about what would happen if the prize never came. 

We pushed through those pre-dawn blood tests and waiting for the phone calls from nurses with reports of follicles and hormone levels and when to go back for the next round of the same. 

When we waited for those pregnancy result calls, we waited together — usually in bed, usually watching repeats of Roseanne. It was a safe show for us. Imperfect. No gushing over babies. Life didn’t turn out for the Connors like they always hoped, but they kept going in the safety of Lanford. Roseanne was always on TV when we needed it. She became our symbol. Our safe place. 

So maybe safety is the core need of superstition.

Signs bring you to an internally safe place. When your world is out of control swirling around you, they give you something to hold onto. When your inner world is in turmoil, the sight of a tangible sign or symbol can shock you back into rhythm. 

I believe the dragonfly dance we witnessed so soon after Noah’s death was just that. We had reached the maximum capacity for pain. The dragonflies shocked us back into rhythm. 

Your signs will be so personal, so intricate, so surprising that only you will understand them. And when you try to explain them, you may sound crazy. To yourself and others. But it doesn’t matter. Follow your signs. They will lead you where you need to go. 


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