Can it be true, as so many indigenous peoples believe, that animals can be messengers from another world, from the place we call the afterlife?

Owl brings a message from the afterlife
Photo courtesy of David Colleran

What is the afterlife?

Where do we go when we die? What happens after death? Is there a place called the afterlife?

Is there any possibility of receiving messages from loved ones who have passed away?

These are questions that have been asked since the beginning of humankind. Sometimes, perhaps, we receive whispers from the afterlife: amazing moments where it seems as if we are getting a message from the other side. I will share a story here that happened after our dad passed away. It still fills me with wonder and awe, even several years later.

As I recall these events, I invite you to come along to a November day in Tempe, Arizona some years back . . . .

Silent Messenger

The midmorning Arizona sun streamed through palm leaves and scattered light on the cool tile of the patio floor. “Cousins and cuisine,” I smiled to myself, as family began to gather at my brother’s house for the memorial service for our dad. Slowly food appeared, while young and old wandered in and out of small groups, talking in low voices. Some of them I hadn’t seen for years.

It was quiet and peaceful. And then our uncle, older brother of our dad, found his way through the crowd to me. He spoke softly, so only I could hear:

“Your dad told me he wasn’t afraid to die.”

I must have looked surprised. “Yes, he said that,” Uncle Tom continued, “He said he wasn’t afraid to die because he knew you were going to help him.”

I felt a wave of consolation on hearing those words. Consolation because it had been a long, painful illness and, while I had my own beliefs about the afterlife, I wasn’t always sure that my dad had that same trust.

I had spoken almost daily with Dad by Skype those last months of his life, and I shared with him some interesting books I had read about what happens to the soul after death. That must have been why my uncle said Dad knew I would help. But there was other help, too, and our dad knew that. My brother, David and my sister, Maureen each gave something that no one else could have. And our father was to show us all, in a way we could never have imagined, something of the mystery of life and death.

Author and her siblings visit the Grand Canyon
From left to right: author with sister Maureen and brother David, Grand Canyon, Arizona 1981

That memory still helps me today to look at the inevitability and the wonder of the end of life with reverence and awe.

A Rewind

To be able to tell you this story well, I am going to have to back up a bit. Please come along as I rewind. Three years back. In another part of the country: St. Louis, Missouri. There was another kind of gathering. It was celebratory dinner for our good friend, Kay. Friends from around the country had gathered to celebrate a milestone in her life’s work.

I sat at a table, beautifully set like all the others, with white tablecloth, fine china, flowers. I found my place setting and was so glad to see several old friends. But near me was someone I had not yet met. Almost immediately after starting to talk, we found that we had so much in common. We talked of books. We talked of all the animals we had loved over the years: dogs, cats, horses, pets of all sorts.

Rhonda said she had Native American heritage, and she mentioned an intriguing concept: We each have a power animal or spirit animal. Hers was an owl. She shared how, at several crucial moments in her life, an owl had appeared, mysteriously, as if bringing her a message. Later that night Kay added that an owl had appeared right outside on her deck a few days after Bill, her husband, had passed away. She said it felt like a message from him, telling her thank you, and that all was well.

Little Hints Along The Way

Fast forward now, to the last few months of our father’s terminal illness. Fast forward once again to Arizona, to a care facility for the elderly, where he was a resident. Around lunchtime most days I called him on Skype, and we talked about many things. He often mentioned that he knew he did not have much time left.

To comfort him, I read aloud parts of The Becoming, a fascinating essay by Santiago Bovisio, a great writer and thinker born in the early 1900’s in Italy.

The essay talks about the process of dying. Especially the part about what happens when the soul departs from the physical body. It describes in detail the first stages of the afterlife. As I read to him, I counseled our dad not to be afraid, but to look for the light. To keep his thoughts elevated to the highest source of love he could imagine as he journeyed to the afterlife.

Then, by chance, I was with my dad the night he died. For more than two days, we had all been keeping vigil; my brother, David, sister-in-law, Sharon, and my sister, Maureen. We took turns during the night.

That night was my turn to stay. Some time after midnight, as I dozed in a chair near his bed, a nurse tapped me lightly on the shoulder. “He has stopped breathing. His heart will stop soon. Would you like to be alone with him?” “Yes, thank you,” I said, and I pulled the chair closer to his bed. I took his hand, and softly spoke words of encouragement and prayers for the dying. Although his eyes were closed and he was not responsive, I sensed he could hear me. I placed my hand on his chest and felt his last few heartbeats. Then I prayed quietly for the safe passage of his soul, sitting with him a good, long while.

A Sacred Wish for a Safe Passage to the Afterlife

A few hours later, David, Sharon and I found ourselves at the funeral home, making plans. We remembered that Dad had wanted to be cremated. And, as we talked, I made a request: “Please, only one thing I ask; that we wait eight days until the cremation. This is recommended in some ancient teachings.” The others were interested. “Why was that?” “It has to do with the process of the soul ascending to the higher planes. The soul tends to linger some days around the body, adapting to the vibration of the new state of consciousness outside of the body. It is important to give them time to adapt to the afterlife.”

“Waiting eight days gives the soul time to leave the body behind and continue on the journey towards eternity.” Everyone agreed. I felt at peace. We finished up plans and I headed back home to New York. We would hold a memorial service on Veterans Day. That way, there would be time for family to gather.

Any Message from the Afterlife?

Back home in New York, the weight of the experience and the sense of loss set in. In some ways I was at peace, but there was also sadness. Fatigue. Grief. I remembered what Rhonda had told me. I remembered the owl that visited Kay. Maybe I could see an owl, too? It would be so reassuring. It would be a message that all was well, that our dad somehow was doing ok.

One evening I went outside with a flashlight. I stood by a tall maple in our yard and aimed the light up into the dark, shadowy, limbs. A neighbor passed by on the path between our houses. “What are you doing?” she asked, sincerely puzzled. “Nothing.” I said. “Just looking for an owl.”

I did not find one.

Two weeks passed by. Exactly 14 days after our dad passed away, I received an email from my brother David: “Look at this incredible owl who appeared in our yard this morning!”

Wise owl with yellow eyes shares wisdom in silence
Photo courtesy of David Colleran

“That’s the owl!” I shouted at my email. “Of course he had to go to David’s house!” David had cared for our dad very specially over the last several years of his life. I called him and Sharon and my sister Maureen right away and told them everything I have just told you here.

“I never stay home from work,” David said. “Just for some reason I did today. I think it was so I could be here to see this owl.”

The owl had silently flown onto a branch of a tree in their front yard and sat staring into the living room window where David was reading the newspaper. It seemed unruffled (quite literally!) by the camera and the excited talk as David and Sharon wondered what it was doing there. It sat for a good long while, just looking at them.

Horned Owl visits home with message from the afterlife
Owl looking into living room. Photo courtesy of David Colleran

We all were moved by the story and realized just how unusual, timely and extraordinary was the appearance of this magnificent creature after our father’s death. A Silent Messenger.

We share our story and our amazement

Just like Kay, when she saw her owl, and Rhonda, when she saw hers, we felt it was Dad’s way of saying thank you, all is well.

If the owl had appeared to me, in New York, it would have been my story. But it had to appear in David’s yard, so it could be our story. But not just Our story. It is for All of us. A story that we now tell here, so that it can be your story, too.

When our mom, who was also ill and disabled after a stroke some years before, saw the photo of the owl, she was very moved. She listened to Maureen and the kids talk about it, over and over for days. And then she passed away peacefully, just six weeks after our dad. It seemed to us that he came back for her, to help guide her to a new realm.

Authors parents in younger days
Our parents, Dorothy and James Colleran, 1952

Learning to Listen

There is an incredible wealth of knowledge that we, as modern thinkers, have received from the great spiritual traditions of the world. This perennial philosophy has opened before me the great mystery of life:

That with sorrow comes joy; with experience comes knowledge and wisdom; and with trust, surrender and openness, comes a great freedom.

In the last few years since our dad’s passing, we have lost others who were close to us. During the pandemic, even more so, as family, friends and acquaintances suffered the coronavirus, some losing their lives. Yet, I continue to find consolation in the hope that our experience with the owl brought to us:

There is a special kind of assistance that is there for all of us, a silent message, without words, beyond language, belief or reason. We simply have to be willing to listen, and the message may come in unexpected forms.

Our journey on this planet and in this vast marvelous universe holds many surprises for us, understandings that surpass what we ever could have imagined. In this life, so often, help arrives at the right time, and sometimes in the most unexpected ways.

Yellow-eyed owl perches in tree waiting to deliver a silent message from the afterlife
Photo courtesy of Sharon Colleran

Our help came in the form of an incredible owl, and it brought a message of consolation. It seemed to me that it was a message from our dad, and its silent appearance spoke volumes. Over the years since that astonishing event, the mystery of it all awakened in me an even deeper exploration of the marvelous possibilities of life; the myriad ways silent messages can come to all of us when we open ourselves in contemplation and wonder. Isn’t it incredible to think: What mysteries will unfold for any one of us, if we continually open our hearts and minds to explore?

Story updated September 17, 2023 by the author

About the Author(s)

[email protected] | Website | Read more posts by this author

Longtime teacher, now trying my hand at writing. Especially dedicated to people's real-life experiences.

Editor of collection of bilingual poetry, published by Cafh Foundation: Landscape of the Soul: Poems of Community and Hope by Hipólito Sánchez.

Translator of Living Consciously and Words Matter, by Jorge Waxemberg.