Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Wisdom Wednesday: Harbingers of Death

Harbinger: noun: a person or thing that announces or signals the approach of something.

Although the Oxford English dictionary defines a harbinger as a person or thing that signals the approach of something, there is no mention made about the possibility of a supernatural component to the agent which bears the signal. When I first heard stories about harbingers in the history of our family, the stories often seemed to include supernatural elements. As a rational person it was easy for me to be skeptical; however, it is clear to me that for the people who experienced their individual event each one truly believed there was something supernatural in what happened to him/her. This is particularly true when it comes to harbingers of death.

According to family lore, just before a person dies a harbinger of death appears. This is a belief which was held by several members of my family such as my parents, and aunts and uncles on both sides of the family, including my paternal great-aunt Mollie, sister to my grandmother Anne Magee Geraghty. In the history of our family these forewarnings have manifested as a large black dog, a small white dove, a dreaded month on the calendar, and, most dramatically, a large fireball. Following the death of a beloved family member, you might also hear or see something which you would only associate with that individual.

In the biographical note to his father's memoir The Material for Victory, Laurence J. Kettle, the son of my great-great grandmother Mary's brother Andrew J. Kettle, writes of his father's dread of the month of September. Andrew believed the month portended the death of a family member. Mary and Andrew's mother Alice O'Kavanagh Kettle had died in the month of September, on the 24th day in the year 1855. Their father Thomas Kettle also died in that fateful month, on 22 September 1871, as did their brother Patrick, on 25 September 1894. Andrew's beloved son Thomas Michael Kettle was killed on the Somme on 9 September 1916, and Andrew J. himself died only 13 days later on 22 September 1916. It seems September was indeed a month which heralded death for the Kettle clan.

Ringsend Bridge over the River Dodder
Did the large black dog on the bridge portend a death?
In December of 1954 my paternal grandfather John Geraghty was very ill. My father and mother — Michael and Mary — had been married for just over four months, and were out for an evening together. At the end of their evening Michael and Mary decided to stop by her family home on Gordon Street in Dublin. They were walking across the Ringsend bridge over the Dodder river when toward them came an unattended large black dog walking very slowly. The dog crossed the road and passed them on the opposite side of the bridge. 

My father said for some reason he felt compelled to look at the dog. When he turned to see it, the dog had disappeared. Inexplicably in that moment my father instantly knew his father was dead. Michael told Mary they must go immediately to his family home. Upon their arrival they discovered his father John Geraghty had indeed passed away.

The white dove: a symbol of peace or a harbinger of death?
In February of 1963 when my maternal grandfather Patrick Ball died my parents were living in Canada. My mother said that in the morning on the day her father died she was standing in her kitchen drying the breakfast dishes. In the process of drawing the plates and cups from the drying rack, she reached for a china teacup. My mother said she was stopped in her tracks because there was a very small white dove inside the cup. Frightened, Mom ran to a neighbour's house, but wouldn't tell the neighbour what she thought she had seen, and why she was so frightened. That night my mother and father received news from Ireland that my mother's father Patrick had died.

One of my mother's deepest regrets over the loss of her father was, that over the almost six and a half years my mom had been living in Canada, she did not telephone her father very often nor write to him as often as she then felt she should have. Mom dearly wished she had taken the opportunity to tell her father how much she cherished him, and she wished she had had the chance to say goodbye to her dad before he passed away.

My mother told me that a couple of days after my grandfather died she was once again in her kitchen. This time Mom was preparing the evening meal. My father had not yet returned from work, yet my mom heard a male voice softly calling her name. 'Mary, Mary, Mary', it repeated to her. Suddenly Mom realized the voice she was hearing was that of her father. In this instance she did not feel frightened. Instead my mom felt her father had come to say goodbye to her. With tears of happiness in her eyes, she called out 'Goodbye Dad!' Mom said that although her words were met with silence, she fervently believed she had heard the voice of her father bidding her goodbye, and she felt very happy he had come to her.

Was there a ball of fire on the bridge that day?
On 26 March 1953 my paternal grandmother Anne 'Annie' Magee Geraghty was hospitalized for minor surgery. It was discovered she had undiagnosed diabetes, as well as a whole host of other very serious health problems. Annie died of cardiac and renal failure within hours of being admitted to hospital. Annie's sister, the late Mollie Magee Halpin, was on her way to the hospital to check on her sister when Mollie encountered a very strange harbinger of death. 

Molly said she was walking, again across a bridge, when from the opposite side she saw a large fireball rolling across the bridge toward her. She said she was frozen in her tracks and could do nothing other than turn away from the fire to protect herself. She swore she could feel the heat from the fireball as it passed her on the bridge. Mollie said that at that moment she felt with deep certainty her sister Annie had died. When Mollie arrived at the hospital her feeling of certainty was confirmed for her when she learned her sister Annie had indeed passed away.

Some may not agree that belief in harbingers of death is a sort of wisdom. However, one can surmise that if over the history of a person's life the deaths of members of his/her family are always preceded by these kinds of forewarning, then we might say a person had learned from his/her experience. Such learning might make him/her more intuitive, and such intuition may be said to be wisdom.

Are there any similar beliefs about harbingers of death in your family, or about 'visits' by deceased family members?

Copyright©irisheyesjg2013.
Thanks to The Graphics Fairy for the image of the dove.

15 comments:

  1. I have heard of this but cannot remember any one in our family witnessing it. My own experiance on my mother passing was that she was in hospital after habving a stroke, I had asked that she be left to go with some dignity after finding out there was no hope. Gradully all the people she loved came to visit and finally T took my youngest son to see her. Later that evening she passed away. Still brings tears to my eyes.

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    1. Hi Bill,

      Thanks for your comments; as always, much appreciated. I am sorry for your loss, and the sad feelings the recollection of your mom's last day brings. Many of us can relate to your feelings over the loss of your mom. It was so very good of you to want her to pass with dignity, and how wonderful she had the chance to say goodbye to those she loved.

      Cheers to you,
      Jennifer

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  2. I really enjoyed reading this. It reminded me of a story my grandmother told me, but I can't remember the details. I don't know how to explain the harbingers you described. This was a great read.

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    1. Hi Kathy,

      Thanks very much for your comments; always much appreciated. I was hoping people would be able to relate to these kinds of strange goings-on which are, as you say, inexplicable. I am glad to know it sparked memories of a story your grandmother told you.

      Cheers to you,
      Jennifer

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  3. My Irish grandmother said that a bird in the house means someone will die.

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    1. Hi Claudia,

      Thanks very much for your comment. I always appreciate hearing from you. A bird in the house; that is another interesting harbinger. Many of them seem to have something to do with the natural world.

      Cheers to you,
      Jennifer

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  4. Jenn, I really enjoyed this too. My eldest sister always talks about how there is so much in the world we cannot explain, so why not believe in things like these. My Granny used to always say if a picture fell from the wall and landed face down, someone was going to die. She said the same thing about broken dishes, and silverware falling on the floor. Not sure if it was always true.

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    1. Hi Charlotte,

      Thanks very much for your comments. I agree with your sister; there is so much which seems beyond our understanding. My mom used to say the same thing about a picture falling from the wall and landing face down. I wonder if harbingers cross cultures. I had not heard about the connection to broken dishes and silverware falling on the floor. Lots of food for thought. My husband will have to be more careful when he washes dishes. :-)

      Cheers to you,
      Jennifer

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  5. Jennifer -

    Your article touched on a subject that certainly ties in with my own Irish family's approach, although I don't remember "harbingers of death' but more the superstitions that my grandmother and her mother and family held tightly onto. I have no doubt that God and His angels can work in mysterious ways, but I'm sure that the great gift of the Irish imagination and the telling of stories played a large role in my family.

    I always enjoy reading your articles. Thanks for all you put into this blog!

    Lisa

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    1. Hi Lisa,

      Thanks very much for your comments, and your compliments. They are much appreciated, as always. I can certainly relate to what you have said about superstitions, and my family history seems full of them as well, and as you say superstitions which were tightly held onto. I also agree that the gift of Irish imagination plays a significant role. I have often wondered if these harbingers were born out of a mix of fertile imagination and a sincere desire to make some sense of the imminent or sudden loss of a beloved family member.

      Cheers to you,
      Jennifer

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  6. Excellent story, Jennifer. I remember that when we were children, my sisters and I sometimes got carried away when we were playing (or fighting). Our voices grew higher and higher until my mother would cover her ears and tell us to "stop screaming like a banshee." We had no idea what she meant but that it was not good, so we'd stop.

    Years later a friend from Boyle, Roscommon told me his own banshee story. When his mother was close to death, there was a knock at the door. When the family answered, no one was there. This happened a second and a third time. When they opened the door the third time, again no one was there, but a cold wind blew into the house. Someone rushed up the stairs to his mother's room. She had just drawn her last breath.

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    1. Hi Linda,

      Thanks very much for your comments; as always, much appreciated. You've brought a smile to my face with your childhood "screaming like a banshee" comment, since it reminds me of my own childhood. My dad had a penchant for relating the screaming to one ghost story or another. I think the story of your friend is a really interesting one too, especially with the three knocks at the door prior to his mom's passing. Three seems to be a very significant number in stories such as these. Again, something to really make us think.

      Cheers to you,
      Jennifer

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  7. My sincere thanks to each and every one of you for sharing your stories with me. It makes my day to hear from you.

    Cheers to each one of you,
    Jennifer

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  8. That's a lot of "coincidences" isn't it Jennifer. I think some people are more in tune with that further dimension of life than others. I'm told my paternal grandmother's wedding ring rolled off her hand the day her husband died. Omen or coincidence. The doubting Thomas in me says the latter, but I can't explain your stories' harbingers either.

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    1. Hi Pauleen,

      Thanks very much for your comments; they are always much appreciated. I am on the same page as you when it comes to this. The rational side of me wants to say 'impossible', but the intuitive and emotional side says some people are more attuned to that further dimension, as you say. It seems to be the only way of explaining such incidents as your grandmother's ring rolling off her hand. I guess there are some things which will always be just a little beyond comprehension and linear thinking.

      Cheers to you,
      Jennifer

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Cheers, Jennifer

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