- 1.How did your near-death experience as an adolescent change how you thought about death?
My near-death experience as a teenager showed me that when we die, our soul lives on, so it taught me not to be afraid about what happens after death. At fifteen, when I was losing consciousness following a suicide attempt, I found myself moving through a tunnel of vibrating, soothing white light. I arrived at the bank of a river, and my grandfather, whom I’d never met, was waiting there to greet me. I recognized him from pictures we had in our living room as he extended his hand to me.
As I reached out to take my Granddaddy’s hand, an apparition appeared that looked like the pictures I’d seen in Sunday School of Jesus. Firmly, Jesus pushed the palm of his hand towards me in a halting gesture. “No,” he said sternly, “it is not your time to enter. You must go back. You have much work left to do.” I never felt more rejected than having Jesus ask me to leave, and I was overwhelmed with deep sadness I couldn’t stay with my grandfather, whose kind eyes locked me in their gaze. I didn’t want to leave the most beautiful, peaceful place I’d ever experienced to return to the overwhelming depression and darkness that had held me captive on earth.
That experience as a teenager enabled me to release my fear of death, because I gained an embodied understanding that when we die, our beloveds who’ve passed before us will be waiting for us on the other side. It also convinced me that our life on earth is just a temporary passage, and when I miss the people I love who’ve died, this knowledge comforts and sustains me. Likewise, when my mother died, I felt my grandmother’s visceral presence take her hand as she breathed her last breath, so I know that our beloveds will come to take us home when we leave this world.
My experiences with after death communications from my mother over the past five years have only reinforced my belief that the veil between this earth and the next is permeable, as long as we stay open to the mystery that enables transcendent love’s expression. Through these communications with my dead mother, I’ve learned that relationships we have with the people we love don’t have to end when they die, they just change form, so death isn’t something to fear.
2. After your mother died, how did all the signs and signals you received convince you that she was sending you a message that she was still with you? What were some of the most meaningful and why?
What convinced me that the many signs and symbols I received were from my mother after she died was the personal nature of the messages. I often called them “Mama’s hat tricks” because they were exactly what I needed at the time to soothe my grieving heart.
I have hundreds of incidents to choose from, but one message I’ll never forget was a month after she died on a day when I felt quite bereft. As my cousin and I were leaving the local dog park, I noticed a red semi-truck cab parked on a side-street with Mama’s favorite Bible verse from the book of Philippians, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” That was the mantra she lived by. What were the odds, I asked my cousin, of finding that truck in Richmond, CA with that verse in that place on that day? It was Mama’s way of reminding me that I would survive my grief, that I could summon the strength I needed to get through this, and that in my times of greatest darkness, I was not alone.
About three weeks later, when my wife Julie came home from work, I was wearing Mama’s robe and sobbing in the armoire in our guestroom embracing an armful of her clothes, still fragrant with her scent. Julie pulled me away from the armoire, embracing me as I sobbed. Simultaneously, we both heard Mama laughing. Startled, I shouted, “What the heck was that? That’s Mama’s voice!”
Searching high and low for where the voice was coming from, I looked down, spotted my iPhone in my pocket, and pulled it out. My phone was playing a video of Mama’s pictures and snippets of videos that my google photo app created. I hadn’t made that video, and there it was, streaming in my pocket. Why, in that moment of such deep despair did it start playing Mama’s voice? It was her way of reminding me to lighten up and dry my tears because she was never far away.
3. One of the things your mother told you after she died was that part of your job now was to “help create heaven on earth.” What do you think she meant and how would you propose to do that?
I have over two-hundred pages of after-death transmissions of recordings with my mother. A few months after she died in one of our chats, she told me that my work now was to help create heaven on earth.” When I asked her what she meant by that, she told me that our time on earth was designed to help us learn how to love more deeply, to practice kindness, to become “better, not bitter” and to provide support to those in need of care. She shared with me how heaven was a place of “immeasurable love” and that the more we learned how to express love in our lives while still on earth, the easier our transition would be when we arrived on the other side. In other words, earth is our “practice ground” for what comes later.
“Just focus on kindness everyday” Mama told me, “in every encounter and in every interaction. And the more you’re able to do that, the more you will experience there what I experience here all the time. That is what creating heaven on earth means. And the more people who learn how to focus on love, the more your world will change. So be love’s ambassador, darling,” she said, “that’s the most important work you’ll ever do.” Whenever I find myself being impatient, which happens more than I like to admit, I try and remember her instructions.
Mama also shared that in heaven there’s no such thing as egos or time as we know it, so there’s nothing to distract you from love. She shared that love is our true nature, but we diminish our capacity to love full-heartedly because our egos make us afraid. “Each day you are still on earth” Mama said, “you must make a choice. You can choose love, or you can choose fear, and what you see reflected around you will be a manifestation of whichever choice you make. And the more you choose love,” she said, “the more you will experience heaven on earth.” When I’m able to live my life in a place of love instead of fear, everything’s always easier, and my voice is true and clear.
Another thing Mama told me when I was at the lowest ebb in grieving her loss, was that it wasn’t my time to leave this earth. She encouraged me to keep coaching, writing books, and sharing what I learned in whatever ways I can that helps others heal and find their way to love.
I strive to use the challenges I face to make me a more loving person, as I had the privilege of watching Mama do at the end of her life. She never complained about being uprooted from her life in Texas or about having to leave her beautiful home for a tiny apartment. She missed her church and life-long friends deeply, but she was never resentful. I only hope I can accept the changes in my level of freedom in my golden years with the ease and grace my mother did. I learned a lot from her example. At the end of her life, she began to teach me what it meant to create heaven on earth, as love and gratitude became her driving force.
4. How did your dreams and meditations before and after your mother died help you navigate your grief? What did they teach you?
Throughout my life, I’ve had prescient dreams. Six months before my mother ‘s death, I had a sense that a life-altering event was soon to occur, through a series of lucid dreams where I traveled through a dark portal just after falling asleep. Three months before she died, I had a dream that foretold her death. I didn’t understand what it meant until much later. Since Mama’s death, I’ve had numerous meditations in which I’ve visited her on the other side.
In the dream that portended her death, I was driving a car up a mountain on a switch-back road to the summit. Every time I steered left, some gravitational force took over and steered the car to the right. I’d take the wheel and turn it as far to the left as I could muster until the force steered it back to the right. This continued all the way to almost the top of the mountain until I was completely exhausted trying to maintain control of the car.
Directly in front of me, I spotted a black wolf tethered to the front of the car on a rope. I realized the wolf was wrestling for control of the car all the way up the face of the mountain. Then suddenly, as I steered the car to the left, the wolf jumped out in front of me and accidentally, I hit it. Quickly, I pulled the car over to see if I could save it, but there was blood pouring from its mouth. I realized the black wolf was dying, and no matter what I tried to do to save it, it was time for her to die. It was one of the most vivid, upsetting dreams I’ve ever had.
Three months later, my mother’s caregiver found her lying in a pool of blood on her bedroom floor. Rushed to the ICU, the doctors discovered a bleeding ulcer. The next evening, as I was helping her brush her hair before she went to sleep, her eyes rolled to the back of her head, and she vomited blood all over the floor as the repairs they had done to stop the bleeding failed. Mama lost consciousness and died two days later. I’d never felt such helplessness as I watched her bleed out, knowing there was nothing I could do to stop it, just like the wolf in my dream.
I later read that in the native American tradition, seeing a black wolf in your dream can portend a death. Wolves are great teachers and black wolves symbolize the need to do the inner work to heal and own our power. I had been Mama’s teaching in this life, but she became mine from the other side. Over the years following her death, I realized that to fully express my power in the world, I had to emerge from her shadow where I’d lived my entire life. In order for me to fully live, my mother had to die, just like the wolf in my dream.
I had several more dreams after mama died that brought me comfort. Some came with clear instructions, others brought clarity that helped me to heal the grief I was experiencing. Some provided an opportunity to hug her again and remember her warm embrace. Each one was sent by my mother to assure me I was never alone, that she was still present for me, and that now she had the capacity to support me in ways she couldn’t be there for me when she was alive. Mama was my black wolf who helped me heal so that I could become whole.
5. What do you think makes it possible to heal our pivotal relationships even after death? Why is that important?
Assuming, as my mother said, that the whole point of being on this earth is to learn how to love more deeply, then I believe part of reason we’re here is to heal the fractures we may have experienced in our closest relationships. Grieving the loss of the people we deeply love pries our hearts wide open if we allow it to do its work, which creates more space for love.
If our goal is to help create heaven on earth, then we need to mend the fissures that keep us from experiencing the immeasurable love Mama told me was possible. My mother and I had a challenging relationship for most of my life. I knew she loved me, but she didn’t know how to express it. I didn’t feel accepted. She wanted me to be someone I wasn’t or could never become. But in the final years of her life, as her dementia robbed her of cognitive function, she grew much less critical and judgmental, and her heart opened wider. She started to become the mother I’d always yearned for. Then after she passed, her heart opened wider because she experienced firsthand what it was like to be in a place where, as she told me, there was “no judgment, no egos, and no time.”
As I’ve continued to experience Mama’s presence, I feel her love more deeply than I did even in the final months she was alive. As I’ve healed, she’s healed too. The key has been our willingness to believe that just because the form of our relationship changed, that the love we had for each other had to end. Mama and I are still making memories together, just in a very different way.
6. What is the best thing you can do for someone you love or care about who is grieving? What did you find most helpful when you were at the heart of your deepest grief after you lost your mother?
The greatest gift you can give to someone who is grieving is to follow their lead. Some people want to talk about their loved ones. Others don’t. Maybe they just want company. Perhaps they need a warm meal or to have someone spend some time with their kids so they can rest. Ask people what they need if you don’t know what that is and tell them you’re happy to give them space, or bring them food, or buy them groceries. Send them a comforting book, join them for a walk, or just sit and say nothing and bear witness. Just let them call the shots.
I have a friend right now who is in anticipatory grief over the impending loss of her brother from Stage 4 cancer. Most of the time, she doesn’t want to talk about it, so I text her every week or two and let her know I’m thinking about her and her family and sending them and love and prayers. We’ve made dinner for her family, and she knows that I’m always available to talk, or not talk, depending on her preference at any given time. And I’m not offended if she doesn’t respond or just needs to be alone.
People’s grief journeys are as different as our personalities, so my advice is to never assume you know what’s best for someone else just because you found it helpful, or you can actually end up unintentionally being more harmful than helpful. Being present with people who are grieving requires that we do our own work around grief and that we aren’t afraid of bearing witness or being in the midst of deep sadness or pain. It’s learning how to be fully present with people wherever they are on their journey, knowing their needs can change at any moment in time, and to be willing to flex with whatever they need in each moment.
7. What regrets, if any, do you have as you reflect on your relationship with your mother and how you related to one another, especially in her final years?
I’m grateful that I have no big regrets about my relationship with my mother in her final years. We healed so much together, especially in the final twenty-seven months of her life when she lived nearby. The minor regrets I have are wishing I’d used the help of the caregiver we hired differently. Rather than me being the one to do all the shopping and managing all the practical details of Mama’s life, her caregiver was the one who took her to get her nails done, who went with her to jewelry class and other outings, so I would have switched those roles, and been the one to join her in the activities she enjoyed.
Secondly, I wish I’d made the time to spend more quality time together. I typically saw Mama three or four times a week and often drove to her apartment late at night to help her find her glasses or her phone, both of which she frequently misplaced. But those were usually short visits. I’d drop off groceries, help her fix her TV, bring her medicine, or have a quick lunch with her, rather than the longer, quality visits we typically had on Friday nights. My new year’s resolution in 2018 was to cut back on work and spend more time with her, but she died six weeks later. So one regret I have is not starting to do that earlier when we were busy moving and renovating a house. After my mother died, even if I’d spent every day with her, it still wouldn’t have felt like we had enough time together, because I wasn’t yet ready for her to leave.
I feel peace that I took good care of her, and that I know she felt my love and care. Mama was always deeply appreciative of the time we spent together and was grateful for everything I did. She worried that she was a burden, which I always assured her she wasn’t. I’m proud of the work we did to heal our relationship, of my commitment to keep my heart open, and that most of the time, I was able to summon the patience I needed to deal with her fears, her slower pace, and her anxieties. I certainly wasn’t perfect, but I know she experienced my love and support.
After she died, I wished we’d talked about death and how she felt about being old and dying. When I met her in the ambulance bay a day before she lost consciousness, Mama took my hand, squeezed it tightly, and said, “What would I have done without you?” The next night just before she lost consciousness, I told her that I wished life was such that we could have our mother’s until we died. She responded, “Honey, I wish that too because being your mother has been one of the greatest joys of my life.”
Just before she took her last breath, Mama opened her eyes and looked at me once last time. I have deep peace that Mama knew how much I loved her, so I have no regrets about that. If we hadn’t had that last twenty-seven months of her life to do the healing work we did in our relationship, I’m sure that the regrets I have would have been a different story.
8. How do you deal with the naysayers who may think you’re a little out there receiving messages from your dead mother?
The short answer is that I care much less about others’ judgments than I did when I was younger. I think that is a gift of age. I spent much of my life fearing rejection and abandonment. What I realized through my mother’s death and the guidance and support she’s continued to provide is she’ll never abandon me, nor will my creator, or the cast of truly good people and guides and angels that support me here on earth and from the other side. What I’ve learned is through this experience of such deep loss is you can never be abandoned by transcendent, unconditional love, because that kind of love is pure and eternal.
My story is my story. It may resonate for some, and it won’t for others, and that’s okay. If my words help one person find their footing when they’re grieving, then I’m grateful that I shared them. And when I’m feeling low and needing reassurance, I still go back and read the two hundred pages of after death conversations I had with my mother, and her words always comfort me, no matter how badly I feel. Perhaps they can comfort others, and I’m happy to share them if they do.
I believe some people have a gift for being able to receive messages from the other side and that I am one of those people. And that’s no different than someone who has a gift for playing the piano or riding a horse. It’s just a different kind of gift.
In one of our chats, my mother told me that I was a medium and that I should nurture that gift, something she never would have said when she was alive. I haven’t done much to develop that gift so far, but I’ve always been deeply sensitive and intuitive, and I use that “channel” every day in my coaching work because I trust it. It never steers me wrong. Since I was a little girl, and especially since my near-death experience at age fifteen, I’ve been able to easily access the spiritual realm. I wouldn’t trade that gift for anything, despite what critics say.
9. Is your mother still accessible to you to talk to five years after her death and if so, how do you communicate now?
Mama is always available anytime I reach out, and sometimes she pops in when I least expect it. Two weeks ago, as I drive to my hotel for an event I was facilitating the next day, I whipped out my recorder to talk to her since it had been a while since we’d chatted. I’d been sick for two months with lung issues from COVID and was quite behind on all the things I needed to do to market my upcoming book. Mama assured me that I didn’t need to worry, just to do my best when I was able, and to trust that it would land in the hands that needed to read it.
At that moment, I looked over and in the right lane next to me was a truck. Etched on its side were the words, “Shannon Moving.” Mama’s maiden name was Shannon. It was her way of telling me, “I’ve got this. Don’t you worry about anything. This book will go where it needs to go and I’m part of your marketing team.” I call these kinds of symbols “Mama’s hat tricks,” and she never disappoints!
Earlier this spring, my ten and eleven-year-old niece and nephew were here for spring break. As we left for our drive down to Pismo Beach, I told them to keep their eyes open for a sign from Nana. “Sometimes,” I said, “she leaves a symbol that she’s present, and I have a feeling she’ll want to be with us since we’re going to have so much fun together, so keep your eyes open.” A couple of hours later, my niece pointed her finger at a green hillside to our right and exclaimed, “Look guys! There’s a big cross with hearts all around it. I’ll bet that’s a sign from Nana!” which would have been a fitting symbol she would send to her grandchildren and me.
Later that evening, I was setting up the television in our Airbnb and opened my prime account on my Amazon app to get a code. On the app was an ad for “Mary Ruth’s Vitamins for Women.” “Look kids,” I said as I showed them my phone, “I told you Nana wouldn’t let us down!”
“Wow, that’s so weird,” my nephew said, because Mama’s name was Mary Ruth. She also had a great sense of humor, and probably knew I could use a little extra support managing two active kids by myself on this trip. That sort of thing still happens often, especially when I need to be reminded her spirit is still with me.
Biography of Donna Stoneham, PhD (donnastoneham.com)
Donna is a poet, executive coach, workshop facilitator, speaker, and former hospice chaplain who lives with her wife and rescue dogs in Pt. Richmond, CA. The author of the Catch Me When I Fall: Poems of Mother Loss and Healing (SWP, May 2023), The Thriver’s Edge: Seven Keys to Transform the Way You Live, Love, and Lead (SWP, 2015), and a contributor to the anthology, Art in the Time of Unbearable Crisis: Women Writer’s Respond to the Call (SWP, 2022). Donna’s work has been featured in The Wall St. Journal, Woman’s Day, Buzz Feed, The Huffington Post, and on TV, radio, and numerous podcasts. When she’s not coaching or writing, you’ll find her playing with her puppy, watching British television, communing with spirit and nature in a kayak, or hiking by the shore.