While serving as a youth minister in a church years ago, it happened that a tragic accident took the life of one of the teens that was in my program. When I heard about his death, I remember sitting in my office, paralyzed. I knew that the right thing to do was to reach out to the parents, but I had no idea what I would say. But I knew I had to act, so I forced myself to dial the phone. “I am so sorry,” is all that I could come up with for words when the boy’s mother answered the phone. Once I’d made the initial call, it was easier to walk with the family through the wake and funeral and later I visited them as they grieved.
The funeral was huge, attended by the boy’s classmates and their parents. When I arrived at the cemetery, I had to park a great distance away from the area where his casket had been brought for the burial ritual. There was a crowd surrounding the family so large and tight I knew that I would not be able to get close. I ended up sitting in the grass on a hill where I looked over the heads of all that had come to support the family and say goodbye to their friend. The words of the priest’s prayers were muffled but the responses of the people to his petitions rose up like incense. As I sat there an eagle swooped down and began circling the crowd as though attracted by the chanting.
My daughter Becky was working at the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota at that time. I knew that animals played a big part in Native American spirituality so I called her to ask her if there was some kind of significance to the eagle’s coming. She said she didn’t know but she would ask a few elders about it. She wrote in a letter what she had learned. The elders told her that when an eagle appears at a burial, it means that the person has achieved their purpose on earth. They have completed the task that God had sent them to do.
I brought the letter to the boy’s mother. We sat in her garden while I read it to her. She told me that her husband, a professor in a local college, had a special appreciation for native spirituality. He had many symbols given to him by Native American students hanging on the walls of his office. This story of the message of the eagle would mean much to him and she was deeply grateful for my seeking it.
I thought about what a comfort such a message is, especially when a family loses one of their young. They often hear the words, “He had so much potential.” The eagle seems to be telling them to look from a higher place. We assume that death is the end of something started, a plan thwarted. The eagle suggests that we are wrong. In grief we may not be able to see that one’s life on earth has meaning no matter how short. Our belief that potential can be thwarted by death is narrow. We need to see from the eagle’s view.