Several years ago one of the cancer patients I counseled told me she was going to the Hawaiian island of Kauai, where her mother lived, to resolve her difficulties with her mother and die there. She accomplished all that she had hoped for and died there feeling loved, complete and at peace with herself.

About eighteen months after my patient’s death my wife Bobbie and I were invited to the island of Kauai to do an outdoor weekend workshop. I was thrilled to go because I love the islands and feeling close to God and the process of creation when surrounded by mountains, the ocean and the beauty of nature. That plus my patient dying there, who I felt close to, really attracted me to go there and contribute a workshop on the art of healing. So off we flew.

We arrived early on the Friday before the workshop, got settled in our hotel room, and then went out to get something to eat. After the meal we went into a neighboring store to get some supplies we needed and saw a butterfly circling around the store’s ceiling lights. No one seemed to notice it or show any interest in rescuing it but we are always rescuing creatures. Our home has been a zoo for decades. Every species shared our family room and bedrooms with our five kids and were not confined in any space. In the yard we did fence in the goats, ducks and geese. Please understand we do not live on a farm we broke multiple zoning laws on our two acres but never were reported by the police or neighbors because they knew we did it because of our reverence for life and not neurotic behavior.

We incubated all the eggs so whatever hatched imprinted on our kids and followed them everywhere including to the school bus stop every morning and afternoon. My folks lived on a lake where we took the birds for release when there were too many for us to handle. My Mom called me to ask, “Why do the birds come out of the lake and up to the street every time a school bus pulls up?” I told her they were looking for our kids who they saw as their family.

Now that you know who we are lets to get back to Kauai. When she saw the butterfly my wife climbed up on the store counter and held her open hand up towards it. I was amazed when instead of being frightened by my wife’s hand the butterfly flew over and landed on her hand. I helped my wife down and we walked out of the store with our purchases and the butterfly on her hand. When outside my wife extended her arm with the palm up and both of us expecting the butterfly to happily fly off and be free again to live its life. But it just sat still on my wife’s hand and wouldn’t fly off even when she shook her hand to suggest to it that it was time to leave.

So the three of us climbed into our rental car and drove back to our hotel. We again tried to release the butterfly but it refused to fly off and instead settled itself on my wife’s shoulder and went into the hotel and up to our room with us. In the hours before our bed time it became family, staying with us no matter what we did to get it to leave. It began to get rather mystical and I truly began to feel it could be the spirit of my dead patient connecting with me through the butterfly, which is the symbol of transformation; the transition and struggle from caterpillar to butterfly symbolizing the life and death transition.

When bed time approached the butterfly was still perched on my wife Bobbie’s shoulder so I said to her, “Honey you can’t sleep with a butterfly.“ She went outside on the porch and came back saying, “I brushed it off my shoulder.”

I responded, “Look at your other shoulder.” Yes. it had flown over to her other shoulder and came back into the apartment. I took lots of photographs of it sitting on Bobbie’s hand or shoulder and they are all around our house. Now I felt and knew this was no coincidence and that it was my patient’s spirit joining us so the butterfly became family. We enticed it to sample some water we sweetened with sugar and when it began to drink we jumped into bed.

The evening went smoothly. The next morning we became family again and I started talking to the butterfly through our consciousness. I told it that I wanted to use it at the workshop as a symbol of transformation. My plan was to have it climb into a paper bag and that I would discuss its symbolism with the workshop participants and then open the bag and release it to reinforce the symbolism and surprise everyone.

The butterfly went right along with my plan. So we drove to the site of the outdoor workshop and just before we got there the butterfly was carefully placed in the bag. At 9AM I began my presentation and after discussing the symbol of the butterfly, transformation and its relationship to life and survival I picked up and opened the bag. Out flew the butterfly and of course everyone expected it to fly up and away but it just circled overhead while I told everyone about my patient and her story.

If you need help accepting what this experience portrayed I can tell you of many other experiences in my life and the lives of people I have counseled, including lifesaving ones, where the appearance of meaningful creatures occurred that they knew represented a deceased loved one because of what the creature represented in the life of their family member.

I will conclude with what convinced me. The workshop was a scheduled nine to five event. The butterfly circled overhead the entire day. When I announced, at 5PM, that the event was concluded the butterfly flew up and away from the group and my wife and I for the first time since we had rescued her.

Bernie Siegel, M.D., is a retired general/pediatric surgeon who is now involved in humanizing medical care and medical education. In 1978, he originated Exceptional Cancer Patients (ECaP), a specific form of individual and group therapy. He is the author of Love, Medicine & Miracles; Peace, Love & Healing; How to Live Between Office Visits; Prescriptions for Living; Help Me to Heal (with Yosaif August) and Love, Animals & Miracles: Inspiring True Stories Celebrating the Healing Bond Bernie and his wife, Bobbie, live in Connecticut and have five children and eight grandchildren. Bernie embraces a philosophy of living and dying that stands at the forefront of the ethical and spiritual issues our society and medical care grapple with today. Visit BernieSiegelMD.com.