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Everyone grieves in a different way. But when you’re in the throes of mourning, how do you know what will bring you the most comfort? Caroline Leavitt shares the story of how she looked for succor in the most unusual places—and, miracle of miracles, actually found it.

By Caroline Leavitt
Updated August 04, 2014
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Caroline Leavitt
Credit: Jeff Tamarkin

Years ago, my healthy 40-year-old fiancé, Steven, had a heart attack and died in my arms, and I collapsed in sorrow. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. I cried when I woke up, when I went to bed, and I spent hours walking dazed near my New York City apartment, convinced that if a truck ran me over, well, it wouldn’t be the worst thing that could happen.

“You need help to get through this,” my friend Beth urged. She gave me the name of a grief counselor, a woman who told me the only way through the terrible sadness was to dive head-first into it. “I’ll drown,” I sobbed and walked out of the counselor’s office.

Another friend talked me into going to a group for young widows. “You’ll support one another,” she assured me. In that room were 10 other young women, and virtually everyone had a story as terrible as mine: A husband got up to turn on the TV and was felled by an aneurysm; a partner was murdered en route to the couple’s Lamaze class. "We share, we care, we get better," the woman in charge chanted, but all the talk was about dying and loss, which made me feel like screaming. The more they talked, the more I realized how dangerous life was for everyone and how the world as I knew it was over. I sprinted out of the room.

Two months later, I was still running. I kept myself busy, always in motion; I knew if I stopped I would feel the pain the most acutely. One day I came to a storefront with a flaming red marquee. It said, fortunes told. $5. I knew about these places. You go in and someone in a turban says that there is a curse on you, which, of course, can be removed for the sum of $50. I looked in the window and a woman in a gray silk dress nodded at me. I entered and asked her for a palm reading.

The psychic told me that in six months I would have a new job, I would travel, I would meet a new man. And then she said, “You will have a long and happy life.” It was ridiculous; this fortune could apply to anyone. Any other time, I would have insisted she could no more tell my future than she could fly to Mars. But right then I believed her. I needed to. I will have a long and happy life. Each time I repeated those words to myself, I felt a flicker of hope.

That evening, for the first time, I was able to eat something.

The next day, I went to a tarot-card reader and paid $20 for the session. “The man you love wants to deepen things with you,” the woman said. Steven. I bolted up in my chair, my natural skepticism overwhelmed by the primal desire to reconnect with my fiancé. I was desperate to believe.

“Can you manifest the dead?” I asked her.

She blinked nervously. “No—what you need is a medium,” she said.

I took her suggestion. I began combing the Yellow Pages and asking around, making a list of mediums who could supposedly raise the dead. Instead of thinking about how empty my days were or how terrifyingly the future loomed, I had a goal. I would lay eyes on Steven again. I would talk to him.

My friends thought I was crazy. Few voiced their doubts, though, perhaps fearful of challenging me in my desperate state.

And, anyway, I shrugged off those who did. “Where exactly is the proof that any one can talk to or see the dead?” one candid friend asked me.

I bristled defensively. I didn’t really answer her. I just said, “I have to try.”

I saw 20 mediums over the course of the next year, paying between $200 and $500 per visit. The experiences varied widely: One changed her voice as if she were channeling Steven, but I knew he would never use a word like dude. Another told me he was learning scuba diving on another plane of existence. I didn’t believe this, either.

But six of the mediums did convey the same message, which they said came from Steven: They said I would marry a much older man one day, and that I would not be able to bear children but would adopt. I was elated. If these different people were all saying the exact same thing, they must be contacting Steven, right?

One medium gave me an audiotape of my session with her and told me that if I kept listening to it, Steven would reach out to me. This was exactly what I wanted to hear, so I willed myself to believe her.

At last, I didn’t mind going to bed. I lay there, listening to that tape over and over, telling myself that at any moment I would see Steven.

I played the tape so much that it broke. And when I called the medium, frantic, hoping to have another session and make a replacement tape, she testily told me she was booked for the next year. And she said something that stopped me cold: There’s nothing you can do that will keep you from grieving the death of a person you loved. You will miss him, no matter what.

I hung up the phone, my hands shaking, feeling betrayed. Wasn’t she supposed to make me feel better? I had done everything I could to avoid grappling with the fact that Steven was dead and not coming back, and now that had been thrown in my face. I cried to my friends and they comforted me, but I could see on their faces how hard it was for them to respond once more to my distress.

I hit bottom. I couldn’t stop weeping. Once, while I was in my apartment, I cried so long and so loudly that a concerned neighbor called the police. Out of other options, I picked up the phone and made an appointment with a therapist, someone not much different from the grief counselor I had seen initially.

For the first few sessions, I wept hysterically while she sat there quietly, bearing witness to my sadness. And to my surprise, afterward I felt better. The therapist made me a promise: Now that I had stopped trying to hide from my grief, it would eventually subside. And she agreed with the psychics on one thing: Someday I would be happy again.

It wasn’t a quick journey. There were four more years of hard grieving before I began to feel normal. I never saw Steven, except in dreams, though I did sometimes feel him around me, like a whisper.

Most of the psychic predictions were wrong: I did get married, but not to a much older man, rather to someone a year younger than I. Instead of adopting, as foretold, I got pregnant with our son. I stopped visiting mediums, but I bought a deck of tarot cards. To this day, every time I pull out a card, I feel that old flash of hope, a glimpse of what might lie beyond. And I am reminded of all those psychics who first made me believe that I had a future.

The psychic said, “You will have a long and happy life.” Any other time, I would have insisted she could no more tell my future than fly to Mars. But right then I believed her. I needed to.

Caroline Leavitt is the author of Is It Tomorrow ($11, bn.com), Pictures of You ($12, bn.com), as well as eight other novels. She lives in Hoboken, New Jersey, with her husband and son.