Photo courtesy of Maya Beano

Why Knowing What’s Coming
Isn’t a Salve
for Grief

We often look to intuitives for guidance on a host of issues—how to navigate career roadblocks, difficult relationships, financial concerns. Having intuition—and actually harnessing it—requires a kind of trust that can defy logic or reasoning, explains Suzanne Guillette. That is especially true in grief.

A memoirist and practicing intuitive, Guillette says that nothing prepared her for the moment she learned her cousin would die from stage IV cancer. Keep in mind, this happened long before her cousin was even diagnosed. Guillette’s intuition, which had always served to provide answers and clarity, now provided only more questions. If you can’t change what you know, why would you want to know it in the first place?

Time After Time

One chilly morning in mid-March 2017, I walked into an East Side Manhattan hospital carrying a bag of bagels, a couple bottles of water, and two scratch tickets. My cousin Karen had just been admitted for pain associated with her stage IV colon cancer. The scratch tickets were a ritual we’d begun a few years earlier, the day our grandmother died. Hours after watching Nana pass peacefully, we were in shock, so we tried our luck on lotto. Though we never won more than twenty dollars, it had become a tradition, a way to commemorate occasions. On my birthday in February we had bought scratch tickets at a convenience store on 42nd Street and each won ten dollars. We hadn’t planned to gamble that day, but I suggested it on a whim to mark an unexpected and somber moment: Karen had just said, “My friend Michelle told me that she’d help me die if it, you know, comes to that. Do you—is that something I can take her up on?” My reply was swift: “No one offers that who doesn’t mean it.” When Karen got quiet, I paused. She sometimes hinted at questions instead of asking outright. Oh. She wasn’t asking about a friend helping her die. She was asking if I would help her die. “I don’t feel like I even need to say this,” I said. “But if it comes to that, you know I’ll be there. It won’t be a burden, promise.” As soon as I reassured her, the tension left her face.

Walking into her hospital room a month later, I took one look at her wan face, her eyes drifting aimlessly out the window, her trademark joie de vivre nowhere to be found, and instantly forgot about the scratch tickets I was holding. Despite what the doctors were saying about continuing her treatment, I knew that this was the beginning of the end of her life. Somehow I had known since before her diagnosis that early death was pending, and I’d hoped desperately that I was wrong. Only in the last days of Karen’s life, as I kept a day-in, day-out vigil at the hospital with family and friends, watching helplessly as Karen’s body shut down, did I feel angry about the advanced intuitive warnings: If intuition could not prevent the most painful, irreversible scenario, what was the point of having it at all?

For most of her illness, I had kept my precognitive warnings to myself, a painful secret I couldn’t say out loud. Nonetheless, during that first extended hospital stay in March, my intuitions of her early death were at the forefront of my mind when I settled in beside her. Don’t worry. I’ll never leave you.

I didn’t have to say it out loud. Born five and a half months before me, Karen was more sister than cousin. In normal-times text exchanges, she often sent funny stories or random comments, like “She’s so intimidating,” with no explanation or even a hello—assuming I’d know exactly what she was talking about. I usually did. Much of our relationship was conducted in unspoken language. We could read each other’s minds. When we looked at each other that morning in the hospital, I wished we couldn’t as I saw her register what I was registering: We were in the home stretch.

“While intuition might warn us about a cheating partner or impending danger, my belief was that trusting our intuition would ultimately make everything okay. We could catch that cheating spouse in the act, avoid the plane that we sensed might crash. It had never occurred to me that heeding my intuition might herald the worst possible outcome.”

When Karen entered the hospital, my certainty about the end of her life being near was, in part, the result of our closeness. But the many intuitions I’d had about her illness were not strictly a product of our lifelong friendship. Case in point: The night before I showed up at the hospital with scratch tickets, I had been on a date, with no idea that Karen was in the midst of an emergency. Out of nowhere, I told the guy, “It is the worst feeling to have to leave a loved one in the hospital.” For some reason, I had Karen in mind, but at the time, Karen had only had brief hospital stays, so I thought, Why am I saying this? On my way home from the date, I saw that I had a voice message from Karen: “Suz, don’t want you to worry, but I’m in the hospital. Should only be a couple days. I’m going to sleep now. Let’s talk tomorrow.”

Throughout her illness, my intuition had guided me; I often made decisions using not logic but instinct, emotions, and the visceral sensations in my body. Sometimes that meant keeping my feelings about the gravity of her condition to myself. Once it meant ditching work after I got a text from her: “It’s so nice out! Want to meet up on a rooftop somewhere?” The text made me queasy, even though she’d inserted a smile emoji with heart eyes. When I met her soon after, she said, “Things are not going in a good direction, Suz.” On Thanksgiving 2016, we’d made separate dinner plans, but based on a gut feeling, I insisted on visiting her at home beforehand. Not long after I got there, she found a suspicious bulge on her neck and panicked. We went into the bedroom and closed the door so that her husband, Todd, could distract their two young children. Karen was too upset to talk, so I called an oncologist friend to get his opinion. The mass turned out to be an infection, not another tumor, but my intuition had been correct: She had needed me there.

Before her illness, I’d thought of intuition mostly in a Pollyannaish way. While intuition might warn us about a cheating partner or impending danger, my belief was that trusting our intuition would ultimately make everything okay. We could catch that cheating spouse in the act, avoid the plane that we sensed might crash. It had never occurred to me that heeding my intuition might herald the worst possible outcome.

The doctors didn’t officially declare her cancer untreatable until a week before she died, at the end of May. During this week, I frequently drifted to a distant, less-populated waiting area and stared out the floor-to-ceiling windows, as boats cruised along the East River. Looking down to Tudor City, where Karen and Todd had their first apartment after moving to Manhattan in 2004, and recalling that time, full of promise and happy hours in rooftop bars, felt like getting stabbed in the chest. Yet alongside my pain, I felt a strange relief. Finally, everyone was acknowledging that she would die. Countless times over the last weeks, I had frozen when the question—will she live or die?—came up. Even after Karen’s hospital admission in March, the doctors were doing everything they could to treat her with radiation and try to get her into clinical trials. In late March, a friend of Karen’s asked me: “So this is just a blip, right?” Looking into the friend’s clear green eyes and seeing fear, I avoided speaking too plainly: “I wouldn’t necessarily call it a blip.”

I have been intuitive for as long as I can remember. As a child, I tuned in to the feelings and needs of others so intently that sometimes I’d know things about them I couldn’t possibly know by rational means, like the time I had an unfamiliar word in my head all day—“Padanaram”—only to return from school and have my mother tell me that she had taken a spontaneous trip that afternoon, to Padanaram, a town nearly an hour from our house.

Between home and school, I saw no avenues for sharing such experiences, which were a significant part of how I processed life. So I didn’t share. In turn, I stopped valuing my intuition and eventually became overly reliant on logic. Cut off from the stars and beings and divine threads that had made me feel less alone in the first place, I felt like an outsider—thoroughly disconnected from myself.

“If ever I found myself doubting things I couldn’t explain, I focused on trusting myself; synchronicities followed.”

Whatever natural abilities I was born with, my intuition about Karen’s diagnosis was the result of hard work; for eleven years, I had been actively nurturing my intuition. While the terms “intuitive” and “psychic” are often used interchangeably, intuition refers to knowing without rational evidence or explanation. Psychic instances are a subset of intuition and experienced through faculties of clairvoyance (clear seeing), clairsentience (clear feeling), clairaudience (clear hearing), and claircognizance (clear knowing). No matter the type, though, intuition is the voice of divine, connected guidance; to heed it is to acknowledge the eternal, transcendent self.

In 2004, when my then boyfriend proposed, I ignored my intuition and rationalized my way into an engagement. The timing of his proposal was uncanny, as I was just beginning to realize that I didn’t want to marry him, even though we had been together for years and I loved him. Two days before the surprise proposal, I’d told my sister in a panic, “I don’t think I want to marry Ted!” When he presented the ring, I saw that my intuition had clearly been trying to warn me. I spent forty-five minutes expressing my doubts about our long-term compatibility and listening to his rebuttals. No part of me wanted to say yes—not a single cellular inch—but when he added, “Take this ring as a sign of my commitment to working on us,” I doubted myself. Maybe I didn’t know what love was supposed to feel like. Maybe I was afraid of happiness. Maybe I could marry him. I downed my glass of champagne and sighed. “All right.”

A few agonizing months later, when I ended the engagement, the relief was immense. Intuition, represented by the alarm I had felt in my body—a persistent, ringing anxiety in the days both before and after the proposal—pointed toward truth. When I cast the truth aside to put that ring on my finger, I paid for the denial with my body. Every day until we broke up, I felt stiff, constricted, and anxious. After the engagement ended, I could breathe again. Now that I know what truth feels like, I thought to myself, I’m never going back.

“In learning how to pay close attention to my intuition, I stretched myself far out of the comfort zone of logic…. Grief inspires a similar stretching, a similar trust in the unseen: While part of those who die remains with us, a part of us goes with our loved ones, in whichever dimension they may be.”

After breaking up with Ted in 2004, I began writing down my dreams, many of which were prophetic. In 2006, I started studying with a tarot reader. In 2008, an astrology retreat turned my passing interest in the zodiac into an obsession when, after a day of classes, I heard the words “Jupiter!” “Pluto!” “Saturn!” all night long and woke up with the realization that learning astrology could strengthen my intuition. In 2010, I started working with a healer who taught me a simple practice for using bodily sensations to separate truth from lies. In those years, if ever I found myself doubting things I couldn’t explain, I focused on trusting myself; synchronicities followed. Then, in early 2011, I dreamed of a shooting at a shopping mall parking lot near the Capitol. Hours later, the news broadcast a terrible story—Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot during a public appearance at a shopping mall parking lot in Arizona.

Though that event didn’t affect me personally, my dream confirmed how interconnected we, as human beings, are. More strikingly, the dream revealed something valuable about the nature of time—namely, how I didn’t understand it. Somehow, I experienced that future event in the present moment of my dream. For reasons I still cannot explain, it was obvious: By the time I woke up and recalled my dream, the shooting had already occurred in some other dimension. That epiphany was confirmed four years later by my premature vision of Karen’s death: In some other dimension, Karen’s early death had already happened.

In learning how to pay close attention to my intuition, I stretched myself far out of the comfort zone of logic. In the four years between the Giffords dream and Karen’s diagnosis, I set an intention to trust what came to mind. Developing that trust, I now recognize, was the foundation I needed for eventually grappling with the precognitive warnings of Karen’s death.

Grief inspires a similar stretching, a similar trust in the unseen: While part of those who die remains with us, a part of us goes with our loved ones, in whichever dimension they may be.

My first intuition about Karen arrived six months before her diagnosis: In March 2015, I had a dream that she turned into a baby. On its face, that dream might sound like a good omen. New life. Yet when I woke up, my head was foggy, my stomach cramped. The year before, in 2014, I’d had the same dream about our grandmother and woken up knowing, the way I sometimes just know things, that Nana would soon die. That dream prompted Karen and I to drive up to New Hampshire to be there for her final days.

When I had the dream about Karen, she was thirty-nine, not ninety-six, like Nana, and as far as we knew, basically healthy. When I mentioned the dream to Karen, she was uncharacteristically quiet, taking in my words. The thought of losing her was not comprehensible, and so denial prevented me from panicking. Two months later, she needed to have spinal fusion surgery, and I brought up the dream again. “Maybe this is what the dream was about. You’ll need extra care during recovery.” She nodded slowly, unconvinced. After her surgery, I held her hand in ICU recovery. “I’m sorry if I am reminding you of Nana,” she said, struggling to get the words out. Willfully ignoring any link between the two dreams, I said, “Don’t be silly. Nana was on her deathbed.”

Karen wasn’t reassured. Instead, she looked at me, expressionless, and then looked away.

In September 2015, one week after Karen’s fortieth birthday and three days before her cancer diagnosis, I went uptown to visit her in the hospital, where she had been admitted for pain in her side. When I walked in, I found Karen’s mother sitting in a chair, Todd standing up, and Karen in bed, everyone looking cheery. “He-llo!” Karen said in an upbeat voice.

Happy to see everyone, I sat next to my aunt Ann. Karen answered a phone call, and I turned to Ann and said, “So what do the doctors say?” With watery eyes, Ann said, “Cancer or leukemia.” What? Suddenly, my body was free-falling through time and space. What the hell? I couldn’t bear to look at my aunt, to imagine what it was like to hear that your daughter might have a terminal illness. So I turned abruptly toward Karen, but that was no escape. I was struck by an unbidden vision: her hospital bed suddenly empty. The bed was suddenly empty because Karen was no longer on earth. I thought, One day, this will become part of our accepted narrative, a fact: Karen died young. The news flash struck me as so obviously true, I wanted to smack my forehead. How hadn’t I seen this before? Of course she would die young. She was always going to die young. Weirdly, for a few seconds, I felt an inexplicable peace.

“So early into Karen’s diagnosis, I was in the habit of asking myself daily, incessantly, Why do I know what I know? What is the point of knowing? I had no answers.”

A friend I called on my way home dismissed my vision and tried to talk me into positive thinking, as others would days later upon hearing her official diagnosis. To think positive was to ignore the fact that I knew what I knew—she was going to die young. These conversations made my stomach ache. Explaining this to others was futile, so almost up to the day she died twenty months later, I listened politely to pep talks and stories about miraculous cancer turnarounds and then excused myself to cry in various bathrooms.

But a few days before her diagnosis, just following that image of the empty bed, in the hospital room, I forced a smile, trying to pretend I hadn’t just been skyrocketed to another dimension. Pretending because I didn’t have words. Pretending in case there were even a fraction of a chance I was wrong. Pretending out of a protective instinct, to keep everyone safe from the truth and myself safe from judgment. Pretending out of habit—a habit that, unbeknownst to me, I was ready to break.

Two months after Karen’s diagnosis, her dear friend from high school Jen lost her nine-month-old son, Patrick, when his heart stopped suddenly. At the funeral, Jen’s father, David, a pastor, gave a heartfelt, reassuring sermon. He said that his granddaughter Stephanie, Jen and Pat’s middle daughter, had told her parents months before, “God told me baby Patrick is going to die. We will cry for a long time. But don’t worry. He’ll come back in June.” At the time, Stephanie was two years old. As Pastor Dave spoke about Stephanie’s prophecy in plain terms, I was amazed. Amazed that it had happened. Amazed that her grandfather was legitimizing her psychic vision in a Catholic church. Even in the midst of his pain, he was pointing the rest of us in a clear direction: Her knowing suggested that there was a reason for Patrick’s death. It was a mystery, yes. But it was God’s mystery. God’s purpose. Pastor Dave’s words legitimizing Stephanie’s premonition also legitimized my own.

So early into Karen’s diagnosis, I was in the habit of asking myself daily, incessantly, Why do I know what I know? What is the point of knowing? I had no answers. Listening to Pastor Dave, I forgot about my questions for a moment.

Sitting in the pew, I felt sunlight, just the tiniest sliver, on that exceptionally morbid day—a hint of rebirth from the darkness of tragedy.

Almost a year after Patrick died, I spent the weekend with Jen and Pat and their three girls at their home in New Jersey, my friendship with Jen strengthening as Karen’s illness progressed. We rode bikes down a wooded trail that led to a beautiful brook. We had raucous dinners with neighborhood families. The girls showed me their rock-climbing wall, their book collection, and their dance moves. At some point, wigs were passed around the kitchen. A year later, I knew their grief was still fresh, but whatever I’d expected of a grieving family, this wasn’t it. Jen and her husband and daughters were still in mourning, but their grief hadn’t flattened them. In fact, their loss seemed to bring out a heightened sense of presence in the everyday, making their lives wider, deeper, and richer.

One night, when the girls went to sleep, Jen and I sat in her living room drinking tea and discussing Karen’s illness. “Sometimes I wonder,” she said cautiously, “how you’re doing.” From the way she looked at me—direct, unflinching—I understood that she had zero illusions about the path Karen’s illness was taking. I felt my body slacken, realizing I could open up about my premonitions. Jen would listen to my angst about living with them in my head. She would share my burden. Of all people, she would understand. But when I went to open my mouth, that tunnel of grief flashed in my mind.

“It’s…hard” was all I could muster, making a mental note: Jen will be there when I need her.

Stephanie woke me up the next morning by putting a picture of her baby brother in my hands. “This is baby Patrick. He’s in heaven, and now my mom cries a lot,” Stephanie said matter-of-factly, smiling.

Stephanie’s general nonchalance enlightened me; I had been fighting my intuitions about Karen’s death, stressing about why I knew what I knew, worrying about the purpose of intuition, when my dream and vision were simply messages that had come to me—facts before I could empirically prove they were facts. No more, but certainly no less.

“Their grief hadn’t flattened them. In fact, their loss seemed to bring out a heightened sense of presence in the everyday, making their lives wider, deeper, and richer.”

Six months after that visit, in late March 2017, when Karen’s end-of-life hospitalizations were in full chaotic swing, I saw Jen at the hospital, looking very pregnant. I knew she was pregnant, but I didn’t get a chance to ask her any questions because Karen was in crisis. Karen had a bad reaction to radiation, and though I thought I was going to do only a quick check-in on her, I couldn’t leave her in such distress. Jen and I spent the next five hours working to soothe Karen, who was in extreme pain—wincing, crying, and struggling to slow down her breath.

Once Karen was cleared of any major new problems and had finally fallen asleep, Jen and I went to the waiting room to regroup. If grief is a truth serum, that was the moment the effects kicked in. Fueled by adrenaline, I couldn’t stop talking—about the dream of her turning into a baby, the vision of her leaving us, Karen telling me on her third day of this hospital stay, “I met my team on the other side, and it’s real. It’s really real.” Some attributed her ramblings to the meds, and while I didn’t disagree, I believed her. Her near-death wisdom and her medicated brain were not necessarily mutually exclusive.

As I talked to Jen, she was empathetic, nodding, offering her perspective every now and again. Finally, she said, “It’s go time.” The end of Karen’s life was coming fast. I exhaled, grateful for her acknowledgment.

As we got up to leave, I asked Jen, “When are you due?”

“Oh, you know…June,” she said, smiling.

Their fourth daughter and fifth child was born on the summer solstice, three weeks after Karen died, bearing an uncanny resemblance to baby Patrick. Stephanie said that God wanted to name the baby Keeva, so they did.

In the last week of her life, in the quiet waiting area, I thought of Pastor Dave, Jen’s father, legitimizing his granddaughter’s intuitive wisdom. Stephanie has no problem talking about what God said and she does so often. (So often that her parents once said, “Steph, does God have the winning Powerball numbers?”) My intuitions were no different. So why, even though I had been working as an intuitive for years by this point, was I so sheepish about sharing my intuition about Karen with friends and family (or at least those I knew would be skeptical), which is a major part of how I walk through the world? Why is anyone? Who tells us we need to hide who we are? And why have we been listening?

“Intuition may not lead me to joy always, but the reward of paying attention to it, even in smaller moments, makes me feel so much better than if I don’t.”

A month before baby Patrick died, I was with Karen at the hospital when I bumped into a friend and learned that her husband, a former colleague of mine, had received a terminal cancer diagnosis. Then I learned that someone I’d gone to grade school with had died from a drug overdose. Overwhelmed, I sat on the steps of my favorite neighborhood church, eating curried chicken soup and staring at the blue sky. One bite in, a man in a Grim Reaper costume walked by. This was weeks before Halloween, so the getup stood out. As he passed, he turned to me and said, “God bless you.” I froze. But then I realized that this was the perfect metaphor. What is the blessing of mortality? I wondered.

The blessing, as I see it is authenticity. Mortality is inevitable, so in the face of it, perhaps the best we can do is own our unique perspectives, feelings, and experiences. Mortality brings truth to the fore.

As Karen lay dying, I realized that by withholding my intuitions I had not been authentic. At times, I pretended out of practicality and kindness, like the time a friend said that she didn’t think Karen was going to die, and I nodded in agreement. While that was the kind thing to do—and I didn’t feel any of the tension I’d felt when denying intuition to myself—I still felt guilty for lying.

When I moved from the isolated waiting area to where Karen’s crew was gathered, I began sharing those early premonitions of her death. No one seemed all that surprised. I think someone even said, “Wow. Want a French fry?”

As the hours in the waiting room ticked by, a new awareness began to take shape. My intuitions had led to this—a front-row view of cancer ravaging the body of my dearest friend—and my thoughts began to drift, ever so slowly. As Karen was letting go of her life, I needed to let go of my quest for a rational explanation of why I’d had these intuitions in the first place. Letting go of my questions about intuition was far easier than letting go of her.

Pastor Dave died ten months after Karen died. Jen texted me often from his deathbed. She said that our experiences with Karen helped her to stay attentive to her father’s needs.

Four months after his funeral, I visited Jen and Pat and their girls. Jen told me that she was comforted that Stephanie had predicted Patrick’s death. Stephanie’s message came straight from God. “It’s still so comforting,” said Jen. “God is present.”

When she said that, I thought of how I’d felt the moment I’d had the vision of Karen leaving us. The wash of peace was undeniable—given the horrible implications of that vision, could that peace be anything other than a connection to something more transcendent than my individual self, the lifeline of intuition? No. Intuition may not lead me to joy always, but the reward of paying attention to it, even in smaller moments, makes me feel so much better than if I don’t.

“Mortality is inevitable, so in the face of it, perhaps the best we can do is own our unique perspectives, feelings, and experiences. Mortality brings truth to the fore.”

My life had changed plenty since Karen died. Relationships shifted, which made sense, as a part of me had died with her. A different person, I found myself gravitating toward people with whom I felt genuine, deep connections and letting more superficial friendships fade. Grief made me more authentic. I decided to publicly own my intuitive work. While I have worked professionally as an intuitive for years, I never had an online presence, thinking that it would detract from my work as a writer. After Karen’s death, I naturally stopped overthinking so much.

Funny, Stephanie saves so much time by simply calling a spade a spade: She talks to God in her head.

“What does God say?” I asked her.

Without skipping a beat, she said, “Listen to your heart.”

In the weeks following Karen’s death, I was largely immobilized by grief. Every night in my dreams I had to find out, once again, that she had died. I bawled my eyes out every morning and then stayed stuck on my couch, gazing at the Manhattan skyline, bathed in various stages of sunlight, then moonlight. I fielded an array of strange physical symptoms that the doctor, when I finally went, called a natural grief response. “Sleep,” he said. “That’s all you can do.” My head was so heavy that some days it took me as long as six hours after waking to be able to talk on the phone. Most days, I didn’t talk to anyone.

Rest helped. Somewhere in the reflective haze of grief, I started to see the practical value of my intuition. My intuition, all along, had pushed me to walk this long existential corridor with Karen, to be with her above and beyond normal limits, disregarding others who tried to tell me I was doing too much. My intuition had not been asking me to suffer. My intuition had been showing me how to love.

A memoirist and intuitive, Suzanne Guillette is the author of Much to Your Chagrin: A Memoir of Embarrassment and Battle Dress: What I Wore to Confront My Past, a longform essay about reckoning with decades-old sexual violence. She is currently working on a memoir about grief and joy.