I grew up with five first cousins. While we lived in Florida and our cousins lived in Michigan, our parents made sure that we spent time together every year. Summers were the best, as we gathered together in Michigan or in Canada, where our uncle and aunt had a cottage on Lake Huron. Time spent with my cousins and uncles and aunts was always very special.

It wasn’t easy being the baby, though. I was the youngest of my siblings and the youngest of all of the cousins. My brothers seemed so close with my older cousins because they WERE close in age. And there I was the — sometimes annoying — little girl tagging along, trying to fit in with the big kids. Oh, the woes of being the baby!

As we got older, though, the age gap between siblings and cousins slowly seemed to disappear. And as we all shared the common bond of parenthood, it felt like there really wasn’t an age gap between us at all. We had a lot in common.

This fact became truly apparent to me in November 2017 when we all gathered in Grand Rapids, Michigan to surprise our aunt for her 80th birthday.

The weekend with family was so much fun. We played games and laughed and had great conversations. And we caught up on life.

We wondered where the time had gone and reminisced on our summers together. We recognized the fact that we had all become so busy with our own families that we were not taking the time to see each other – at least, not annually, as we had done when we were kids.

We recognized that life was moving too fast. Our parents were aging. Our kids were getting older. And we also recognized that, well…we were aging, too.

And so we began to plan our next cousin get together – a ski trip with all of the cousins and our children. What fun it was going to be. We were not going to let so much time pass between us again.

We were having such a great time on our final night together that my oldest brother encouraged all of the cousins to go out downtown.

“Oh, come on, Chrissie,” he said. “We are never together anymore. Life is short.” But I just couldn’t make myself go out; I was too tired from the previous week of work.

Oh, how I wish I had listened to my brother and had taken advantage of being together that night because he was right. Life is short, and that night was the last time that we would all be together as cousins.

In January, 2018, we heard the devastating news that our beautiful cousin, Jean, had unexpectedly passed away.

The news was shocking. Jean was a fighter. She had successfully battled breast cancer and had survived what seemed like a lifelong battle with an autoimmune disease.

This could not be true. How could this be true? We were all together, two months earlier, and everything seemed fine.

We had all just reconnected. We had all just made a pact that we would see each other at least once every year.

It wasn’t fair. My uncle and aunt had lost a daughter. Jean’s children had lost a mother. Jean’s husband had lost a wife. My parents had a lost a niece. And we had a lost a cousin.

It just was NOT fair.

I had a very difficult time processing Jean’s death. Jean was one of the most beautiful people I knew. Her smile was radiant, and her gentle and kind spirit made everyone who knew her feel special.

I had looked up to my cousin since I was a little girl. I was a flower girl in her wedding, and I remember staring at her in awe, thinking that she was the most beautiful woman in the world. She looked just like Princess Diana.

And while the gap in our ages may have distanced us a bit when we were younger, we had reconnected as adults. There were so many more conversations that we needed to have.

Sadness seemed to overwhelm me at times. Jean’s death was particularly difficult for our entire family during the holiday season. That is when we all received a letter from our second cousin – Holly. And inside the letter was a small white feather.

As I held the feather, I wondered why Holly had sent her note. Was it a Christmas greeting of some sort?

As I began to read the letter, I realized that it was not a Christmas greeting. It was something even more special. It was a letter about our cousin Jean.

Holly wrote about how much she missed Jean, like so many of us did, and that she had a story of hope to share with us:

One day, after Jean’s death, Holly went out for her typical morning run when she soon came across a feather that was sticking directly into the ground next to a large open wheat field.

She had just been thinking about Jean and how my uncle, Jean’s father, had been telling her how hard it had been to have lost his daughter and how he desperately wished that he could receive some sort of sign to know that she was okay.

At that moment on her run, Holly had noticed a feather on the ground. She felt that it was reaching out to her, urging her to hold it and to stop and pick it up.

A few miles down the long farm dirt road, she noticed another feather. This one was right next to her foot. So she bent down and picked that one up too.

As she continued on her run, she noticed other random feathers. And Holly began to wonder if the feathers were signs from Jean.

When Holly looked into the meaning of finding single feathers, this is what she discovered:

“They say that feathers are messages from angels.

Finding a black feather means you are being protected and you’re not alone. It symbolizes balance, ancient wisdom, cunning and skill, boldness, and release from past beliefs.

Blue Jay feathers are seen to be bringers of light and joy. They are said to have the ability to brighten up even the darkest places and are also known to symbolize power of healing.

A white feather can also be your angel telling you that loved ones in heaven are safe and well.”

Holly’s letter brought me so much comfort that day. But more than ever, I began to find comfort in feathers.

I’ll be honest, I never really noticed feathers before Holly’s letter. Our youngest son has always noticed them, since he was very little.

He would find a feather and come running, “Mommy, look at this feather I found.”

Almost always, I would reply, “Ew, yuck. That’s dirty. Put that back down.”

Thanks to Holly, I look at feathers differently now. And I notice that I find them in the most random places, at the most random times – many times, I find them when my heart is heavy.

It’s as if Jean has placed that feather there just for me, as a reminder that everything will be okay. And so now, when I see a feather, I don’t cringe at how dirty it might be. I stop whatever I am doing. I pause. And I think of Jean and smile.

Tears don’t overwhelm me at the sight of a feather. Instead, I am filled with a sense of joy because I know that Jean is just fine, and she’s watching over every single person in our family, each and every day.

We love you, Jean, and we always will. One day we will see each other again, and we will finish those conversations that we had only just begun. For now, thank you for the feathers.