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Why Are White Feathers a Source of Comfort When a Loved One Dies?

Signs may be beneficial to the gradual detachment from a departed loved one.

Key points

  • More than a quarter of adults report "signs" of some kind following a bereavement.
  • Events and objects that appear as signs to the bereaved have strong sensory properties.
  • The object can become a sensory thread, providing a source of comfort and a means of making the separation a little more bearable.

Fifteen years ago, my husband Paul dropped dead out of the blue. He wasn’t old, and he wasn’t ill, but one moment we were swimming together at our local pool, and the next moment he had collapsed and died of heart failure, leaving me with three teenage children and an old house that was constantly in need of repair. I was distraught. The shock was so great that I often felt I was going insane. I had no idea what I was going to do with the rest of my life.

Hans Braxmeier/Pikabay
Source: Hans Braxmeier/Pikabay

In the early days after his death, I talked to Paul constantly, as the bereaved commonly do. I found it hard to stop crying, so I took to walking for miles in the countryside with our dog to keep my tears away from the children.

On one of these walks, I talked to Paul as usual, and he was willing to send me a sign that he was alright when a tiny white feather floated down and landed on my foot. I was astounded. I immediately took the feather to be a sign from him, and in the days and weeks that followed, feathers kept appearing in all sorts of unexpected places. Each time I saw one, I noticed a slight diminishing of the anxiety I had felt constantly since Paul died. The feathers were comforting, and I sensed that they were linked with him in some way.

But could they be some communication from beyond the grave? Being a psychologist, I wasn’t content with speculation, and I started to look for evidence.

To my great surprise, an internet search revealed thousands of descriptions of white feather experiences following the death of a loved one. An example: ‘I lost my daughter earlier this year and kept asking for a sign. One day I looked outside the back door hoping, and there was a white feather on top of a plant pot.’ I also discovered that many people regard feathers as the calling cards of angels: ‘I suffered a miscarriage last week, and I was devastated. Yesterday a white feather floated down from nowhere, and I knew it was my guardian angel.’

This was interesting, mainly as I had made my connection between Paul and the feathers before I knew that any of these accounts existed. However, I still wanted further evidence, so I interviewed several bereaved friends and colleagues and carried out a questionnaire survey with 25 adults who had experienced a loved one.

I discovered that more than a quarter of people report ‘signs’ of some kind following a significant bereavement. These include feathers and a wide range of other sensory experiences such as birds, twinkling lights, the smell of wood or tobacco smoke, rainbows, trees falling, and many more.

Some examples: ‘I am frequently visited by a white moth or a white butterfly, and I know it’s my wife;’ ‘A robin suddenly hopped onto my son’s grave, and I knew it was him;’ ‘I was sitting in my garden when a snowy white barn owl came and sat on the tree and stared at me and then it flew over my head and ruffled my hair. I knew it was my mother;’ ‘After my mother died, I was shopping in our favourite store and felt somebody take my hand. I knew it was her.’

Source: Pixabay

Without exception, the survey participants who described such sensory experiences also reported a powerful sense of loss at the time of their loved one’s death, expressing their feelings using words and phrases like: ‘distraught,’ ‘beside myself with grief,’ ‘I have had my heart ripped out, ‘I don’t know how to survive this.

The death of a loved one is unbearable, and the need to find some source of comfort, some way of maintaining a link with the person who has disappeared, is entirely understandable.

This need is reminiscent of Donald Winnicott’s writing on the subject of ‘transitional objects,’ the sometimes strange objects that babies and young children use as comforters. One of my sons had his ‘raa,’ an old cloth which he sucked and which went everywhere with him; my niece had her ‘bakdin,’ a square of knitted blanket that fulfilled the same purpose.

Winnicott believes that these attachments begin when the infant links the sucking related to feeding and the simultaneous caressing of a bit of sheet, blanket, wool, etc., which can then be used as a source of comfort, particularly at times of stress and separation from the mother.

Similarly, the bereaved person, in a highly emotional state following the death of a loved one, and finding the separation from them unbearable, may weave a link between the person they have lost and an object such as a feather (or a sound, smell or touch) that happens to be around when they are thinking of the deceased. The object becomes a ‘sensory thread,’ providing a source of comfort and a means of making the separation a little more bearable. It may be a beneficial aspect of the gradual detachment from the person who has gone, just as Winnicott views transitional objects as being a beneficial aspect of the child’s emotional development.

As I walked up to my front door this morning, I spied a tiny white feather poking out from under the doormat. I picked it up and put it in my pocket. All these years later, I still notice white feathers, although probably not as often as I used to. The separation from Paul is more bearable after all this time, but the feathers are still a source of comfort.


Moore, V. (2021). One Thousand Days and One Cup of Tea: a Clinical Psychologist's Experience of Grief. Hachette UK.

Winnicott,D. (1964). The Child, the Family and the Outside World. Penguin Books.

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