The Death card is one of those scary Tarot cards that no one wants to see in their reading. As one British writer put it, “This card usually sends the wind up people . . .”
Death . . . eeeew! Creepy.
We should talk about that . . .
I’ve attended a weekly bereavement support group since my life partner died. We get together once a week – on Zoom, since Covid happened – discuss the grief process, check in with each other, and offer emotional support to members who are hurting. At one of the meetings a new member whose husband had died a few weeks earlier asked, rather hesitantly, “Um . . . have any of you had any experiences with . . . like . . . ghosts?”
Every hand in the room went up.
Every single one of us had experienced strange messages or pictures of our loved ones inexplicably falling off of shelves or lights that flickered on and off when we mentioned the names of the people who had died or books that we hadn’t taken off of the shelf lying on the floor opened to passages that comforted us.
Every single one of us.
And here’s an odd thing about that: even though a LOT of people have these experiences, “normal people,” (and by, “normal,” I mean people who aren’t in the grief process) don’t want to hear about them. Oh,they try to reassure the person who’s grieving that their dead person isn’t, somehow, dead. They’re well armed with the standard, trite phrases.
“I’m sure he’s right there with you.”
“She’s looking down on you from heaven.”
“You have a new guardian angel watching out for you now.”
Still, they really don’t want to hear about how the dead person is RIGHT THERE in your living room turning lights on and off and leaving books out for you to peruse. Because, you know, that’s kind of spooky.
And, yes, spooks ARE spooky. When you’re cooking spaghetti and you get a flash of someone who’s dead sitting at the kitchen table, it does tend to pucker your pasta. But it happens all the time. Ask anyone in any grief group.
So why don’t people want to talk about it?
Well, there’s probably a primal fear of the dead that’s hard wired into our bodies and minds. The horror story genre is built straight out of that energy and authors like Stephen King know exactly how to evoke it and make the hair on our necks stand up.
And, of course, there’s all of the religious crap that our culture embraces: dead people are supposed to be in heaven eating pancakes with Jesus or they’re supposed to be in hell roasting marshmallows with Satan, but they are NOT supposed to be reclining in their favorite barcalounger playing with the cat.
There’s also a certain amount of it that flows out of good old fashioned denial. The more we focus on death, the more we have to acknowledge that someday we, too, are going to be dead and, by golly, that’s just plain depressing, doncha think? We even have a word for people who want to talk about death, “too much,”: morbid. According to the Cambridge dictionary, that’s, “too interested in unpleasant subjects, esp. Death.”
(LOL – if you’re going to die – and you are – how can you be, “too,” interested in that?)
And there’s the strong atheist/empiricist current that flows through our culture. If a phenomenon can’t be plopped onto a scale, weighed, dissected, and held with our hands, it doesn’t really exist, and you can’t weigh a ghost. By that standard, or course, rainbows and emotions don’t exist, either.
I think, though, that there’s a further element involved here and that’s the day to day implications of ghosts.
A huge amount of human culture is built around this simple question: what happens to us when we die? HUGE. All of our religions are really premised on that one idea: something happens to us after we die. What is it? Is it good? Is it bad? Is it horrible? How can we massage that outcome from this side? How many Hail Mary’s do I have to say to end up in heaven instead of hell? How much incense do I have to burn and how many incantations do I have to chant to have better karma?
European art and culture in the Middle Ages were almost entirely devoted to those questions.
Ghosts, in a very real sense, are where the rubber meets the road in religions and spirituality. They are the interface between this world and whatever happens to us when we die. They are a constantly repeated phenomenon that has occurred throughout all of human history. The story of Jesus appearing to his disciples after he was crucified is, essentially, a ghost story, right?
If we really accept the fact that ghosts and ghostly phenomena do exist – and millions of perfectly rational people attest to that existence – then it shifts a lot of our thinking and our sense of being in this world.
If the person we love HASN’T ceased to exist, if they are somehow still here in some other form, then grief doesn’t make a lot of sense, does it? It’s more like a dear friend deciding that they’re going to move to Europe. It might make us sad. We might miss them terribly. But we don’t have to throw ourselves on the ground, sob, and rip our clothing. They’re still here, but they’re over-there/here, instead of here/here.
And, what exactly does, “here,” mean? If someone’s dead, they’re supposed to be WAY, “over there.” You know . . . in heaven or hell or zooming around the astral plane on a portable golden throne. But if they’re sitting in your kitchen watching you cook spaghetti or they’re in the barcalounger playing with the cat, then they’re, “here.” But they’re also, “there,” because . . . um . . . they’re dead. Maybe the truth is closer to what some Native American tribes believe and the dead aren’t gone at all – they’re still walking around with us in another dimension that we just can’t see.
I don’t know the answers. But I know it’s a conversation that we ought to be having and we ought to be having it outside of the confines of bereavement support groups and pastors offices. If Uncle Bob is dead but he’s hanging out in the den watching television, that’s important. Maybe instead of throwing white sage and holy water at him and telling him to, “go to the light,” we ought to just say, “Hey, Bob – what’s up?”
Maybe he’ll tell us.