Speaking to the dead

A month after her husband’s death a woman met with me to talk about something she had experienced which she didn’t understand and found frightening. All her life she had been a humanist, convinced that nothing exists outside the natural order of the universe. She was not at all superstitious and believed that death was final and complete. When a person died, no soul continued on.

The day after he retired, her husband unexpectedly died from a heart attack at the foot of the bed they had shared for nearly thirty years.

Several weeks after the funeral she was startled from her sleep. She sensed her husband was in the room with her. She felt it the way a person sometimes feels when they are being stared at by another.

When she first felt the presence she became scared and her husband’s presence quickly disappeared. Several days later she was again awakened when she felt him in the room with her. This time she was less frightened and the presence stayed longer. On one other night the same thing happened and this time she felt no fear at all.

Now she came to talk to me because she thought that maybe she was losing her mind. She believed that her husband’s presence was real but at the same time she didn’t believe in angels or spirits. What was it then?

I then told her a story about John Lovejoy Elliott, an Ethical Culture leader who had served the Ethical Movement for half a century. Elliott and Felix Adler were fast friends for fifty years. Some described Elliott’s relationship to Adler as a nephew to an uncle. However it may be characterized, clearly it was close and long-lasting. Following Adler’s death, Elliott moved into Adler’s study at the New York Society for Ethical Culture. One day a visitor came to call on Elliott, only to find him talking out loud. No one else was there. The visitor was embarrassed to have discovered Elliott like this. But Elliott wasn’t in the least bothered by it. He explained in all sincerity that he was talking to Adler.

Elliott didn’t believe in ghosts. He never had and he didn’t now. He explained to the visitor that Adler wasn’t literally in the room with him but in a real sense he was present. After half a century of close association, after having worked and studied together, Elliott said that he still consulted with Adler when an important decision needed to be made. He knew Adler so well that he could have conversations with him even if he weren’t there. It was an honest admission on his part that Adler’s personality continued to live through his own. Elliott said that he often talked to Adler and his old friend still offered guidance. Sitting alone in the study, holding a conversation with a departed friend was a valuable source of comfort to him.

Sometimes the dialogues are held out loud. Other times they are inner discussions, interior conversations in the privacy of one’s own being. The poet Abraham Sutskever holds such conversations with his parents through his writing. They talk to him and he to them. By writing about them and listening to what they have to say he finds continued guidance. In one of his poems he writes about his mother’s death at the hands of the Nazis during the Vilna massacre. He imagines rushing into her room after her death and finding her torn nightshirt. Sutskever says that he threw off his clothes and climbed into her open shirt. “It’s no longer a shirt but your bright skin/ it’s your cold, surviving mortality.”

But after he had taken on her skin, she speaks to him. She tells him not to do it. “It’s a sin, a sin./ Accept our separation/ as just.”

What is this sin? It is giving up his own life, to take on his mother’ s for her sake. She tells him, “If you remain/ I will still be alive/ as the pit of the plum/ contains in itself the tree,/ the nest and the bird/ and all else besides.”

The sentiment of the poem is correct. For Sutskever to take up his mother’s life would compound the tragedy. If he wants to honor her, it is enough for him to live. It is that which ensures her immortality. Life is complete and each life is unique. To give up life, to deny one’s own specialness is to commit a sin.

She tells him that the seed contains the flower, the acorn the tree. She will remain alive because he exists. His very existence attests to hers. In this way her presence is real and eternal. And in this way her son continues to talk to her.



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