We are all haunted by the dead, and that reality, like so many others, is both challenge and comfort. Autumn with its Halloween, falling leaves, frosty air and increasingly bare branches is usually thought of as the season of haunting, but we grieving people know that spring has ghosts of its own. Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and the end of the school year are especially fertile times for visits from our dead, be they grandparents, parents, children or others. It’s a crowded time of year.
“Dead and gone” is the common phrase, but we know better. In many ways, it’s “dead and not so gone.” A character in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas expressed in frustration, “…when your parents die they move in with you.” Lot of truth there. Our homes and lives are full of ghosts, and we, like the movie character, can “see dead people” everywhere we turn. How could we not, really? Funeral director Thomas Lynch writes that we are disturbed by the general concept of “the dead” but we find “our dead dear.” And so we do. We want to hold them close and we want more of their presence than we will get. Settle is what we are called to do, adjust to what we have and decrease our visits to the land of “what is lost.” We embrace our ghosts, but of course, it doesn’t feel the same.
“You can’t unfriend the dead” was how one young person put it when thinking of how to relate to the dead on social media. Feels disrespectful somehow to unfriend them, to move along as if they no longer exist, because they do exist, although changed. Social media gives unintentioned insights into our haunting. Sometimes we get birthday notices from those who no longer celebrate in this world. What are we to do with that? Did we need to be reminded that our dead are now ageless and beyond birthdays? Whether or not we need the reminders, the reality of continued connection continues. In today’s world, sometimes our haunting is cyber-haunting.
Mother’s Days and Father’s Days cut in so many directions. We remember those who mothered us, held, fed, comforted and nurtured us—and sometimes these were our fathers. We remember those who fathered us, and it is sad that the idea of fathered is so often limited to conception. Those who have wholly fathered us did much more, cared for, taught, protected, inspired and befriended us—and many times these were also our mothers. Narrowly defined roles can’t hold our parents and neither can coffins hold the dead. We are haunted because lives are bigger than the bookends of birth dates and death dates.
For some, Mother’s Days and Father’s Days are filled with visitations of children, alive and dead and never forgotten. Who are we when our children have become ageless in their crossing over? Well-meaning friends and relatives are reluctant to mention them for fear of reminding us, yet forgetting our dead children is not one of our options. They are and will be as near to our hearts as our breathing.
Certainly, not all of our hauntings are benign. For too many, the image of the dead is a scornful look, a back turned, an accusing finger, the back of a hand, an unforgiving glance or an absence when needed. These are unwelcome hauntings and real, unfinished business that deserves, but resists, burial. Those with these hauntings need the support of a real hand in theirs, a shoulder and an ear, perhaps for a long time.
Colleague Donna Schuurman observed, “We all come from a long line of dead people, and we’re in the queue.” True that. That long line surrounds us, and at their best, supports and sustains us beyond their living and sometimes in redemption of their living. So in this season of memories, thanks to the dead, our dead–grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, moms, dads, brothers, sisters, spouses, partners, friends (two-footed and four-footed), children, and babies lost–who continue to haunt us, keeping us company and enriching our lives.
Center for Good Mourning