I knew far more when I was 24 and just starting my medical career than I know today. If you asked me, I would confidently tell you that free will was a myth, the soul an illusion, and stories of ghosts and heaven simply wishful thinking. The older I get, the less I know. Part of this is that the more I work with people who are dying (or rather people nearing their death, as we are all dying), the more open I’ve become to mystery.
Death truly is a great mystery. In my late twenties, I explored Buddhism for any wisdom. There is an ancient Zen parable of a monk asking his master what happens when you die. The master says, ‘I don’t know.’ The monk objects, ‘But, aren’t you a zen master?’ The master replies, ‘Yes, but not a dead one.’1 In a more recent Zen story from the wonderful book The Hidden Lamp: Stories from 25 Centuries of Awakened Women, a monk asks her master what dying is like. She replies, ‘It is like taking a bus.’ When she asks what this means, the master answers, ‘When it comes, you just get on and go.’
At 44, I still can’t tell you what happens after death. But I can share a few stories from families I’ve worked with.
My sister was a very spiritual person, a passion that became more intense but also confused as her neurologic illness progressed. On her deathbed, she said she was ready to die, but wanted me to remind her of how to let me know she was OK when she got to the other side. I didn’t know. But I could see this was bothering her and keeping her from letting go. Based on a vague memory, perhaps of a TV show I’d seen, I told her that spirits could make electric lights flicker on and off. She accepted this answer and died shortly afterwards in her sleep. A couple of days later, my kids were shouting from their room that their light was broken. Thinking I needed to change a bulb, I was surprised to find the lights were on. When I asked what was going on, they shared that the lights kept turning on and off.
About a year after my husband’s death, I heard a noise coming from our bedroom. When I got to the bedroom, it sounded like faint music. I followed the sound. When I dug into the back of a drawer I found a music box that he had given me was playing. I hadn’t wound it up or even thought about it for years.
A week before she died, my daughter asked me if we could raise rabbits. I told her it was a terrible idea. A few days after she died, I found a brood of baby rabbits under a bush near my porch. I hoped that their mother would return but never saw her. Me and my family ended up taking them in, and though I didn’t expect them to live, ended up raising this family of rabbits.
My dad had dementia and had stopped talking for several weeks. One day, I overheard him having a one-way conversation with what I can only assume was my mother, who had died years earlier. In a very clear voice, he asked her to stay for dinner. After a brief one-way conversation, he said he was ready to go. Before I even entered the room to check on him, he had passed away.
At different points in my life, I would’ve tried to make sense of these events in very different ways. I recall talking with my friend MK about traditional Chinese medicine where there is a word for the rise in energy (Qi) just before death, like the flare of a candle before it extinguishes. In 5th grade, my teacher openly shared her New Age ideas that I found comforting, including several books on life after death and near-death experiences. At 24, I would’ve seen these phenomenon as opportunities to try to deepen our understanding of the brain and consciousness.2 I think all of these explanations miss the point. As my favorite Haruki Murakami quote from IQ84 says: “If you can’t understand it without an explanation, you can’t understand it with an explanation.”
Life and death are mysterious. When I was 24, I saw mystery as a problem to be solved. Now, I see it as something to be embraced and explored, something akin to awe, wonder, and darkness. Stories can be used to shed light, but they can also simply bring warmth. In my current work with people facing death, stories like these are gifts, and I in turn am appreciative of the generosity of those families who’ve shared their stories with me. Stories can turn mystery itself into the solution, the light of darkness that lights our path.
If you feel so moved, please take a moment to share some ghost stories from your life.