After Life

“It’s almost as if you have to spend your whole life disengaging from your life, disengaging from the supposed reality of your living. I think that’s what Spinoza and Socrates meant about life is the study of dying, that you leave these convictions of certitude about the whole business. I certainly feel lots of that now, whereas my friend Higuchi says he’s living in the afterlife. Beautiful idea. Meaning his life is over, he’s living after life, but it’s also the afterlife.” James Hillman

In a conversation with my mother today, I hear her saying the most remarkable things. Yes, she twists age-old adages so the saying, “the grass is always greener on the other side,” is now, “the grass is always greener outside.” Ironically, there’s a truth in her rephrasing. Although some would say it’s dementia speaking, I say, let it speak. Why see it as only a loss?

“Now, our finding our own dead in the United States involves so much history, close history, one hundred and fifty years of history, slavery, civil war, brutalities of all sorts, Chinese oppression, it’s just so huge, all the deaths of the Indians, and animals, that we’re blocked in a strange way by personal guilt. We enter the realm of the dead overloaded to begin with, with Protestantism and guilt, so I don’t know if we get to what you call ancestors. I don’t know if we have a sensitivity to whatever that means.”

My Mom (kneeling on the floor) with her sisters, mother and step-dad.

My Mom (kneeling on the floor) with her sisters, mother and step-dad. Ca. 1945

I asked her what she’s been up to, and after a bit of silence she informed me that she’s been talking to her mother. Her mother, my grandmother, born somewhere around 1906, who has been dead for many years. My mother has never mentioned talking to the dead, ever. Her southern Baptist beliefs would prohibit that. When I asked her what Grammy had to say, she told me that they were going to Holland to see the ancestors. To clarify what she meant, I asked her if she was traveling by boat. She laughed and said no, she wouldn’t need one. Aha!

Great,Great Grandmother Wilhemina Lindenberg who left Holland and her husband behind to come to America with her four daughters.

My great, great grandmother Wilhemina Lindenberg, who left her native Holland and her husband behind to come to America with her five daughters.

Whether one believes that the ancestors are calling her to them or if she is seeking them out, either way, in finding an opening to the dead, she paves a path that someday I will follow. My mother has no clue about my devotion to the ancestors. She hasn’t read the writings of C.G. Jung or James Hillman, and if asked, would tell you she is a devout born again Christian. So where does her sudden reach towards the ancestors come from?

Like many of us, her wounds are deep, sometimes voiced as regret and guilt over events far in the past that continue to haunt her. As her child, I suckled on her wounds. As I grew, and my wounds manifested as a withdrawal from life, she saw my behavior as outward proof of her own wrong doing. When I began to understand my part in her story, and began to remove myself from a role she needed me to play to prove her guilt, my life began to become my own.

Beyond physically inherited traits, lies the unfinished ancestral business. We’re in a much bigger story than our personal experience allows us to easily see, especially when we’re young. Haunted we are, with the ancestors calling us to attend to these wounds, first on a personal level and eventually one that will lead us back to ponder their circumstances which often become ours.

Moms BookIn her retirement, my mom wrote an autobiography recalling in great detail family stories of struggle and hardship that show her amazing resiliency throughout much of her childhood. There were hard times in which my grandmother struggled to support six daughters and two bad marriages. The suicide of my mother’s step-dad, who probably had no idea what he was marrying into, are all told with insight, compassion, feeling and love. I needed this book.

In hindsight, reading the stories of my ancestors gave me a way to see myself within the context of a bigger story, offering me deeper insights into the choices, limitations and opportunities in my life.

My mother’s stories also offer insights into my familial and cultural past, loaded with images of struggle, loss and love in 20th century America. As all of us do, I entered the world in a story already taking place. A world felt to be not of my making; messy, in which the more I look, the more pain and suffering I see. Given our limitations as to where we enter, and the story we find ourselves in, I think the need for forgiveness and compassion cannot be overstated.

My mom’s dementia is not only a physical disintegration. I see her engagement with her mother and the ancestors over in Holland as somehow necessary for something essential to her eventual death and mine. In the last few years she seems softer, much more light-hearted, with an honest portion of sadness and regret. Her dementia has me seeking new ways to reach her, and myself, not to bring her back to who she once was, but to invite her to share with me the world she’s slipping into.

Cora'sGirls

My mom, 2nd from the left, with her mother and sisters.

It will not be easy to lose her when the time comes, and I suppose the fear of that loss finds me very willing to meet her where she’s at and to stay connected somehow.

She may not know it, but she gave me an unexpected gift that I will cherish forever. To share with her this movement toward our ancestors makes life a little less lonely for me and affirms my need to remember the dead. When Higuchi says he is living in the after life, I recognize that feeling a little more each day. It’s not morbidity, but the recognition that living my life in the stream of the ancestors, brings insight to the complexity of human experience.

All quotes: Hillman, James; Shamdasani, Sonu (2013-08-26). Lament of the Dead: Psychology After Jung’s Red Book. W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

32 thoughts on “After Life

  1. Debra, I can see how this would have been a difficult post to write, but I’m glad that you did. I forget too often I came along in the middle of the story. Due to the demands of my father’s working connections and path, or perhaps simple choices, or who knows quite how much of each, I grew up remote from most of my extended family on both sides. But at certain moments in my life of import, moments of rebirth shall we say, I have had dreams involving my extended family, and it has reinforced that even though life blows us away from our roots at times, the stories remain whole and intertwined. There is a healing that leaps across dimensions and I think the adage is true that what we give in whatever nook or cranny we find ourselves has ramifications that extend far beyond our conscious understanding. I’m sure this is true of your heartfelt efforts to join your mother in the places where she sits these days.

    I also was reminded of a story I was told about my grandmother’s passing. She was a fairly conservative Catholic and like your own mother would not have endorsed too many otherworldly connections or visitations, but as the time of her passing became imminent I was told she spoke of the “men in red” coming for her. Well, her husband had died of a heart attack probably fifteen or twenty years prior, but he had been in the Knights of Columbus, and in rural farming communities built around one or two churches the Knights (I infer more than directly experienced) were something of a pillar in times of need, a strength. I am quite sure she received something of an escort to her next experience. As Sue suggests, the veil weakens and “reality” becomes more fluid, ever more real and tangible and full of grace perhaps. It is beautiful to consider…

    Much Love
    Michael

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    • I very much appreciate you reading the post then, especially coming at it with a different view. Would love to hear more about your conception of ancestry.
      Thank you for the note,
      Debra

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      • I find the idea that I’m woven into the a family history first and human history second kind of limiting. I’d rather consider myself the heir of Cervantes, Lu Xun and Marie Curie – my heroes, than the people I just happen to be related to.

        Thanks. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • That works for me too. I very much feel woven into the fabric of the long history of writers and thinkers in the sense that I’ve inherited a world of ideas and works from a long line of people.
        Thank you,
        Debra

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  2. Hi Debra

    Interesting post. Many of us will go through similar things. My Mother passed from dementia almost a decade ago now. I had become her brother. She did not recognize a couple of my brothers. My Father, her ex-husband, became her grandfather. Once the family got over the shock of the situation, it was interesting to see how she progressively loosened her hold on this world. When she died, there was nothing left for her to cling to. It seems that this was quite a blessing for her in many ways. She was happy in the end, very much like a child.

    Again, thanks for sharing.

    Best

    Don

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    • Dear Don,

      I am grateful to hear about your mom’s dementia. It helps me to anticipate what may come for my mother. Like your mother, my mother has become very childlike in the last few years. In that sense, she can be a lot of fun to be with. My mother asks for my father, her ex-husband, all the time. I think there’s a lot of regret for her around things that happened during their divorce. But, she seems to have let go of a lot of anger recently and is happy to remember the good times.

      Best wishes for a wonderful 2015 Don!
      Debra

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  3. Dear Debra..

    This was such a touching heartfelt read as you explore your own families past and hold yourself in readiness for the future…
    Having had both in-laws suffer with Dementia and studied it within a course for work purposes.. Its harder for the family around those suffering than those who have dementia..

    And I have no doubts your Mother interacts with the after-life.. As I am most certain in some cases the veil of dimensions disintegrates as our acceptance of what we hear and see is no longer controlled by our rational brains..

    It is good you have your Mother’s own account of her life.. something that is tangible and solid that will be there and treasured for future generations to read about the struggles the hardships the pain guilt, joy and love shared by one life with many.

    It seems as this year draws to an end.. Its a time to reflect and look back.. I too was looking back through some old photo’s of my Mother and Father in our childhood days.. Both tinged with happy and sad memories of how life can alter and shape our perceptions as families get torn apart with misunderstandings..

    You say you seek new ways of reaching into your Mom’s mind… I think sometimes the past is always present within their reality..

    For my own Mother-in-law.. we were never that close but my husband spent two years each week travelling 70 miles to take his turn to stay with his Mum and Dad, to sleep over and look after them as his brothers and sisters took it in rotation to care for them.. Until it became impossible and a nursing home was found for both to be together..

    She would always spark to life as we recounted the past… And would become lucid to recall in vivid detail events when my Husband was a child.. She was always looking for a pair of lost gloves..Both of them lived many more years in the nursing home before they went upon their ultimate journey into the after-life..

    I often think of her and hope she at last found those Missing Gloves .. 🙂

    Love and Blessings Debra..
    Thank you for sharing this personal story..

    Wishing you Lots of Love as you enter a Bright New Year.. Enjoy each moment of this life.. We have an eternity to enjoy the next one.. 🙂
    Love Sue xxx

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    • Dear Sue,
      Love to think of dementia as a state in which the veil of dimensions disintegrates! Maybe the wider world in which we continually filter for the sake of surviving becomes more enticing as one who can access it finds love in friendship there.

      My mother can easily talk about anything in her past and she loves to tell stories. I have limited access to her right now because she is 3,000 miles away and it’s hard to reach her on the phone where she is. Every moment we do talk, I cherish.

      Lost gloves? Oh boy! It’s amazing what some people might obsess over. For my mother, it is my father, even after 30 years of divorce!

      Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts here Sue!
      Blessings for a wonderful 2015!
      Love,
      Debra

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  4. This is so beautiful, Debra. I too wonder about the spectres of the past, and the ones who have gone before. My Dad has an Irish heritage, and would tell me of people who had seen the ghost of my grandfather. At first, I was fascinated, then, after I saw Poltergeist, I was terrified. But the gift was an awareness of the stories of people who had gone before, and an awareness that those stories exist for us still (even in the form of grief – my grandfather died when my dad was 10, and it was hard for him to accept).

    I think this has been part of my own attraction to Jung, James Hillman, and now ecopsychology. All that has gone before, and all that we share means that we live in psyche. It makes for a curious life, but an interesting one too.

    I hope you have a lovely new year, Debra. All the best to you and the ancestors too.

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    • Dear Nicci,

      I love the awareness of living in Psyche! It changes so much of my understanding of the simplest of encounters with people, animals, myself and the world. Perhaps the neglect of the ancestors has something to do with the manifestation of ghosts? I could probably write an entire post on that subject!
      Happy New Year to you!
      Debra

      Liked by 1 person

  5. What a beautiful and personal accounting – Stepping away from the roles and stories for a bit gives such clarity, which carves out room for the compassion for ourselves and the other players in the cluster of lives we have stepped into by being born. So simple and profound, I get a headache thinking about very many there are of us, each with our own ties to family, ancestors, dynamics, playing out… Thank you so much for such a rich sharing, Debra! xo! marga

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  6. I once (actually twice!) read a book titled Dementia Reconsidered which was written by an Englishman called Tom Kitwood. He uses the philosophical concepts of Martin Buber so as to envision a way of connecting with dementia sufferers in a revolutionary new way. I have no idea if this is of any interest to you Debra, though I thought I would mention it as it is a highly respected work and is of course pertinent to your article and situation.

    Hariod. ❤

    http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/obituary-professor-thomas-kitwood-1045269.html

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  7. Great post. It immediately reminded me of the Japanese film ‘After Life’ (1998) – known in Japan as ‘Wonderful Life and’ very different from the US film After. Life. Have you seen it? Its wonderful.

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  8. What a moving tribute to your mother and all that came before you. Meeting someone where they are at is a Social Work phrase, which basically suggests no expectations or judgement. So many of us ( if not all of us) carry so many of the burdens and baggage of those we never met. Love that your mom wrote an autobiography. What a great gift!

    Sorry your mother has dementia but glad you are making peace with “what is” and making your time with her special and precious.

    hugs,
    Linda

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    • Thank you Linda, so very much!

      If there’s one thing I have been struggling with this year, it is acceptance of my mother’s condition and my father’s aging too. I always loved them, but never knew how much until the last few years. As well, living 3,000 miles away from all of my family is difficult. I plan to move closer when I retire, but that’s a few years away.

      Yes, her book is amazing, probably not so much for anyone outside of the family, although her descriptions of the way life was back in the 30’s and 40’s would probably be enjoyable to anyone who has grown up in the same culture. She had a great memory for detail, way better than mine. Someday, maybe I’ll digitize her book and create a blog around it. Maybe!

      Love you,
      Debra

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  9. You have no idea what a gift you’ve given me. I am dealing with a Mother who talks to her “Ancestors” as she has dementia too. Her body may be here next Christmas, but her Mind will be gone by then. We spend a great deal of time talking about the Afterlife. I do wish we could have talked like this when we were both younger. This time with her has been, without a doubt, one of the greatest blessings I have ever received. Thank you!

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    • Dear Robin,

      I must thank you for your note. I struggled to write this post and threw out half of it this morning and rewrote it. At one point, while browsing through my mom’s book, I wasn’t going to publish anything about her. I felt I could never do justice to our relationship and couldn’t bear the thought that I would be harming her by writing like this.

      After reading your note, I feel grateful for hanging in the there and editing the post in a way that I felt comfortable sharing publicly like this. The gods must know you needed to read it. I feel your regret too. If I could be with my mother as I am now, but, as she was ten years ago, we would have a wonderful time getting to know one another. It’s almost as if it has taken her affliction for me to soften enough to realize what a loss she will be when she passes.

      I so appreciate hearing about your mother too. I, too, wish for conversations that never were. But, I do know, more than ever, that I love her dearly and that she loves me.

      Thank you Robin!
      Hugs,
      Debra

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  10. Dying daily is a practice of separating from the human (only) consciousness with spiritual exercises. As a mentor once expressed this from landlocked Buffalo, NY, “I swim in the Ocean, daily”.

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