Preface: I’ve been writing about my mother for a few months now, both before her death and after. Part of me has resisted continuing.  I think that’s because I absorbed, without thinking about it, a kind of cultural discomfort with a “protracted” grief experience. No one wants to have an extended dance with pain, but I wish we didn’t so often ask ourselves, as if there were something wrong with us, why we aren’t “over it yet” or why we feel the need to keep talking about it. So I’m going to write my field notes here, because that’s where I am. And then I’ll stop when I’m not there anymore. And if I’m lucky, maybe it’ll make sense to some of you still there too.


I’m a board-certified agnostic about a lot of things, chief among them the afterlife.  I have no idea what, if anything, happens after we die, and it always seems odd to me when people are certain about it one way or another, having never been dead themselves. While I always appreciate a good spirituality with robust metaphor and abundant goodwill and love, I’ve always considered religious fundamentalists and atheist fundamentalists to be two sides of the same coin.

So I can’t say I believe in anything particularly, because I don’t really have a basis to do so.  But if I’m honest, I lean away from a conception of an afterlife that looks anything like the framework of this world.  And yet, as I make my way through my practical reality, I tend to see through that prism anyway.  Put another way, my intellectual orientation doesn’t always match my emotional orientation — a perennial issue for me.

In his memoir about dealing with his mother’s death, Sherman Alexie writes that he doesn’t believe in ghosts, but he sees them all the time. I understand.

If you think about an afterlife as involving some part of a person’s spirit sticking around to communicate with their still-Earthbound loved ones, I would’ve expected my mother’s soul to move along quickly. She’d been described by others since her birth as fiercely independent, and to be sure, she never really seemed to need the presence of her children, or anyone, really. Tempted by the possibilities that are supposedly present in such a conception of an afterlife, surely she would’ve dropped her Earthly connections like a hot rock and zipped off post haste: Smell ya later, losers. I’m outta here.

This is how it was when my grandmother, my mother’s mother, passed away three years ago. I was really close to my grandmother, but I never felt her around, never dreamed about her, never saw those little telltale signs, nothing. This bummed me out at the time, because I desperately wanted one more connection with her. I didn’t believe in her ghost, but I very much wanted to see it anyway.

When my mother died, I didn’t believe in her ghost and I didn’t expect to see it, because – well, I don’t know why. But it probably had something to do with the fact that she was deeply averse to vulnerability, to needing anyone or even, sometimes, wanting anyone. She was often unwilling to do things for others if those things made her feel exposed or insecure, and she could be uncomfortably blunt about letting you know it. Given a choice between doing afterlife-y things and sticking around to help us feel better, I expected to be on my own for self-care. I expected her death to be, I suppose, an immediate and wholesale break – almost, to my old lizard brain at least, an abandonment, even. And yet, it hasn’t been.

There are subtle things, but not so subtle ones as well: How my dog kept opening, with his nose, the books I brought from her house, even days after they’d been sitting on the hearth, as if there was a treat in the pages he couldn’t find. There are vivid dreams, the tapping on my back when there is no one around to tap me on the back. It’s how when my husband got up to go to the bathroom one night, he grabbed my foot and tickled it – except he didn’t. (But my mother would’ve relished framing him for it.) It’s the fact that I still just feel her around.

I get that there are explanations for these things that comport with the laws of physics and science. The books had my mother’s scent on them, which my dog had come to associate with getting treats after years of her bringing him goodies. Hypnogogia, the transitional state between wake and sleep, is fertile ground for hallucinations and lucid dreams. And feelings of her presence are, well, feelings. Our mind reaches for the things it wants to see.

But the insistence on providing “rational” explanations misses the point. It doesn’t really matter why I’m seeing the ghosts.  I don’t really care why I’m experiencing these things. If they are the product of my mind, then they are still the product of my experiences with her. And what a wonder, all by itself, that our minds produce this kind of salve to help ease us down the road of loss. It’s a connection; I’m not picky about the exact nature of it.

And if it is “her” in some sense involving her continued agency, then what? I surely don’t know any more now than I did before. Either way, it’s her. The ghosts are what they are, and I don’t need to know the details. I’ll just appreciate them, here in the comfortable space between knowing and not knowing.



I wrote this while listening to an instrumental Christmas music playlist. Two seconds after I wrote the last sentence, Clair de Lune came on. (I wrote a piece about my grandmother’s and my love for Clair de Lune that my aunt had me read at her funeral.) Was it serendipity or a nudge from my grandmother after complaining about never having experienced one from her? It doesn’t matter. She was here for a moment, with me again.


10 thoughts on “Field Notes from Grief Land, Entry 1: Ghosts

  1. Jennifer, please keep writing. Since I found your blog, perhaps a year ago, your whole voice here has felt like hypnogogia, hovering between the mundane and humdrum of every day life we’re often buried in, and the beautiful, intense, elegant, emotional, often dream-like world I generally aspire to live in. In other words, it reminds me of the whoosh and the rush and the awe inherent in each of us, and to keep reaching for it.

    I hope that makes at least some kind of sense.

    Best, Dan.

    1. Dan, this is one of the kindest and most encouraging commentaries on my writing I’ve ever received. I still battle a lot with the sense of “Jen, why do you think anyone would care about this?” Comments like this help a lot when I’m having those self-arguments. Thank you.

      1. You’re welcome, thanks for writing. So many blogs are just very ordinary, it does make you wonder why people bothered to write. But yours and one or two others always stand out for me in the richness and poetic quality of the writing. Jewels in the sand, as it were. That’s just how I find it.

  2. Perhaps whether one experiences an afterlife or not depends in some great measure on how one has lived, what anticipations might be. An open mind is the best position, it seems to me. How can one know? Nobody has actual experience if they are alive here, as you point out, so why are some quick to deny all possibility of a very different continuation of consciousness? Is it out of fear or anger at religious doctrine, dread or depression or a basic desire to assert what feels like complete control over their own beings? With pure love all things are possible. There could be big surprises ahead, why slam the door before one is in a position to be certain? … So much goes into the creation and maintenance of a human being/soul, so why stop here? If this much can be created, why not more? … Your writing on this topic is as well thought out and evocative as meeting up with monkeys in Florida or hiking around in New Mexico and Montana. You have a way of bringing your experiences into the universal, uniquely. (Love paradoxes.) It’s always a treat to find a new Trailhead post.

    1. I do think we spend a lot of time, maybe too much at times, trying to wrestle our experience down into a place where we can understand it, and perhaps therefore control it. I’m trying to be better at that. And I love paradox too. 🙂

  3. What remarkable experiences you describe here — all the more so coming from a board-certified agnostic. And how wise you are to simply embrace these things without insisting on a “rational” explanation. As you say: It’s a wonder, no matter its source or cause. Thank you so much for sharing this beautiful post …

  4. First, let me say I am sorry to read your Mom has passed from this life. It is difficult to go from having the physical body here that we know, and talk to, and love, to an empty place in the room. But is it really empty? I don’t know for sure either, but I have felt a loved ones presence after a departure, even heard my name called out loud and was looking around to see where they were…some of life’s mysteries are never solved and that’s all right with me. Miss talking to you. 🙂

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