Talking with a Dead Father (part 1)

What happens to your relationship with someone after he dies?

Sixteen years ago, my father drowned. I was 16 years old at the time, the oldest of four kids. The youngest, my brother, was 11. The four of us kids, and our mom, went through some very tough times after this happened – substance abuse, chronic illnesses, thoughts of suicide. Our mom turned out to be stronger than any of us – including herself – could have guessed, and she kept us together by bringing us to family counseling, praying for us, and so on.

These days, we are much closer than most families with kids our age seem to be. We care about each other and laugh together. It was because of them that I moved back to the East Coast from the San Francisco Bay area, which was otherwise a fairly pleasant place to be.

Despite my closeness to my sisters and brother and mom, I have continued to feel my father’s absence wherever I have been, and have felt sorrow that his life was not happier.

He was a tense and brooding man. He was also a very bright and decent man. He worked hard for his family and loved us a great deal, but became frustrated when things at home did not go as smoothly as they tended to go at work. He was not comfortable with things he could not control; he did not know how to let go, to relax.

When he became frustrated, we would feel his rage. After we had felt it a few times, we grew to expect it even when it was not around. And once he was no longer around, I wondered if his anger or his disappointment in us, still might be.

Have I done a decent job setting the stage?

So last Sunday I went up to Rhinebeck, N.Y., for the weekend, to listen to some New Age talk about life after death.

A few of the speakers had good credentials. One was Brian Weiss, a Yale- and Columbia-trained psychiatrist who used to run the psychiatry department at Mount Sinai Hospital in Miami. One day, he hypnotized one of his patients, and she started saying that her neurosis had its roots in a previous lifetime. Weiss opted to take her seriously, and when he did so, her symptoms abated.

Another speaker was Tom Schroder, an editor at the Washington Post. Schroder, an intelligent skeptic, wrote a book called “Old Souls” about the time he spent with Ian Stevenson, a well-respected psychiatry professor emeritus at the University of Virginia. Stevenson has spent the past 30 years researching the apparently spontaneous past-life memories of thousands of young children all over the world. He goes to great lengths to compare those memories with the stories told by the families to which the children say they once belonged.

Then there was George Anderson. About him, I knew very little. He’s not a journalist, and he never went to medical school. He bills himself as a medium.

Our society has not agreed on the kind of diploma it should give to people who talk to the dead. As a result, a person who wants to make money in that line of work has to turn skeptics into believers on a daily basis. It’s almost like being a salesman. For those who approach the business as a scam, in fact, it’s _exactly_ like being a salesman.

Over the years, Anderson has converted a lot of skeptics. Other conference-goers told me of the ways doubting journalists had tried to fool him, by giving him false names and misinformation, and said that Anderson had cut through the b.s. without difficulty. It’s impossible to prove mediumship scientifically, but Anderson had managed to leave a large number of intelligent folks without an alternative explanation.

Attending an event involving a medium is a poignant experience. As you scan the faces of your fellow audience-members, you realize that everyone in the room has lost someone in a way that still hurts. You reflect on the process of your own grief, and realize, in a new way, just how common that experience is. No one escapes loss – neither the rich, nor the beautiful, nor even the smug.

The smug may not show up in rooms like this, either – but you know that their smugness, while it may shield them from the appearance of vulnerability, cannot protect them from loss. Each person in the room is surrounded by strangers who do not know or appreciate their absent loved ones. Everyone is willing to relive their grief, to dwell on the lost person or people, in the hope that someone will show up, and tell them that no matter how sudden or violent the death may have been, everything is really okay.

So Anderson began to talk to the 500 people assembled, laying out in general terms some of the insights he had gleaned from the ‘other side.’ He explained how he worked: “If I’m telling you about someone, please don’t add anything to what I say. If I say ‘There’s an Ellen here,’ don’t say, ‘Could it be “Helen”?’ The spirits are quite capable of making me understand them, and if I’m getting it wrong, they’ll correct me. So if I tell you something about someone you’ve lost, I’m going to ask you to say only ‘Yes’ or ‘I understand.’ Please don’t give me any leads or clues beyond that.”

People nodded. Anderson, who was raised Catholic, made the sign of the cross, and began.

“There’s a spirit here named Michael. I get the feeling he’s relatively young. Does anyone know anyone that fits that description?”

Several hands went up. Anderson began to narrow it down – “He was killed in an accident,” and so on. Then he said to three women who sat next to each other, all with their hands up, “I’m drawn to you three. Can you please go to the microphone?”

They could.

“Michael is telling me that he has a different relationship with each of you. One is his sister, and one is his mother, and for one I’m seeing a symbol of a heart – his sweetheart.”

At this, the woman on the right, evidently the sweetheart, began to break down. Poor thing. You could see that she was a wreck.

“Michael is saying to me that the two of you were not actually married yet, but you had talked about it, and he wants you to know that he feels that you are married in his heart.”

The sister was now physically supporting the sweetheart, whose tears flowed like rain.

“In fact, you’re the one – when I was leaving to come here today, a spirit told me to bring something. I didn’t know this spirit, but he told me to bring something from my house, that he wanted me to give it to someone today. And here” – Anderson got up from his chair and walked to a table, and pulled something out from underneath it – “here it is. Michael wants you to have this – he says this is the type of thing he used to give you.”

It was a small, goofy-looking teddy bear, about the size of a small fist.

“Do you understand?” Anderson asked.

“Yes,” said the sweetheart. She could barely stand.

“He says this is the type of thing he used to give you, and that whenever you are feeling particularly low, you should look at this and know that he loves you.”

The sweetheart was not the only one crying.

“But he wants you to go on with your life. He says you’ve been coming apart at the seams – I get the feeling he was a very direct person, when he spoke – he says this out of love, but he really wants you to pull yourself together. He says you have wished that you could have died with him, do you understand?”

“Yes,” she said, sobbing.

“Yes. But he wants you to know that it wasn’t your time to die. That you are supposed to be here. And so you have to go on with your life.” cover Curious about this medium stuff? Check out Anderson’s book.

Anderson went on from there, talking to a mother who’d lost her son, a woman whose ornery brother had died, and so on.

As I sat there, watching and listening, I thought to myself, “You know, I really don’t need to hear from my dad. It’s been a long time, and a lot of the people here have a much greater need for reassurance. They’ve suffered losses much more recently . . .” and so on. I certainly didn’t want to get in line ahead of another mother who’d lost a child.

But then I thought to myself, “You know, I really would like to hear from my dad. In fact, I want to.”

In my head, silently, playfully, I said, “Hey, dad – if you’re here, why don’t you show up and say hi?”

Less than 30 seconds later, Anderson said, “Does anyone know a Bill, or Billy?” He laughed. “In a room like this,” he said, “there are probably 40 people who know someone with that name.” Indeed, as many as 20 hands went up. One was mine.

“He’s saying the name twice, as if there are two people with that name – one in the spirit world, and one on the Earth.”

Some hands went down.

“I’m getting the feeling that he’s family. He’s a family member for someone here.” More hands down.

“I’m getting a fatherly feeling.” My hand stayed up; I was too nervous to keep track, at this point, of how many others were still raised.

I was sitting about halfway back, on Anderson’s right as he faced the audience. Now he pointed at me, saying, “I think it’s you, sir. Could you go to the microphone over there, please?”  (Continued in next post)

(Originally published by The Guy Code, May 28, 2000.)

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