This is my journey in coping with bereavement. During the journey, I felt a compulsive need to try to make sense of the various religious, spiritual and humanitarian approaches to death and Destiny and their theories of what, if anything, happens to the soul. Reading this article may help others who have experienced bereavement and will certainly give food for thought to those who have not. I hope it is not a depressing article. It now makes me smile when I reread it. Rather than a reminder of our mortality, see it as a reminder to live in the now. Acceptance is commonly held by psychologists and counsellors to be the vital completion stage of the grieving process. This article is my first step towards acceptance of my losses and of my own mortality.
The words of Canon Henry Scott Holland serve as a gentle opener to the topic. Death, dying, deceased, etc. are words that provoke the desire to turn the page, change the subject or, in this case, click to the next screen. In the West the gory details of murders are intimately described in newspapers but our own deaths, or of the deaths of loved ones, remain taboo subjects. We are all, to a greater or lesser extent, in denial. Whilst we all know it will happen –there are many platitudes in current parlance about death being the only certainty in life – very few people address the question, develop any views on how it might feel or what might come next beyond ‘putting their affairs’ in order at the appropriate time. The majority of people will address their mortality when they are elderly, are ill and/or have lost a number of their contemporaries.
The experience of death
Yet the experience of death may well come earlier than the ‘normal scheme of things’ and in those circumstances people are generally unprepared. They haven’t explored what death means to them and whether there is something that happens afterwards. And that is the point of this article. I have experienced two close and unexpected bereavements in a year and in my greatest hour of need I could not draw any comfort from what I was, subsequently, to discover. In my despair and grief, I set out to understand what might have happened to these two people – my mother and my fiance. I had shied away from the topic all my life thinking that, with relatively young parents, I would not need to think about loss for many years. I suspected that death meant, as Canon Henry put it, slipping into the next room, but had delved no further into the topic. Now I had to know.
First Sitting With a Medium
Perhaps the most obvious starting point in the pursuit of answers is to sit with a medium. In the beginning, when recently bereft, one wants concrete proof of life after death: that your fiance and your mother are thinking, reflective beings, cognisant of your feeling of bereavement and concerned about your welfare. You want to commune with them. The Spiritualist Association of Great Britain is a reputable place to begin in the search for a medium. It is a foundation originally endowed by Arthur Conan Doyle and housed in London’s prestigious Belgrave Square, a stone’s throw from many embassies.
The medium I consulted has been in the business since the sixties and has a large and loyal following. He made it clear that the main point of mediumship is to provide evidence of life after death. He will not broker a dialogue nor translate conversations between you and your loved ones in spirit. Rather, he will interpret messages given by the spirits that the sitter may understand and which prove that life does not end at the point of dying.
I attended a public demonstration to enable me to establish Terry Tasker’s credentials. I was, without doubt, the tensest person in the room. I lifted my eyes to the grand chandelier and wondered whether its crystals would start tinkling and whether a spirit would come to me at all. And, if a spirit did grace me with its presence, would I discover that my mother had died frightened and alone, questioning the whereabouts of her daughter and husband when she needed them most? Would Tom ask me to wait for him for all eternity? As the seasoned spectators began to produce notepads and pens in the expectation that Terry would give them some relevant titbits, I tried to relax and ‘open my mind’ as I waited my turn. He wasn’t able to give names but his descriptions of my mother were very accurate and her messages instantly resonated with me.
When I later met Terry for a half-hour private sitting I was able to explore the meaning of it all a little more. I found myself in a dismal little room in the former servants’ quarters of the grand Belgravia mansion. The room wasn’t very hospitable considering the profound event about to take place. It contained little more than two chairs, a flimsy table, a tape recorder and a box of tissues. It could have been an interview cell in a police station. Terry told me that we were about to embark on an experiment with no guarantee of success. One cannot just summon up a spirit – he or she has to agree to be contacted. I learned that Tom was “ok.”
The nature of his illness was confirmed to me by way of proof that we had engaged the right spirit. For the first fifteen minutes I was given gentle, downbeat messages that were definitely from Tom but which were not very intimate. I very slightly slumped in my seat, deflated. Terry continued to chirp on and gradually began to reveal things that only Tom could have known. I had observed certain rituals after the death of my mother that Tom, and only Tom, had observed, and Terry told me that Tom knew that I did the same for him.
Most tellingly, I learned that Tom knew that I often slept with his watch in my hand. Do all widows do that? I mean, could any medium worth his salt guess that I was sleeping with the watch that Tom’s son had taken from his father’s wrist? I had gone into the session with healthy scepticism and was determined not to believe that any general messages were real messages from the dead. I left the session disappointed that I had received no bold declarations of love from Tom. I had no idea what Tom had become or whether he was a cognisant being in the ‘next room’ but…and a big but… I knew that death was not the end. And I knew that somehow he knew that I was lighting candles for him in Southwark Cathedral. So he did know my pain. It was our code word.
Aspects of Mediumship
There are certain aspects of mediumship that are common to all mediums. For example, it is a common belief that the spirit takes on an age younger than he or she was at death – not very young, but an age at which the person was most comfortable in their physical body. Tom, I was told, appeared in his thirties. Evidently a medium has to access a higher vibration to be able to pick up on the spirit’s presence. It is believed that when people sleep, they operate on a higher vibration since they are out of their bodies and so on the same wavelength, quite literally, as their loved ones in spirit. I have experienced very real and intense dreams about my Mother and Tom. When I awake, I truly believe that the conversations were real. This is why, no doubt, the elderly, who generally sleep a great deal, genuinely believe that Great Auntie Maud has paid a visit.
When people are close to leaving this world, their loves ones in spirit will be there to guide and welcome them. My grandmother is a sharp-witted nonagenarian who spends considerable periods dozing. She has not managed to reconcile the dead people who visit her with the fact they are dead. Presumably it seems so real to her, particularly as she is practically blind and so, in any event, spends a great deal of time in her own world. Most bereaved people will have experienced intense dreams in which their loved ones give them guidance and let them know they have safely passed.
The experience is only as good as the practitioner
A recent BBC documentary charted the journey of a number of bereaved people as they consulted mediums and tried to come to terms with their losses. A cross-section of people had been chosen – those who already believed that people became spirits, sceptics and those who wanted to believe. My overall impression, from my own experiences and those illustrated by the documentary, is that, like anything in life, the experience is only as good as the practitioner. Of course there are charlatans: just as a plumbing shark turned my dripping tap into a full-scale flood, so there are mediums who dole out vague messages to the vulnerable person who is desperate for news from the other side. You have to proceed on the basis of recommendation – nothing less.
Being an inquisitive soul, I wanted to know more about how all of this works and attended a one day mediumship course that promised to explore the different methods – clairvoyance (clear seeing), where the spirit appears to the medium, clairaudience (clear hearing), where the spirit speaks out loud through a person using its own voice or makes noise, and clairsentinence (clear feeling), where a person’s possessions provide messages.
Different mediums specialise in different techniques. Terry took the assembled company through guided meditations in which we met our spirit guides. It was interesting that when all twenty of us were asked to go through a door at the end of our journey and to describe the colour and number of the door, many people had been through the same blue door – number forty-three. My spirit guide, waiting for me through the door, was Tom. The power of collective thinking?! Working on that higher vibration?! The day was intense.
One of the most memorable parts of the day was the clairsentinence produced from holding other people’s watches. In pairs we were asked to concentrate on our partner’s watch in an attempt to glean something about the other person. The lady with whom I worked picked up on the significance of another watch – Tom’s watch, I suppose. I, in turn, intuited that she loved dancing and worked in antique fayres selling old vases.
The ‘piece de resistance’ of the day was the transfiguration mediumship. The medium drops into a deep meditation and allows spirits to appear through him. I had seen this before and knew what to expect but for ages it seemed as if this particular experiment had failed.
After 25 minutes it began: my vision blurred and as I struggled to focus, I began to see Terry’s face mutate into many different faces. I saw my mother briefly but not Tom – and you can imagine how desperately I wanted to see Tom – and the faces changed and changed.
Terry snapped out of his trance after a while and asked in a gentle Yorkshire lilt, “did anyone see anything?” The room was silent and then the responses erupted – everyone started to talk at the same time. Three-quarters of the room had seen at least one loved one in spirit and many other unfamiliar faces and yet the other quarter had seen nothing.
I had attended the course with a friend and we had a truthful session over drinks later on. “What did you really see, Tanya?” She described the green light emanating from Terry’s body – his aura – and as she brushed the equivalent parts of her own body to demonstrate where the light had been, I knew we had seen the same thing. So clearly some people can operate at this higher vibration, and others cannot, or do not know how.
Just as human communication requires a certain amount of interpretation – what is ‘said’ versus what is ‘meant’ – so a medium will experience difficulties in the task of precisely identifying a spirit and interpreting its messages. I have only heard of one medium who is consistently able to name the spirits – Gordon Smith – but generally your gut will tell you if the ‘experiment’ is real. Many of the messages will seem general and even the more precise messages or observations could be interpreted in different ways whether or not one is a sceptic. One can bend a general message to fit one’s theories or one can dismiss it out of hand. Yet the truth lies somewhere between.
The meaning should immediately hit a chord and resonate with you. The medium cannot know everything that you and the person in spirit shared, but he can tell you certain things which should resonate with you – that convince you that your loved one is letting you know that he is there. Yet it is difficult to discipline oneself to see this as mere evidence of life after death – the desire to commune is too strong. The medium’s interpretation will improve the more times he meets the sitter and connected spirits, and, after a few sittings, he will more readily be able to interpret the symbolism used by the spirit.
It is very easy to be sceptical until one loses a loved person. Of course the argument would then run – well, you want to see things and believe in them to help the grieving process. I would counter-argue: what about all those little unexplained things that happen to make you question whether death is the end? It is well known, amongst those who know, that a recently deceased person can continue for a while in a suspended state of belief that he or she is still alive. When I returned from the hospital, distraught, having watched my darling Tom slip away, I wondered how the Hell I would ever sleep again.
The bed buckled next to me under the weight of something and I felt the familiar brush of Tom’s chin on the nape of my neck as he nestled down for the night. Thank God he’s here, I thought – I can sleep now. Oh, I was terrified. Yet relieved. Did I imagine it? Other things happened after the deaths of Tom and my mother that made me question my own scepticism.
A couple of months after my mother died I finally found the antique dining room table for which we had been hunting. My dear Mama, somewhat of an expert on antiques, was clearly inspecting the table when it arrived home. She had always accompanied me to advise on my purchases and her first action would be to have a piece of furniture on its back with its legs in the air like an upturned tortoise, looking for woodworm.
I sat on the sofa trying not to notice that there was an energy rush and a distortion of the air around the table. Yet Tom (who was still alive then) walked into the room and asked, “is that your mother, do you think?” He didn’t believe, as such (although he was open to the possibility), and I don’t think he merely followed my own line of vision or picked up on my own distress since he hadn’t been in the room when whatever was happening started to happen. Tom asked my mother not to frighten me and she stopped rushing around the table, bless her. We laughed afterwards at our distress – was my mother always watching us?
God merely switched the lights out
My Mother’s funeral was a long and arduous day. My father and I wanted to make it a celebration of her life. She didn’t die in pain after a long illness. God merely switched the lights out. At the young age of 62, she fell asleep in her favourite armchair and never awoke. It was such a huge shock – I had never in my entire life contemplated death nor knew anyone close to me who had died other than loved grandparents who had died at ripe old ages.
Many tribal and aboriginal peoples incorporate death ritual into their lives and appear to be less afraid of death. Maori families wash and embalm the body of their loved one. Some African peoples embark on huge celebrations of the life that has passed. In the West we mostly bury our heads in the sand. I had no views on death and I had no idea whether she was now watching from above and knew what was going on now.
When everyone left the house close to midnight, I stayed up to clear away the things. My father went to bed. I sat at the back of the house looking towards the French windows and found myself talking to her. “Please let me know you’re ok. Give me a little sign. Knock a book on the floor or something.” Immediately a Robin flew into the house and came over to the table in front of my Mother’s armchair where I was sitting.
He danced around the furniture for some minutes, cocked his head on one side in contemplation of me and then flew confidently out of the window as if he knew his way around the house. I smiled – my Mother always used to tell me about the tame Robin that used to come down when she was putting her washing on the line but she never told me he had been into the house. And at night? How odd. The next morning I sorted through my Mother’s bureau – I wanted to find a drawing of hers to use as the design for her memorial cards. I opened her sketchbook and there was a picture of the Robin on the first page.
So if people continue to exist in spirit after death, what is the form of that existence? There is a theory that some spirits are trapped in their old life and continue to play out a scene from their life such as a card game, or they stand at the bar laughing with their friends, not accepting they have passed on. (For some time Tom appeared in my dreams to be sleeping next to me and eating with me. He looked younger than I had ever known him to be. He must have then passed to another level and the dreams became more symbolic and less real.) Yet do spirits have corporeal form or are they light beams floating in the aether? The Christian view is that in our body is a soul – our spirit – which leaves our body at death. What happens to it?
Henry Scott Holland (who died in 1918), Professor of Divinity at Oxford University and Canon of St Paul’s from 1884 to 1911, was, unquestionably, a clever and analytical man. He believed that souls slip “away into the next room.” I was eager to get an updated view of the Heaven and Hell theory and wanted to try to understand what had happened to me in those months when Tom was seriously ill. Was I being tested by God? It felt that way – I had lost my mother barely a year before and Tom’s devotion to me was like a wonderful gift to compensate for all the hurt. Yet, rather than planning a wedding, I had to organise a funeral.
My girlfriends helping me to dress on the morning of Tom’s funeral, all the flowers arriving, and me having to walk up the aisle of the church, felt like a desperately cruel irony. I sent an e-mail to Reverend James at Southwark Cathedral (my local church) – priests are very ‘with it’ these days and can be contacted via the internet – asking him if we could meet for a chat.
It had taken many tests to identify Tom’s illness and so for the majority of his suffering we did not know he had a terminal condition. I say ‘know’ because, without doubt, he knew, just not officially. He found it a great comfort to sit in the Cathedral and close his eyes in silent contemplation. It was probably prayer. Tom was a Christian insofar as he subscribed to the morality of the Christian life, but he was not religious. He was neither atheist nor agnostic.
He was, like most people in this country, unclear about his beliefs with no particular impetus to clarify them. He used to accompany me to Church because he liked the ritual but as the cancer took a hold, he needed to go. Even when he could hardly stand, he insisted that I drive him to the Cathedral at the very least on a Sunday morning. Church furniture is not designed for comfort but when I left him on a hard wooden chair one day while I shopped in Borough Market for the provisions to prepare his Birthday dinner, he slept upright for thirty minutes. So, without doubt, he was finding peace, at the very least, and God at the most. So, is he with God now?
There must have been some confusion at the Pearly Gates because Tom, who could loosely be described as Anglican, was given a Catholic send-off. There had been the usual family wranglings about the funeral arrangements. I had wanted a Church service because I knew that Tom would have wanted that. (It is a phrase used a great deal after the death of a loved one.) Certain members of his family disagreed, believing they knew their Tom better than I did. The compromise was to hold the service in the Catholic Church frequented by his sister-in-law family so that I did not appear to be hijacking all the arrangements.
I tried to amuse myself with the thought that there would be confusion as to what section of Heaven to put him in – an Anglican, masquerading as a Catholic. I know a number of people convert, or revert, to Catholicism on their deathbeds, and not only high profile personages such as King Charles II. But if it possible to have a posthumous conversion?
Reverend James is, like so many priests, intelligent, wise and eloquent. There are many young clergymen and women at Southwark and it felt natural debating big issues of life and death with a contemporary. We concluded that I wasn’t being tested by God. Tom had helped me through my mother’s death and then I was there to make his passage as easy as possible – true, selfless love could only achieve that.
Souls are like light beams surrounding that central force which is God, to James, but also the Eternal Being, the Universe, as you wish to call it. God would give me the strength to deal with this. He either lightens the load or broadens the back. We talked for two hours. It was nearly Easter and so there was a good analogy to be had. Although I would not be so profane as to compare myself with Jesus Christ, like him, I had borne a heavy burden. My cross was the pain caused by my love. It wasn’t Tom’s suffering or illness that caused me pain, it was the love I felt for him and the feeling of uselessness that I couldn’t take his pain away. Kahlil Gibran, Lebanese poet and philosopher, whose missive, ‘The Prophet,’ is often quoted at weddings, also wrote:
“Your joy is your sorrow unmasked… The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain….
When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given your sorrow that is giving you joy.
When you are sorrowful, look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.”
I had felt so bad when my Mother suddenly died because I had felt so good when she was alive. And now I had to find my resurrection – hope. I wept and we went into the warm womb of the Church bathed in candlelight and prayed for Tom and Beryl.
I still had unanswered questions. I wasn’t being tested by God – Tom’s suffering was about Tom, not about me. But why did he suffer and die at this point, just before our life together? Even if I was privileged – and I do see it as a privilege now – to have helped him pass and shared in that intensity of feeling, that only the recognition of the fragility of life can produce. Why did he get sick and die at this point?
I had been told about channelling by my reflexologist friend. Her working on my feet had prompted the release of tears and eased a tense neck, but there was more that I needed to flush out. She gave me Elizabeth’s number – again always important to go on recommendation – and I trotted off to Chiswick where the nice middle-class, well-spoken and completely normal, Elizabeth lives. She told me we would engage in deep meditation to tap into the Universe and access our higher consciousness. She believes that the Universe is the collective higher consciousness and people are souls spun off into the world to live and learn before returning to the collective Universe.
These views are consistent with Buddhist theory of reincarnation. Elizabeth studied in India with a follower of the Dalai Lama. Most ‘spiritual’ people invariably discover their vocation on meeting a crisis in life. It is as if the crisis is preordained to ensure the talent is released. Indeed, as I look back over my own life, I see that in order to achieve my Destiny thus far, and achieve the things I wanted, crises and disruption had to occur to create the necessary conditions.
In the words of “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” – a little New Age missive that, by plotting the life of an independent seagull, draws analogies with independent people who choose not to follow the crowd – by Richard Bach:
“There is no such thing as a problem without a gift for you in its hands. You seek problems because you need their gifts.”
In Elizabeth’s case the latent talent had stagnated and blocked her energy, even producing physical symptoms. Her priest guide recognised what was happening and helped her to release her talent. As her mind began to heal, so did her body, and now her health is perfect.
Elizabeth took me into a deep and calm meditation but not into a trance. I was fully conscious and free to move and open my eyes to observe the proceedings. She taped the sitting so that I didn’t have to worry about recalling the details. She assumed a strong and profound voice. She was the Universe, talking, and giving me guidance as to what had happened to me. She explained that Tom’s illness had hidden itself (I had not actually told her that the cancer had evaded repeated tests over many weeks) because he had refused to acknowledge he was ill. He was, despite appearances, very, very scared of his illness and although he could bear the pain, his lack of belief and spirituality for some time had made him resist the passing and so he couldn’t acknowledge he was seriously ill. I was the magnanimous spirit that he needed and trusted to help him pass.
He had given me the gift to understand true love and meaning of life – without that experience I would have been searching for years and would never have been content with my life. We had made a pact in a former life to be there for each other when the chips were really down. It was the knowledge that I would be there, even if he were crippled and blind, that allowed him to release. I had made the ultimate sacrifice to stay with a man who could never fully love me physically nor give me the children I so dearly wanted. That was true love. I had found it and so had he. He told me years ago that his favourite film was “Love Story.” How ironic.
Tom could only pass if he experienced true love and trust. After Tom’s diagnosis, people asked me whether I would stay with him. I wasn’t, after all, his wife yet, and so was not committed in the eyes of the Law and God to take care of him. He was older than me and I wanted a family.
I was horrified at the questions since I was committed in my heart and in my mind. Tom squeezed my hand one day as I sat on his hospital bed reading to him from ‘Country Life’ little titbits of ‘nothing in particular.’ I always used to read bits of the magazine out to him and we had thumbed through the property pages every Thursday to determine what our combined resources could stretch to in Suffolk. “Now I know you truly love me. You’ve been here every day sitting on my bed, never missed a visit.” He died within the week, only six weeks into the ‘at least one year’ he had been promised by the oncologist.
Elizabeth was only telling me what I already secretly knew. She had tapped into my consciousness. I knew all this. Tom had been through an acrimonious divorce and then a further long relationship. Whatever the realities of the partings, he believed that he was abandoned. He was the kind of man women left because he treated them so well, or so he believed. He kept saying to me that we were soul mates – “I’ve known you before.” We knew each other so well. “Does that mean you’ll never leave me?” I idly mused. “Never. And you?” At first I couldn’t answer that question – I toyed with being enigmatic and independent.
I did leave him once for a short spell, afraid of the commitment due to the disparity of our ages. I found life intolerable without him yet I had had what I now know to have been a premonition. On a number of occasions I woke in the night sweating having dreamt that Tom died of cancer. I never told him that. In the end I put devotion to my friend above children and a long life with my partner. He had the answer to his question – I would never leave him either.
The treatment, we were advised, would render Tom infertile and probably unable to walk. I wouldn’t have missed that for the world. And that’s the point – if it had to happen to Tom, I’m glad it was with me. I am a richer person and have found one of the main things I had been looking for all my relatively short life – true love. I had been looking for it in other people whereas I found it in myself. I hadn’t thought of looking there.
So it was my Destiny to have suffered this way. Priests believe in Destiny too. Back in Southwark Cathedral, I was observing my normal ritual of lighting candles for my Mother and Tom, when a retired priest, who occasionally leads prayers, approached me to ask out of curiosity why I was in the Cathedral that day. In the course of the conversation he revealed that God had spoken to him years ago in Southwark Cathedral. His revelation had been that one day he would work in the Cathedral there but at the time such an idea seemed far-fetched.
He was a struggling junior priest in Ireland with a young family and it seemed unlikely that he would be able to work in the great Southwark Cathedral. Keep praying for your Destiny he said. “My niece lost her young husband to cancer,” he told me. “Terrible time it was. She started playing tennis with the local vicar for a bit of therapy – you must keep people around you,” he mused.
He paused for a moment and then the revelation came to him and we both realised why he approached me out of all the other people in the Cathedral. “They’re married now with five children – very happy she is again. She never thought she would be, mind.” Call it coincidence, call it serendipity but his revelation was my resurrection. It was hope. I had been praying moments before for the strength to keep going and, although I wasn’t proposing to run off with the local vicar just yet, I had prayed not to be alone for the next forty years.
Perhaps God had also spoken to Tom when Tom sat in the Cathedral on the hard wooden bench. He collapsed in tears after he left.
Anthony Bloom, former head of the Russian Orthodox Church in England, said:
“If we are afraid of death, we will never be prepared to take ultimate risks…Too often we wait until the end of our life to face death, whereas we would have lived quite differently if only we had faced death at the outset.”
(c) Emma Pegler, London 2003.
Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach
Healing Grief: A Guide to Loss and Recovery by Barbara Ward
The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran
Death is nothing at all by Canon Henry Scott Holland
Coming Back Alive, The Case for Reincarnation by Joe Fisher