How Can We Feel Connected to God if We Don’t Even Talk to Dead People?
My late wife, Nancy, was worried about one of our kids when she took a nap. My mother, who had died of breast cancer two decades earlier, appeared in a dream and gave Nancy some great advice — advice that was completely contrary to Nancy’s instincts at the time. Nancy went to her nap a little grumpy and woke up glowing and nudged into a different psychological space.
A few years later, I was fast asleep when I was startled awake by my mother’s voice, “Ken!” I looked at the digital clock: 3:13am. Somehow I knew to pray for a woman who was in hospice care, dying of breast cancer. This woman’s sister emailed me later that day to say she had died — around 3am.
My wife, Julia, lost her husband, Richard, just before she was ordained as an Episcopal priest. In her first job as a priest in Lincoln Park, just outside Detroit, she was driving home one day thinking about all the things she wanted to tell Richard when she got home. This was her pattern when she was studying in Detroit months earlier, when Richard was still alive. Then she realized, Richard isn’t home — he died a few months ago. So Julia simply thought, “Well, no need to wait until I get home,” and started to tell Richard all about her day at work as she drove home.
My late wife died suddenly just as I was making a crucial move to lead the church I pastored to full LGBTQ+ inclusion. She couldn’t have picked a worse time to die for so many reasons. I went through what can only be described as a psychologically brutal experience advocating for full LGBTQ inclusion in my evangelical denomination, one that was much more difficult for the grief I was dealing with — not to mention that my deceased wife would have alerted me to warning signs of religious hostility that I missed. Five years later, I was finally able to face the anger I felt at Nancy for not taking better care of herself. It took me that long to get over the inevitable guilt people feel when a loved one dies suddenly, and you haven’t been able to say good-bye and I love you and thanks for 42 wonderful years and five children — and how am I going to be able to do this without you?
So I took a little time most days for about two weeks, just before dinner. I did my little prayer routine, including 10 minutes of Headspace, but this time with a glass wine. And then I started talking to my dead wife about how I felt. I didn’t hold anything back — no dancing around in an effort not to spare her feelings with my feelings. I assumed she was in the arms of a loving God and had worked out all her issues, so I had her permission to speak freely. She didn’t talk back, exactly. But I entered a state of awareness in which it seemed as though I could feel what she was feeling. That Nancy was indeed very sorry that she couldn’t take better care of herself. Sorry that she had died, especially when she did. And proud of me and the people who went on to start a new affirming church when the denomination I was part of (Vineyard USA) expelled us. We worked things out over those two weeks of pre-dinner communication.
Nothing Unusual in Most of the World
None of this is particularly unusual in the course of human affairs around the world. Many cultures assume that of course we have meaningful communication with loved ones who have died. We are here, somewhere, and they are there, otherwhere (as my old friend called it before she died.) Whatever separates these realms — this world and whatever realm this world is nestled in — is a semi-permeable membrane.
The form such inter-realm communication takes, varies — probably from culture to culture and certainly from person to person. The communication seems to occur in liminal spaces especially: during sleep, or upon waking, or while dozing off. During a live concert, when we feel absorbed in the music, and our sense of a differentiated self abates, and we feel more connected to a larger whole. While we’re out in nature and notice a hawk flying overhead just as we’re thinking of our loved one, or a family of deer crosses our path, looks us in the eye, and some kind of connection seems to be effected.
Like all communication, including reading this article, or talking to your co-worker later today, a lot depends — everything depends — on how we interpret things, what we make of the phenomena we call consciousness or awareness, what stories or narratives we situate this phenomena in to shape or confer its meaning to us. Nothing delivers us from, or causes us to rise above our existence as subjects, and thus our subjectivity.
Our Cultural Hang Ups Talking to Dead People
But we also live in one of the most suspicious, I might even say hostile cultural environments for appreciating the normalcy of communication with dead loved ones. We pay professionals to sweep in and handle all the details when a loved one dies, especially anything to do with their dead bodies. We value getting over it, moving on, sprinting through our stages of grief like a cross-training session at the gym, and being done with it.
But wait, there’s more than keeps us from communicating with our dead loved ones. The dominant American culture is informed by the Protestant Reformation in Europe 500 years ago. The Protestants were very suspicious of the Catholic cult of the saints (dead ones, that is) and very nervous about claims of miraculous intervention by these figures, reverence of their bones, and especially, communication with them. So the culture we are immersed in, the one that breeds hard work, is focused on results, is a breeding ground for racism, and the rest — is suspicious of communication with dead people, thinks of it as superstitious, and from a religious point of view, bordering on dangerous or heretical. So we don’t talk about these experiences so much when we have them. We don’t trust them as valid. And as a result we probably don’t have them as much as people in other cultures do — or they are not as prominent in our awareness. They remain ephemeral, less real-feeling to us.
No Wonder We Have Trouble Feeling God
This being the case, no wonder it seems so difficult for so many people to feel connected to God. How can we hope to experience God if we don’t even feel at ease talking to dead people? No wonder so much of our thinking about God is dominated by fierce efforts to defend, assert, debunk, or argue our religious texts; we assume they represent our only hope for connecting reliably with the divine. No wonder we meditate so little on our sacred texts, but instead weaponize them to secure power in a dominance-hierarchy system.
Allow me to offer a modest proposal in the midst of our cultural-religious-political cacophony: let’s start talking to our dead loved ones more. Let’s do what comes naturally — tell them about things happening to us that they would probably feel connected to. Let’s consider the possibility that they experience existence in a way that is different than we do, but not unrelated to the way we do. Let’s permit ourselves to imagine that whatever separates the four-dimensional realm that we find ourselves in, is contained within a realm of other dimensions — and the membrane that separates these realms is semi-permeable, like the outer lining of our cells. Which means we, like our individual cells, are very much involved with, existing within, affecting and effected by, a much bigger and more wondrous whole.
Maybe then we’ll have better luck tapping into what must be a pulsating energy beyond any we could imagine, running through everything, an energy that we find in its most concentrated form when we give, receive, experience, and participate in love.