“The dead stay with us,” writes Vaughan Bell in this week’s Scientific American. His piece Ghosts Stories: Visits from the Deceased touches on the embodied memories that come back, dream-like, hallucinogenic, after the death of a loved one.
He opens with the work of Carlos Sluzki, a psychiatrist who has focused on family therapy and author of the recent Transcultural Psychiatry article Saudades at the Edge of Self and the Merits of Portable Families (scribd online version here). Amidst magical realism and a dwindling social network, an elderly Mexican American patient comes to speak with Dr. Sluzki. Samotracia, previously diagnosed as an atypical schizophrenic, tells Sluzki of her physical ailments first, and then comes her story in anecdotes. The mother of four children, two boys and two girls, she lost both boys years before, the first to gang violence, the second to AIDS. But her sons have returned to vist her in recent years, often in the evening, and they would laugh and joke and sometimes make mischief and she would scold them.
Sluzki, in his discussion, speaks of how in non-European cultures “out there” and “in here” merge more easily. I might say, what difference does “out” and “in” make to a neuron, save as a culturally informed perception, shaped by other people and language and ways of being. Samotracia has created a portable family for herself, even as Sluzki worked to increase the physicality and interaction of her present social network. He did so, as he says, through “understanding each other in the frame of her history.”
Vaughan Bell uses the senses to mediate between out and in. In Ghost Stories he writes, “for many people [the dead] also linger in our senses—as sights, sounds, smells, touches or presences.” People remember so vividly that they can, like Samotracia, speak with the lost loved one. Bell urges us to dwell more seriously on this phenomenon:
Despite the fact that hallucinations are one of the most common reactions to loss, they have barely been investigated and we know little more about them. Like sorrow itself, we seem a little uncomfortable with it, unwilling to broach the subject and preferring to dwell on the practicalities—the “call me if I can do anything,” the “let’s take your mind off it,” the “are you looking after yourself?”
Writers, not anthropologists or psychiatrists, have dwelled on grief and loss and our senses and imagination. Joan Didion describes the aftermath of her husband’s sudden death in The Year of Magical Thinking and writes, “We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe that their husband is about to return and need his shoes.”
And in the magical realism tradition, Isabel Allende gave us the multi-generational saga The House of Spirits.
“I write, she wrote, that memory is fragile and the space of a single life is brief, passing so quickly that we never get a chance to see the relationship between events; we cannot gauge the consequences of our acts, and we believe in the fiction of the past, present, and future, but it may also be true that everything happens simultaneously–as the three Mora sisters said, who could see the spirits of all eras mingled in space (p. 432).”
Bell ends his Scientific American piece writing, “Only a minority of people reading this article are likely to experience grief without re-experiencing the dead. We often fall back on the cultural catch all of the “ghost” while the reality is, in many ways, more profound. Our perception is so tuned to their presence that when they are not there to fill that gap, we unconsciously try to mold the world into what we have lived with for so long and so badly long for. Even reality is no match for our love.”
But it is not always so. Sometimes reality is too powerful, too terrible. Love cannot match it. A dear friend of mine whose child died wishes love could, because it burns so deeply in her heart. Her son does return in her memory and senses. But his death, the absolute incontrovertibility of that, is always there. He is gone, never to return.