Patients Talk About The Afterlife

“And I am angry at God.”

This is Olivia, the feisty, fiftyish, Irish mother who refuses to accept the loss of her son on September 11, 2001.

“It was like him to go back and try to help the others.”

It was stupid to think of the others when he could have saved himself. It was stupid of the government not to have seen the warning signs, and it was infuriating to then try to cover up their mistakes with lies. It had never occurred to me the amiably chatty receptionist of the doctor I had been routinely seeing at the time of the catastrophe could be so directly involved. Hours after the morning of September 11, and throughout that traumatic first week, I had seen most of my patients and listened to their sometimes surreal stories. The man sitting at the outdoor cafe puzzling over the thousands of pigeons which had abruptly taken flight from the roof of the Twin Towers; who had watched fascinated but uncomprehendingly at first one and then a second plane fly into a tower, when it dawned on him that he had to find and save his wife from a terrifying attack. The woman who had seen people, the size of specks, jumping together to their certain deaths from the now scalding hot rooftops. And, perhaps most memorably, the man whose vacationing friends — upon returning to their nearby penthouse apartment — would discover two airplane seats with their corpses still strapped in them, sprawled in the middle of their living room (having been shot like missiles from an exploding plane straight through their ceiling).

But no one I knew had suffered the kind of loss Olivia had. No one had experienced the post-traumatic stress she had endured. She had gone for three visits to the counselor they had offered her and then quit.

“There’s nothing anybody can say that will change things. I can go to a priest, but I don’t want to.”

She would rather stay busy than talk. She does not see herself letting go of her anger. “I will never understand it. Maybe, one day when I die, it will be explained to me.” She is angry at God but she does not doubt that there is a God, and she does not doubt that God, if He wanted to, could explain it to her. Olivia, like Sybil, cannot accept the cruel death of her son, and bitterly calls upon God for an answer. Unconsciously, she knows she is looking for something she cannot find: a satisfying explanation for how a loving God could stand by while her son was being burned to a crisp. Her reaction was not uncommon. Those who directly lost family members as a result of the September 11 attack — and the more religious they were, the more this was so — have to struggle to be consoled by their faith. While the reverse was true for those lucky ones who managed to get out alive: it was proof there was a God, that God was merciful, if ever one was needed. The contradiction between God as a good shepherd leading his flock out of the jaws of a fiery inferno and a God who silently and passively watches his flock being consumed was hardly noted.

Eileen is a prototypical New York artist. She grew up in a suburban small town, got a fine arts degree, moved to Manhattan, supported herself with a series of somewhat degrading, menial part-time jobs and began painting in earnest. Her one goal was to do beautiful work, not to become famous and successful. Although she is intellectually against organized religion, having long since left the church she was brought up in, she considers herself an intensely spiritual person. When, shortly after coming to New York, she encountered her first homeless couple sleeping under some filthy blankets, she invited them to come live with her. For two weeks they stayed together as a family in her one-room studio apartment until they were ready to leave. She was puzzled when I tried to point out to her how strangely self-sacrificial her offer had been. She did not consider herself a Christ-like person, she was just someone who put compassion above all other human values. Not surprisingly, at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the ‘80’s, she was the one whom her dying gay friends would seek out for special care: to change their dressings, wash their bodies, bring them food and sit with them.

Her first impulse on the afternoon of September 11 had been to give blood, but she was too frail and anemic for that. So she volunteered for whatever she could. She helped distribute the famous, haunting posters of missing persons — ”Have you seen ______?” — that began cropping up spontaneously all over the city. When it was reopened to the public, she began regularly visiting Ground Zero. She took it upon herself to personally let the men in the local firehouse know how much she appreciated their heroic rescue efforts on September 11. She became enraged at her fellow New Yorkers who complained about the heightened security measures, who calibrated the impact of September 11 mainly in terms of the disruptions it caused in their personal lives: “I hate these people on the Lower East Side who walk around with breathing masks on. As though to say, I’m smarter than you. I’m protecting myself from possible toxic air pollution.”

Two years before September 11, Eileen’s younger sister had been instantly killed by a drunken driver who had blindsided her car. Her furious message to me on my answering machine had been an anguished “MY SISTER’S DEAD.” But I knew it was a loss she was unlikely to recover from, that the clinical depression that had driven her to therapy in the first place would only deepen. And for about a year thereafter she suffered from recurring, terrifyingly real nightmares, typically in which she was wildly tunneling under the ground, trying desperately to escape from something terrible that was chasing her. Against my advice, she began upping the dosage of the anti-anxiety medication upon which she relied. She blamed herself for not having died in her sister’s stead, for senselessly being allowed to continue her own useless life. Over and over, she tried to memorialize her sister’s death by drawing — first one, then another, then hundreds and hundreds of symbolic images — of the car she had been innocently sitting in when the fatal accident had occurred. She became fascinated with the menace that lurked beneath the surface of things, the underbelly of life: rats that lived in the walls; worms that thrived in the intestinal tract; creepy ideas that might spring anytime from the unconscious. It was her duty as an artist to explore and capture in her work this seething, dark side, the nihilistic randomness of the world that in a single instant could snuff out the shining presence of someone like her sister. By directing her bitterness towards the world’s hypocrisy, she managed to hold on to her fragile spiritualism.

Although she scoffed at the idea of heaven or hell, she believed there was “something else” beyond the grave besides the physical. She didn’t know what or where this was. She didn’t know if her sister’s consciousness survived, if she continued to have feelings, if she was happy. She wanted to, but could not sense her sister’s presence. She would have loved for her sister to figure out some way to contact her from the other side, but she never did. She had no expectations of meeting up with her sister, after she herself died. All she could say was that her sister’s spirit was “out there” and that if it did not, could not communicate with her she at least could speak to it. When I asked Eileen what she had meant by that, she said, “Well, if I have a certain thought . . . like ‘can this rotten world get any more horrible than it is?’ . . . I just say it out loud, and the fact that she might hear it comforts me.”

Although she lived an unconventional life, Eileen’s picture of the afterlife, and the relationship to it that she has, is a familiar one. On the one hand, she is deeply curious about the possibility of her sister’s posthumous existence; on the other, her thoughts about it could not be more scattered, amorphous and transient. She only knows she feels better if she sometimes gives voice to what is weighing on her mind, in the imagined presence of her idealized dead sister.

Patients are like that. In the immediate wake of a particularly unbearable loss, they will often address the person who has just died. They do not expect to be heard, but find it soothing to talk to the other as though they were still alive. To understand this, think of an incident that still rankles in the memory: a person perhaps upon whom you set great store, who for no apparent reason walked out on you. Someone remembering that, and still feeling the old resentment, might then say aloud, to himself, “You shouldn’t have done that.” It may not make sense, but it feels good. In effect they say to the substitutive memory what they did not get a chance to say in real life. This is what Christopher (from the last chapter), shortly after his father had died, had wanted to do. As he put it:

“I don’t know why. I tried to have an imaginary conversation in my mind with my dad . . . I was wondering if it might make me feel better, but it didn’t.”

Sometimes patients, even many years after a parent has died, will address him or her, usually in a very simple, affectionate way: “You know, Dad, I wish you were here.”

After a long and unhappy marriage to a withdrawn alcoholic, Jenny had been delighted to finally meet a man whom she considered surprisingly loving and responsive. Soon after she decided to remarry, she invited her new husband to accompany her in a visit to her father’s grave. It had been years since she had traveled to the out of the way cemetery in Brooklyn, and she could barely remember where the inexpensive family plot was. But now she had a special purpose. Finding her father’s headstone at last, she approached it alone, her husband respectfully standing behind. Getting on her hands and knees, she kissed the flat stone and then asked her husband to join her. Standing up and gesturing, as though introducing one person to another at a social function, Jenny said: “Dad, I want to introduce you to Leonard. He’s my husband. I love him very much. I know you would have liked him. Here he is (beckoning to her husband to come forward).”

When I discussed this afterwards with Jenny, she was clear about what she didn’t believe in. She didn’t believe in heaven or hell. She didn’t think her father could actually hear what she was saying. She didn’t know where he was or if he was any place. She did think there might be something after death. Hadn’t she heard that atoms are immortal? That they may break apart, but can’t be destroyed? So why couldn’t the human body, after it decomposed, recompose itself in some new way that would allow consciousness to continue? She therefore believes, like Eileen, there is “something” after death and she knows she somehow feels closer to her father’s spirit after she talks to it.

Of course, patients pray to God, and depending on how religious they are, they will sometimes speak to God. They almost never wish for God to speak to them. Here is John, a lapsed Catholic, who nevertheless continues to believe in his Savior, telling me about a very disturbing encounter with his best friend:

“I thought I knew Stan, but I guess I don’t. We were talking about why we had gone to the colleges we went to, when, out of the blue he said, ‘God told me to go to college.’ I thought he was joking, but he wasn’t. It gave me a very weird feeling. I believe in God, but I certainly don’t believe in visions or voices from above. People who say they have those kinds of experiences strike me as nuts. So I began pressing Stan to see just how serious he was. I said how can you possibly be sure that a voice, any voice you hear, can be that of God?

“Very calmly, Stan countered my objections. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘imagine you’re in this room by yourself, and clear as a bell, you hear a voice informing you it is God, and it tells you, you have to go to college. Now wouldn’t you believe it?’

“Something about the quiet, confident way Stan said this, made me try to imagine being in such a situation, and suddenly I wasn’t so sure anymore.”

John stopped and waited for my clinical diagnosis, which meant he wanted me to tell him whether his best friend was secretly psychotic or not. When I told him I didn’t know Stan well enough to make that judgment, he immediately asked how many of my patients, statistically speaking, have claimed to have heard the voice of God? When I said I didn’t have those figures handy off the top of my head, he inquired as to my general position on the subject of hallucinations and visions. What exactly were my views, anyway? It was only when I then pointed out — because he did not like my answers — he seemed to be pressing me in much the same way he had pressed Stan, that John calmed down and for the first time reflected on his familiar argumentative streak. In the past, we had worked on how, whenever he was frightened or unsure of himself, he tended to lash out at others. Suddenly, he remembered what he considered a significant incident from his college days.

“I knew this guy, I think he might have been Greek Orthodox, I don’t know, but he was very, very mystical and he worshipped Christ. He made me uneasy, but you couldn’t forget him. He had this way of explaining anything that happened, of interpreting it, by referring to a particular parable in the New Testament that, to him, held the key. I had never known anyone who did that. I didn’t know why, but it bothered me. Maybe it has something to do with why I rarely go to church.

“Anyway, this guy, I don’t remember his name, had been in the same philosophy class at City College with Stan and me. At the beginning of the semester, he had loudly proclaimed in the hallway, for anyone who cared to listen, that if it turned out this teacher was a ‘dirty, rotten atheist’ as others had been, he would drop the course. So far he had managed to stick it out, until the day came we were told that no less a celebrity than the notorious and controversial Ayn Rand, author of Atlas Shrugged, a radical, libertarian, antiliberal would be visiting our philosophy department.

“Because of who she was, her lecture was moved to the main auditorium and it was jam packed. I sat with Stan, and next to him was this guy, who seemed to get along with Stan. I don’t know if you’ve seen Ayn Rand, but she’s a trip. She’s a big and bold woman, speaks with an accent and acts like she’s infallible. She wears a pin in the shape of a dollar sign, to pay homage to the power of capitalism. She despises the welfare state, everything it stands for, and thinks liberals are spineless worms. I’d say over 90% of the students at City College were probably liberals at that time.

“Ayn Rand is a hardcore atheist who calls her philosophy Objectivism. People who believe in God are mental cowards who cannot face the obvious truth. We live in a society that has carried relativism to a point of sickness, that no longer believes in the absolute values of good and evil, that sees only grays, that has lost its compass. Once in a television interview, when asked about her ideas, she stated that she considered herself the greatest philosopher since Aristotle.

“She was so over the top, so different from what I was used to hearing, that I admit I found her oddly stimulating. One of her main ideas, that selfishness could be positive, that we had been too brainwashed by the Christian ethos of self-sacrifice, anticipated by decades Gordon Gekko’s famous credo — ’Greed is Good’ — in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street.

“The entire audience had listened in a very subdued way and I couldn’t tell what kind of impact she had made, or if she had had any impact at all. At the end, she volunteered to answer questions. The first hand up was from my mystical friend. He did not hesitate to stand up when he was picked and to my surprise he had no problem in projecting his normally soft voice across much of the auditorium to the podium.

“I dreaded what might be coming and tried to hide my face in anticipation of an embarrassing confrontation. But what he did was quite clever. Concealing the punch line until the very end, he began calmly by philosophically and concisely summarizing his key ideas. Then, noting that in her entire system there was no place for the universal and indispensable value of Christian love — his voice suddenly and dramatically rising — he concluded, ‘So I say, that I find your philosophy at bottom to be hollow and rotten!’ “And Ayn Rand just exploded, I mean she went berserk. ‘GET OUT . . . GET OUT . . . I DON’T DEBATE WITH RELIGIOUS FANATICS.’ She was screaming and waving her arms furiously. Apparently the auditorium was not a big enough place for both of them. Either the mystic was going to leave or she would walk off the stage. So, obviously pleased with having done what he must have thought was the Lord’s work, he quietly and with a lot of dignity walked out.

“The next day, however, along with Stan, I was summoned to the assistant Dean’s office, where the mystic was already waiting. Word had gotten out we were his friends, so we had been called as witnesses or co-defendants to the incident that had occurred. I could see that he was agitated, with none of the bravura he had displayed in standing up to Ayn Rand. Stan spoke first, then I followed. I patterned what I said after Stan, doing my best to put a good face on what had happened.

“What I’ll always remember is what the mystic did, when it was his turn. I had expected at least a little bit of fire and brimstone, but he was trembling and staring off into space. ‘Sir,’ he began, plaintively, ‘when Christ drove out the money changers from the temple . . .’

“He got no further than that. ‘Now, son,’ interrupted the Dean, bending over backwards to be a just arbiter, ‘this is not the place for that.’ That is all it took. One simple take-charge gesture and the spiritual frenzy into which he had worked himself utterly collapsed.”

Initially cowed by his friend’s spiritual fervor, John had felt vicariously vindicated by the unexpected turnabout. It served to fortify his belief that a person’s religious views should never be made public. What could it accomplish to tell someone you saw a vision, or heard a voice? He had been upset by both Stan and the mystic, because each of them had crossed the line between the practical, mundane world we are all forced to live in, and the very personal, private, spiritual realm that is ours alone. When I asked John what his own personal view of the afterlife was, he quickly replied:

“I believe in Christ. I have no idea what the afterlife is like, and I don’t see any point in thinking about it. I’ll find out soon enough. Meanwhile I try to live a decent life and hope for the best.”

Like so many others, John uses religion as a kind of spiritual comforter, to be put away and saved for a rainy day. He has no use for the rituals and trappings of organized religion, which seem to him an impractical waste of time. He does not think religion should be taken seriously, views it as one more support system and is threatened by religious zealots like his former college friend and — if he really is one — his current best friend, Stan.

Author Gerald Alper,

God & Therapy — what we believe when no one is watching

(The above is an excerpt from my new book, God & Therapy, — What We Believe When No One Is Watching)

Author. Psychotherapist. Writing about psychology for all to read. I also interview scientists.