The truth about dead people

Popcorn and Soft Drink in Empty Seat at the Movie TheaterA few people have asked me (some kindly, some … not so much) how I reconcile my kind and loving thoughts about my dad after he died (i.e., My Dad Died Today), with the sometimes less warm feelings about him that I expressed before he went to that big Dad lounge-chair in the sky.

So here’s my private (well, now less private), personal feelings about that.

When a person whom you love—or at least in some way are closely related to—is alive, you get to negotiate your relationship with that person. You get to tell them how you feel, and what you think, and how you wish they would feel and think, too. Because … well, because you’re in a relationship with them, and relationships are fluid, alive things that can and usually do change. So you get to affect that relationship in whatever way you care to try to.

But if that person with whom you’re in a relationship dies, then … well, then that certainly is one dramatic game-changer, relationship-wise.

Talk about limiting your communication options.

Except, it doesn’t. Death changes the mechanics of our communications with our formerly alive friends and relatives, for sure: no more phone calls or unexpectedly swinging by the house ( 🙁 ) .  But I don’t think it needs to diminish the quality of those communications. I believe, in fact, that just the opposite is true. I believe that one of the huge whole points of death is that it allows for the living to (wordlessly) communicate with their dead friends and loved ones with a profoundly enriching intensity and a … mutual spiritual resonance that the two of them were rarely if ever likely to achieve between them when they were both alive.

I think that the passage we call death purifies the person who goes through it. I … have an extremely strong intuitive/organic instinct (that I hardly think is unique to me; I know squat about it, but I think that throughout history it’s what most people have believed) that death refines a person into their highest spiritual selves. (And that certainly fits with the Christian model of death—which is good for me, since I’m a Christian.) So that when a person dies, those still alive who loved them get to access, process, and commune with the absolute best of them: with their very perfect, real, vibrant and now unadulterated essence.

Death is awful and I hate it. But that very important aspect of death rocks. And you can only be with someone in that … fabulously holy way during that (relatively) small window of time between when they cross over, and you join them there.

I can now sit down, close my eyes, and be with my dad—with the very best of my dad, the part where all the character and power and strength and knowledge of him remains knit together as a self-identified whole somewhere out in the ether—and that merges with all of that same best stuff in me whenever I want to take a moment or two hundred to sit down and have that extraordinary/common experience.

That is awesome. I like that experience. It’s nice. It’s way better than … talking to my dad on the phone while he’s trying to figure out how his microwave works, or trying to get him to stop changing the channels when we’re watching TV together, or whatever.

We live in a hard, hard world. This world tweaks the crap out of people. It scares people; it wounds them; it confuses them; it makes all of us do, say, and be all kinds of things that, deep down inside of ourselves, we know is not true to the best of who we really are.

Well, when we die, we become the best of who we really are—of who we really were all along. We become our higher self. And those back on earth who, despite whatever we might have done to thwart their affections, never stopped believing in our higher selves, get to … be with our purest selves in a loving, forgiving, healthy, nurturing, affirming way that is as true to the best of life as anything that ever happens on this side of Ye Olde Curtain. And we get to be with them in the exact same way.

And when that is happening time and space become nothing more than all they’ve ever been: artificial constructs hiding from us the eternity that is our natural milieu.

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  • Natalie

    I too wonder wonder what it would be like to be my higher self.

  • Carla

    Just beautiful, John. Thanks for this!

  • Lesley

    An interesting article and I can guarantee you that there is more under Heaven than is dreampt of, as I have experienced this. If if didn’t happen to me, I would never have believed it. Thank you for these words.

  • huh.

    i maybe sorta like this.

    except my dead mother has been haunting me. in may dreams.

    just like the mother in “Like Water for Chocolate”

    she even chases me around the town i grew up in.

    i finely on meds that help. they give it to people with PTSD.

    but my dad is in that place you are talking about,

    he is now his higher self.

    and helps me. i feel his love.


  • Tim Northrup

    This makes a lot of sense. Even though I was always stars-in-my-eyes around her growing up, I can appreciate that feeling about my Grandmother in particular. There is just something more real about the memories, even after all these years, and sometimes I could swear I hear her, in that unique way I associate with God/the divine, except less intense.

  • shit, it should read “my dreams”

  • Carolyn

    My brother told me once he didn’t have closure after my mom died because he had things he needed to say to her. I told him to tell her, she could hear him. Knowing he was bitter and accusatory, I told him that mom sees clearer then him now.

  • Leslie

    This is going to lead to a considerable amount of thought on my part. Perhaps not in ways you might expect, but none-the-less, Thanks. I’ll admit that I sort of cringed before I read it, anticipating a different reflection. I might get back to you on this one at a later date.

  • Damn, you make a lot of sense. This was really beautiful – great read. 🙂

  • Martha Jean

    Again, so close to home for me, John. Loved my Dad who died two years ago, but we were not the best communicators here. Now I know he is his perfect self and I feel he understands me now.

  • charles

    John, having lost my mom last March (not long after we met) I have to say this was a remarkably intimate piece. The range of feelings one can have for a parent are very, very wide, and in the end- I guess we get to revise how we walk away from that earthly relationship. great stuff, and much love to you….


  • MaryJo

    Hmmmm, this is pretty heavy, but I really don’t get it, John. I have pretty much loved everything of yours that I have read, but this just escapes me.

  • I’ve wondered lately what the deal is then with ghosts… some of which seem “stuck” and far from spiritually enlightened. On the one hand it doesn’t seem to matter as when I die I am immediately going towards the Light but I feel like for those who actually communicate with loved ones who have crossed over it may be a little misleading to affirm 100% they are more enlightened than those on this side of the curtain. I’m sure they see things differently but not convinced they are much more ahead of the game than we are. I’d love to find out… but in no big hurry to do so first hand! Love reading your thoughts anyhoo as you ALWAYS keep me thinking and growing…. 🙂

  • Matt

    Huh. Although you write about a lot of spiritual things, this one seems to have a different…feeling to it. Not in a bad way. It pretty much settles it for me–you are the first Christian I’ve met (and I know many) who actually brings some genuine spirituality to the religion. I’m telling you, it’s like cool water on blistering burns. Maybe part of that different feeling is that I can tell how deeply intimate this post is for you. I almost want to step back (figuratively) and give you your space. Thank you so much for sharing; you’ve given me some major food for thought.

  • Susan Namboodiri

    I like your truth. Thanks for sharing it. Good thoughts.

  • Judy Vaughan-Sterling

    This is exactly right. I’ve never heard it put so well, and I know intuitively that it’s true. Less elegantly, I have often noted that it’s SO much easier to love dead people than live ones!

  • Scott Amundsen

    I love it.

  • Kate Lord

    Wow. I love the way you express these thoughts. They make a lot of sense to me. Thanks, John

  • Eileen Vorbach Collins

    Awesome piece.

  • Alex McFerron

    My dad died two years ago. we’re having the memorial this sunday. I’m a wreck. this helped me a lot. thank you brother. thank you.

  • theresa

    I’m still trying to decide what I am feeling about this. I absolutely agree with you that we can talk to those who have gone before, that we can ask them to pray for us if we are so inclined, that their presence can be felt around us every day (the Apostle’s Creed isn’t just whistlin’ Dixie when it talks about “the communion of saints.”That’s what this is). I particularly feel this with my grandparents, all of whom I loved, and to whom I always felt important. But it leaves me with yet more questions, still unresolved, about my mother. She was not cruel, not abusive (though she allowed my brother to be almost continuously physically abusive); but she seemed a little cold and uncaring. She has been gone nearly 20 years, and I have had the growing feeling as time has gone by that she never loved me. Perhaps this is what I needed to know, but couldn’t face before she died? Perhaps that is what she needed to tell me, and I have finally been able to hear it.

  • DR

    Thank you for this, it’s one of my most favorite things you’ve written.

  • Beautifully written, John. My Mum passed away to glory 12 years ago and I still feel that spiritual bond with her – it definitely is eternal. When she was giving up her spirit to the Lord, I was there and I was experiencing conflicting emotions. Part of me felt as if I was touching the glory she then entered and that tangible presence of God and obviously my heart was breaking at the same time….. She’s not here physically and I miss her as much as 12 years ago, but I also know she is not dead, and she doesn’t feel dead to me…. 🙂

  • Eva

    We live in a hard, hard world. This world tweaks the crap out of people. It scares people; it wounds them; it confuses them; it makes all of us do, say, and be all kinds of things that, deep down inside of ourselves, we know is not true to the best of who we really are.

    That’s amazing. Really.

  • Jill

    I felt every word in gratitude as I read, I have believed so much of the same for many years. I believe the crazy, heavy power of the ego, when it finally fully releases itself from the body, there is only spirit.

    I have found there are some people in my life who were so bound into their ego identity, I didn’t have a chance to actually know who they wanted to be. I’m looking forward to a time when I might repair, even reclaim, a relationship with people too wounded ‘on this side of the veil’, even though I know how weird and maudlin it sounds. It happened for me with my grandfather, and I hope it can happen with my mother one day.

  • Allie

    I believe, as I think C.S. Lewis indicated he did, that ghosts are not people at all, but impressions left on physical objects, like an echo or a recording. That explains why they are “stuck.” A record is by definition stuck; it can only play what was recorded.

  • Lymis

    Beautifully said, John.

    I think that the connection works both ways, as well. Not only is our loved one the best them that they can be – the redeemed and sanctified version, free of what constrained them here on earth, but also, that connection with them is free of the limits (on their side, at least) that keep us from connecting fully with those who are alive.

    They can not only hear our words, but feel our feelings and experience our past, our filters, our fears, and all of the things that make it so hard for us to get what another is trying to say. Their side of the communication is, if not utterly and completely perfect, as God’s side of our communication with God is, but at least as perfect as it can be.

    I’m not sure the mechanism of that, but I’m confident that however it works, that’s how it works.

  • Always love your thoughts, John. 🙂

  • Heather L

    Much to think on. I just occasionally hear a voice of someone who has died, as clear as a bell! -Usually after I have spoken aloud to them. Sometimes there is a strong sense of presence. Sometimes I reckon it is an overactive imagination, but what you have written really resonates as pointing to a truth. Thank you, John.

  • Thank you for this post on my beautiful brother’s 50th birthday. It was my hard privilege to be with him in the last days of his cancer–our family was highly dysfunctional and David very often kept me out of the tangle, simply by telling the truth. He was, in life, easily as magnificent as I think him now. My world remains a shade darker since his passing, but grief moves in its own time. God rarely asks my opinion, but I think He chose quite wisely, taking the best of us first. Thank you for giving words to something I’d hoped. (and also I’m crying now, so this whole thingmay not entirely make much sense. My apologies.) Ah, I miss him so. –leslie

  • Elizabeth


  • Todd Park

    I haven’t had to really face death much. My family lives these incredibly long lives. My grandfather passed last year at the age of 99. Although I’m not terminal, I was diagnosed with cancer in February and you can’t help but go there in your mind at least. I so appreciate the way you’ve been able to tackle some pretty heady and complicated (if not controversial) theological issues. Who knows? Had we been acquaintances a few years back, I could still call myself a Christian. Thank you!

  • Gina Cirelli

    Very interesting article, thank you, John. At first I was wondering what the purpose of reincarnation is if death is a purification, but now I wonder if reincarnation is a choice made to help those still living here, rather than another chance to go to life’s school. Then again, maybe it’s both. Also I agree with you about the communication part. My father and I did not have a good relationship, and I still talk to him, and I really hope he hears me, since he never really heard me when he was living.

  • Jill

    I agree with you. I think it’s both, too. You’re a very loving, kind soul, Gina, and I believe with all my heart that you are being heard.

  • harrisco

    Thank you for this beautiful tribute to your brother, Leslie. And thank you for being with him even through those last days. Your presence was, I suspect, a gift to him in those moments. The tears you shed now are from a deep well of love. Your brief comment here makes that plain. May God hold you close now, as you grieve, offering holy presence in every tear.

  • n.

    “¿Qué es un fantasma? Un evento terrible condenado a repetirse una y otra vez, un instante de dolor quizás, algo muerto que parece por momentos vivo aún, un sentimiento suspendido en el tiempo, como una fotografía borrosa, como un insecto atrapado en ámbar.”

    “What is a ghost? A tragedy condemned to repeat itself time and again? An instant of pain, perhaps. Something dead which still seems to be alive. An emotion suspended in time. Like a blurred photograph. Like an insect trapped in amber.”

    from the film _el Espinazo del Diablo_.

  • n.

    i had that for a while. after some months, my mother in my dreams started behaving better.

  • n.

    see what you think if you read Allie’s and my reply (above) to Not Just A Blonde’s comment about ghosts. maybe the ghosts are just (our processing of?) the impressions that we were left with…

  • Prakasha Capen

    Beautiful article, John. Truly beautiful.

  • Jan Watson

    Thank you John, this is touching and personally helpful.

  • DJ Boatright

    Always the words I need to read at the right time. I lost my father unexpectedly back in March at the young age of 54 and I often feel lost without him around to just be the ears and heart that just let me speak.

  • Thank you harrisco. My prayer going in was very much “please let me do what must be done for David and don’t let me fxck it up too much.” I am humbled that I was permitted to do the first part, and the second part, well…hopefully God’s opinion differs from that of the family. Actually, considering the Family Gothic Nightmare that it was/is, I know I am blessed. 🙂

  • Josie

    I read this on the first anniversary of my mom’s funeral. This is it. This is it exactly. This is what I’ve been feeling yet have been unable to articulate for the last year. Thank you, John. This is so meaningful, and so helpful. I know Mom understands me now in ways she didn’t when she was here. I still miss her, every single day.

  • brigitte

    you’ve articulated so beautifully what i have been wrestling with for several years. my 22 year old schizophrenic son took his own life and before that tragedy we had six years of a nightmare that included heroin, suicide attempts, voluntary electro shock therapy and treatments of every imaginable kind. i saw my amazingly bright and gifted child disappear into an abyss that i could not pull him out of. now i know he must be at peace an his existence is no longer plagued by demons. i have to believe that his kind and gentle soul is only experiencing god’s love.

  • Colleen

    Hello John,

    Beautifully written. I lost my mother this past August 21st. I was a basket case all week. She was with me the whole time. A sweetheart of a woman. When we all stop and think, which allot of us don’t do, reality in what we live in is just things. I love having my mom around. Can’t now. But I know her spirit is. I think when my dad passed away last year she was sad that he left her behind. I have to do things for myself now. Not easy. But I am so very greatful that I had her in my life.