Saint Paul had a flair for the political. “Behold, I tell you a mystery,” he wrote, on the subject of death. “We will not all sleep, but we will be changed.” A sharp Corinthian in the first century might have asked: Can we have more information please? Changed into what? But faith, to its credit, is ambiguous on purpose and, despite what critics say, calls for an open mind: it’s a mystery, roll with it. On the question of what happens when we die, leave it to theologians and scientists to argue about the specifics. Which they’ve been doing now for a few thousand years.
This remarkable new book by Patricia Pearson is a rare thing: bringing journalistic rigour to an impossible question (so what does happen when we die?), it is also ambiguous on purpose. At the risk of spoiling the ending, it doesn’t conclude anything. Instead, it allows the possibility that we don’t know everything and can’t rely on science to fill in the blanks. “Prove your anger, prove your empathy, prove your sense of humour,” she writes. “Nobody ever asks you to do that scientifically, of course, because love, anger empathy and wit are considered common elements of human nature… Spirituality used to be considered an ordinary part of the human experience as well, but now it qualifies as an extraordinary state requiring extraordinary evidence. Why should this be? It has nothing to do with what has been proved or disproved.”
And yet, someone relates a near-death experience. Or they feel a presence of a loved one recently dead. Or they receive an uncanny visitor who helps them through a crisis. The impulse is to slap on the electro-encephalogram, factor out the variables (oxygen deprivation, opiates, dementia) and measure. When nothing shows up, it qualifies as proving a negative. “What used to be thought of as guardian angels, succubi or ancestors,” Pearson writes, “are now simply called hallucinations.” According to folklorist David Hufford, any contact with the supernatural is considered, in polite company, as an “illegal experience.” And so people don’t talk about it.
But Pearson can’t resist, not because of a writer’s curiosity, but because in her own family the stakes are real. In 2008 both her father and sister Katherine died: her father in his sleep, her sister months later of cancer. And when her father died, Katherine had what she described, at his funeral, as “an extraordinary spiritual experience,” many miles away in Montreal, before the news even reached her by phone. “I felt hands on my head,” she said, “and experienced vision after vision of a happy future.” She saw herself playing with her own granddaughter, though in fact she had no granddaughter. In any case, despite the grief, the joy would persist, even as Katherine herself grew sicker and sicker. In the hospice, in her last days, she became especially attuned to the idea that she was about to take a trip, not metaphorically, but literally some kind of book-the-airline-tickets journey: “When do I leave?” she asked her increasingly abashed family. Soon after, she died. “My mother,” writes Pearson, “and Katherine’s godmother, Robin – three thousand miles westward in Vancouver – awoke in their beds, attuned to some new-sounding clock.” These are family’s own “illegal” experiences described with grace, an open heart but without the heavy pen of sentimentality. They are not ghost stories, but love stories.
From here the book fills, almost to the point of spilling over, with first-hand stories of encounters with an afterlife (and here I find my own language gets both lazy and freighted: what do we call it? The otherly-animate? The alterna-realm?), from those who’ve died and seen the light in the cinematic fashion, and then returned, to those who sense the death of a loved one long before the phone rings. The tales are not always consoling. One woman who has a near-death experience during childbirth hears a malevolent voice assuring her that neither she, not her baby, actually exist, nor will they ever exist. The common thread, though, is not terror but love: maternal love for some, Platonic and vague for others, calming for most. “Was that what my sister was immersed in as she lay so peacefully on her bed in the West Island Palliative Care Centre?” Pearson asks. “Is that why she wasn’t afraid?” The book succeeds so well because it favours questions over answers, humility over certainty, and (when called for) crunchy ice-breaking humour over earnestness. But mostly it succeeds because of its unabashed concern with love, as it’s experienced not just by those at heaven’s door, but by the human tribe that’s inevitably left behind when someone dies. Love, too, is a mystery that changes us.
Tom Jokinen is an Ottawa writer, author of Curtains: Adventures of an Undertaker-in-Training.