Attributing Meaning, Attributing Agency: a thought on Halloween.

One of the most profound stories of the supernatural came to me as a child. I overheard my mother explaining a conversation she’d just had with a friend to my father. I don’t think she intended for me to hear it. Her friend had recently lost her teenage daughter. Her daughter had loved to play the piano. A few months after her daughter’s death, my mother’s friend claimed to have been woken up in the middle of the night to hear the piano playing in their living room. Going out to investigate, she found her daughter (presumably, her ghost) playing the piano. According to the story, the daughter stopped, turned around and said “don’t be startled, I just wanted to play the piano one last time.” 

There are many explanations for this. In mourning, she may have been getting terrible sleep and was having hallucinations. Or maybe they were lucid dreams that felt very real. Maybe she’d concocted the story to convince someone else that there’s something beyond our mortal existence and to give some semblance of hope to others who might be grieving their own losses. But here’s the thing: when the piano playing was heard, both she AND her husband walked into the living room and found the daughter playing. And her husband corroborated the story. This couple was, by all accounts, an upstanding family in the community, both considered rational, honest and (as far as we knew) mentally stable. So…what happened?

Personally, I don’t believe they encountered the actual ‘soul’ of their daughter having crossed back over from the Great Beyond to tickle the ivories one last time. I don’t believe these things happen. BUT this wasn’t my story. This wasn’t MY loss and so, therefore, I have no right or responsibility to refute what they claim to have experienced.

Reality is very much a subjective thing. It relies heavily on our emotions as well as our general understanding of the world. Your reality may not be mine. So therefore, if you’re not deliberately using your worldview as a means of harming others, I really can’t judge. Nor can you.

Loss and grieving are also experienced in an extraordinarily personal way. Some manage well while others are ruined forever by their loss. Having experienced the loss of both my brothers, I can attest to this personally. It’s very hard and, just like any difficulty we encounter, we cling to whatever means we can by which we can mitigate the pain of a loved one’s passing.

If you were to poll your friends and acquaintances, you’d probably find that at least one has a personal experience with the supernatural. And, many times, these stories deal with spirits or some paranormal remnant of a lost being.

In 1992, my older brother was dying. My parents made a trip up to the nursing facility to see him when he succumbed to his illness and died with them beside him. While my parents were away visiting my brother and, unbeknownst to me, watching him die, I was at home listening to my CD player, lying on the bed. Around 6:00 pm, the power went out in my house. The lights flickered back on, then went out again. My CD player and everything electrical stopped. This went on for about 30 seconds, then the power resumed. Later, when my parents came home to tell me that my brother had passed, they told me the time of death was approximately 6:00 pm.

In my grief, I wanted to believe that my brother had somehow sent me a signal upon his ‘crossing over.’ I think this had more to do with a power grid failure or busted transformer than my brother, but I totally understand the desire to make this paranormal connection.

So, as today is Halloween and we talk about ghosts and spirits, maybe it’s a good idea to withhold our skepticism if just for a day. Let those who want to believe, believe. Much of our sense of meaning is created from our sense of need, specifically emotional need.

And maybe I’m just a tad bit envious of those who can make that connection.


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