Letter from Australia: Grief and Contacting the Dead

Australia, November 6, 2001

The outpouring of public grief following the tragic events of September 11th in New York and their aftermath, demonstrates the power of grief and the fear of death. We all have to face loss in our lives, but most of us prefer not to think about this as a reality, and are thus ill-prepared for these tough learning experiences. We are fortunate, however, in the 21st century to have people who have dedicated their lives to helping ordinary people cope with grief and loss. Based on the pioneering work of Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in the USA and Dame Cecily Saunders in England, specialist doctors and nurses now operate Hospices and Palliative Care centers around the world, allowing people with terminal conditions to die a dignified death with minimal pain. More recently, centers for grief studies and counseling have been established in many western countries. In 1996 one such organization, the Centre for Grief Education, was established at the Monash Medical Centre in Melbourne, and it has helped hundreds of people work their way through difficult times while in the process educating counselors working in hospitals, funeral parlours, and other institutions.

At a recent lecture in Melbourne, sponsored by the Theosophical Society, the Director of the Centre for Grief Education, Chris Hall, provided fascinating insight into the human response to grief and loss. He described the classic models of grief as proposed by Kubler-Ross (1969) and J. William Worden (1991), emphasizing, however, that these are now seen to be lacking in many ways: like much of modern psychiatry, they do not incorporate a spiritual element which is often fundamental to a person's encounter with death. He also said that the small percentage of people who have a strong sense of "meaning" in life and what follows, cope much better compared to people with no such framework for comprehending life and death.

This modern observation is reminiscent of statements by Krishna in the Bhagavad-Gita. In the second chapter, Krishna admonishes his student Arjuna that the Wise do not grieve, for the spiritual Essence of a person cannot perish but merely changes its form following the death of the physical body: "Just as a person casts off worn garments and puts on others which are new, even so does the embodied soul cast off worn-out bodies and take on others that are new. Weapons do not cleave this self, fire does not burn him, waters do not make him wet; nor does the wind make him dry . . ." This advice finds a western parallel in Plato's Phaedo. When Crito asks Socrates before his death: "In what way shall we bury you?" Socrates answers in sum: "In any way you like, but first you must catch me, the Real Me. Be of good cheer, my dear Crito, and say that you are burying my body only, and do with that whatever is usual and you think is best."

Even for those with an understanding of the continuum of life after death, it is natural to feel a gigantic hole in their lives after a loved one has died and to long for communion with them. As witnessed recently, people from desperation or curiosity may seek the assistance of psychics to contact the deceased, a practice harmful to both the living and the dead. Even when genuine, such mediumship almost never connects us to the "Real Me" Socrates alluded to, but only to the lower psychological energies of the deceased which are bound to the earth. Being stimulated by psychic contact simply prolongs the existence of this disintegrating psychological corpse.

Instead, the link with our departed loved ones is maintained by true and impersonal love. As G. de Purucker wrote:

Love is immortal; it continues always; and, mark you, the more one loves, of course impersonally, the nobler he becomes. . . . I mean that inexpressibly sweet, divine flame which fills life with beauty, which instills thoughts of self-sacrifice for others. Love of that kind, impersonal love, is the very heart of the Universe. Therefore, I say, the one who loved and who died, loves still, for it is of the fabric of his soul. -- Studies in Occult Philosophy, pp. 619-20

We need to recognize the right of our loved ones who have died for rest and recuperation away from the stresses of this world, and to realize that death is a wondrous journey for the soul -- one which we on earth should not attempt to disturb because we are overcome by our personal grief and longings. -- Andrew Rooke

(From Sunrise magazine, December 2001/January 2002; copyright © 2001 Theosophical University Press)

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