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The Problem with Ghosts

Photo by Lucas Ludwig
Photo by Lucas Ludwig

On the pros and cons of seeing our dead loved ones.

One thing was clear; my father was concerned about my mother. He had told so me himself. He approached me while I was chopping vegetables for dinner. He quietly waited for me to notice him, and then he said: “I am worried about your mother.” Before I could respond, he disappeared. He was not swift of foot or a magician. He was dead.

When my father vanished, he left me with so many questions. Was Mom OK? Was that my father? Shouldn’t he be someplace else? Did I see him, or was I having a stroke, or suffering from an overactive imagination?

Was Mom OK?

Mom was doing the best she could. At this point, she was physically healthy. I knew from our daily phone calls that she was a little bit in denial about her emotional state. She had lost her loving partner and best friend. They had been married for 54 years. When I think of a couple who were still deeply in love and not together out of habit, my parents were always the first couple to come to mind. Mom came from a time and place when admitting to being depressed was perceived as a weakness. She could, however, admit to a sense of deep sadness. She was not facing an immediate physical or mental health emergency. For the purposes of our discussion, yes, Mom was OK.

Was I having a stroke?

No. Unless it came and went in a flash, with no lasting side effects, I was not in the midst of a neurological event. And this takes us to:

Did I see my father’s ghost?

There is nobody who can back me up on this. When my father’s ghost shared his concerns with me, I was in the kitchen by myself. The only one who can vouch for me is my father’s ghost. That’s awkward. And if you are skeptical, it is very convenient. Maybe I was projecting. Maybe while chopping vegetables I had been thinking of my parents and how they loved and cared for one another. Perhaps I imagined the entire encounter. This is the most straightforward explanation. Or, maybe I saw a ghost.

The problem with ghosts

Most religions allow for the existence of ghosts, spirits, and other supernatural beings. We currently do not have definitive scientific evidence for or against the spirit world. A popular theory is that people who identify with a religious belief system are more likely to report seeing ghosts. And the ghosts we see fall in line with the teachings we follow. 

My father was a devoted practicing Catholic. If I saw him, then it was because God had allowed him to come back to Earth to deliver his message. But I’m not a Catholic. I’m a Buddhist. We do not share the same beliefs around ghosts and spirits. Was my father following his rules or mine?

Maybe there is a sorting system. After death, we go to a way station, and then we are redirected according to our religion, or lack thereof. I can picture it now: “OK, Buddhists go to holding section three and wait for further instructions. We will need to sort you according to your sect. Catholics, line one is for you. Muslims go to holding section two and wait for further instructions. Sunnis and Shia, do not worry; we will divide you up once you arrive in section two. Jews, please go to holding section one. We understand that all Jews are not alike. You will receive further instructions once you reach section one. If you identify as Christian but NOT Catholic, make your way over to holding section four. We will need to sort you according to your sect. Hindus, holding section five. If you lived in East Asia and we have not listed your belief system, please go to holding section six. Native peoples, go to holding section seven. Atheists, line three is for you. If we have not called out your religion, please go to holding section eight. Undecided, pick something NOW.”

And then, if any of the deceased wish to make a return visit, he or she goes through a similar sorting system to get their ghost visa. Catholic father visiting a Buddhist daughter, please follow the Vatican guidelines on friendly hauntings.

It’s not the problem with ghosts. It’s MY problem with ghosts

Any time after I have had conversations with the ghosts of my dead loved ones, I have been hit with remorse. “Why is he/she still here? He/she shouldn’t be here helping me. He/she should have moved on.”

As a Buddhist once, you go to holding section three and get sorted into your sect, you follow a path. In my sorting group, you are either reborn or have already conquered suffering and there is no more rebirth. There is the possibility that one gets lost or is resistant to rebirth.

My problem with ghosts is that as much as I have enjoyed visits from my father, and later my deceased mother or husband, I do not want them to be able to visit me. I wish they have gone beyond suffering. If not beyond suffering, I wish that they have moved on to a quick and beneficial rebirth. If neither of these is true, then they are possibly visiting me as hungry ghosts. And that is a horrible rebirth. It means that my loved one is suffering due to actions he or she committed in his or her previous life. And I do not want to think that the people I loved had karma that brought them back as hungry ghosts. Or as a deva, which is better but still not desirable. Ultimately, a possibility that allows him or her to visit me as a ghost is not the goal.

Now, my problem with ghosts is becoming less about my ghosts and more about my attachments. An aversion is a form of clinging. On the one hand, I want to say I saw my father’s ghost. But then, because I’m not too fond of the implications of that, I don’t want it to be true.

Maybe none of us have it exactly correct? Or perhaps this is an idea that I cling to because I do not want to view my father as a hungry ghost, a deva, or a demon?

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Adrienne Parker
Adrienne Parker
2 years ago

This is very similar to I’m going through right now and in fact, is how I found this article. It doesn’t really answer any questions for me but it’s nice to have the companionship of someone struggling with the same issue.

Lisa Marie
Lisa Marie
7 months ago

As a Buddhist, I was wondering the same thing. Now, I’m really thinking that there are two paths after death. One where one head to rebirth, AND then another bit (what we know as Mom, Dad, friend…) that can remain to connect with us and others.

I’ve had too many experiences with those who have died, but really believe in rebirth as a continuum too.