When my daughter was alive, my family used to watch The Long Island Medium, a reality show that features a medium making seemingly miraculous connections with people’s deceased loved ones.
My husband and the girls loved to pick the show apart and point out when the medium, Theresa Caputo, was using cold reading techniques or just plain guessing.
A cold reading is a methodology that a psychic, medium, or other metaphysical practitioner employs to subtly get information from the person they’re reading.
The medium may ask an innocuous question or provide a vague impression of the deceased in order to elicit a response (e.g., “I’m sensing a young man coming through”). Once you offer up some concrete detail (e.g., “that could be my nephew”), the medium drops more hints until the person they’re “reading” is actually feeding them information about who they’re trying to contact in the spirit world.
One of Ms. Caputo’s common cold reading tactics was to drop a vague hint in a room full of people. She’d announce that she felt a spirit coming through — someone older with stomach pain,whose name starts with “J.” Inevitably, one of the dozens of people in the room would begin crying and name a relative who recently died of stomach cancer or whose appendix burst.
My husband and the girls always laughed at this obvious sleight of hand, but I would remain quiet, riveted, and fully on board with the reading. My daughter was battling cancer when we’d watched the show and I wanted to believe, even if she didn’t, that there was a way we could still connect if the very worst happened.
So, I watched Theresa Caputo and I believed, even though my family rolled their collective eyes at me. I watched and I wept, because some of the readings seemed miraculous and I needed miracles to be real when Ana was sick, but I especially needed them to be real after she died.
I grew up as a secular Jew and I’ve never belonged to a temple. For most of my life, I had no spiritual foundation at all. I briefly dabbled in Wicca in my twenties, drawn to the rituals and trappings — candles, incense, crystals and stones.
I loved, and still love, the pagan philosophy of doing no harm and honoring nature. I was young and my place in the world was small. Wicca made me feel like I was part of something larger, but I never truly believed that there were mystical forces that existed beyond my comprehension, forces that I could somehow control if I burned the right candles or said the right words.
I also never believed in a concrete afterlife — no place called heaven, no place called hell. I had a healthy fear of death and I hoped that maybe there was something more, but I was young and death seemed like a remote concept rather than a real possibility for me or my children.
Ana was drawn to Wicca too, particularly in the last year of her life. She had several spell books and a collection of crystals. She burned sage and incense.
Once, when I told her there was a local teen with leukemia who was in the ICU for pneumonia, she asked me to print a photo of him so she could do a healing spell. She carefully arranged an altar with candles and stones and ordered me out of her room, preferring to complete the spell in privacy. Then she refused to let me throw out the boy’s photo. “Keep it near the crystals until he’s better,” she’d explained.
The boy lived. He’s thriving today. I know the spell did nothing to get that child out of the ICU, but a part of me can’t let go of the notion that maybe it helped move the needle of fate a tiny bit, just enough to stabilize him and help his body heal. Is this spirituality, this belief that there’s some larger force at play that Ana was able to briefly tap into?
I don’t know, but I needed to believe in Ana’s healing spell as much as she did because it implied that there are forces out there that are larger than this life which, for some of us, ends far too soon.
Ana died three years ago in March, but it was in the months leading up to her death that I realized that I had no spiritual foundation — or support — for the loss that was about to happen, and neither did she. I made two attempts to connect with spiritual leaders in various religions.
I emailed the minister of a Unitarian Universalist church, then spoke with her on the phone. She wasn’t very interested in talking about Ana (and why should she have been? I was a stranger and I was desperate). She advised me to attend a sermon and approach her afterwards. Except for craft fairs and weddings, I hadn’t stepped foot in a church for years. I was anxious and felt out of my element, so I didn’t attend the sermon. I never followed up.
Instead, I brought Ana to meet with two Wiccan High Priests in the hopes that maybe they could provide some spiritual guidance and solace. She was very sick at the time. She hated the experience.
I was upset with her for not being more open about it, and it turned into a heated argument, one that I sorely regret. I shouldn’t have tried to force spirituality on Ana or myself at that point in her illness. The experience was eye opening for me.
I realized I would have to find guidance elsewhere and learn how to be with Ana, no matter what. I focused my energy on doing exactly that in the months leading up to, and following, Ana’s death.
It wasn’t until I let go of the notion that I needed to be spiritual, that I began to understand that spirituality had been a part of my life all along.
She died on a cold March evening two days before spring. I was by her side. I felt her presence for hours. I closed my eyes and imagined her journey, away from the body that had failed her, into a place where love and solace waited.
For the first time, I pictured Ana’s soul as something that existed apart from her body. I had no choice but to believe that she existed in this form. Ana’s body was gone and I simply could not — can not — believe that her physical body equalled the sum of her being. There had to me more. There has to be more.
My fellow bereaved parents will understand me, I think. Even the ones who, like me, aren’t religious and had no spiritual foundation to lean on prior to losing their child. In the months leading up to Ana’s death, after I abandoned the idea that I needed a spiritual guide to help me help her, I read everything I could about death and dying. I continued reading and learning about the soul after she died.
Ultimately, I met with a rabbi — a warm, loving woman who, unlike the Unitarian minister, was deeply interested in Ana and in my grief. My meeting with the rabbi was a chance encounter, but it helped ground me. It gave me permission to explore my new journey into spirituality without attaching any expectations to what I would, or would not, discover. It gave me permission to believe that Ana’s soul had survived without feeling desperate or foolish, the way I’d felt when I’d watched those long ago episodes of The Long Island Medium.
I don’t know if I’ll ever be religious in the traditional sense, though if I do decide to become part of a congregation, I know whose temple I’ll be going to — the rabbi that gave me permission to connect with Ana’s spirit in my own way.
For me, spirituality means taking long walks on wooded trails and writing Ana letters. It means lighting candles for her each morning and saying goodnight to her every single day. It means accepting, though this isn’t always easy, that her soul is out there, leaving me signs and perhaps tipping the scales of fate in my favor.
Ana is now my guardian angel. She is my guide. When someone I care about experiences a loss, I close my eyes and imagine Ana’s soul waiting for the newly born spirit and guiding them. I have pictured her spirit growing older in ways that her body couldn’t — she is sixteen, then seventeen, then eighteen — a fully realized adult.
This year, as the third anniversary of Ana’s death and her 19th birthday approach, she feels more distant to me than ever. I worry that she’s more at home now in the spirit world than she ever was here with me on earth.
And yet, while this thought brings on a fresh wave of grief and loss, it also offers up a thread of hope — that Ana could be happy, that she could be in a place that she loves, doing work that she finds meaningful, is all I ever wanted for her in life. My fervent hope is that some day I’ll see her again, in the place I sometimes glimpse as I’m falling asleep. That yearned-for reunion is ultimately why I have no choice but to believe that our souls are real.