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  • Writer's pictureSarah Gibbs Underhill

Listen as Often

Updated: Jul 23, 2022

" Listen as often to things as to beings..."

This is a paraphrase of the refrain to a wonderfully eerie Sweet Honey in the Rock song called "Breaths". It was adapted, from the poem "Birago Diop", by Ysaye Maria Barnwell and also contains the lines "Those who have died have never, never left. The dead are not under the earth." The refrain actually says "Listen *more* often to things than to beings," but I'm taking a slight liberty with that because I think it could be difficult. Beings are generally much noisier than things and demand our attention more often.

The comforting message of the song, which harkens back to African spiritual beliefs, is the almost universal hope that we maintain a real connection with the dead, beyond our memories and records.

My mother, a lifelong skeptic and atheist, has had a spiritual epiphany. It took place in the ritualistic setting of the radiation clinic where she was receiving her very first full brain radiation treatment on the multiple tumors in her brain. Those places are like temples to the God of Science, the doctors being the High Priests thereof. Mom was fitted with an intricate and custom fit white fabric mask and was lying completely still on the table with machines hovering over her. She said she thought of her father, who had to face taking the full force of very primitive and brutal full body radiation for his fatal Hodgkin's disease in the 1940's. As she thought of him his image came to mind and it seemed that he was with her in the room, taking his place at her shoulder. She felt his presence, his support and solidarity with her as he accompanied her on this dreadful journey which he could not protect her from. She felt that he was with her again, finally, in her hour of need, he whom she had felt abandoned by and separate from since his death when she was only twelve.

This profound and comforting experience is similar to other things many of my Hospice patients have talked about. My stepmother, as she lay dying, told me very matter-of-factly that her grandmother was coming to get her, and that she was going to go with her. All I could do was agree lovingly that this should be so.

When my son is in schizophrenic psychosis he hears vicious auditory hallucinations of malevolent voices belittling or threatening him. I do not for a minute believe that these voices are from evil spirits that exist to torment him. I believe they are creations of and within his mind, neural connections between auditory receptors and the most foul and self-critical thoughts. The world is not evil enough to have those spirits loose in it.

Similarly, I believe the visitations from the dead are spun like dreams out of our own consciousness, but the comfort and feelings of awe and love that they can engender are real: beautiful, healing, magical. My mother now feels "he has been with me all along, but I never felt or acknowledged him." Very similar to those who say the same about the presence of God. God the Father, in this case. My Mom's father is at her shoulder now so she doesn't walk her road alone, along the way where we the living cannot be there to comfort her.

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