Giving Up the Ghost

After his death, Emily Urquhart ‘sees’ her brother with regularity. Nearly 20 years later, stories and science help to explain why.

Emily Urquhart | Longreads | August 2018 | 19 minutes (4,759 words)

 
After he died, I began to see my brother with surprising frequency. These appearances were not ghostlike apparitions, nor were they dreams. Instead, I saw him in the bodies of strangers. He was waiting for the traffic light to turn so he could cross a busy intersection. A man tipped his hat skyward to read a street sign and my brother’s face hovered beneath the brim. He was the token collector at the entrance to the subway, and he was the lone soup-eater in the basement food court of a downtown shopping mall.

I couldn’t anticipate these visitations. They happened at random and unexpectedly. The people I’d imprinted with my brother’s image were only shades of him — dark hair, a downward slope to their shoulders, a bushy mustache, thick-rimmed glasses. This was fitting because, even in life, I didn’t know him well. My brother was 11 years old when I was born, and we had different mothers. As a child he’d visited on weekends with my other brother. We’d overlapped in adulthood only briefly, so my memories of him are from childhood. They are fleeting and jumbled. It was only after my brother died that I discovered his first name had been Joseph. A name chosen by his mother, but secreted away after birth in favor of his middle name. I learned this from my father when I was tasked with writing my brother’s obituary. I remember feeling awed and somewhat ashamed that I could have spent 24 years in my brother’s orbit but not know his given name. This was just one of the ways I didn’t understand who he was. This unknowing compounded the loss, which was tragic and grim, and I think this is why I bumped into him so often after he died. When he was alive, I never ran into my brother in the city where we both lived.

I was young then, my footing in the world unsure and sometimes timid. When my brother died, I was a few weeks into my second year of a graduate program in journalism. I believed I would never return to school and that I would never write again. I felt suspended among wilted funeral flowers and well-intentioned casseroles with a grief that would last indefinitely. But after two weeks I left my parents’ country home and returned to the city, resumed my studies, and re-entered my life. My upstairs neighbor serenaded me when I arrived at my apartment, assuming all the cards and flowers that had collected at my front door were birthday greetings. I thanked him, gathered the well-wishes, and stepped back into my old life, which was physically and structurally the same, but emotionally rearranged.

I don’t remember the first time I saw my brother in a passing stranger, but I do know that it went on for years. I didn’t investigate why these sightings happened, or if they happened to anyone else. It would take another 17 years for me to do this. Approaching middle age and now a mother, I’m a more confident version of my earlier self. I’m a journalist rather than a trainee, and I’m a folklore scholar. I interview people about their supernatural experiences, respecting their beliefs, no matter how far they stray into otherworldly terrain. In this way, I am now uniquely positioned to turn my gaze inward and question myself.

***

Seeing the dead is a common part of the grieving process, one that has been explored in psychiatry, religious studies, sociology, gerontology, and anthropology. These experiences happen across cultures and in different landscapes and geographies. People in cities are just as likely to see their deceased loved ones as those living in the countryside; and these sightings happen regardless of education level or gender. More women report having visions of the departed, but this might be because women tend to live longer and many of the studies I’ve read focused on the experiences of widows. The research papers were published in the 20th and 21st centuries, but lovers reunited in bereavement is a mythological trope throughout time — from the classic Grecian tale of Orpheus and his doomed attempt to retrieve his wife, Eurydice, from the underworld, to the dead bridegroom who made off with the bride in Old Norse mythology. For every malady of the human psyche there is a folktale, and grief provides no exception.

In the parlance of psychiatry these sightings are referred to as grief- or bereavement-hallucinations, or post-bereavement hallucinatory experiences (PBHE). But it’s a phenomenon most kindly described by the neologism idionecrophany, which pairs the Greek words for private and death with the verb “to appear,” a neutral term that avoids defining whether the apparitions are real or not. Because what is real — what we believe — can be highly subjective. I might believe in fairies and you might believe in God and another person might think both ideas are ridiculous, but within these dichotomies, who is to say which of us is right or wrong? The difficulty inherent in metaphysical experiences is that believing in God is acceptable in North American society, but seeing your dead brother at the dog park is considered taboo and strange, possibly pathological.

This stigma is likely the reason that post-death visions tend to be underreported. Three separate group studies of mourners from Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States found that nearly all of their respondents had seen their dead loved ones in some way, but that less than half had mentioned these experiences to a living person. In interviews the bereaved parties said they feared being ridiculed, or upsetting relatives, or inviting bad luck and further tragedy. Like the study participants, I also didn’t tell anyone about encountering my deceased sibling in the weeks, months, and years after his death, and for some of the same reasons: I was leery about sharing my post-death visions with friends who might not believe me, and I didn’t want to further burden my grieving family. Above all, however, I worried that telling would prompt some kind of medical intervention. Seeing my brother wasn’t unsettling, but the act of hallucinating and the psychiatric turmoil it implied scared me.

I don’t remember the first time I saw my brother in a passing stranger, but I do know that it went on for years. I didn’t investigate why these sightings happened, or if they happened to anyone else. It would take another 17 years for me to do this.

In the introduction to his 2012 book Hallucinations, Oliver Sacks wrote that “in modern Western culture, hallucinations are more often considered to portend madness or something dire happening to the brain — even though the vast majority of hallucinations have no such dark implications. There is great stigma here, and patients are often reluctant to admit to hallucinating, afraid that their friends and even their doctors will think they are losing their minds.”

Sacks was writing about hallucinations in general, but those born of grief — of the garden, not traumatic variety — have traditionally been given a pass in the mental illness classification system. In its most recent edition, however, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) has removed this caveat. Post-bereavement hallucinations are listed in the DSM-5 as a subsection of “persistent complex bereavement disorder” and are described as “hallucinations of the deceased’s presence.” In a 2015 literature review of PBHE, University of Milan researchers concluded that “given current uncertainty over the continuum of psychotic experiences in the general population, whether or not they should be considered pathological remains unclear.”

Looking back, it’s possible that my bereavement experience was complex. At the very least, it was layered and compounded by the factors surrounding my brother’s death: his alcoholism, which may have been linked to mental illness; how impossibly young he was when he died from that addiction; and by the stigma attached to his demise. People struggle with or battle other diseases, but such valiant language is rarely applied to the alcoholic whose body succumbs to self-abuse. My brother soldiered through the final stages of his life, and in his battle he lost a woman he loved, his creativity, his job, his connection to his family, and his shot at the regular humdrum existence those of us on the sidelines tend to take for granted.


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I don’t know a lot about my brother’s earliest years, but in family portraits he looks like a content, if wary, child. He was the third of four children from my father’s first marriage, which lasted a little more than a decade. After the divorce, my two brothers remained with their mother, and my two sisters moved with our father to a nearby city where he’d been offered a job as a visual arts professor at the university. My mother, a young widow who was 15 years my father’s junior, entered their lives a few years later and another two years after that I was born. I remember this period in stories and photographs: My teenage sisters existed in a perpetual state of rage and blue eye shadow, and we had a deranged dog named Buffer who snarled at paperboys and peed on visitors to our home. My brothers, not yet teenagers, visited on weekends. Like clowns, the seven of us would jam into the tiny family LeCar for weekend outings to the local Chinese restaurant or to comb the neighborhood when the dog escaped, which he did with regularity. By the time I was 7 my sisters had both married and left home, and my brothers’ visits were less frequent. In that stiller, quieter life I became an only child with all the attention, privilege, stability, and opportunity that afforded. My life, I have always known, has been easier than the lives of my siblings. My parents are still together, I had very little competition for attention, and I did not grow up with an alcoholic mother.

My brother was a third-generation addict. I once interviewed a distant relative for a book I was writing, and she’d confused me for one of my siblings. “Your grandfather was a sensitive, kind, and compassionate man,” she’d said. “But he was destroyed by drink.” She was talking about my siblings’ maternal grandfather — who was of no relation to me — but she might as well have been describing my brother.

Here is what I’d add: He had a yodel-like laugh; he was a skinny anxious teenager who carried me on his shoulders; and later, he became an imposing figure to my high school boyfriends, and an occasional confidante. In adulthood he was a talented artist who was a master draughtsman and the responsible manager of a framing shop where he built beautiful frames of wood, guilt, and glass. Now, I know him best from the works of art he left behind — a linocut of two apples in shadow; a pen-and-ink sketch of a beat-up leather briefcase, open and empty; a miniature, remarkable self-portrait, done in pencil, yellowed from age and folded from being carried in his wallet, as if it were his driver’s licence. These pieces of my brother’s art hang on the walls of my parents’ home, and sometimes when I visit I’ll find myself gazing into one of them expecting something profound to reveal itself. Eventually, though, I’m always left staring at my own reflection in the glass.

***

My brother’s funeral was on an unusually cold day in September 2001. We gathered at the cemetery at noon. Fat raindrops fell from the sky, and the mist cast a grey pall across the field of tombstones. There was a giant-size man in black tails, arms outstretched as if he were gathering the rain from the sky, who waved the funeral procession toward him. Slow-moving cars snaked over the bumpy gravel road that cut through the graveyard. At the grave site there was a black canopy erected over our heads and a stretch of burlap beneath us. I stood with my surviving siblings and my parents around a small rectangular hole, not much larger than a shoebox that had been cut neatly from the earth at our feet. It was tiny, as if we were burying a dead bird we’d found in the yard rather than the cremated remains of my brother.

Afterward, we met in a church basement with grey indoor-outdoor carpet. People ate sandwiches held together by toothpicks and drank bitter coffee in Styrofoam cups. We were collectively damp from the rain at the grave site. Wet overcoats hung in the corner, and we all had mud on the soles of our shoes. The women wore black dresses; the men, dark suits. I stood in one corner of the basement holding a paper plate piled with food that I didn’t touch. People lined up to speak with me, reintroducing themselves, some taking me into their arms. After offering condolences, my mother’s cousin wandered into small talk. She asked me what street I lived on in Toronto. I swallowed and looked down. I opened my mouth, but I couldn’t tell her. I breathed in, my heart raced, and blood rushed to my head. I felt like I might be sick. I simply couldn’t recall my address. I could envision my front door and the adjacent park, but the street name, no matter how hard I tried, escaped me. “I just can’t remember,” I told her, admitting defeat.

***

I had no control over when I’d walk past my dead brother in a crowded bar or see him on a bus, but I was the master of my waking dreams. In one fantasy, I invented a different outcome for my brother, while simultaneously reimagining my role in his life. In the imagined, impossible future I saw a Toronto coffee shop in winter with sun shafts sweeping low across a mottled wood floor. The tall windows were frosted, there were a few muffled coughs, and a quiet conversation drifted from the table behind where I was sitting. I was at an indiscriminate age, a random plot point on my future narrative. My oldest brother walked through the door, a bit late, to meet me. It was a casual rendezvous, something that happened on occasion but not quite weekly. He pulled the chair opposite, sat down, made a joke about the venue I’d chosen — it was a little gritty, a little bourgeois, elite but well-worn. He called it “bohemian” and said it was reflective of who I was. (Of course it was! I’d scouted the location, lit the scene, chosen the interior décor, and hired the extras; this was my fantasy.)

Here is what he’d be doing: teaching at the art school in Toronto, living in a West End apartment not too far from a streetcar stop. He’d still have the printing press he left behind when he died, the one that lives in my dad’s studio now. Or, scenario two: He left the framing shop he’d managed and opened his own, and he had a roster of local artists as clients, some of them my dad’s friends and some new people in his life, younger clientele he’d found on his own. It’s not unthinkable. He was organized, meticulous, and fiscally responsible — his careful life savings were a surprise to discover after he’d died. At 35, he had enough cash saved to divide four ways — between his mother and her three remaining children. I declined my share. Not because I’m virtuous, but because I’m superstitious.

We reinvent our dead. We renovate their architecture, redecorate their interior, and refurnish their rooms. The alternative-future story I dreamed for my brother changed with each telling, but one detail remained the same, because it had to, because without it none of the future life, imagined or real, would be possible: he was sober. Additionally, he was still making art. The two facets of who he was were intertwined. Without one, the other was impossible. Consumed by alcoholism, he was eventually no longer able to create art. Then, he died.

In the swing time after my brother’s death, when months accordioned into a single day, I shared this fantasy, truncated into a sentence, with my mother.

“Maybe if he’d checked into rehab, stayed sober, we’d have become friends? Meet for coffee?”

“Not likely,” she’d responded.

My mother is a novelist, and what I’ve observed is that although fiction writers work in the realm of the imagination, it doesn’t mean they trade specifically in fantasy. The imagined world is rife with realism. If my brother was a character in a novel, would readers believe he could join a 12-Step program, conquer his addiction to alcohol, and change his life? We never had a casual meet-for-coffee relationship, so developing one in our later years was, as my mother pointed out, unlikely. You can’t force camaraderie with people, even if they are family. Maybe especially if they are family.

I can imagine a brighter future for my brother, but there’s a more likely outcome had he lived to see his 53rd birthday this year: the grim reality of a long-term addiction. Last winter I walked by a man vomiting onto the sidewalk outside a downtown sneaker shop, a bottle of whisky in his grasp. It was December, nearing midnight, and cold. I thought of my brother. I wondered where this man might sleep that night. I remembered how after my brother’s funeral, my parents had gotten lost on their way from the service to the wake, and we’d driven slowly through a battered part of town where we saw two people staggering, ghostlike, along the sidewalk, their tattered clothes drenched by the earlier rain, their minds blotted by what — alcohol, or drugs — I don’t know. “At least it didn’t come to that,” my mother half-whispered to my father in the front seat.

***

That my brother was ranging around the city after his death might have had something to do with his life. In Scandinavian folklore there is a belief that the unsettled dead wander into the lives of the living. In some cases these represent the hug of the dead person, a concept similar to the idea of a soul. In other cases, they are revenants whose purpose is to haunt the known living. In one tale, a dead man seeks reconciliation with a neighbor he’d crossed, and in another a child haunts her parents because they’d forgotten to properly shroud her small corpse. The dead act as messengers, relaying the disaster of shipwrecks and the onset of storms, but sometimes they returned to offer basic life advice. “Don’t sell,” the dead mother advises when her son considers the fate of the family farm. In cases where the person committed suicide and their bodies could not be interred in sacred soil, the dead were forced to wander for the duration of what would have been their natural life.

The living, for their part, are more likely to experience visitations from their lost loved ones if the death was traumatic, sudden, unexpected, or untimely. This might explain why I have never seen my grandmother, who died peacefully at 96, in the faces of passing nuns or in the eyes of the blue-hairs at the bus stop. Tragedies, the personal, and in particular those on a mass scale, tend to breed ghosts, like those seen in post-tsunami Japan. A few months after the disaster, a taxi driver picked up a young woman near Ishinomaki station in Japan’s Fukushima district. She asked the driver, a man in his 50s, to take her to Minamihama district, but he protested, telling her there was nothing left in that region.

“Have I died?” The woman asked.

The driver, stricken, turned to face his passenger, but, of course, she was gone and his cab was empty. This was one of seven cases of ghost passengers documented by Yuka Kudo, a sociology undergraduate at Tohoku Gakuin University. In her study she discovered that all of the ghosts were young people. “Young people feel strong chagrin [at their deaths] when they cannot meet the people they love,” Kudo wrote. “As they want to convey their bitterness, they may have chosen taxis … as a medium to do so.”

It’s possible that my brother’s hug was unsettled, or maybe, like the young tsunami ghosts, his visitations were a manifestation of disappointment. A more troubling thought is that my unresolved issues with his death were preventing my brother from fully exiting the realm of the living. In their international bestseller, On Grief and Grieving, David Kessler and Elisabeth Kubler-Ross write that “hauntings contain valuable clues, threads to be followed to their source. They represent some unfinished business in some cases and offer great comfort in others.” Psychiatrist William Foster Matchett felt that seeing or interacting with the deceased could provide “an arena in which old conflicts and old relationship can be re-examined and perhaps mastered.” It’s possible, then, that seeing my brother, over and over, helped me to know him better than I had when he was alive. Also, seeing him allowed me to reconcile the grimmer aspects of his lonely life and death. I’d catch traces of him wandering freely about town, in the faces and bodies of ordinary people living recognizable, maybe even happy, lives. In its own strange way, this was comforting.

I had no control over when I’d walk past my dead brother in a crowded bar or see him on a bus, but I was the master of my waking dreams. In one fantasy, I invented a different outcome for my brother, while simultaneously reimagining my role in his life.

Most of the research on bereavement fantasies and hallucinations found that these experiences were pleasant, and helped mitigate pain, but there were exceptions. Apparitions of a lost child, for example, could be painful and destructive, as seen in a 2002 study published in Psychopathology that focused on two grieving mothers. One of the women, who’d lost her daughter to a heroin overdose, repeatedly heard her child calling to her for help: “Mama, mama, it’s so cold.” This was, understandably, unbearable. It’s a story that echoes across time. In “the Power of Sorrow,” a Swedish ballad recorded in the 17th century, a bereaved mother weeps in a green meadow as a parade of young children march by. She seeks her son among them and, improbably, there he is. Dressed in white, his head hung low, the child is carrying a heavy jug in his hands. The mother asks why he isn’t laughing and dancing like the other children, and her son says that his jug is filled with the mother’s tears. He could not join his peers so long as his mother wept. A variation of this story dates back to the 1400s and appears in other parts of Scandinavia and Europe, and as “No. 78 (The Unquiet Grave)” in the ballads collected by the British folklorist James Child. One version, called “The Burial Shirt,” is featured in the Grimm’s collected tales. In this variant, a young boy dies and cannot sleep in his grave because his mother’s tears continually soak his shirt. When he communicates this to his mother, her keening subsides. In Sudanese folklore, the creator, Ajok, returns a dead child to its grieving mother and in doing so enrages the child’s father causing him to murder his wife and child. As punishment, Ajok revokes any future offers of immortality, and death becomes a permanent state. The message is consistent across cultures and throughout time — the dead never truly return. Add this caveat: Avoid expressions of excessive grief, or, as I understood it, at least don’t tell anyone about them.

There is one place where you are encouraged to emote in the modern world, and that is in the therapist’s office. For a short time, when I returned to journalism school after my brother’s death, I visited a grief counsellor. She had looked young to me, and she seemed nervous and unsure. She’d been dispatched to my university along with countless others following the September 11th terrorist attacks earlier that month. My brother’s death arrived on the heels of a global trauma. His life burned out amidst the broader fire engulfing our world. It was the event that the people of my generation would remember forever: where they were standing when they heard, who told them, and how the fall light shone through tree branches, casting a web of shadows on the sidewalk below. I think he was still alive when it happened. These might have been the last images he saw — burning buildings and desperate people leaping to their deaths from skyscrapers.

I knew my brother died from esophageal varices caused by his alcoholism, which meant that a distended vein burst in his esophagus and caused him to hemorrhage. But, I’d told the grief counsellor, no one knew exactly when he had died, or what it had looked like, or even how long his body had been in his apartment. All of this uncertainty had led me to imagine my brother’s death, dredging up scenes that were gruesome and unbearably sad. I hadn’t shared these visions with anyone — not my family, or my boyfriend, or any of my friends.

The therapist suggested that I concentrate on a work of art when these thoughts entered my mind, pull up a piece from my catalogue of banked images based on years of studying art history. It would have the added bonus, she suggested, of connecting me to my artist brother. I tried imagining a grand art gallery — neoclassical, European, with shiny wooden floors and high, frescoed ceilings. I walked these halls in my mind, but, when I came close to the most famous and beautiful works of art I saw turmoil and sadness. There’s a distant sorrow in David’s pale, sculpted eyes. There’s always an impending shipwreck in Turner’s Storms. Art is grimmer, darker, and more psychically probing than it is decorative. I saw the grief counsellor only twice, and I never told her about my bereavement hallucinations. I’d been too afraid to hear her interpretation. Back then, staying silent felt like the safest choice.

All those years ago, I didn’t have the tools that are available to me now. I was just beginning what would be a lifelong pursuit of knowledge — first as a journalist, then later as an academic. I’ve since learned to question our perceptions of reality. I’ve learned to interview sources about paranormal or magical events and respect them by not asking if their experience was true, but instead ask them to describe what happened and why. From my present vantage, I now understand that my responses to my brother’s death were normal. Short-term memory loss is common during acute grief. Seeing dead loved ones in the faces of the living is something that happens in cultures across the world, as seen in folktales throughout time and in more recent rigorous scientific studies. Bereavement ravages your mind. Logic slips. You mourn your loss — the person you knew and the one you invented, and eventually, as the years pass, they fuse into the same being.

My brother’s name was Marsh. It was his middle name, inspired by a family surname, but it was the only name his friends and family called him. Yes, I learned his first name after he died, but, unlike my younger self, this no longer shames me. It never occurred to me that he was anybody but Marsh. Why would it? Still, a name is important. With a name you bestow meaning and history, or sometimes you like the shape of its written form, or the timbre of its syllables. You don’t name in sorrow, or in an effort to shape or to mold. You name with possibilities, endless and fleeting. You name in love. So when my second and final child was born I placed Joseph between his first and last names. Its origins are Hebrew and loosely interpreted; it means to give another son. It’s got a beautiful cadence, and I chose it because it’s a meaningful reminder of my brother — not of his death, but of the life he lived — and because I felt it deserved a second chance.

***

It’s now been 17 years since Marsh died, and I no longer encounter versions of him on the street. There is something inherently sad in the knowledge that I have, most likely, seen him for the last time. The sharp edges of this trauma have been blunted over the years, and I have stopped dwelling in my loss. I’ve also forgiven myself for not knowing my older brother. I missed him when he vanished, and now I believe that is enough. These are reasonable explanations for why I’ve stopped having grief hallucinations, but I have a parallel theory that runs closer to Scandinavian folk beliefs and tsunami ghost sightings in Japan: that my brother’s soul, his hug, was unsettled for a time, maybe a decade or more, but that he has now found peace. Together, but on separate paths, we have both moved on.

* * *

Emily Urquhart is a folklorist and journalist and the author of Beyond the Pale: Folklore, Family and the Mystery of our Hidden Genes.

Editor: Sari Botton