Does our self-esteem rise after we die?
I ask this question because, sitting at the deathbed of someone who loathed herself, whose tagline was Whatever I touch turns to s**t, I watched as, seemingly oblivious to me, she talked nonstop to people no one else could see. Poised, chuckling, waving, winking, all the angst and self-abasement erased from her face, she pantomimed serving and eating pie. I wished I had known this version of her. I wished she had. Then she passed over.
But did she pass over liberated from self-loathing, somehow in that transit shorn of her lifelong belief that she was fat and ugly and incompetent? Or did I just watch brain cells die?
I ask this question not in jest or disrespect -- I have lost loved ones -- but in the spirit of inquiry. I ask because my next book, out next May from Penguin Random House, is Unworthy: How to Stop Hating Yourself, and I know how self-loathing can wreck a life. I ask a few days before Halloween because at any other time of year you might just laugh or call me a sad hack. Nobody ever likes to ponder death, as noted in my book The Farewell Chronicles: How We Really Respond to Death. But this week, wearing skull masks and devouring ghost-shaped candy makes this dire subject ever so fleetingly fun.
Believers say that at this time of year, the "veil" between the living and the dead is incomparably thin: that if we desire contact with those "on the other side," the ideal time is now.
And I am a believer.
I am an intelligent adult, and I believe in ghosts.
I don't believe in everything. I don't believe in vampires, zombies, demons, devils, angels, aliens, bigfoot, the Mayan Calendar Apocalypse or UFOs. I hated The Blair Witch Project, Ghostbusters, Poltergeist and Paranormal Activity 1, 2, 3 and 4. I hate those ghost-hunting TV shows on which stocky, sweaty-jowled guys race breathlessly down corridors shouting: Did you hear THAT?!
But I believe in ghosts. I always have. It was a quirk of mine. At seven, lacking psychic powers, never having seen an apparition or heard disembodied wails, I sat nonetheless on my fluffy bedroom rug imploring Spirits, speak. My nonbelieving parents didn't care. Had they reviled my interest in the supernatural or threatened me with hell for it, you could call me a rebel. But no. Sure, after his death Dad manifested as a massive, staring seagull, and Mom made an unplugged radio play "Hard Day's Night" the morning of her funeral. But how were we to know these things back then?
I think the spirits of the dead sometimes remain on Earth because they miss it or don't realize they have died, or because they still have unfinished business here. I think some spirits re-enact their traumas endlessly -- being impaled, say, or swept out to sea or shot by firing squads time after time for centuries. Some stay because, cleansed by death of their sufferings, their fear and loathing and shame and cocaine, they want to see this world at last with fresh eyes, free. I think some spirits stay because they love the Salisbury steak. And some stay to invisibly watch the living have sex.
But we believers want to know: If part of us outlasts bodily death, how much does that part resemble the personalities we had while still alive? Is the surviving spirit -- call it energy, or souls, or ghosts -- unshackled from all its anxieties, addictions, insecurities and fears? Are we transformed into some purer, wiser, calmer, sweeter version of our living selves?
Those who believe in angels would say yes, of course. So would those who study near-death experiences. When I interviewed healthcare chaplain and NDE expert John McNally a few years ago, he told me that a remarkable number of people who have revived after being technically dead claim to have undergone a postdeath epiphany known in NDE-speak as the "life review": experiencing in hyperspeed, after death, everything they did in life -- seen not only from their own perspectives, but also from the perspectives of everyone with whom they ever interacted.
"It's more than empathy," McNally said. "They suddenly know what those moments felt like for others, and they feel incredible joy or bliss or gratitude or hurt.
"During the life review, they had a sense of being asked two questions: What knowledge have you gained in this lifetime? And how loving have you been?"
At some point in a life review, McNally said, it is revealed that what matters most in the world is lovingkindness.
Maybe also toward ourselves.
Why wait until we're dead to realize this?
Photograph by Anneli Rufus.