Psychology And The Afterlife


I am very pleased that the Jewish community in Northwood has had the courage to tackle a whole series of lectures on death.

I believe that the whole issue of death and how we view it is of fundamental importance for us, for the living. I say this because the view that we hold about death in the deepest recesses of our heart will colour how we see and consequently how we live our life. We cannot separate life and death any more than we can divide night and day or an object and its shadow. Birth and death from our limited human perspective are eternally intertwined.

As a psychologist I have the opportunity of being in touch daily both with death and with the afterlife. In my work of psychological investigation I constantly encounter situations and aspects of my patients' personality which are strongly influenced by their relations with the deceased and with the afterlife. The influence that the afterlife has in our minds is subtle and very potent. This is because the idea that an individual has about the afterlife is closely associated with the idea that the he or she holds on God and what I mean by God in this context is the idea that an individual has about what reality is.

Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going? What is all this about? These are the fundamental questions that affect the way we live and how we relate to the world we live in. They are the true human questions and how we answer them will determine how we see the world and how we live our life. The problem is that this fundamental level is buried deep, deep down in our minds and in our hearts. We settle it in our childhood and it hardly ever comes out to the surface. People very rarely explore and question it. It is often surrounded by a 'ring-pass-not' of fear and superstition. So its effect remains unchanged and unchallenged. This makes its very subtle influence all the more persistent and powerful. This whole subject of death and the afterlife occupies a large area of our minds. One can run the risk of ending up in interminable philosophical discussions about it or, in making some broad generalisations that lead nowhere or, what is worse, to box oneself into a comer of dogmatic positions. To avoid these dangers, I propose to illustrate what I am pointing to with a concrete case picked more or less at random from my consulting room.

Some years ago I was consulted by a young woman. She came to discuss with me some problems she was having with her life and her affairs. She was divorced, she had a little child, she had problems in her relations with men, she had little money and the list of her heartaches went on and on. Hers was really a sad and distressing story. It was obvious that this woman needed help to understand herself better and to learn to manage her affairs. To her credit she had enough insight and humility to be aware of this herself which made her a good candidate for psychotherapy.

Soon after her treatment started I began to notice that there was something strange about her. She was an intelligent person, of that I had no doubt, but what intelligence she had was covered up by a thick silver coating of sentimentality. This meant that one couldn't have a straightforward conversation with her. Her inner world was too raw, too sensitive, there was too much pain that had never been properly put to rest. She felt wounded and hurt very easily and that would increase her anxiety which was already very high. She was trapped in a vicious circle of anxiety, pain, more anxiety, more pain. It seemed as if she could never come out of it. It appeared as if she only reacted to life. Her raw, anxious feelings were the master of her house and she would act according to their dictates with scarce reference to her mind. "React before you think instead of think before you act" could well have been her motto. She had a fine brain, that wasn't her problem. Her problem was that her brain seemed to be sleeping most of the time. It was constantly focused on her emotional turbulence and it didn't seem to have any energy left for other things. It was well and truly trapped. The whole story of her treatment was about waking the sleeping mind and releasing it from the hold of untamed emotions.

What I want to focus here is one particular aspect of her treatment, her relationship with her father. She was an observant Jewish lady and she was brought up in the midst of Jewish Orthodoxy. This aspect of her personality was very important to her, it was a big part of her identity. It was how she experienced and saw herself. Her father died at the age of 46 and she was devastated. Prior to that, her parents had divorced during her teens. These two incidents had been very painful and difficult for her, so much so that even after all these years she hadn't managed to overcome what was effectively an emotional handicap.

The experiences she had about her father made her feel that her dad was a weak man in constant need of protection and reassurance. The divorce and the subsequent death of her father confirmed her views. They became engraved in stone somewhere inside her. She felt guilty in having failed in her mission to make him happy. This guilt was never resolved and seemed to increase with the passage of the years. 

The feelings of guilt and failure haunted the relationship she had with her dead father and, by extension, with the world in which she lived and how she experienced it. Her choice of partners for example, was an area which was affected very much by it. She constantly chose men who were weak, ineffectual and in need of great emotional support.

To think or to speak about her father was always very painful to her. It was a highly charged area and one could only approach it at one's peril. Approaching this area of her psyche was like walking on eggs. Believe me, I tried everything I could think of, subtlety, compassion, empathy, sympathy, nothing seemed to work. I had taken many hits and encountered many booby traps in my attempts to approach the subject of her dead father, all to no avail. That is until one day I got exasperated and said to her rather impatiently "I don't think you are letting your father rest in peace, every time you think about him you seem to be giving him an electric shock". After I said this there was a pregnant pause. I don't know why but this remark of mine seemed to hit her like a thunderbolt, it really touched and affected something very deep in her own understanding about her relationship with her father. She had a sudden insight, she seemed to realise at one glance what she had been doing with the ghost of her father for all these years. This insight was further reinforced by a second intervention of mine.

The topic that we had been discussing when I made my fortuitous interpretation was the state of her father's grave. The state of her father's grave was something that had been troubling her for many years. She felt that his gravesite was undignified and below the standard she would want for him. It seemed to be unkept, unloved and rather shabby. It hadn't been properly looked after for a long time. The headstone needed attention and urgent repairs. She had mentioned this to the male members of the family some years ago and either they didn't listen or they didn't care very much but the fact was that they didn't do anything about it. In the course of our discussion I asked her why she felt she needed to delegate this to other people, if she cared so deeply about it and it meant so much to her why didn't she as her father's daughter take action and do something about it herself. This worked like a charm, she did take responsibility, she saw to it that the stone was fixed and the gravesite was tidied up and she felt much better for it. She laid a heavy burden to rest, a father and an inferiority complex. 

As I pointed out at the beginning of this paper death doesn't end with death, there is an afterlife certainly for the living. The afterlife for the living is the living memory of the deceased which will accompany those who remain for as long as they live. In the case of the patient I describe, by changing the nature of her relation to her dead father she emerged from a long dependence to her inferiority and guilt feelings. Her nursery days were over. She was capable at last of rational thought and action. Very soon her new found insight and common sense were put firmly to the test in other areas of her life. But, you might still be wondering, what happens to the dead person after he or she dies? On this topic I can do no better than leave you with the wise words of the late Lubavitch Rebbe, Rabbi Schneerson, who said "The teachings of gilgul (reincarnation) are true, and it is also true that you don't have to wait to die to start a new life. In turning to God (Teshuvah) you can start the next reincarnation right now".

In loving memory of my mother in law Iris Shaio.