I have some really dear friends who, like me, have children who have died. Unlike me, however, they see signs and messages from their dead children in clouds, flight patterns of birds, animal (and even insect) behavior, the way flowers float in the water when we toss them in remembrance of ours sons, dreams, and other natural events. When the conversation turns to these events, I'm extremely uncomfortable. These so-called "messages" seem to be comforting to my friends,and the last thing I want to do is to hurt, alienate or patronize them by spouting off about paraedolia and other neurological explanations for these phenomena. Who am I to be telling them it's "all in their heads"? Who am I to yank the comfort-rug out from under them?
Lately, they've been plying me with books by Sylvia Brown, John Edwards, and the like. I told them I regard these people as the worst kind of frauds out to profit from the grief of others. They admitted that some of them are frauds, but insisted that a few seemed to be genuine. It's distressing to see this level of gullibility in people who are otherwise level-headed and capable; all I could do was suggest they watch a Derren Brown YouTube video about the tricks mediums use. They seem to think I'm hurting myself by closing off the potential for communication with my dead son. They don't understand why I don't find comfort in the prospect of an "afterlife".
I like these people; we have a heartfelt friendship that has provided us with comfort we couldn't get from people who haven't experienced this kind of loss. It's a kind of foxhole brotherhood (or sisterhood in my case). I value it highly. It's among the most important relationships in my life. Yet, to preserve it, I myself must feel alienated, cut off, alone - because I do understand that all of the phenomena they find so meaningful really isn't. There are no messages from the dead. Birds, bugs, and animals just do what they do for their own needs. Floating objects are just wafted along by currents dictated by the laws of physics acting on water. We only see what our brains construct from incoming photons, and the only meaning it has is what our limbic system imparts to it. I don't read the books they read, and they are bored by the scientific content of the books I read. What I find fascinating, wonderful, and transcendent, they find dry and dull and difficult to understand. It's a communication gulf I can't seem to cross. Other than Carl Sagan's wonderful book "The Demon Haunted World", I can't think of another book that debunks the paranormal in a way the average, non-scientific person would find entertaining enough to keep their interest and make them think.
Meanwhile, all I can do is stress that it was our communication with our living child that mattered. I don't need to consult tarot cards or cloud patterns to know what my son would want; I knew him well enough. The best we can do is live in a way that would make them happy and proud if they were here. An atheist's comfort comes not from mystical messages but from the knowledge that the dead don't suffer or remember; someday, neither will we. It comes from knowing that, no matter how long or short, each life is an incredible opportunity, a time to be lived to the fullest - because it is the only one we get. I only wish I could convince my friends that their children would not want them to waste their precious time mooning over mysticism, trying to divine messages that aren't there. I wish we could just remember their real lives, the way they were, the way they will be forever in our memories.