Suicide, death, ghosts, and what happens after we die?

9 June 2019

Some of you may remember I mentioned Aurelia Brouwers last summer.  She was 29 and Dutch and had suffered so badly from mental health problems that voluntary euthanasia was approved and she died surrounded by friends.

On Wednesday this week, it was reported that Noa Pothoven, a Dutch 17-year old, had been turned down by an ‘end of life’ clinic last year because they thought she was too young but, after refusing to eat or drink, she said goodbye to her family and close friends and died at home.  Surely we need to change the system in the UK?

Her autobiography ‘Winning or Learning’ had highlighted the paucity of support (in the Netherlands) for teenagers with mental health problems.  It’s described as an “award-winning” book but I haven’t been able to find out what award it won, possibly because my Dutch is only marginally better than my Icelandic.

Coincidentally, we heard of another suicide this week with a curious postscript.  A friend told us her that her former partner’s father had suffered from mood swings for many years, and possibly had undiagnosed bipolar disorder.  He shot himself in the garden.

She later split up with her partner and has since found a new partner but she remains on good terms with her ex and his family.  Her son, now about 4, never met his grandfather but she recently found a photograph of him and asked her son if he knew who this man was and he immediately said “It’s grandpa”.  She asked how he knew that and the child said he sometimes saw him.  He had never been frightened by seeing him and obviously considered him a nice man.

A great aunt of mine also saw a ghost once, a woman pacing up and down her hotel room, soothing a baby.  “Poor thing” she thought and went back to sleep.

I tend not to believe in ghosts but I do believe we know very little about how our minds work and interreact – physical scientists often dismiss anything that isn’t explicable or replicable as ‘psychic’ and, therefore, imaginary;  like Professor Neanderthal trying to explain how an Amazon drone had delivered a pair of trainers to the mouth of his cave.

But why do we sometimes know what somebody else is thinking, even at a distance, or why can ‘healing’ work, or why is one immediately drawn to (or turned off by) people one has only just met for the first time?  I also believe that time isn’t a straight line and can’t be considered in isolation so it might be possible to hear or see an echo from elsewhere in spacetime.

But I do wonder what happens when we die.  Perhaps the best bit about dying (or maybe the second-best bit if you’ve been in a lot of pain) is finding out.

I can’t believe that the person I am, who has been moulded by my life experiences, my joy and my pain, will continue once the body that contained these has gone.  I rather like the fact that the atoms that make me now will drift away when I die and become a part of everything else and I will continue to exist as a person only in other people’s memories so, in a few decades, nobody will know who I was, and that’s fine by me.

Another friend and I were talking recently about how both our mothers had promised to let us know if there was anything after death, and we had both experienced comparatively unusual events after they died that seemed significant to us.

My mother was a devout agnostic and said that, if there were a heaven and a hell, she’d rather go to hell because that’s where all the interesting people would be, but the whole black or white thing does seem rather unlikely to me, if only because too many questions about an afterlife remain unanswered.

For example, how old would I be if I were given an unconditional place in heaven?  Would I be as I am now, rather deaf, with chronic low-grade pain from my dystonia, an achey knee and canyons in my face?  Or could I choose the somewhat fitter body I had a few years ago?  Or even the body George Clooney’s always had?  Or could I be a woman?

What about people who die very young, whose life experiences were so limited?

And what about animals?  Do they go anywhere?  What about the Scottish midge?  Imagine an existence without birdsong and Labradors and whales?

I realise religious people will think I’m being over-simplistic and have entirely missed the point about spirits and souls and the forgiveness of sins.  I can only apologise to them, particularly if they think I’m being blasphemous or offensive, but this is a personal theory.  I’m not proselytising and have every respect for people who believe completely different things.  I’m even happy for people to try to convert me to what they believe, provided my tea doesn’t get cold while I’m listening.

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