The other day, I interviewed a woman who has worked with the paranormal, but who has mostly retired from it. I asked her if she still gets a lot of messages from fans. She said yes, every single day. Almost a decade later.
I asked her a follow up question: were most of the people who reached out to her chasing connections with loved ones passed?
I don’t know why I asked. I just wanted to know.
Her answer was: yes, every single one of them.
That’s what everybody wants, she told me.
For a moment I felt very sad. You know the kind of sadness that hits you in the chest and you understand in that flashing moment that you have a half-second to decide whether to push it away or whether to lean into it, at which point it will totally derail your thinking for the rest of the afternoon? That’s the kind of distant doom I felt when she responded. I opted for the former, but that kind of blueness lingers, and you come back to it.
I try not to write too much about grief because it’s one of those subjects that we all try to talk about but all we ever really do is draw circles around it. It’s like talking about pleasure, grief’s opposite. You can try and try and the poets have, of course, to relay what it’s like to taste fruit or to look at the people you love, but you can’t ever say for sure. That’s how it is with pleasure and that’s how it is with grief. So we turn, instead, to their signifiers.
My grandmother died in August 2018 and when she did, some people in my family and also my boyfriend were worried about how I would handle it. I was also worried about how I would handle it and rightfully so — the last time I saw her in the hospital, I ran out of the room and sobbed in the bathroom until I had trouble breathing. When her funeral came, I floated around from room to room.
I needn’t even tell you the particulars of why she was important to me, because that’s implied by now. What I will tell you is that my crippling fear of death is the cause of many panic attacks and that crippling fear combined with sudden loss is a hell of a combination. I began looking for signs. I found none.
I grew up with lore: stories of ghost sightings and intuiting. I also grew up with religion: never-ending life.
But the signs never came.
The next year, last summer, I started listening to a paranormal podcast. At first, it scared me — all these stories about mysterious things that spook me too much to write their names down. But the thrill was too appealing. I listened to them for hours on end while painting our living room a pale blue, got the creeps at night, became afraid to open my eyes in the dark.
This went on for several weeks, but after a while, with overexposure, my senses dulled. And when they did, I grew interested in the episodes that focused on interactions with the dead.
What did they look like? Were they sounds, smells, dreams, or cardinals in the window? What did they say? Did they ask you to be calm, to be happy, to let go, to move on? It’s important to know that I did not want to hear, to taste, to dream or to see. I just wanted to understand.
We don’t know what happens when we die, not for certain, not even with the best of faith. But I don’t bear that mystery well— it makes me woozy. I try not to think about it; I try not to be too present — try to push it out of mind as well as I can muster. But in the same way that looking out the window makes me less afraid the plane will crash, hearing those stories helped smooth the edges of my grief.
Last August, 365 days after my grandmother’s funeral and four weekends straight into listening to that podcast, a clock I’d taken from my grandmother’s apartment chimed for the first time since I’d brought it home. It took several chirps for me to register what I was hearing and, of course, I paused.
That’s weird, I thought, it could be anything. That’s what I said when I told the story aloud and that’s what I thought when I asked the woman with the busy inbox whether most people who reach out to her aren’t just navigating some sort of thorny grief.
Because, really, we don’t know how to talk about it. All we do is talk up to it and around it and away from it, too. We don’t know how to look it in the eye and still get out of bed. Instead, we keep it to ourselves. Instead, we manage it on our own. We send messages to strangers who might have the answers. We don’t know how to make sense of this rhythm. Instead, we look for signs.
Monica Erin Busch is Manqué’s founder and editor. She is a journalist, a teacher, and along with photo editor Mary Stathos, a podcaster, too. You can follow her everywhere under the handle @somethingmonica, and subscribe to her newsletter here.
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