/ 28 March 2013

Death: An inconvenient truth

Joonji Mdyogolo searches for a way to come to terms with her father's death.
Joonji Mdyogolo searches for a way to come to terms with her father's death.

Since the death of my father, a year ago in January, I have been plagued by the need to believe in the afterlife. I talk to him when I am at his gravesite and often imagine that he is sitting next to me. I was taken aback when he finally spoke. It was on the anniversary of his death, after I had sent a message to my mother, who was going to visit his grave, to send love on my behalf. To my mild irritation, she sent back a message: "Papa said he loves you, too. He said he can see you and hear you." My father would have found this hard to believe.

My father never went to church or subscribed to a religion. He looked at religious figures as philosophers, open to questioning and even ridicule, if it called for it. I looked up to this viewpoint; it's the roots of my own searching mind and partly why I abandoned the idea of church as soon as I could make the choice myself. I find the requirement of religion to suspend rationality for belief an ill-fit. So it feels disingenuous that, at the sight of my own grief, I should want to seek shelter in one of religion's pillars.

Grieving is forceful enough to knock you off solid ground and I felt that I needed to get a grip on the thing that stabilises me: my mind. I wanted to know what others who deal with death could do to help me reverse this temptation to engage in the idea of his afterlife, or whether I even should.

George Hull, philosophy professor at UCT, told me philosophy can help us understand why it is so unsatisfying for humans to think their dearly departed live on only in a metaphorical sense – in the memory of them and their achievements. 

"The logic of certain attitudes–like gratitude, resentment, indignation or forgiveness–demands that the objects of those attitudes be capable of taking part in interpersonal relations," Hull said. "If all that remains of a loved one is their dead body, many strong feelings we have towards them, such as gratefulness, anger or even a desire to forgive, just won't make sense anymore. That is one reason why it is so tempting to think the dead must still exist somehow, somewhere."

But what is the harm in that? So what if I choose to believe in an afterlife to help soothe the pain? I told Hull about Maryna Seldon, a counselor and leader of the Johannesburg chapter of Compassionate Friends, a group which helps parents grieving the loss of a child, which is loss in a class of its own. Seldon's son committed suicide eight years ago and when I asked her what she would do if I came to her today with irrefutable proof that there is no afterlife, that her son's death was the end, I regretted it instantly. She breathed deeply and stayed silent for some time before she answered.

"The main thing when you are grieving the loss of a child is that you are living for the day when you see them again," she told me. "The idea of an afterlife was helpful to me; thinking that I would be reunited with him. I would never be able to do without it."

Hull told me that sometimes we believe something not because we have evidence but because we wish it to be so.  "A belief formed on no evidence is called irrational and you have to distance yourself from that belief."

But why, I insist, when the truth is none of us know, whichever side of the belief system we reside, whether there is an afterlife or not?

Jacques Rousseau, founder and chairperson of the Free Society Institute, calls a belief in the afterlife a "convenient fiction, whether we know it's a fiction or not”. Rousseau's organisation is dedicated to “defending free speech and the secular viewpoint against threats presented by religion, bad science and other forms of irrationality," he wrote me in an email. "Of course it can be tempting to believe in the afterlife, because it reassures or comforts – perhaps we'll see the loved one again, and perhaps (sometimes) we'll get to shrug off some guilt we're now left with, because of hurtful things we said or did."

I left my father alive and came back to bury him six months later. For the years he battled cancer I lived in another city and he spent the last years of his life reassuring me that he was fine when in fact he was, many times, doubled over in pain. I never saw him through those last days. So yes, guilty. Guilty. Guilty. But I'm angry, too. If I had known, had he not tried to protect me in that last telephone conversation, I might have made my way back home sooner. So here I am: in a space where my own father is done with me when I am not done with him; a kind of adult abandonment.

I found some sense from an unlikely source, especially since at the beginning of our conversation she chuckled at my proposition to rid myself of a need to believe in an afterlife. Makhosi Amanda Gcabashe is a sangoma from Johannesburg. 

"The foundation of our belief is that the dead go to another life, and even when they are born it's a reincarnation," Gcabashe says to me. "We believe in a continuum of existence.” She focuses not on my declared fixation with the afterlife but the tight grip I am maintaining on the physical and the past. “If you want words from me to know that he is here, sorry he is not," she says, not sounding sorry at all. If I insist on the evidence, she adds, then surely I should know that he lives in my blood, in my DNA. "But don’t keep the person stuck here. Do not make a statue of him." And then she says four simple words that make me break down: "Let that person go. You need to let him go."

In that moment I realize that I am not actually a tangle of intellectual questions, but a ball of raw emotions. That I have been wrestling with a slippery concept of the afterlife, when maybe I had not accepted a clear reality. My father is dead – an undisputable fact. That is why, she explains, all African rituals performed at a funeral – rituals I took part in to appease the elders rather than the ancestors – like the lighting of the candle is about saying, "Go, leave". That is why African belief has so many verbal affirmations, so that masigeza sisusa amabhadi (cleansing ritual), we say hamba (go), so that we can acknowledge that he is gone.

Gcabashe says my father is a spirit on a journey back to his ancestors – a unification with amadlozi. It's an idea, like any other religion, one that I fail to grasp, that defies rationality. But the truth is it's the finality of death that I need to come to terms with, the sheer banality and brutality of an ending. I don't know what becomes of my father. But if I do not move on I think it is not him but me who will be lurking in the shadows of death. It’s finished now. And that acknowledgement gives me a strange kind of peace.

Joonji Mdyogolo is a freelance writer based in Cape Town. Follow her on @joonji.