Grief, Spirits, and Storytelling

Nissaka man receiving a child from a ghost jpg HD
Detail from Nissaka man receiving a child from a ghost, Utagawa Kuniyoshi
Image: Wikipaintings

I read an interesting essay from the London Review of Books not too long ago: “Ghosts of the Tsunami,” by Richard Lloyd Parry. The essay tells of spirit visitations — and spirit possessions — reported by many people in the northern parts of Japan, the region struck by the earthquake and tsunami of 2011.

Haltingly, apologetically, then with increasing fluency, the survivors spoke of the terror of the wave, the pain of bereavement and their fears for the future. They also talked about encounters with the supernatural. They described sightings of ghostly strangers, friends and neighbours, and dead loved ones. They reported hauntings at home, at work, in offices and public places, on the beaches and in the ruined towns. The experiences ranged from eerie dreams and feelings of vague unease to cases, like that of Takeshi Ono, of outright possession. […]

Priests – Christian and Shinto, as well as Buddhist – found themselves called on repeatedly to quell unhappy spirits. A Buddhist monk wrote an article in a learned journal about ‘the ghost problem’, and academics at Tohoku University began to catalogue the stories. ‘So many people are having these experiences,’ Kaneda told me. ‘It’s impossible to identify who and where they all are. But there are countless such people, and I think that their number is going to increase. And all we do is treat the symptoms.’

Parry links this phenomenon to Japanese beliefs and customs around ancestor veneration, and to the idea of muenbotoke: wandering souls, those who die without family or kin to pray for them and help them move on. If a tsunami wipes out your entire town, all your family, all your friends — who is left to pray for you? Anyone you can haunt or possess, apparently.

One of the people featured in the article is Masashi Hijikata, a publisher living in Tohoku (a region rich in supernatural folklore). In the aftermath of the disaster, Mr. Hijikata revived the tradition of kaidankai, or gatherings for the tellings of ghost stories. These kaidankai were organized to provide support to survivors of the disaster, those who were not finding their necessary emotional and mental support from traditional counseling or religion. They were places for people to share their disaster-related supernatural experiences with fellow survivors.

Interestingly, Mr. Hijikata doesn’t believe in spirits. But he did believe — because of where he is, because of who the people of his community are — that people would begin to see them, in great numbers. And he was right.

My great-grandparents’ house, sometime in the ’30s.

I’ve written before on the tradition of ghost visitations in my family. My father believes they happen; so does my sister, so did my mother’s mother. My mom, her sister and I? Not so much, but we repeat the stories anyway, and I confess that I’m romantic enough to wish that such things really did happen. Maybe belief isn’t necessary. Maybe wishing is enough. Ghost visits are part of my family culture, and that culture colors my interpretation of certain sensory experiences. I’ve written about that, too.

There is a story in the LRB piece of a young woman named Ayane whose father went missing after the tsunami, and how she found a white flower in her shoe, not too long before her father’s body was found. At the funeral, she discovered that the undertaker had put a white flower on her father’s casket. A sign? Ayane doesn’t believe in ghosts, either.

‘I think it was a coincidence,’ she said, ‘and that I made something good of it. When people see ghosts, they are telling a story, a story which has been broken off. They dream of ghosts, because then the story carries on, or comes to a conclusion. And if that brings them comfort, that’s a good thing.’

When my grandmother moved back to the Philippines, after living with my parents for several years, she went through her photo album and had copies made of several portraits: of herself, my grandfather, and their parents, my great-grandparents. She gave those copies to my sister and to me.

My sister was always closer to my grandmother than I was. It’s my fault. I’m not an affectionate person, and you only get what you can give. When my grandmother died, neither my sister nor I could go back to the Philippines for the funeral. Isabel called me a few days later, to tell me that Lola [grandmother] had dropped by for a visit! The gist of the story was that my then toddler-aged niece had a minor freak-out, and refused to be left alone, clinging to my sister and my brother-in-law more than was her habit. And then a bag of shredded carrots disappeared, never to be found. That’s it. That’s the story.

“I think she took them to let us know that she’d dropped by!” quoth Isabel on the phone.

“She visited Isabel, and not me.” I said to Husband, feeling a bit hurt.

“She lost a bag of carrots. Sheesh.” Needless to say, Husband does not see spirits.

Anyway. Some time after my grandmother passed away, I wanted to put together a family tree for a memoir-writing class. Since I had the photos that my grandmother had given me, I decided to take them from their frames and scan them, to decorate the tree. I printed the tree out and assembled it — it was a large, poster-sized display — then laid it out on the living room floor while I put the photos back in their frames. I did this in another room, the same room my husband was working in. Other than where we were, the house was empty.

Do you know how a full house feels different from an empty one? It felt like there were other people in the house. Nothing completely conscious, just my ears and brain processing auditory inputs as if they were the sounds of other people. The creak of floorboards, like footsteps (or just the house settling?); soft rustles, as if someone had picked up the family tree to look at it (or was that the breeze from the open window, rustling the paper?). Was that cough from the living room, or from someone passing by outside? I noticed, then put the thoughts away. I know my own imaginative tendencies.

My grandmother at sixteen.

That last photo to be reframed was my favorite: a formal portrait of my grandmother when she was sixteen. As I wrestled the photo back into its heavy brass frame, I noticed a sweet floral scent: honeysuckle. Honeysuckle is the fragrance my grandmother favored: her perfumes, her lotions and creams. Where did it come from? I’m a no-perfume, unscented-everything kind of girl. No flowering bushes grow beneath my window.

“Do you smell that?” I said to my husband. “That smells like Lola’s perfume.”

Husband just smiled, without answering the question.

I let myself be entertained by the idea that I’d been “visited” for the better part of the day. Eventually, I remembered the floral-scented candle on my desk, a Christmas or birthday present from someone. It sat on my desk only because I hadn’t yet given it away. I probably jostled it while struggling with the photo and frame. The realization was both a relief, and a disappointment.

Ghosts are personifications of history, Jack Cady said, or maybe vice-versa. History is made of stories. Your stories, your history: your ghosts.

Thanks to Zack Davisson for tweeting the LRB essay.

9 thoughts on “Grief, Spirits, and Storytelling

  1. Scent is a powerful memory trigger, if not the most powerful. It is no wonder then that often scents are associated with paranormal experiences. But then aren’t memories a sort of ghost, a fragment out of time cobbled together from sights, sounds, and scents? Maybe then you really could see it as a visitation of sorts.

  2. Wonderful piece. It is useful for mental health professionals to know about the cultural norms of the people they treat, lest they mistake those beliefs and behaviors for symptoms.

    1. Thanks! I’ve always thought the connection was interesting, particularly in regards to shamanism, people who believe they are communicating with the spirit world… . And voodoo-type curses, as well. I guess someone who believes they are being cursed in that way could literally make themselves sick with their belief. When you think about it, that’s more wondrous than the ostensible magic.

  3. Really nice post. I think our thoughts on the subject of ghosts are quite similar. I love a good ghost story and wish I could believe, but I have too much the mind of a skeptic. Your grandmother looks beautiful in that picture.

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