Many thanks to the Undomestic Goddess for pointing out to me that the natives (or rather, at least two people, Zeno and PZ Myers) were restless wrt to Abby’s June 4th response to a spiritually agitated woman fretting about her mother-in-law’s (hypothetical–the woman isn’t dead yet) afterlife. The original letter and response are as follows:
DEAR ABBY: I am in my 40s and have never lost anyone close to me. Unfortunately, my darling mother-in-law has terminal cancer. I am now preoccupied that people’s spirits are near us after they die.
Please don’t laugh, but it gives me the creeps. I don’t want to think my mother-in-law will watch me making love with my husband, that my father will watch me in the bathroom, or that my mother will be critical of my spending more time with my kids than cleaning the house as she did.
Am I crazy to think I might not have any privacy after my loved ones die? — SPOOKED IN SPOKANE
DEAR SPOOKED: Calm down. The departed sometimes “visit” those with whom their souls were intertwined, but usually it’s to offer strength, solace and reassurance during difficult times. If your mother-in-law’s spirit visits you while you’re intimate with her son, it will be only to wish you and her son many more years of closeness and happiness in your marriage.
As to your parents, when they travel to the hereafter, I am sure they’ll have more pleasant things with which to occupy their time than spying on you. So hold a good thought and quit worrying.
Yee. I must confess: I didn’t even bat an eye, or “note to blog about later” when I read this. Not sure if this is because I read the columns at like 6:30 a.m., when my eyes aren’t really open for batting anyway, or if it’s because I’ve believed for years now that Abby’s long gone round the bend.
Others were less willing to give her a pass. One calls the column a “gem of inanity,” while the other proposes an alternative response including the line, “consider getting a life and outgrowing the fantasy stories of youth and religion.”
It’s worth noting that Dear Abby has always left room for the spiritual element in her column. While Carolyn, Prudie, and Amy are more carefully secular and pragmatic, Abby, while promoting no particular religion, has always welcomed stories of the supernatural. For years, one of her most popular features has been “Pennies from Heaven,” where readers send in anecdotes of finding pennies with dates of significance (births, deaths, or anniversaries) at serendipitous moments. They believe, and Abby validates, that these are messages from loved ones who have passed on.
I actually find the Pennies from Heaven stories rather boring and often skip them, and on re-reading, I do think Abby’s response here is a little silly. But the other bloggers’ superior, condescending responses aren’t much better.
They certainly don’t have to believe in ghosts, spirits or an afterlife, but this person already does, and is fretting about it. Saying, “there’s no such thing as ghosts, you idiot!” won’t change her mind, or give her any relief.
If she believes in an afterlife where folks hang around observing the world, and if Abby does too (or at least makes space for such a belief in her column), why wouldn’t Abby respond on the writer’s own terms, offering comfort, rather than trying to shake up the ground underneath her?
I’m actually convinced that Abby handled this one the right way. I might have added something like, “Trust me–if I revisited the earth as an observer after my death, the last place I’d lurk is the bedroom of my adult child and his spouse.”
And also that, if she can’t shake this paranoia (again, none of these people have actually passed on!) she should seek the help of a clergyperson and/or counselor–not to tell her what to believe about life and death, but to help her sort out her responses to this belief, so they don’t hinder her life so much.