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My Favorite Ghost: A Reflection for All Souls’ Day

Updated on October 15, 2014

Loss is a part of life. As a Catholic, I take comfort in the “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) that I believe surrounds me. Since the untimely death of my father-in-law in September 2013, my understanding of the help we can receive from those who have preceded us in death has grown considerably.

All Souls' Day Helps Us Remember the Dead

This is the candle used in last year's All Souls' celebration along with a bulletin from Dad's funeral and the rosary he bought for me in Israel.
This is the candle used in last year's All Souls' celebration along with a bulletin from Dad's funeral and the rosary he bought for me in Israel. | Source

Praying to the Saints

The Catholic concept of praying to saints is one of the most misunderstood aspects of the faith as seen by those on the outside. I’ve heard many non-Catholics bash this practice as idolatry or the worship of false gods. What those people don’t understand is the full definition of the word “pray.”

Merriam-Webster includes three definitions of this verb. The first is the one most people consider: “to speak to God especially in order to give thanks or to ask for something.” The other two definitions, which tend to be overlooked, are “to hope or wish very much for something to happen” and “to seriously ask (someone) to do something.” Synonyms include implore, entreat, solicit, and supplicate.

A careful look at these definitions shows that the verb “to pray” does not imply worship. It involves request and supplication. Therefore, praying to saints or speaking to those who have passed on is nothing more than conversing with them and perhaps asking for help with a challenge in life. If you want to criticize Catholics for talking to dead people, by all means, go ahead. Not everyone believes this is possible. However, don’t make the mistake of assuming that prayer is the same as worship—it isn’t.

Many of the decorations around our neighborhood each October remind us of the ones who have preceded us in death.
Many of the decorations around our neighborhood each October remind us of the ones who have preceded us in death. | Source

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Communing with Those Who Have Died

In addition to praying to the saints, Catholics believe that we who are living (the Church Militant, in Catholic-speak) can communicate with anyone, canonized or not, who is dead in Christ (the Church Triumphant). When my grandmother passed away in 1999, I took great comfort in this belief. I regularly spoke with her, told her about things going on in my life and asked for her intercession. I didn’t hear my grandmother’s voice replying to me, but I sensed her presence.

When my father-in-law passed away in 2013, I began actively asking for his help as well. For starters, he died while on vacation in North Carolina during a time when my spouse and I were struggling to make ends meet. We had to pawn her French horn just to afford the trip there, and we both lost about a week of work to boot. So I got pretty real with Dad in our conversations. I knew he didn’t die on purpose, but I firmly believed that he was now in a place to help us.

Sure enough, Larry Allen Summerlin, the hard worker who always provided for his family, came through. For the first time since I had gone into business for myself, I had a 60-hour work week filled with paying work during the week after his memorial service in Kansas City. It was hard work, and things didn’t turn around immediately for my spouse and me. I regularly received better writing work through the end of the year, but my spouse was working at a job that demanded regular attendance on all holidays, no matter what, and she had no benefits. When she lost her job in March due to unethical practices on the part of her manager, it would have been easy to wonder whether Dad was really helping and interceding for us at all. Throughout this time, we struggled to make ends meet—almost losing both our car and our apartment. The French horn remained in hock. Then suddenly things changed.

Dad Summerlin in the flesh, December 2011
Dad Summerlin in the flesh, December 2011 | Source

The first change was a change of heart on my part. I realized that my spouse’s job had been so low-paying that with unemployment benefits we would still be bringing in almost as much as we had when she was employed—especially since we no longer had to pay for gas to drive to her place of employment.

Next came the job of a lifetime. Three times in the previous three years, my spouse had been recommended for a contract position at a Kansas City banking institution. This time, the position materialized, and it paid nearly double what she had been earning at the previous position.

During all this, my work as a web content writer had become a little shaky. Work with my primary contractor was becoming more difficult, and customers had begun refusing payment for certain pieces without giving me the opportunity to make necessary changes. An accident with the gas fireplace during the previous winter had resulted in an emergency room visit and treatment for carbon monoxide poisoning. As the mental effects took time to wear off, bills kept piling up. Even with my spouse’s new job, we were struggling to keep our heads above water.

One day, while I was meeting a fellow writer for coffee, a call came out of the blue from our landlord’s insurance company. They wanted to offer a settlement for the carbon monoxide incident. It wasn’t a huge amount, but it provided remuneration for pain and suffering as well as for the ER visit. Most important, it allowed us to get the French horn out of hock and get caught up on our everyday bills. We were even able to go on a shopping trip to buy clothing for the first time in about three years (a true need as we had lost over 100 pounds between the two of us during that time).

Since then, things have continued to look up. My spouse was offered a permanent position with benefits at the bank. I got up the courage to walk away from a contractor and begin working for private clients. Then, on the anniversary of his passing, Dad showed up.


Life After Death with Dad Summerlin

The cats were the first to acknowledge Dad’s presence in our apartment, and I’m not sure how long he had been coming around before we realized he was in our midst. While I firmly believe he had been helping us regularly ever since we returned from his funeral, we began to truly sense his presence after a conversation with El Che, our big black cat.

My spouse was talking to El Che about Grandpa on September 15, the one-year anniversary of his death. We both noticed that the cat kept looking over to a specific spot on the sofa (which once belonged to my in-laws). When my spouse asked if Grandpa was there with us, he got up, went over to that spot on the couch and snuggled down as if sitting on Grandpa’s lap.

Over the next couple of weeks, we noticed both cats snuggling in that location frequently, although usually they choose to sit in our laps or on the back or arms of the sofa. It seemed to me as though Dad would join us to watch certain television shows or be a part of mealtime.

Believing in Ghosts

Does it matter to me whether or not my belief in “ghosts” is real? Not much. I find the concept comforting, especially as we approach the time of year for observing Halloween, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. When I think of my father-in-law, whom I would much rather have here with us in person, I often light a candle in his memory or say a prayer. I do believe that in some way, through intersession or through just standing, invisible, alongside my spouse and me, he has helped us through the difficulties of the past year.

Whether or not my favorite ghost really haunts my living room isn’t the point. The point is that I find comfort in memories, in the energy left on this earth by Larry Allen Summerlin. As fortunes change for my family and me, I am happy to believe that Dad has something to do with it.


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