Ask Richard: Mom Believes She Communes with Ghosts April 11, 2011

Ask Richard: Mom Believes She Communes with Ghosts

Hi Richard,

I really enjoy your posts and I think you are doing a wonderful job.

There’s something that I’ve been struggling with and would really appreciate your advice. My mom claims that she can feel the spirits of people who have passed away and travel with them in a sort of elevated state of being. She knows I don’t believe in anything supernatural, yet I know she will be hurt if I tell her that I think she is wrong. My goal is not to change her beliefs, but for her to accept the fact that I am not willing sit there and listen to her make claims that insult my sense of reason.


Dear Frustrated,

Good for you for wanting to be gentle.

Since your mother already knows that you don’t believe in anything supernatural, she also already knows that you think she is wrong. Both of you know that both of you know this, but both of you have a tacit agreement to not say it out loud.

This is a common game in families called “Don’t say the truth we both know.” Depending on the importance of the unspoken truth, the problems this game can cause range from mild to severe, and even fatal. The extreme version of this game is sometimes called “Ignoring the Elephant in the Room,” as in a family with an addicted member.

It’s essentially a trade-off. By pretending to not know what everyone knows that everyone knows, The short term gain is that someone’s feelings are spared something like humiliation, or sadness, or anxiety, and a confrontation is avoided. The long term loss is that things that need attending to are neglected.

In your case the only consequences seem to be that you have some tension and loss of closeness in your relationship with your mother. That is a sad thing, but so far it has been worth it to both of you to avoid the other emotions that might come up if you both were frank and open about your opinions.

Consider three possible reasons why your mom is attracted to believing that she can sense or communicate with the dead and travel with them:
1. It reassures her that there is an afterlife where her own consciousness will be preserved after her death, and she might be able to commune with the living, including you.
2. It makes her feel special and important to have an ability that most people don’t claim to have.
3. It can be exciting in what may be an otherwise boring, limited daily life that is getting more limited as she gets older.

You might be the only person with whom she feels safe to talk about these things. Since necromancy and astral projection are generally frowned upon by most religious people, there’s a risk that anyone else would openly criticize her for delving into the “occult,” or would just spread gossip that she’s crazy. I don’t think she is crazy, by the way. She just believes in odd things. Many, many people do.

However, I don’t think that these considerations mean that you must passively sit there when she starts talking about these odd things. You can respond in two ways:

The first is to suggest and promote activities that might better fulfill some of her needs. Compliment her on things she does well that make her special and important to you and others, and encourage her to do more of those things. Help her feel appreciated for her real world talents. If she tends to be isolated, encourage her to get out more and socialize. She might not be a self-starter in that regard, so perhaps you can help her get started by driving her or accompanying her to social venues where she can find companionship with people who will come to like her for her more earthly skills. If she is also able to find a few people who are comfortable with her ideas about sensing spirits, so much the better. Then you won’t be the only one with whom she feels safe to talk about it.

She probably won’t completely discard these beliefs you have described, but hopefully she’ll have other things to talk about, other gifts and abilities to offer the world of the living, other relationships that give her present life meaning, and other people who will listen to her besides you and the dead.

At the same time that these healthier outlets are developing, you can do the second thing, which is to gently assert yourself about your own comfort. Whenever she starts talking to you about her contacts and travels with ghosts, you can quietly say, “Mom, I’m not comfortable talking about this stuff with you.” If that’s too serious a tone, you might try a lighter version with a chuckle and a smile, “Oh come on, Mom, that stuff is too weird for me.” Either way, you’re telling the truth because you’re not comfortable talking about it, yet it’s not the more brutal statement, “You’re wrong about all that nonsense,” that you’re afraid would hurt her feelings. Always have in your pocket a list of preselected topics of conversation that you can immediately bring up as an alternative. “Hey, what do you think about…”

If she persists, your last resort is to politely excuse yourself and leave. Something like, “Uh huh. Mom I have to go now, I’ll see you later. Love ya.” will probably suffice. After a while of losing your company whenever she brings this topic up, she might either consciously or unconsciously decide to talk to you about something else.

The results will probably be slow and subtle, but hopefully your relationship with her will become closer and more relaxed because you both will have set aside the “Don’t say the truth we both know” game. You’ll have other truths to share openly, such as your mutual affection, your mutual interests, and your mutual experiences of life in the here and now.


You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond in a timely manner.

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  • Nakor

    Now this one hits a bit close to home. I no longer live with my folks, but I found myself in similar shoes. My mother believes that she can talk to spirits. The difference in my case is that for the longest time I never mentioned my atheism.

    (It went surprisingly uncontested when I finally did mention it, a couple months before I finally left home. I was shocked twice over, on the drive to my new home near the university I attend, to learn that my father had been agnostic all along. Finally I understood why father would get so angry whenever mother would claim to have a message from his late parents.)

    Anyway, on a regular basis I would hear my sister talking to my ma about something, and demanding that she “ask the angels” for the answer to some question (typically a yes/no one). Mother would waver for a while and say she didn’t know, but my sister would keep pushing and eventually out of frustration my mother would, invariably, give my sister whichever answer she wanted to hear.

    This was always a frustration for me, because my sister was in a tough spot, and what she needed was real advice from living people — like her mother’s own real advice — not to be fed what she wanted to hear all the time. Mother’s answers would often be the “give it time, it will come to you” or “God has a plan and it will work out” sort. But if you sit around waiting for that, it will not happen.

    It came to a bit of a head when my uncle claimed to be able to speak to his late mother. My uncle, you see, is mentally challenged; his capacity for thought is somewhere roughly in the age range of 6-9. He has a tendency to mimic ideas he hears from others. When I heard him claiming that his mother’s spirit was talking to him, I became rather worried that we were now talking about a much more serious delusion. (It is a risk I may have overestimated, but one I felt was not worth toying with over something like this.)

    I finally spoke to my mother about it, and tried to convince her that he needed to not be exposed to that sort of thing. At first she (and my sister) disagreed, saying that he probably could sense spirits (One argument was that even animals could detect spirits in rooms, so why couldn’t he?) but eventually I managed to convince them that he was most likely hearing what they said and copying — and that for a mentally challenged individual to become convinced that he could talk to the dead was a decidedly bad thing.

    I never made a tonne of ground, but we did come to a compromise. My family agreed that they shouldn’t discuss anything of that sort around my uncle, just to be safe. My mother (essentially) also agreed that my sister should not keep hearing what she wanted, though I don’t know if she actually stopped answering in that fashion.

    I guess the point is, unless you’re in a situation where keeping these opinions hidden is vital (ie: a family that might kick you out for disagreeing with religion), it’s often a good idea to just open up the conversation. It can be tough, but with everything laid open, it removes a bit of the stress and tension, and might even help improve things.

    Best wishes, Frustrated, and thank you for the post, Richard.

  • Frustrated,

    You may not believe she communicates with the deceased but you can believe that she feels like she communicates with the deceased. Her feeling can be real even if her conclusion about what the feeling means is probably wrong. You can honor her feeling. It is just a question of interpretation. I think it is fair game to question her (if done respectively) if her communications ever offered her any information that she hadn’t yet been able to determine that she later on validated through another source. If so, then the follow-up question would be if that occurrence would have statistically been anything other than just a coincidence with no causality in the supernatural.

    I too sometimes have “flights of fancy” where I have a sensation like I might be communicating with the deceased but the lottery numbers haven’t matched up yet. 😉

    I realize that my “sensations” are all just in my mind. They sometimes enter my conscious mind, I notice them and I think it is interesting, then they pass on and I give them no further credence.

    By probing her with respective questions whenever she brings up her sensations, she might start to recognize that the sensations are all just in her mind and bring the subject up less often. Or she may hold fast to her beliefs but not really care to hear your inevitable follow-up questions and keep them to herself in your presence.

  • Ron in Houston


    Why are you upsetting yourself so? Ever heard the phrase “just ignore it and let it go?”

    Jeff P’s advice is pretty good as far as dealing with her, but seriously why are you so Frustrated?

  • Togii

    Ugh. I have a coworker who is expecting his first child next month. His mother passed away a few years ago, and it was quite sad for him to think about how she wont be there to meet her grandchild… until he started having dreams in which he believes she communicates with him.
    Now almost daily he comes to work and tells us about his most recent dream conversations with his deceased mother. She’s helping them decide which color to paint the baby’s bedroom, and fawning over the cute tiny clothes they’ve purchased.
    It’s heartbreaking to listen to.
    My coworkers encourage it, telling him that small children can see spirits, so the baby will be able to see her when she comes down from heaven to visit. “When babies stare off into space and smile at nothing, they’re really smiling at spirits that you cannot see yourself.”

    I can understand why the writer calls himself “Frustrated”. Isn’t there a better way to handle the mourning than this?

  • that is exactly right, Richard. i commend you; this is some of the best advice you’ve ever given.

    folks, he’s right. this works. been there, done that. oh hell yeah, using the line “grandma, i don’t want to hear about you talking to grandpa in heaven, it’s silly” shuts them up. every time. try it.

  • Demonhype

    @Ron in Houston:

    I don’t know if Frustrated is having the same trouble, but I have a mother with a similar hangup who keeps bringing up her beliefs to me–seriously shoehorning them into every single stupid situation she can. We start out talking about serial killers from a “brain” point of view, next thing I know she’s launched a sermon on her Edgar-Caycean-Christian views about spirituality, heaven, hell, reincarnation, ghosts, etc. Which often breaks off into her other “did you know a psychic I met told me I have psychic powers too?” (which I’ve heard a million times) and, of course the “I’ve seen many ghosts in my life, let me tell you about the time I saw [my dead aunt, my father, some demon, etc.]

    Seriously, I could just be bitching about some asshole at work, and she’ll start talking about how some people are just not as “spiritually evolved” or some such crap. You would not believe the kinds of seemingly-innocent discussions into which she can stubbornly shoehorn her spiritual beliefs.

    The problem is that, in my case, ignoring does not work. She will tolerate only one reaction to her sermons, and that is complete, utter, and immediate approval and agreement. She wants to get me against a proverbial wall and shove her beliefs down my throat any way she can. And she calls me arrogant and closed-minded for not wanting to submit to this.

    I have tried to engage her, but it doesn’t work either and we usually just get into fights. I’ve read her magic books (hell, I once believed the same things!), but she feels I should keep reading them over and over even as she refuses to even look at any of my material from the other POV–and I have way too much else to worry about right now without memorizing a bunch of facts and citations to refute her cherished BS. She accuses me of being arrogant and elite and “calling her stupid” as she does this too. BTW, all I have to do to be “calling her stupid” is to not agree, no matter how politely. Any disagreement is seen as a special, personal attack.

    We always get into a huge fight, we’re not going to convince each other, and so I’ve tried to disengage–just say ‘hey mom, why don’t we just leave this subject alone, since we always end up at each other’s throats and maybe we’d like to enjoy each other’s company instead of constantly butting heads’. This won’t work either. She’ll gointo sermon mode, I just don’t respond or I say something polite and non-committal, and she takes special offense and starts calling me arrogant, close-minded (ahem–I’ve changed my mind about many things I believed in the past, she has never done so, so who is close-minded?) and many other epithets usually reserved for those of us in the reality-based community.

    The thing with me is that ignoring works only marginally better than engaging, but it’s still irritating and infuriating to always have to be on-guard for this sort of attempted ambush. Engaging results in a vicious altercation that ruins everyone’s day, and ignoring results in a milder altercation that may or may not ruin everyone’s day. At least when I’m refusing to engage, I can take the high ground with her and point out that we are having a nice time, she is the one who brought up the subject and she is the one pursuing it, while I am just sitting here enjoying/looking forward to the nice time we’re going to have, and I’d rather not ruin the nice day. By her own logic, if I engage she is fully justified to escalate the fight, but if I refuse to engage it’s difficult for her to pin any blame on me. And if I refuse to engage, others tend to be on my side because she looks like a pushy opinionated jerk.

    She’s the only person in our immediate family who is particularly belief-y in any way, and I’m the only outright materialist atheist, so I understand being lonely. The others are somewhere in between–my sister is kind of an “I assume I’m a Christian”-type Christian, my brother and dad are the “I’m not altogether ‘God’ religious, but it’s obvious that there is ‘something higher'”-type skeptic-ish pantheist-deists. No matter which of us is talking with them, there’s going to be a significant area of disagreement.

    I, however, can at least go online and be in good company. I’ve brought psychic and “true haunting” books to her attention at stores because I know she likes them, and I’ve brought her flyers for local ghost-hunting groups, which she never takes advantage of. I think it’s bullshit, but she likes it and she’s not the type to join a commune or sign her life savings away to a charlatan, so if it makes her happy I’ll point it out for her. So you can understand why I get tired of being accused of having no sympathy or respect for her.

  • Wow, I feel for all you folks, tough situations.

  • John L

    My girlfriend that I live with says she can see dead people. I’ve at least gotten her to admit that she could be wrong. Gotta start somewhere I guess.

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