10/08/2012 11:24 am ET Updated Dec 08, 2012

Finding a New Meaning for Prayer

My mother was a great believer in prayer. As a child I also found comfort in the belief that Someone was "up there" listening to our smallest thoughts and needs. But there was a confusion around it too, particularly the "if it is Your will" part. If it was God's will, why did we have to pray for it? And if it wasn't, what good was all this heartfelt effort anyway?

I was raised Catholic by my devoutly religious mother, and did only a modest amount of questioning until my college years, when the whole system fell apart for me. Once I realized the fallacies, the shortcomings and illogic of parts of this religion I had been raised to accept on faith, I no longer could believe any of it. Prayer dropped out of my life, at the same time that the exciting new world of romance and sex arrived.

Fast forward to much later in my life. A marriage made and lost, another gained, a child raised, places gone and a life lived that I could never have dreamed. As the years passed, I became increasingly aware of how unpredictably life unfolds. Along with aging has come a greater awareness of the unknowns of life, including the mystery of death, and a questioning of the possibilities of life after this life.

My mother died earlier this year, and suddenly all the spiritual questions that I never bothered to work out as a young adult bombarded me. Could the amazing spirit who was my mom just disappear? Not a chance. She was the essence of love to her children, connected to us in all the ways that a mother should be. So if she continues on, where? How?

I missed her intensely, with the loneliness that comes from realizing that the one person who had known you, loved you unconditionally for every moment of your life was now missing, a vacant space in the universe. One day I found myself crying deeply, unable to pull myself back, despairing that I would ever feel happy or hopeful again. Mom, I still need you, I wailed. In my desperation, talking to her seemed as ordinary a thing to do as if she were sitting beside me, and I a young child again. I went into my darkened bedroom, closed the door, and stumbled towards the bed.

As I sank into the welcoming foam mattress I heard a kindly but matter-of-fact voice say clearly, "You just need to get through this." My sobbing stopped, and in that instant panic turned to peace. I closed my eyes, my body let go of the wrenching pain that had enveloped it, and I breathed deeply, as if I were dropping off into a normal night's slumber.

Was that my mom? I have asked myself many times since.

I find myself talking to my mother regularly now -- and sometimes believe that I hear responses. Is that prayer? Does she hear? Can she help me, here on this earth, from wherever she is? I have pleaded with her about little problems on two occasions and both times help appeared, just like in a movie or a fairy tale. I'm afraid to ask again, not wanting to break the spell. But I'm also afraid because this renewed belief that there is an unknown world "out there" somewhere requires rethinking lots of other things. God? The afterlife? Mom's deep Catholic faith? My own faith? A new way to pray?

Over six months has passed since my mother's death, and I have begun to realize that I may never fully solve those mysteries from my place in this world. But my search has begun, and eventually I expect to find my way to the understanding I need. And Mom will be right there with me.