This week: should I go to see a medium? Louisa's mother died when she was three; she has no memories of her. A recently bereaved friend visited a medium and gained relief, believing she and her mother will meet in an afterlife. Should Louisa, who feels increasingly curious about her mum, visit, too?
"She's got a very serene face." The medium smiled. "She's telling me she loves baking! She's asking me if you remember her cakes?" I racked my brains. I don't think my mother had ever baked a cake in her life. "French cooking?" I asked. "Could it be that?" "Yes, cooking. And she's saying sorry," said the medium. Quite right too, I thought, though I can't think of any mother in the world who wouldn't say sorry; it's just how mothers are. "She's not a natural beauty," said the medium, "but she has an inner beauty."

"Or perhaps it's the reverse?" I suggested hopefully, remembering her striking looks and her inner misery.

"I think you're right, sometimes they turn things around on the other side, it's their idea of a joke ..." And so we continued, as the medium continued to flounder and I continued to put her right. In the end I was more convinced than ever that my mother had in fact split into a million atoms of energy and was being recycled as part of a tree; she certainly wasn't hanging about upstairs with wings, protecting me from harm.

All cultures, all generations, everyone throughout the ages has longed to be reassured that there is an afterlife, a "somewhere" to go, a "someone" still watching over us, even though they've died. Canon Holland's verse, which assures us that "I have just slipped into the next room. All is well" is a classic example of this longing for reassurance that death is not an "end, but a beginning" and so on. My own belief is that this is a lot of cobblers, but whether it's a lot of cobblers or not isn't the point. The point is: Can it help? Can it do harm?

There are religious reasons for not getting through to the dead; the church sees mediums and spiritualists as agents of the devil rather than of God. Interestingly, counsellors have their own gripes about mediums, darkly anxious that a belief in the afterlife halts people in some mysterious "grief process" and doesn't enable them to "work through" it, whatever that may mean. But where on earth is the harm in it? If Louisa feels that in the back of her mind there is a nagging niggle about her mother's death, wouldn't she gain great comfort from a belief that her mother was still around in some form, somewhere, looking out for her? She was short enough of mothering in her youth; why shouldn't she look for a scrap now? Her friend got comfort; why shouldn't she? Even when I found confusion and inaccuracy from the spiritualist, I didn't emerge feeling bitter or ripped off. Mediums on the whole are calm, serene people, who certainly believe what they're up to; they usually radiate a feeling of security and comfort. They may not be in touch with dead individuals, but they appear to be in touch with something, even if it's only their own feelings of certainty and peace.

Rosamond Lehmann, the novelist, got enormous relief from a belief in the afterlife when her daughter, Sally, died. She was forever pursuing mediums and spiritualists. She never wrote another novel, it's true, but I would prefer to think of her as a comforted human being, than as a great artist churning out books and racked with misery.

Louisa won't find anything but goodwill and kindness through the doors of the medium's office. At worst she will find kindness and emptiness; at best she will find something that she can grasp on to that gives her some solacen

What readers say

A medium may help, and can do no harm

The loss of a parent at an early age can be very unsettling. I lost my grandmother who had effectively brought me up, and like Louisa I felt that something was missing from my life in later years.

So a few years ago I went to a medium and was delighted to hear that my grandmother stood always at my left shoulder protecting and guiding me, because when she died she worried that I was too young to cope alone.

Now an adult, I feel very glad that I went to this particular medium. I don't know if the things she said were true, but they made me feel better about things, and ultimately did no harm.

Laurence Clark

London EC2

Simpler way to contact the dead

Louisa may or may not get comfort from a medium but there is a possibility of a simpler (and cheaper) way to find her mother.

My mother is long dead, but when I was seriously ill three years ago, I called out: "Mum, help me."

That night she came to me in a dream. The next morning I had no remembrance of her face or voice, but I'm sure her spirit came to me. I faced another operation with calm and I coped with post-operative life with resourcefulness - two of her traits, I am certain.


Reading, Berkshire

Mothers can love after death

I would certainly advise Louisa to go to a reputable medium. She will find her mother working. Mothers are important in the spiritual world and may continue to love and help us wherever we are.

My mother (dead) helped me in the most amazing way after my husband died and I was left alone in a big house. The medium I saw had constant messages from my mother, who said they were arranging better things for me and that I would find a lovely place where I could start life again. And that has proved true. I am blissfully happy.

Name withheld

Let Louisa's mother make the contact

My advice to Louisa would be not to visit a medium in the hope of making contact with her mother, but to be content in the knowledge that her mother will contact Louisa if she feels her daughter needs "after death communication" (ADC).

Louisa's mother is aware that her daughter has grown into fulfilled womanhood and is happy, and this makes her content and peaceful in her spiritual world. It is possible that Louisa's desire to make contact will prompt an ADC. I can assure Louisa from my own experience that ADC does exist and it is joyful, uplifting and healing when it happens. Her mother may contact her, without the help of a medium, and when she does Louisa will know.

Rosalind Barnes

Slough, Berkshire

Work through your grief

As a Christian and a counsellor I do not think it would be wise for Louisa to visit a medium. It is natural to want to meet loved ones again, but this can prevent us from working through our grief. I sense that you feel denied something which you are now in a position to give, but only coming to terms with the loss you feel will enable you to let go of the fear that not knowing your mother has presented.

We all have gaps in our childhood experience of being loved, and none of us can provide perfectly for our children, and so our frailty has to be accepted.

Talking about how you feel may help you to value the love and guidance you give to your own children.

Helen Lealman

Shipley, West Yorkshire

Next week's problem: can a relationship survive an abortion?

Dear Virginia,

I've got two children by my partner but recently I became pregnant again accidentally, at the same time as my partner started a stressful new job. He made it absolutely clear that he was not interested in another child, and that it would be OK for me to go ahead only on condition that the baby didn't interrupt his life a jot. He recommended that I have an abortion. I was really reluctant to, but realising I couldn't look after three children, including a tiny baby, on my own, I went ahead with an abortion. Since then I've become very bitter and angry about the pressure my partner put on me, but when I suggested we spent time apart my partner got very upset and said he'd only suggested it to make us all happier. I've had abortion counselling, and Relate counselling, and he admits he ignored the problem of the pregnancy, but I feel he behaved in a cowardly way and I suppose I feel I want him to make some amends. I know if we stay together I need to let the past go - and I don't really want to leave - but I find it almost impossible to go forward. Can anyone offer advice?

Yours sincerely, Judy

Letters are welcome, and everyone who has a suggestion quoted will be sent a bouquet from Interflora. Send personal experiences or comments to me at the Features Department, The Independent, 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL (fax 0171-293 2182) by Tuesday morning. If you have any dilemmas of your own you would like to share, let me know.