In the early 1970s, Memorex Corp. started the advertising campaign "Is It Real, or Is It Memorex?" featuring Ella Fitzgerald singing a high note so purely that it shattered a crystal wine glass. The next scene in the ad showed another wine glass shattering when a recording of Ms. Fitzgerald's voice was played. The thrust of the ad was that the clarity of Memorex recording tapes was so good that Ms. Fitzgerald's voice could shatter the glass whether her voice was live or was from the playback of a recording. From the glass's perspective, both the live voice and the recorded voice were indistinguishable.

A common, but often overlooked, aspect of mourning the death of a loved one is similar to the Memorex ad - the spontaneous, externally generated contact of the mourner by the deceased loved one or a divine being. Are the contacts real, or are they hallucinations? For those who have not had the experience, these contacts are, at best, the result of an overactive imagination or, at worst, hallucinations. However, for approximately 70 million mourners who have had them, these contacts, or Extraordinary Experiences (EEs), are real and comforting.

What are Extraordinary Experiences?

Louis LaGrand, who has studied Extraordinary Experiences for over 25 years, has catalogued them into fourteen categories:

1. intuitively sensing that the deceased person is present (sometimes accompanied by a telepathic or mental message);
2. a visual apparition of or "seeing" the loved one;
3. hearing the voice of the person;
4. smelling an essence that is closely associated with the loved one, such as a particular cologne, pipe smoke, perfume, etc.;
5. feeling as if being touched, including being kissed or embraced, by the person;
6. noticing birds or animals behaving in an unusual way that associates them with the deceased;
7. noticing a symbolic representation such as "cloud writing" or an object that is closely associated with the deceased;
8. a third-party experience where a message comes through another person who has had the EE;
9. a fourth-party experience where a message comes through two other people;
10. having a vivid, unforgettable visitation dream;
11. seeing the loved one during an out-of-body experience;
12. witnessing a psi kappa event (a moving object, a clock stopping or starting at the moment of death, the flicker of lights or other electronic equipment turning on and off at a significant moment;
13. synchronicities (meaningful coincidences) that couple the deceased with an unexpected physical event; and
14. crisis apparitions or sense of presence of the loved one just before the survivor is notified of the death.

Of these different categories, the two most common ones are the feeling of presence and visitation dreams.

What are the "messages" and what do they mean?

Whether they come once or repeatedly, there are various kinds of messages that EEs provide mourners. Some give advise ("Go ahead and live life."), others inspire ("You can get through this."), and still others reassure the mourner that (s)he is forgiven, not forgotten, still loved, etc. and that the deceased is okay (free from suffering, happy, etc.). Most messages are supportive letting the mourner know that the loved one lives on and that (s)he knows how they are suffering.

The impact of these messages can be enormous and life changing. The two most frequent themes that mourners report after having had an EE are that they are no longer afraid of death and that they will be reunited with their loved one. Armed with these insights, many mourners can now begin to make meaning out of their experience of the death of their loved one, to learn how to live in the world again, and to re-integrate their loved one into a new, special, on-going place in their hearts. In short, mourners learn to love while separated from their loved one.

Not every mourner has an EE, and there is no way to explain why some do and some don't. Both believers in EEs and previous skeptics have received them while other believers and skeptics haven't. Who has an EE is just as much of the mystery of the phenomenon as is the EE itself. However, that doesn't mean a mourner who hasn't received an EE can't ask for one as long as (s)he realizes they may not receive one.

So, from the viewpoint of the mourner experiencing an EE, the question "Is it real, or is it hallucination?" is not the issue. Just like with the wine glass in the Memorex ad, it makes no difference - it's the same result!  Assuming the mourner is not severely agitated or suffering from deep emotional trauma at the time of the event, the real issue is what impact EEs have.  For nearly all mourners, they are comforting, authentic, and life enriching.

If you have had an EE or know of someone who has, I'd be interested (and I'm sure others would be, too) in what it was and how it impacted your life.

About the Author

Worth Kilcrease

Worth Kilcrease is a Licensed Professional Counselor in Austin, Texas and a Fellow in Thanatology: Death, Dying, and Bereavement from the Association for Death Education and Counseling (ADEC).

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