- Research confirms that sensory or quasi-sensory experiences in bereavement are common and non-pathological.
- Experiences range significantly, but in all cases the bereaved feel that a specific deceased person is around.
- These extraordinary bereavement experiences are mostly perceived as comforting and reassuring.
Recent research shows that bereaved individuals can have spontaneous sensory or quasi-sensory experiences of the deceased; this has been found to be a common event within the grieving process.1 Terms to describe this experience in the literature have been categorized by many names such as after-death communications, extraordinary experiences in bereavement, post-death contact, and spontaneous contact with the deceased, amongst others.
Spontaneous sensory experiences in bereavement occur across all cultures, regardless of socioeconomic status, gender, and religious affiliation (i.e., even atheists have these experiences). People of all ages have reported seeing dead spouses, pets, family members, and friends. These experiences can occur after someone has experienced the death of someone close to them, regardless of whether the death was anticipated or unexpected.
It can be surprising to learn this, as many of us were taught or raised to believe that these sorts of things aren’t supposed to happen. Yet, qualitative research has consistently demonstrated that between 47 and 82 percent of grieving people may experience the presence of a deceased person while grieving. Some researchers question if these numbers are low, since bereaved people may not openly share this experience due to fear of stigmatization and/or are worried about having their mental health questioned by others.
Are These Hallucinations?
The research is clear: Everyday people (i.e., nonclinical populations) can experience unusual sensory experiences after a death-related loss. The term “hallucination” isn’t appropriate as this is often associated with pathology, sickness, or a psychiatric disorder.
Describing these experiences as sensory or quasi-sensory experiences is a much more accurate and inclusive term, reinforcing how these experiences are common within the normative life event of bereavement. These sensory experiences are also wide-ranging.
What Types of Sensory Experiences Are Bereaved People Having?
Researchers have captured how bereaved research participants report the experience of a deceased presence, as confirmed by feelings or sensations associated with visual, auditory, tactile, or olfactory stimuli.2 Reports may include (but are not limited to):
- Dreams of the deceased
- Full body visualizations of the deceased
- Having a conversation with the deceased’s voice or hearing their footsteps
- Visited by an animal/insect that corresponds to the identified deceased person during life.
- Feeling the deceased give a hug, or smelling their fragrance.
- Electronic devices flickering on or off.
These experiences range significantly, but in all cases, bereaved people simply get a feeling that a specific deceased person is around. It’s worth noting the experience of hearing the voice of a beloved deceased loved one is also quite different than hearing an anonymous or unfamiliar voice as experienced in states of psychosis.
Research also confirms that people can experience sensory experiences of the deceased within grief counselling, and it’s worth noting that deliberate contact with the deceased is a common therapeutic intervention.
Can Sensory Experiences of the Deceased Be Therapeutic?
For many, yes. From the perspective of contemporary grief therapists, sensory experiences of the deceased can facilitate continuing bonds, which conveys how maintaining an ongoing relationship with the deceased is often therapeutic.3 Grief therapists often encourage bereaved persons to meaningfully integrate the deceased loved one within their life by helping people foster an ongoing sense of connection to the deceased.
Many bereaved people find sensory experiences of the deceased to be comforting and meaningful, and they often report feeling more positively connected to the deceased. However, the literature also confirms how spontaneous sensory experiences can be puzzling, startling, intrusive, and even distressing events for a small minority of bereaved persons. Additionally, these experiences can become negative when bereaved people are ostracized by others, or unfairly accused of being mentally ill while already navigating the raw pain associated with bereavement.
What Does This Mean?
How people evaluate or make sense of these experiences is as unique as the person experiencing them. Different cultures, societies, religions, and spiritual approaches offer varying frameworks for approaching these extraordinary yet common experiences. Naturally, many individuals conclude that spontaneous or actively induced sensory experiences in bereavement are evidence for the survival of consciousness after death. In truth, it is difficult to scientifically explain why this phenomenon occurs, but psychology can at least confirm that sensory experiences in bereavement are common, non-pathological experiences.
While these experiences may sound like ‘woo-woo’ to some, it’s essential that people remember to not pathologize, judge, or invalidate other people’s experiences in bereavement as this can complicate a person’s natural response to loss. Bereavement is already a lonely journey, so making people feel like there is something wrong with them isn’t helpful to anyone. If you’re lucky enough to hear about someone’s experiences with bereavement, I’d recommend meeting the experience with curiosity and compassion.
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1. Kamp, K. S., Steffen, E. M., Alderson-Day, B., Allen, P., Austad, A., Hayes, J., Larøi, F., Ratcliffe, M., & Sabucedo, P. (2020). Sensory and quasi-sensory experiences of the deceased in bereavement: An interdisciplinary and integrative review. Schizophrenia Bulletin, 46(6), 1367–1381.
2. Barušs, I., & Mossbridge, J. (2017). Transcendent mind: Rethinking the science of consciousness. American Psychological Association.
3. Hall, C. (2014). Bereavement theory: Recent developments in our understanding of grief and bereavement. Bereavement Care, 33(1), 7-12.