The experiences of grief can be so unsettling that many who mourn express concern that they are losing their minds. The bereaved are bombarded with unusual thoughts, experiences, and emotions. Typically, all these experiences are in the realm of normalcy, however, some individuals feel that they are a sign of psychopathology. These experiences are referred to as after-death communications (ADC). ADC is defined by Guggenheim and Guggenheim (l995) as a “spiritual experience that occurs when someone is contacted directly and spontaneously by a family member or friend who has died.” They identify 12 main categories of experiences.
- Sensing a presence: This is the most common type of ADC. It is the physical sensation that the loved one is near.
- Hearing a voice: The bereaved hears the voice of a loved one as though he or she were in the room.
- Feeling a touch: Individuals may experience the deceased as patting or holding their hand, putting their arm around them.
- Smelling a fragrance: Being aware of an aroma associated with the deceased, such as perfume, cigar or flowers.
- Visual experiences: these can range from an ephemeral appearance to seeing a more solid form. The most common place of occurrence is at night at the foot of the bed.
- Visions: The deceased is said to make a lifelike, full-body appearance, which appears solid and real.
- Twilight experiences: Any or all the above that can occur during altered states of consciousness such as falling asleep, awakening from sleep, praying or meditating.
- ADCs while asleep: These sleep-state ADCs are said to be different from regular dreams in that they are reported to be more intense and real than regular dreams.
- Out-of-body ADCs: These are out of body contact with the deceased that is described as a visitation with the departed in their new environment.
- Physical phenomena: These may include lights going off and on, objects falling from a shelf, appliances turning on or items being moved around.
- Telephone calls: These are said to be among the more frequently occurring signs. Calls may occur while awake or asleep. People have reported their phones ringing and hearing messages from the deceased.
- Symbolic ADCs: People often look for signs that their loved one is still with them. These signs can take many forms such as feathers, coins, butterflies, flowers, etc.
In a review of research on ADCs, Streit-Horn (2011) found that these events occur with people of all nationalities, ethnicities, religious affiliations, income, and educational levels. Those who report these experiences are typically free of mental illness. Widows and widowers are especially likely to report these with women more likely than men.
Common as these events are, people are still reluctant to talk about them for fear that others will think they have lost their minds. Actually, questioning your sanity is typical of the sane person who has these experiences. It can often take years and a lot of courage for someone to open up to others about these experiences. When they do, it is often prefaced with, “I know you are going to think I’ve lost my mind, but ..." Mourners are aware these events are out of the ordinary and that some people will dismiss them as simply delusions and hallucinations of a grieving mind. Those who dismiss, minimize or trivialize the experience often do not realize how important these experiences are for the bereaved. For some, they provide hope and are viewed as spiritual signs. The experience is a link with their loved one that can help sustain them through the darkest times.
After her son’s death, A. began to find coins everywhere she went. The dates on the coins were the dates of significant events in her son’s life, i.e. birth, diagnosis, surgery, and death. She believed that these were truly signs from him and that he was still with her. The positive impact on her grief was immeasurable. (Personal communication with client).
The ADC serves to provide an ongoing connection to the deceased and suggests to those who are living that death is not final. They have also been known to decrease the fear of dying for those left behind. It is not unusual for those who have these experiences to develop an increased interest in spirituality as well as the exploration of existential issues about God and the universe. Regardless of the source of these experiences, the positive impact remains the same. Most people describe them as healing and affirming. There are positive benefits in just being able to share this information with others. They serve as a source of comfort, consolation, strength, and can also play a large role in reducing the pain of grief.
Guggenheim, Bill and Guggenheim, Judy (l995). Hello From Heaven. New York, New York: Bantam Books.
Streit-Horn, J (2011). A systematic review of research on after-death communication (ADC) (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of North Texas: Denton, Texas.