Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Ghost Sickness: A Culturally-Related Grief Disorder

To attach or detach.

Tertia van Rensburg/Unsplash
Source: Tertia van Rensburg/Unsplash

In the ancient worlds of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, China, and India, people believed in a soul that survived death. The belief was, however, that the souls were to stay in the afterlife and not return to earth. Occasionally, a ghost might return if the gods allowed it but the most frequent reason for a ghost’s return would be due to improper burial practices, thus explaining some of the elaborate rituals and practices that have evolved over the years for the preparation and burial of the dead.

Having a ghost appear before you was never thought of as a good thing, even if the ghost was someone you truly loved. It meant that something was terribly wrong. The belief in the negative consequences of communicating with ghosts can be found as far back as the Old Testament. In 1 Samuel 28:7-20, King Saul is fearful of losing a battle with the Philistines and goes to a seer, the Witch of Endor, to ask her to bring King Samuel back from the dead to advise him as God had not answered his prayers. When she does, Samuel is angry and so is God. Saul and his army are then destroyed.

Julia Assante (2012) states that in the ancient world, most human sicknesses were felt to come from unseen evil forces or ghosts. As a result, people sought to keep the dead content. A failure to do so meant a friendly spirit could turn hostile and harm you. In Mesopotamia, for example, the appearance of a ghost would manifest as a sickness among the living, primarily the family of the deceased.

Today in the 21st century, there are still cultures that believe in ghost sickness. Ghost sickness is found in many Native American groups. For example, the Navajo people believe that ghost sickness is caused by the spirit of the dead attaching to a living person, usually a family member. The attachment causes harm to the person by draining his or her energy. This can occur when mourners continue their connection to the deceased by thinking about them too much or attempting to communicate with them. A person can develop symptoms such as loss of appetite, nightmares, anxiety, depression, dizziness, nausea, and fainting spells as well as physical diseases. The Navajo believe that this illness occurs when the burial rituals were not done in the correct manner or by the right person As a result, the deceased is doomed to stay on the earth plane to torture the living. The only treatment for this is for the spiritual leader and tribe to perform traditional ceremonies to allow the spirit to return to the afterlife.

The Apache tribes also feared the ghosts of the deceased. They would bury the dead quickly and burn the deceased’s home and belongings. The family would then perform a ritual purification and move to a new home to escape the deceased’s ghost. Families were encouraged not even to speak the deceased’s name for fear of connecting to them.

Something similar occurs in the Archuar tribe of Eastern Ecuador. They try to distance themselves as much as possible from the deceased loved one which also includes purging anything that might be a reminder of him or her. Just as with the Navajo, they do not even call the name of the deceased, for to engage the dead only leads to sickness. As with the other tribes mentioned above, when there is a sickness, rituals are conducted to ensure the ghost’s departure. There are other cultures that believe in ghost sickness including the Hmong who originally resided in Vietnam; the Samoans, a Polynesian culture, and the Salish, a Native American tribe of the Northwest U.S. and British Columbia just to name a few.

In Western cultures, beginning with Sigmund Freud, the belief had also been that a continuous attachment to the loved one was viewed as a sign of unresolved mourning. Detachment was viewed as the manner in which grief was resolved, just as in ghost sickness. The results of this detachment, however, often manifested as unresolved grief with emotional and physical symptoms, such as those that appear in ghost sickness.

Today, the focus is more on continuing bonds with the deceased. It does not, however, mean that we are caught up in grief forever. People are able to live normal and healthy lives by maintaining their attachments. If you find that your attachment to the deceased is preventing you from functioning in a normal way, grief therapy might be the answer.

Facebook image: Cinemato/Shutterstock


Assante, Julia (2012). The Last Frontier: Exploring the Afterlife and Transforming Our Fear of Death. Novato, California: New World Library