This is a post from the online magazine The Emotional Life, written by Camille Wortman, Ph.D, an awward-winning psychologists specializing in grief.
Suppose you speak with a neighbor who tells you that she has weekly discussions with her deceased mother. Or you talk with a close friend whose daughter was killed, and she says that her child returns to her frequently in the form of a butterfly. You might wonder whether these people are deluding themselves, whether they are experiencing hallucinations, whether they are clinging to a relationship that they are unable to relinquish, or whether they are denying the reality of the death. In the past, it was believed that a continuing connection with the deceased was indicative of maladjustment. Experts maintained that people could not complete the mourning process unless they were willing to relinquish their emotional connection to the deceased.
In recent years, this view has been called into question. Clinicians have come to recognize the value of a continuing connection with the deceased. Drawing from their clinical experience, Klass et al. (1996) argued that most people experience such a connection, and that these connections provide solace, comfort and support. Today, most experts believe that moving forward with one’s life does not necessarily require letting go of one’s relationship with the deceased.
Ways of Communicating
Studies indicate that communication with the deceased can take many forms, including an overwhelming sense of the loved one’s presence; the visual appearance of the deceased; the physical sensation of being touched, held or kissed by the loved one; conversations with the deceased; dreams in which the mourner believes that the deceased was actually present in the dream; feeling watched over and protected by the deceased; or the presence or movement of objects believed to be a sign from the deceased.
Frequency of Communication
Among people who have lost a loved one, reports of some form of communication with the deceased are surprisingly prevalent. In a study on reactions to the death of a spouse, 63% of the bereaved indicated that they felt their spouse was with them at times, 47% stated that he or she was watching out for them, and 34% reported that they talked with their spouse regularly. In a study of how children react to the death of a parent, 60% said they had talked with their deceased parent, and 43% indicated that they had received an answer. In a telephone survey, 35% of those contacted reported hearing voices of their deceased loved one, 37% saw a vision or image of the deceased, 55% felt the presence of their loved one, and 69% said they had conversations with the deceased. Some of these studies were conducted shortly after the death, while others were conducted months or years later.
Impact on the Mourners
Do people who report communicating with the deceased show better long-term adjustment than those who do not? Few studies have addressed this question. However, reports from mourners suggest that such communications may be beneficial. In the studies described above, the vast majority of respondents indicated that they were comforted by their contact with the deceased. These contacts appeared to provide reassurance, peace of mind, and hope for the future. They also seemed to help the bereaved function better on a day-to-day basis. As one mother expressed it, “if I did not have the chance to talk to my son, and thus know he still exists, I could not get through each day.”
Interestingly, some people who have not experienced any communication with their deceased loved one are quite upset about it. “I long for contact with my wife,” one man stated. “I would give anything to see her again or to hear her voice.” In fact, survivors sometimes become angry with the deceased for not returning to them in some form.
What are the most important things that mourners take away from communications with the deceased? One is a belief that their loved one still exists in some form. As one husband indicated, “When my wife died, I found it unbearable that her spirit was gone forever. One night I had the actual physical sensation of my wife next to me in bed, and we embraced. It was incredibly comforting to learn that at some level, she still exists.” Second, these experiences allow survivors to believe that the deceased is content and is in a good place. Recognition of this fact is particularly important to bereaved parents. According to one father, “The main question I struggled with after Jake died was where he was. Was he gone forever or existing in some other reality? Was he safe? Comfortable? Was he calling out to me and his mother, wondering where we were? All of these questions were laid to rest when Jake came to me in a vision. Now I know he is OK. This has put my mind at ease and enabled me to focus more attention on other things, like my job and my relationship with my surviving son.”
Despite the comfort that these communications may provide, mourners often worry that if they are having these kinds of experiences, they must be losing their minds. In many cases, they are reluctant to talk with others about these experiences, fearing that people will think they are going crazy. This could help explain the societal belief that such communications are rare, and that they may be indicative of psychological problems.
Survivors would benefit from greater awareness of how frequently these communications occur. Armed with such knowledge, they may be more likely to be comforted, and less likely to doubt their own sanity if they experience after death communication. It is also important for therapists to understand the prevalence of such communications so that they can provide the validation and support that their clients need.
Past work in this field has raised important questions. Do such experiences bring about a temporary respite from one’s grief or a more enduring resolution of the loss? Is there anything mourners can do to increase their chances of communicating with the deceased? Can after death communication be induced as part of grief therapy, as some treatment providers have claimed (see, e.g., Botkin, 2005)? Because of the inherent difficulties of such work, it is not surprising that these questions have received little attention from researchers. Given the prevalence of these so-called after death communications and the powerful effects they can have on mourners, such research has considerable potential for facilitating the grieving process and alleviating human suffering.
About the author: Dr. Wortman received her Ph.D. from Duke University in 1972. She served on the faculty at Northwestern University and the University of Michigan before moving to Stony Brook in 1990. She is an expert on grief and bereavement, and has published more than 100 articles and book chapters on this topic. She conducted a large study on spousal loss that followed respondents for 7-10 years to identify the predictors of successful adjustment. Her main area of expertise concerns how people react to the sudden, traumatic death of a loved one. Her research demonstrates that those who experience this type of loss show enduring difficulties in many areas of their lives. Consequently, Dr. Wortman has been working to develop more effective mental health treatment approaches for this population. She is collaborating on a book for clinicians entitled Treating Survivors of Sudden, Traumatic Loss, to be published by Guilford Press.
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