Experiencing the “presence” of a deceased loved one

Dear Dr. Neimeyer,

I’d like to ask him if some way people that pass ever come back, or when their body leaves but does the spirit stay? My only son died in May, and last night I heard him call me and I answered.

Sandy
 


 
Dear Sandy–

Throughout recorded history and across a great many of the world’s cultures, people have found comfort in the belief that something of their loved ones survives their physical death. Whether in religious rituals or personal practices, affirming a spiritual bond with the deceased understandably plays a role in bereavement for many mourners, along with the hope for reunion in some form promised in scriptures. No doubt the recognition and conservation of our loving bonds with the deceased accounts for some of the reason that people seek solace in their religious beliefs, which also help them find meaning in life’s inevitable suffering.

But whether or not we believe in a spiritual realm in this sense, it is clear that a great many mourners–up to 75% of bereaved spouses, for example–experience the “presence” of their deceased loved one in some fashion. For some, this takes the form of hearing the other speak their name, just as you heard your son call out to you. For others, they might seem to glimpse their loved one in a dark room, feel their touch, or smell their scent on the pillow. The most common sort of “contact,” however, is of a non-specific sort of “presence,” such as sensing them standing by our bed, or sending us a signal through a wind chime on a windless day or other natural phenomenon. Whatever the form of sensed presence, one thing is clear–the great majority of the bereaved report feeling comforted by the experience, rather than made anxious or uncomfortable, per se.

So perhaps the most reasonable conclusion is that people vary in the kind of bond they feel with their loved ones after death but that only when these are clearly destructive (e.g., a sense of being persecuted by the deceased for imagined wrongdoing) or crowd out other vital relationships (e.g., lead to the neglect of one’s living children) should they be considered a focus of clinical concern. Like living relationships, the proof is in the pudding: to what extent does the bond contribute to one’s sense of security, meaning and broader purpose in life, as opposed to undermine these dimensions of our being? If the effects of spiritual or psychological connection with the deceased are more positive than negative, that it is something to be celebrated rather than diagnosed.

–Dr. Neimeyer

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