After a loved one dies, many report feeling their presence—whether by voice, vision, or another sensory perception.
What are these experiences of a continued presence like for the bereaved? This question was the focus of a study led by psychologist Pablo Sabucedo of the University of Roehampton in England. To pursue this investigation, he and his colleagues recruited and interviewed 10 bereaved adults. The narratives were then coded and analyzed.
What did Dr. Sabucedo and his team find? Participants’ narratives yielded nine categories, reflecting a range of distress, ambivalence, or comfort with these experiences of presence. The findings of their study are summarized below.
1. Feeling of absence and enduring grief: Almost a third of participants reported that their experience of presence was distressing because it served as a reminder of the loss. Some participants said they also highlighted the ongoing feeling of absence.
Take, for example, Rebecca, a participant who lost her brother more than 30 years ago, and with whom she was extremely close. He had been visiting Spain and perished in a car accident. Rebecca shared that she still feels anger and sadness related to his death every day. And for a long time after he died, she reported that she would see him on the street “recognizing him for a moment” and “moving toward him calling his name” “or waving goodbye, before realizing that the person was not actually him.” After these “sightings,” Rebecca felt greater distress—which dissipated once they stopped.
2. Fear and avoidance: Four participants were afraid of their experiences of presence. Some reported having “initial fright” because it was so startling and unexpected. One participant relayed a story in which she went to her old family home after her mother’s death to clean and pack, and suddenly felt her mother’s hand on her shoulder. She rushed out of the home and avoided going back for some time.
Two participants saw their distress as stemming from death anxiety, in which presence was a reminder of the inevitability that they and their loved ones will eventually pass on.
3. Societal stigma or taboo: Participants also expressed that stigma, including a fear of rejection, judgment, and ridicule, accompanied their experiences of presence. Henry, a participant who was a mental health professional, stated that he was “very, very cautious” about whom he confided in about his experiences, because of the way they are viewed within psychiatry:
If I talk about this people are going to think I’m crazy. So I kind of just left it, and I just kind of compartmentalized it.
4. Unresolved issues with the deceased: Participants spoke of “unfinished business” in their relationship with the deceased. However, presence provided an opportunity to recognize and understand their loved one and lessen the psychological and interpersonal conflict left in the wake of their death.
Henry, referenced above, said that after his father died, he had a recurring dream in which his father seemed physically incapable of speaking—but was desperate to tell him something. This dream prompted Henry to ask his extended family about his father’s past, unearthing a long-buried family secret: His father was gay and kept it a secret throughout his life. Shortly after making this discovery, Henry was having dinner at a friend’s house and said he saw his father sitting in an armchair and smiling at him. For Henry, this was a profoundly moving experience that offered resolution.
5. Counseling and psychotherapy: Half of the participants confided their experiences of presence with a therapist, with positive results. Therapists were reportedly accepting, nonjudgmental, and able to explore what the experiences of presence meant to the interviewees. Participants addressed both welcome and unwelcome instances of presence with their providers.
6. Spiritual, religious, or existential meaning-making: Eight participants found that presence gave them the hope and reassurance that their loved ones were not “completely gone.” All felt comforted by this, and it offered a framework for meaning-making. Some anchored this process in their faith. One interviewee likened the relief she felt talking to her deceased mother to that of confessing to her priest. Other participants grounded their meaning-making process in metaphysical or existential perspectives—apart from religion and the belief in the afterlife.
7. Rebuilding a self-narrative: The experience of presence helped half the interviewees reconstruct their self-narrative following the loss. Questions were answered, and greater clarity was achieved. As a result of presence, their stories reflected the drive to make sense of their experience and were ones of self-affirmation.
8. Re-encountering the deceased: Several participants felt joy when experiencing the presence of their deceased loved ones. It gave them a chance to connect and the opportunity to say goodbye, be with them, or communicate their love. Two interviewees said that their experiences of presence was a promise kept, in that their loved ones returned to let them, the living, know that they are OK.
9. Receiving advice: Three participants expressed feeling supported by the presence of their deceased loved one. But they also felt that they were being explicitly guided and advised by them. Interviewees reported hearing their voice or that their thinking was influenced by the deceased. This dynamic was seen as a continuation of the relationship as it was prior to their loved one’s death, in which they could draw on support in the face of danger or a confidante to whom to turn in turbulent times. As one participant shared, her mother’s continued presence was empowering:
If I’m in a difficult situation, I also have the feeling that mother is…around me and telling me what to do.