50 years ago, a general practitioner in rural Wales published a surprising research paper on the topic of bereavement. “The hallucinations of widowhood”, which appeared in a 1971 issue of the British Medical Journal (BMJ) was based on Dr William Dewi Rees’s interviews with 227 widows and 66 widowers who were registered with his general practice.
Rees was motivated by an interest in the factors that might be helpful (or unhelpful) to the bereavement process, based on the observation that the death of a spouse frequently had a negative impact on the health of the surviving partner and often precipitated their own death. However, the interviews he conducted also uncovered another surprising element: half of his interviewees confided with him that they had experienced hallucinations of their dead spouse.
These hallucinations (Rees himself would later note that the term was inappropriate, as it tended to mark the experiences as ‘non-real’ when he actually had no judgement on their ontological status) occurred not just immediately after the death of the partner, but in fact often happened over a number of years. They ranged from a ‘sense of presence’ through to visual, auditory and tactile experiences. And, rather than being pathological, the majority of those reporting encounters with their deceased partner regarded them as helpful in their grieving process. As such Rees concluded that these hallucinations were a normal and positive part of bereavement.
In the intervening five decades, other researchers have confirmed Rees’s findings, with the phenomenon being given a number of labels including ‘post-bereavement hallucination’, ‘encounters with the dead’ and ‘after-death communications’ (ADCs). They occur across the world in different cultures and regardless of individuals’ religion – but despite how common an occurrence they are, there is still to this day very little academic interest in studying them. And the stigma attached to the experience – “their partner died, and now they’re going crazy” – means that very few people feel comfortable sharing their ‘hallucinations’: in Rees’s original study, only 1 in 4 said they had mentioned their experience to others, citing fear of ridicule.
But now, half a century on from Rees’s pioneering research, a new study has attempted to understand the phenomenon in more detail and with a much larger sample, and tested for differences in the nature and effects of ADCs across three language groups. Researchers did so with a 194-item questionnaire which included an initial description in the respondent’s own words of their ADC (to ensure their account was not biased by the specific questions subsequently asked in the survey).
The study (“The phenomenology and impact of hallucinations concerning the deceased”) received 991 valid responses, from 143 male and 842 female participants ranging in age from 18 to 89 years. The disparity between male and female respondents was typical of surveys on this topic, in which females tend to outnumber males by at least 3 to 1 – whether that is due to a difference in the rate of hallucinations, or just a difference in willingness to report experiences like this, is unknown.
One difference between the new study and Rees’s 1971 study was that in the recent survey, experiences most commonly occurred during sleep. Previous studies had discounted these ADCs simply as dreams, but when researchers in the new study asked respondents whether the experience was merely a dream, more than a third “asserted that it was not, and follow-up accounts suggest that respondents regarded them as different in quality to an ordinary dream and attributed an external agency to them. Those who had had dreams of deceased loved ones and an ADC during sleep made a clear distinction between the two types of experiences.”
A surprising aspect of the research was that over a third of respondents reported that they were not alone at the time of their ADC, and of these, 21% asserted that the ADC was witnessed by their companions. Furthermore, a full quarter of respondents stated that they had received information that was previously unknown to them (often concerning circumstances of the deceased’s passing) – evidence suggesting that these were more than mere hallucinations, and were genuine ‘contact’ with the deceased. The researchers noted that “these cases have a potential bearing on the ontological status of ADCs”, and plan to explore that in a separate analysis.
Beyond the evidential, possibly paranormal component though, respondents clearly noted that ADCs were deeply meaningful: when asked how they felt about having had their encounter, 71.1% reported that they ‘treasured it’ and a further 20.5% were very glad it had happened. The vast majority thought it brought them comfort and emotional healing, and was important for their bereavement process.
The proportion of respondents believing in life after death increased from 68.9% to 93.0% – and interestingly, while there were no changes in reported religiosity, levels of spirituality were significantly higher following an ADC.
Finally, given how deeply meaningful these experiences were, the study researchers noted that dismissal of them by bereavement counsellors could be frustrating and distressing for the experiencer and lead to negative effects rather than continuing the process of grieving and healing.