After-Death Communication Experiences May Promote Healing

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“I had a very unusual and powerful experience about three weeks after Dad died,” my sister told me. “I was sound asleep, and this happened sometime in the middle of the night. I had a vision of seeing Dad lying at rest on his back, peaceful. At first, his eyes were closed, but then they opened, and he looked straight up above him, very intently focused on what was above him. What he saw made him very happy. He died at age 94, but in this vision, he appeared younger, healthy, and vital, around age 50. He was illuminated in a way that was warm and very bright, but like the light was coming from every direction, not like sunlight or a ceiling light that casts shadows. Even though I was sleeping, I became aware of wondering whether this was a dream because he looked so alive, and I felt compelled to wake up to ‘test’ whether I was just dreaming this. I woke up, raised my head off the pillow (I had been lying on my stomach), and with my eyes wide open, I looked left and right. The room was pitch black, but when I looked straight ahead, I continued to see him in front of me as if he were about 6 feet away at eye level. This image faded to black after 20 or 30 seconds. I had a deep sense of serenity and peace after this; I knew he was in a joy-filled place where he was happy to be going and that he wanted me to witness this.”

I have never had an experience such as my sister’s, and yet I have heard of after-death communication (ADC) frequently enough that I began to research the topic. As I read, I was intrigued by descriptions of an immediate, usually sustained sense of peace that was often described following an ADC. In therapy, change occurs at a snail’s pace, measured in months and years. In bereavement, healing occurs over a period of several years or more. How could an ADC provide such an immediate and sustained relief from emotional pain?

Dr. Susan Kwilecki, Professor Emeritus at Radford College, spent her career studying dramatic spiritual experiences, including ADCs. In her seminal publication, “Twenty-First-Century American Ghosts: The After-Death Communication—Therapy and Revelation From Beyond the Grave,” Dr. Kwilecki describes several common features of the ADC:

  • The spirit may manifest in a variety of ways, including speaking, touching, visions, odors, flickering lights, or an intuitive sense of presence.
  • The contact usually happens within the first year of bereavement.
  • The spirit is usually in a self-improved form, free of illness, injury, or aging as they were at the time of death.
  • There is often a simple reassurance that the spirit of the deceased has survived and the relationship continues, and this reassurance is deeply comforting.
  • One cannot “will” an ADC experience, nor do they necessarily occur in conventionally religious people.

I interviewed Dr. Kwilecki about her research and analysis, which is based on reports of thousands of ADCs described in the literature on this topic. She agreed that reports of deep and permanent psychological change following an ADC are particularly intriguing, and she described many instances. She wrote, for example, of a woman who had been the victim of incest by her father. After his death, she had an ADC in which his spirit apologized to her, from which she derived a sense of healing.

In another case:

“Tucker, a Vietnam veteran, apologized to the ghosts of two civilians he had needlessly killed in a fit of rage. The spirits, Tucker said, wanted an explanation; receiving it, they forgave him and instructed him to forgive himself, resulting . . . in Tucker’s lasting relief from intrusive memories of the incident.”

And in yet another case:

“Kurt, a counselor in Florida, had always wondered, ‘Why does my father hate me?’ The answer came, according to Kurt, in a visitation from the physically and emotionally abusive man shortly after his death. Crying, the ghost said he now regretted hurting his family . . . He had always loved Kurt, the dead man explained, but had been unable to show it because of his upbringing. After the spirit left, Kurt felt, he said, as if ‘a large weight had been lifted from my shoulders.’”

Belief in ghosts is common in Americans who have no religious affiliation as well as those with religious institution participation. Often, a one-time ADC does not lead to a new spiritual commitment in the non-religious and may simply affirm pre-existing spiritual beliefs in those with a religious or spiritual identity. Dr. Kwilecki has noted that the phenomenon seems to have emerged in modern America within the crucible of “New Age” philosophy when religion is no longer dogmatically transmitted from parent to child, and individuals commonly seek spiritual understanding from many sources.

The ADC experience persists and may even be on the increase at a time when formal religious affiliation is in decline in the U.S. According to a Gallup poll, for the first time in 80 years, less than 50 percent of Americans now belong to a religious congregation. Despite this, belief in the afterlife has remained steady at about 70 percent in 1978 and 74 percent in 2018. A Pew poll reported that 53 percent of Americans say they have been visited by a dead family member in a dream or some other form:

  • 34 percent have “felt the presence” of a dead relative
  • 28 percent have told a dead relative about their life
  • 15 percent have had a dead family member communicate with them

The Pew survey suggested that ADCs are more common in some religious traditions than others. Surveys reveal ADC experiences among:

  • 67 percent of historically Black Protestants
  • 66 percent of Catholics
  • 42 percent of evangelical Protestants
  • 48 percent of religiously unaffiliated have had an ADC
  • 34 percent of agnostics
  • 26 percent of atheists

Several important aspects of the ADC experience are counter-intuitive. The experiences do not occur only to those suffering extreme forms of bereavement. They may provide healing from deep trauma unmatched by traditional forms of grief work, or they may be soothing in experiences of less intense grief. They occur spontaneously, unbidden, and cannot be consciously willed. They occur in people of all religions, and even self-declared atheists frequently experience ADCs.

Dr. Kwilecki commented to me that the ADC seems to tap into a deeply unconscious capacity to heal. While that may be true, it begs the question of why we therapists have to work so hard to access that capacity in therapy. While there are no simple answers to the interesting questions raised by ADC reports, many are grateful to have found a path to healing in bereavement.

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