Science Or Belief?

If you have faith that there is life after death, you are likely to have a more peaceful terrestrial transit to the next one where eternity beckons and spirituality transcends everything we have experienced in our earlier existence. In fact, that’s the reason we never forget our loved ones once they have passed away.

But for as many as 6 in 10 of us, the memories that come are something much more tangible. According to a study, most people who have lost a partner will see hear or sense them in some way. Researchers said the level of these ‘hallucinatory experiences – for example seeing a loved one in their old chair or hearing them call your name – was strikingly high.’

They said the phenomenon is much more common than we might think because many bereaved people are reluctant to report their experiences for fear of being looked upon as mentally unwell.

A team at the University of Milan said: ‘Post-bereavement hallucinatory experiences (PBHE’s) are abnormal sensory experiences that are frequently reported by bereaved individuals without a history of mental disorder. Overall, evidence suggests a strikingly high prevalence of PBHE’s – ranging from 30% to 60% – among widowed subjects giving consistence and legitimacy to these phenomena.’ The researchers, whose study was published in the Journal of Affective Disorder, come to their conclusions after compiling the results of all previous peer-reviewed English language research that has been carried out into PBHE’s.

Jacqueline Hayes, an academic at the University of Roehampton, has also studied PBHE’s for many years, but prefers to call them ‘experiences of continued presence’ (ECP’s) because of the negative connotations the term ‘hallucination’ can have. She has carried out extensive interviews with people of all ages and backgrounds across the UK who have lost spouses, parents, children, siblings and friends.

She said: ‘People report visions, voices, tactile sensations, smells and something that we call “a sense of presence” that is not necessarily related to any of the five senses. They happened involuntarily and, for example, not while someone is deliberately remembering.

‘They are always significant to the bereaved and continue some aspect of the relationship with the loved one; sometimes they also magnify it. For example: someone who experienced a problematic relationship with her mother while she was alive now experiences hostility through hearing her mother’s voice. I found that these experiences could at times be healing and transformative, for example hearing your loved one apologise to you for something that happened – and at other times foreground the loss and grief in a painful way.

‘People’s selves are not separate from others, particularly not significant others. It is therefore quite natural that these close relationships continue after death and that interactions may occur as before. It would in fact be quite strange if such interactions that we come to expect as part of our everyday lives suddenly stopped.’

Some researchers have theorised that the experiences are similar to flashbacks experienced by sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder, but Dr Hayes said they are more complicated than that. ‘ECP’s can occur for many years afterwards and even when the bereaved are no longer experiencing trauma, and they are usually not in the form of flashback but can be quite new experiences,’ she says.

‘Whether they are helpful of unhelpful depends on the nature of the relationship with the deceased. Many who have had positive encounters with their deceased love ones say they have been soothed to sleep or been given the encouragement to achieve a difficult task. Some say they have been helped to complete a mundane chore, such as a man whose grandmother – who had been dead for 4 years – told him to fix the kitchen waste disposal system for his grandfather who was finding the task very stressful.’

Dr Hayes added: ‘The form ECP’s take also fits the relationship with the deceased. It’s like they walk onto the stage on cue and play the part the bereaved would expect them to.’

All these super psychological explanations do not in my view prove that an afterlife does not exist or that apparitions are merely meaningless hallucinations of the mind.

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