Let me emphasize at the outset that I have been trained in the scientific method and hold a dutiful respect for science. However, I have no doubt whatsoever that many bereaved people receive signs or messages from their deceased loved ones or a Supreme being that helps them deal with their losses and reinvest in life.
I was not brought up in a world of the extraordinary and have had no yen for the unfamiliar or the unknown. But all of that changed in 1981 when a 64 year-old woman came to me with a story of unusual clarity and power. She had asked her 28 year-old daughter who was dying, that if it were possible, would she send her a sign that she was okay in another dimension. Surprisingly, her request was granted through a vision that occurred to her four year-old grandson some four months later (the full account of this contact can be found in the Introduction of Love Lives On).
Her story was so compelling, it caused me to begin checking with colleagues and other mourners about these experiences. It was overwhelmingly clear: they happen frequently. In fact, Sociologist Andrew Greeley, in a study for the National Opinion Research Center, asked a diversified sample of the American public whether they “felt as though you were really in touch with someone who has died?” An astounding 42% of the public answered in the affirmative.
Mystical or Extraordinary Experiences (EEs) are a historical fact of life in the lives of the bereaved. They have been occurring since the dawn of human history, even though there is a parallel history of ignoring, labeling, and denying their existence.
This denial is especially prevalent when unexplainable experiences occur to those who are mourning the death of a loved one or when someone is dying and report seeing people who have gone before. The common explanation given to explain away the experience is that the mourner is in a disorganized and confused state and is therefore subject to hallucinations, illusions or other forms of confused thinking. In reality, this is not the case.
There are numerous positive effects from these encounters, not the least of which is the conviction by the mourner that consciousness survives bodily death and the loved one lives on. Following is an unusual EE that had three positive effects on the mourner in addition to the two just mentioned.
The recipient of this experience was a devoted wife who had helped her husband through many months of coping with prostate cancer. As she said, “Being present when he was dying was an incredibly profound experience that changed my life. However, I knew his time was very short, and he would not die in my presence, as he wanted to spare me the sadness. He passed away shortly after I went home that last night.”
In her own words, here is her Extraordinary Experience.
“My EE occurred approximately 30 hours after Peter’s death. I awakened around 7:00 a.m. and saw my ‘Happy Birthday’ balloon in my bedroom. He had ordered flowers and the balloon for my birthday two weeks earlier. He hadn’t gotten me a balloon for years but this one turned out to be significant. During the four days he’d been in home hospice care, it hovered around the ceiling in the room where we spent our time talking and watching television (‘hanging out’ he called it). This balloon had never left that room before, and would have had to go up and down through two doorways to get to the bedroom—so I knew it had to happen on its own.
“When I saw the balloon that morning, I immediately knew it was a message from him that he had arrived at his destination, and wanted to thank me for taking care of him. I went down a short hallway to our front door to get the newspaper, and when I came back the balloon was in his bathroom. He had told me earlier that since his shower was better than mine, I should use his bathroom after he was gone. I felt the balloon was reminding me of that, so I took my shower there immediately.
“The remainder of the morning the balloon would be in whatever room I was in, although I never really saw it move. I would just look up and see it with me. This lasted for a few hours, then it was over. The balloon lost all its air and to this day rests on a shelf by a jade plant in my sunroom. I felt this episode was a moment of magic and joy in the midst of my new and overwhelming sadness.”
This experience was a major factor in how Marilyn was able to cope with her great loss. I asked her what was most helpful about it for her. She said, “The timing of the experience set the tone for my grieving process: Happy images (balloon, etc.) immediately linked to the sad ones (Peter’s dying moments). Also, the encounter reassured me that his suffering was over. Finally, the details of this EE seemed designed by Peter to be a very personal and unique message for me.”
These three items are critical to understand. Setting the tone for grieving means knowing that all is well, though sad, and all is not lost. Reassurance is an important factor in accepting her loss (the major task of mourning) knowing that his pain is over. And finally, realizing the personal meaning of the message adds to reassurance and her belief that love lives on. Once you find meaning, you can deal with any loss or change the world has to offer.
Experiences like Marilyn’s have happened to millions of people in a variety of different ways from sensing the presence of the deceased or having a vision to hearing the loved one’s voice or experiencing a visitation dream. The general public is not aware of the frequency of these contacts or the degree of help they provide to the bereaved. They remain another example of the mystery of life.
Louis LaGrand 2011