Illustration by Lucy Han

Speaking with the Dead Is an Effective Way of Mourning

Michelle Duff

Michelle Duff

When a loved one passes, the grief can be overwhelming. But your bond doesn't necessarily end there.

Illustration by Lucy Han

It is best-known for the scene where Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore caress a potter's knob while she wears a completely craft-inappropriate white shirt, but new research suggests the 1990 film Ghost was psychoanalytically ahead of its time.

An academic study into "after-death communication" has found people's reported experiences of speaking to the dead can be akin to therapy. Writing in the Journal of Near-Death Studies, Massey University's Dr. Natasha Tassell-Matamua and her PhD student, San Francisco-based Brigid McCormick, said the experiences of the mainly female participants were positive, life-affirming, and assisted with the grieving process.

These included feelings of calm and peace after being cuddled by deceased loved ones, a woman who resolved a complicated relationship with her mother from beyond the grave, and another who gained closure after a visit from her labrador. "The overall feeling was one of warmth," one participant recounted. Another reported that the experience "gave me the strength to go on. It made me a searcher of truth and history. It changed my internal world."

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Regardless of objective scientific proof, Dr. Tassell-Matamua told Broadly the participants in her study undoubtedly believed they had spoken to deceased loved ones, and that they felt better afterwards. "I don't like to deny people of their experience," she says, "because that experience of feeling like someone who you probably love very much has contacted you is a very emotional thing.

"I've never felt like it's my job to ascertain whether it 'actually' happened. In fact, many people are quite reticent to discuss their experiences because they feel they might be mocked, and it would be wrong of me to challenge them. They believe absolutely that this has happened to them."

Humankind has told of conversing with the dead for millennia. The tales transcend civilizations and time; it's only the way Western society perceives them that has changed. In many indigenous cultures, those believed to have a direct line to the deceased are held in high esteem.

However, in our modern times, women in particular have been rewarded for hinting at this possibility by being burnt at the stake, or told they are suffering from the "hallucinations of widowhood." Despite our tendency to discount beyond-the-grave chats as fallacy, reports of their occurrence are surprisingly common" Studies conducted between 1965-2013 suggest 25-40 percent of people believe they have had an encounter.

I speak with Mum on a regular basis now, and have a great relationship with her.

Dr. Tassell-Matamua said she and McCormick defined after-death communication as any occasion where a living person believes they have communicated with the dead. "It could be tactile contact, or feeling they've been touched by the deceased person, or physical, auditory or olfactory contact—where they have the sense they can see the person or aspects of them, or hear or smell them."

The participants included 11 women and three men aged between 51 and 80 from a mixture of Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, agnostic and atheist backgrounds. (While there is no research suggesting women are more likely to have an after-death communication experience, Dr. Tassell-Matamua says it is possible women report them more often.)


Watch: Amber Tamblyn on Poetry and Death


The majority of those in the study reported contact from a human other—most commonly their mothers, followed by husbands, fathers, sons, lovers and friends. One woman told of a visit from her deceased dog. "It was a pet she was very close to, and she was overwhelmed with grief. She got out of the shower and looked down to find the water had formed a pattern in the shape of her dog's face," Dr. Tassell-Matamua says. "She took a photograph, and I kid you not, the water had formed the spitting image of a labrador."

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Several participants recounted dreams, while one man said he felt his partner hug him. "I felt the weight of her body, and her arms around my middle," he told researchers.

One woman spoke of resolving a difficult relationship with her mother. "I felt relieved, as if I had got that relationship back—[the kind] that every child wants with their parent." she said. "It put a positive spin on what was a very tough relationship. I speak with Mum on a regular basis now and have a great relationship with her, and I have told my family and they all think it's great we have finally become friends."

Aside from one woman who became angry at the unsolicited contact, Dr. Tassell-Matamua said people overwhelmingly reported feelings of resolution, connectedness, and personal growth. "There's a sense of comfort, they feel that their loved one has reached out to them.

"From a psychological perspective, if people are having these experiences [and there are] no other red flags with their emotional state, then how can we consider this evidence of [poor] mental health? In fact, these experiences have positive impacts on their mental wellbeing."

Does she think people can truly reach out from the other side? "I wouldn't want to say that I completely believe that someone talks to a dead person, but I wouldn't want to say it's impossible, either."