Céline Dion recently revealed that she still senses the presence of her husband, even though he died from cancer in January 2016. What’s more, the Canadian singer said she still talks to René Angélil, who she was married to for 22 years, and can still hear him at times.
While her remarks prompted ridicule in some quarters, seeing, hearing or sensing the presence of a deceased loved one is nothing to be ashamed of. On the contrary, it is a perfectly normal and often helpful way of dealing with grief.
Sensing a deceased spouse is remarkably common. Between 30 and 60% of elderly widowed people experience so-called bereavement hallucinations. In his book, Hallucinations, the late neurologist Oliver Sacks gives the following example. Marion, who had lost her husband, Paul, came home from work one day:
Usually at that hour Paul would have been at his electronic chessboard … His table was out of sight … but he greeted me in his familiar way “Hello! You’re back! Hi!” His voice was clear and strong and true … the speech was live and real.
This is not rare. A study of elderly widows and widowers in Wales found that 13% had heard their dead loved one’s voice, 14% had seen them and 3% had felt their touch. By far the greatest number, 39%, said they continued to feel the presence of loved ones.
Such experiences can encourage people to talk to their lost loved one, which the study found 12% did. This talking can be accompanied by a feeling that the dead spouse is listening.
Intriguingly, it has been found that those who talk to their dead spouse are more likely to be coping with widowhood than those who don’t.
It doesn’t have to be a partner or spouse who dies. For example, a study of bereavement hallucinations in people of a range of ages described the experiences of Samuel, who had lost his grandmother. One day, when trying to work out where the problem was with a waste disposal unit, he heard her say, “It’s at the back. It’s at the back.” And so it was.
Grateful for the dead
Multiple studies have found that more than two thirds of the widowed find their hallucinations pleasant or helpful. The experiences can provide spiritual and emotional strength and comfort, reduce feelings of isolation and give people encouragement during difficult tasks.
Take the experience of Aggie, which she recounted to researchers as part of a study of bereavement hallucinations. Her boyfriend knew he was dying but hid it, ending their relationship to try to spare her pain. After he died, Aggie heard his voice apologising for pushing her away at the end. She had partly blamed herself for his death and felt guilty. Hearing his voice helped Aggie to forgive herself.
Such experiences will typically fade over time.
The dark side
Of course, bereavement hallucinations can be problematic. When they first happen, some people will get very upset when they realise that the deceased person has not actually returned. The hallucination can also be traumatising. A woman who lost her daughter to a heroin overdose reported hearing her voice crying out, “Mamma, Mamma! … It’s so cold.” In the widowed, they can prevent new relationships developing.
Also, death does not become everyone. After her mother died, Julie started hearing her voice. It called her a slag, slut and whore. It told her she wasn’t fit to live and encouraged her to overdose on pills. Julie’s relationship with her mother had been problematic, but she’d never said such things things while alive.
Thankfully, negative experiences are rare. One study reported that only 6% of people found bereavement hallucinations unpleasant. These experiences hardly ever require psychiatric treatment. Indeed, if people find the first hallucination pleasant, they typically want it to happen again.
How they happen
Many scientists think that normal perception starts with the brain creating a prediction of what is “out there”. This prediction is then revised using feedback from the world, and forms the basis of what we perceive. Perception is edited hallucination.
So one way to understand hallucinations is as uncorrected predictions (my recent book explains this in more detail). If someone has been a consistent, valued presence in your life, the brain is so used to predicting them that it may continue to do so, overruling the world.
A new day has come, but the brain still bets on yesterday.
Why don’t we hear more about these experiences? The obvious answer is that hallucinations are often stigmatised. In countries such as the UK and US, people are typically taught that they are a sign of madness.
So it is perhaps unsurprising that a study in the UK found that only 28% of people with bereavement hallucinations had told someone else about them. Not one had told their doctor. Although most could give no reason for why they had not told anyone, those who did most often cited a fear of ridicule.
This problem is not apparent in all countries. For example, a study in Japan found that 90% of widows felt the presence of their dead spouse, yet none worried about their sanity. Ancestor worship may help Japanese people mourn.
As a result of all this, people should think twice about judging these experiences harshly. One study of widowed people found bereavement hallucinations only occurred in those whose marriages had been happy; we should perhaps simply be marvelling at the power of love.
You tell them, Céline.