Sometimes, people who are grieving trust me enough to say that they can feel the person’s presence with them. These feelings are often called grief or post-bereavement hallucinations, but I prefer to call them sensory grief experiences since to the person who sees, hears, smells, or feels them they are very real rather than a hallucination. These experiences can include seeing the dead person, or feeling them touch you, smelling their scent or feeling a coldness in a particular room. These experiences are a normal part of grief but are often hidden because people don’t talk about them and are worried that people will think they are going mad. I think they are incredibly common and are part of a healing process for most people who have them.
It might be a fleeting moment, for example as someone was shopping, he ‘saw’ his mother behind him in the shop window for about a minute and could not move away. He said it felt as if he was Harry Potter looking in the Mirror of Erised to see himself with his parents. For other people, the grief experience can last up to half an hour and can become a commonplace occurrence.
Some people have sensory grief experiences shortly after the death and see them as part of the shock and denial phase of grieving, but other people can still have them years later. One person I met had occasional times when they happened, normally associated with a particular smell of cologne; forty years after his death, she talked about ‘meeting’ her dad and him putting his hand on her shoulder in a reassuring way.
One time, someone trusted me enough to have this experience in front of me. They could obviously ‘feel’ their mother hugging them and this experience brought them a deep sense of peace and reassurance in their grief. Afterwards we talked about it, and they said that they had been worried about saying it to anyone because their grief seemed so unusual; they didn’t believe in ghosts and thought people would think they were crazy.
However, some people really want to have these sensory grief experiences and don’t; this can be very distressing but does not have any correlation with the closeness of the relationship. One person talked about going on holiday with her daughter who had a sensory grief experience where she ‘saw’ her dead father. She had tried to have a similar experience because she was in the room at the time but had felt nothing. We talked about the feelings of jealousy and inadequacy she felt because she had not had this experience. The person found herself ‘hunting’ for the release she felt this experience would bring and wondered about going to a spiritualist. Once we talked about the fact that although they are common, not everyone has them and they cannot be planned, she found a new sense of peace and restoration. She realised that it was not about how much her husband loved her.
Each person’s grief is unique. Some people never talk about sensory grief experiences which doesn’t mean that they haven’t had them. Other people talk about ghosts or their belief system. My hope is that people start to be more open about their sensory grief experiences and that they become more recognised.