Several years ago know, a friend named Rebecca passed away. We’d been close in high school and kept in touch sporadically over the years. The last time we met up, she was hopeful about her treatment and planning to fight off the illness that had invaded her body. We sat in a busy cafe in the middle of Newtown, drinking coffee and giggling over what idiots we’d been in high school. She told me about her more recent travels, I probably bored the pants off her with stories of my kids. A few months later, she was gone.
A few weeks later, bustling through the city, I saw her. Wearing a black checkered shirt over a singlet, she dipped her face down behind her hand, lighting a cigarette. She looked up and met my eye as I stepped towards her, my mouth already forming her name. When I blinked, Bec’s face was gone. It wasn’t her, just someone with only a passing resemblance.
It was then that I remembered all the times I had seen my Mum. I’d walked quickly towards a woman at the train station, almost touched the arm of another in the shopping centre. There were many double-takes on buses and in the street. Each time I’d see her, I’d react as if it were her, even though my mind told me it wasn’t possible. I literally could not believe my own eyes.
“I see dead people”, or do I?
Some of the more spiritually inclined believe these are visitations. Loved ones from the other side, making themselves known. Letting me know that they are okay. Telling me that I am being watched over in some way. It’s intended as a comforting view and while I can appreciate it, I don’t think that’s what this is.
I saw Rebecca perhaps 4 or 5 times in the months after her death. My mother, I saw too many times to count. A decade on, I haven’t seen her in years now. Last year, however, my grandmother passed away. In the week before her passing, we sat around her hospital bed for a week, talking about family, sharing memories and measuring each laboured breath. She never woke. The doctors assured us she wasn’t suffering, but it was still difficult and heart-rending to watch. Within a couple of days of her death, there she was coming out of the post office as I was driving past. I pulled over suddenly, put the car in park and stared at the elderly lady with her walking stick who was most assuredly not my dead Little Nan. She looked back at me in minor alarm and hurried off. I sat in the car, tears rolling down my cheeks.
The science of grief
The science behind it all is complex and fascinating. Grief is, by it’s very nature, traumatic and painful for everyone but there are different types. Complicated grief, for example, effects 10-20% of us and means that the person living with it struggles to accept the loss, even years later. There was a study involving people experiencing complicated grief that used MRI to look at subject’s brains while they were shown pictures and other stimuli that reminded them of their deceased loved one. Their brains showed the expected response in areas associated with the pain of losing someone. But they also showed activity in part of the brain associated with reward, which might explain why they found it so difficult to accept that their loved one had died. That’s just one example. There is other research linking grief and certain medical conditions or examining the way people in high-conflict relationships deal with personal grief. This is an excellent read on the way we know grief can impact our health.
Some aspects of grief are universal, of course, such as sadness. But there are some symptoms that not everyone will experience. Post-bereavement hallucinations, like those I have experienced, are not uncommon, but they aren’t universal. They are, however, likely more common than one might think. There probably isn’t the funding for extensive research into this area, but there has been some. For example, in a small study published in 2008, elderly people who had lost their spouses reported a high rate of post-bereavement hallucinations. The hallucinations ranged from simply feeling the presence of the deceased to actually seeing and even hearing them. Participants in the study felt that post-bereavement hallucinations were actually helpful.
The late neurologist Oliver Sacks agreed. Post-bereavement hallucinations are a way that our brains can help us adapt to life without that loved one’s presence. I’ve read case studies involving the loss of a spouse, a child, a grandparents- even a much-loved cat. And knowing what I know now about grief, that all makes perfect sense to me.
A moment of comfort
The very first time I experienced a post-bereavement hallucination, it was my Mum that I saw. In that moment, my mind raced as my body responded by moving towards her. A split second later, the rational voice inside me screaming that it wasn’t possible was heard by the rest of me. I felt like I’d been sucker-punched and I wanted to cry. It felt cruel and so did the next time. If the spiritual friends were right and she was haunting me by projecting herself on to strangers, it wasn’t bringing me any comfort at all. Couldn’t she stop, sit down with me for 20 minutes and let me say all of the things I wanted to say before she went away? I knew that wasn’t what was happening, so I got to reading.
When I started learning about post-bereavement hallucinations, I realised this was the much more likely scenario and I started to see it in a different way. The dead live on in our hearts, they say. But to me, they live on in our minds. In our memories and thoughts. Each time the face of a dead loved one shows itself this way, I’m comforted a little bit. Because they might be dead, but they aren’t gone. They will always be in my proverbial heart, of course, but perhaps more importantly, they are still alive in my mind. My memories. I still see their faces and know that they are inside me somewhere. And that is no small comfort.