by Patricia Pearson Daily Mail
The astronaut who spoke to his father’s ghost. Impossible? This spine-tingling series may make you think again
Thought death was clear but? A new book, Opening Heaven’s Door, will callenge your views. In the second part of our serialisation, bereaved people recall visits by dead loved ones, writes PATRICIA PEARSON
A humid night in summer. Ellie Black wakes at around 3am and her eyes focus on a figure at the end of her bed. It’s her father, from whom she’s long been estranged. Now fully alert, she watches him as he tips his hat and bows with a flourish. Then he’s gone.
The following morning she relates the experience to her daughter at the breakfast table. Later that day the phone rings — with news that her father died in the early hours. A tall story? Not at all.
Research in Wales, Japan, Australia and the U.S. shows that between 40 and 53 per cent of the bereaved receive some kind of signal or visitation when someone close to them dies.
Usually they sense a presence; sometimes they actually see or hear one. Psychiatrists have labelled these experiences ‘grief hallucinations’, though they have not yet been studied neurologically.
In 2012, the psychologist Erlendur Haraldsson published a comprehensive study he’d done on 340 cases of extraordinary encounters with the dying.
Usually people encountered their fathers or mothers — suggesting that the parental impulse to connect and reassure continues past death.
About a quarter of his subjects saw or heard the dead person at the hour of death or within the day it occurred. In 86 per cent of these cases, they weren’t yet aware of the death by ordinary means.
Some surveys report that about half of all these telepathic experiences occur in dreams. A musician, Rory McGill, told me that on the night his father died, he had a vivid dream in which he climbed onto his father’s bed and held him in his arms. ‘But in an instant, I was standing alone in the room — he was gone, and the bed was empty and neatly made,’ he recalled.
The next day, his mother phoned: his father had died unexpectedly while Rory was dreaming about him. A mere coincidence? Highly unlikely. A review of ‘spontaneous telepathy’ studies concludes that the odds against chance are 22 billion to one.
So, do we have a form of consciousness — a way of knowing — that has yet to be fully explained? Intriguingly, studies of twins separated by distance seem to confirm that something odd is going on.
One of the first of these studies monitored the electrical impulses of the twins’ brains. The scientists found that when one twin was asked to close his or her eyes, which causes the brain’s alpha rhythms to increase, the distant twin’s alpha rhythms also increased.
Many later twin studies had similar findings. In 2013, a study of British twins reported that 60 per cent felt they’d had telepathic exchanges. Among identical twins, 11 per cent said they had frequent exchanges with their sibling, including shared dreams.
Other studies of telepathy by University of Virginia psychiatrist Ian Stevenson explored how people could know that someone physically distant was dying or in distress. Stevenson started by analysing 165 meticulously researched historical cases. Nearly 90 per cent had occurred, he discovered, when the person was awake, rather than asleep or dozing.
Two-thirds involved news of an immediate family member. Eighty-two per cent involved death, a sudden illness or accident.
But people did not, apparently, pick up on one another’s good tidings.
‘Is it that the communication of joy has no survival value for us, while the communication of distress does?’ Stevenson wondered.
He then moved on to 35 contemporary cases. And one startling conclusion from these was that a third involved violent death.
His findings were replicated in 2006, when Icelandic researchers found a dramatically higher number of abrupt or violent deaths in telepathic cases.
In addition, there were many accounts from both World Wars of a soldier’s family or loved one suddenly waking in the still of the night. In that instant, they knew the soldier had died — and a telegram later arrived to confirm this. Perhaps, Stevenson mused, there was something in the emotional quality of the event — a thunderclap of fear or pain — that carried like a sound wave across water.
In more than half of the cases, the person who received the message was driven to take some kind of action — such as making a phone call, embarking on a frantic trip or changing holiday plans.
One woman drove 50 miles home in the middle of the night after suddenly gleaning that her teenage daughter was in trouble. It turned out their house had been broken into by armed intruders, with the daughter inside.
But how do you know that the news you’ve just received telepathically is correct? No one has yet fathomed this mystery. But Stevenson discovered ‘a feeling of conviction’ was one of the characteristics that separated telepathic communications from ordinary dreams and anxious imaginings.
There were two other factors that made people sit up wide-eyed and reach for the phone or take other action. One was if the person in the crisis specifically focused on the other person during the moment of danger. This seemed particularly true of parents responding to children.
The second factor was the possibility that the person receiving the distress call had experienced previous psychic communications — suggesting that some people just have a gift for this. Janey Acker Hurth, for example, not only sensed her daughter’s (non-fatal) collision with a car, but also her father’s sudden illness a few years earlier.
Back then, when she was newly married, she’d awoken to ‘a feeling of deep sadness, an impression that something was wrong’. The feeling intensified and she began to sob.
Then, when she was making breakfast, she cried: ‘It’s my father! Something is terribly wrong with my father!’ Her dad had gone into a coma during the night and died shortly afterwards.
Stevenson was struck by how this type of information sometimes gradually came into focus. People like Mrs Hurth, he concluded, ‘may scan the environment for danger to her loved ones and, when this is detected, tune in and bring more details to the surface of consciousness’.
In the Eighties and Nineties, a British neuropsychiatrist, Dr Peter Fenwick, of King’s College, London, appealed to the public for cases of what he called ‘death-bed coincidences’, and amassed more than 2,000 accounts.
Typically, one woman wrote to him about the suicide of her husband, from whom she’d recently separated. She’d awoken at 3am in 1989 from an intensely vivid dream in which her ex was sitting on the bed, assuring her that he’d found peace.
‘I got up, did some work I needed to do and two clients phoned me around 8am,’ she continued. ‘I freaked them out completely as I told them I’d be taking some time out because my husband had just died.’
She didn’t yet objectively know this to be true. But when she let herself into her former husband’s flat, she discovered his body.
In her case, the person in distress hadn’t sought help — instead, he’d apparently sent a message of reassurance after his death.
In other cases, people may be telepathically sharing the calm and peace they feel as they die. Stevenson concluded: ‘It’s altogether probable that important, unrecognised exchanges of feelings through extrasensory processes are occurring all the time. Even if we can only observe it occasionally — and usually between persons united by love and during a special crisis — this should arouse our curiosity.’
On the evening his father died of lung cancer, sailor Raymond Hunter felt as though his lungs were collapsing and he could scarcely breathe.
‘I remember grabbing my mouth, forcing it open to help me breathe. I was fighting for all I was worth, but the pains were unbearable,’ he recalled afterwards.
Unbearable pain — now, that’s not something you shake off as a strange dream. Particularly when you later discover that your father died in that very moment.
This abrupt and violent experience of another person’s dying symptoms has been noted by some researchers, though it remains almost completely unexplored.
Psychiatrist Ian Stevenson has suggested it could be a kind of telepathic extension of a phenomenon in which people who live together sympathetically take on one another’s symptoms or moods. But that’s only a theory.
A particularly vivid instance involves a woman in her late 30s.
‘I was awoken around 2am by the sound of my heart breaking. I know that sounds really odd, but I heard it crack and felt my chest sort of splitting,’ she recalled.
‘The next morning I got into the car to drive to work. I was sitting at traffic lights when I felt this pressure on the side of my face. I distinctly remember that the pressure was that of a cheek lightly pressed against mine, sort of cuddling me.
‘The feeling I was filled with at this time was one of love and support — it felt fine. I then felt a hand holding my hand and felt it had no middle finger. And then it dawned on me.
‘It was my dad’s hand; he’d lost his finger in a building site accident when I was a little girl.
‘I returned home after an hour to be met by my husband’s words: “Your dad’s gone.” Apparently, he’d died from a massive heart attack during the night. I wasn’t at all surprised.’
Why should the dying want to share such agonies with the people they love? No one knows.
But one thing at least is clear: no one in their right mind could dismiss these visions as wishful thinking.
RETURN OF THE DEAD
Two hundred miles above Earth, Jerry Linenger was working on the space station Mir when he suddenly became aware of the presence of his father.
It was 1997 — and his father had died seven years earlier. A conversation ensued in which the older man spoke of his pride that his son had realised his dream of travelling in space. Linenger was deeply moved.
Later, however, he chose to interpret his father’s presence as nothing more than a projection of his imagination. And yet, at the time, he had derived great consolation from the encounter. Nor was his experience by any means a strange aberration. In fact, it’s estimated that around half of all bereaved people — in all cultures — at some point register the presence of their departed loved one.
According to a study done in 2006, 84 per cent of the bereaved were in good mental health at the time. And only 5 per cent found the encounter negative or distressing; for the majority, it was profoundly comforting.
Visual perception of the presence seems to be the rarest. In another study, only about 5 per cent actually saw the dead person; about 15 per cent heard him or her; and the rest had partial impressions, such as feeling hands on their head or noticing a distinct presence in the room.
Unlike our conception of ghosts, these presences can physically react with the material world.
The writer Nancy Coggeshall, for instance, felt the presence of her partner twice while lying in bed, five months after he died in 2002. ‘I felt someone lying down beside me, and I felt the impact of [his] weight on the mattress. The second time, the pressure was so great, I rolled over and asked: “Who’s there?” ’ she told me.
Karen Simons, who works in advertising, recalled a similar experience in 1994, after her father, a farmer, died of a heart attack.
‘After Dad’s death, I began driving his big, old Ford Taurus,’ she told me. ‘It was comforting, in the way you hang on to people’s shirts. But that’s all it was. Until about six weeks after he died.
‘It was a very cold night in January. I’m driving on the highway and into the passenger seat comes Dad. I could feel him settle in. He had a very distinctive lean to the left, because of the way his back was.
‘Also, you know how you know the sound of people’s breathing? How you can tell whether it’s your son or your daughter in the room? It was Dad. He rode with me for about ten miles.
‘It was incredibly real and completely transforming. I was almost giddy. I was hoping he’d stay.’
Karen never sensed his presence again. Her father, she believed, had been saying a final goodbye.
Yet some loved ones can linger for years. This continues to be the case with her aunt’s son, who drowned 35 years ago in a fast-flowing river.
‘On a very regular basis, Allan comes and sits on the end of her bed, and they have a conversation,’ Karen said. ‘ “And don’t tell me I’m crazy!” my aunt always says.’
Back in 1917, Sigmund Freud labelled all such visions and sensations as ‘hallucinatory wishful psychosis’ — and his view remains popular in the medical profession. Since then, however, a great deal more has become known about hallucinations.
People held in solitary confinement for a long time, for example, are known to hallucinate. This takes the form of random, often paranoid imagery, and it’s accompanied by agitation, panic attacks and general mental disintegration.
But widows and widowers are clearly not in this state when they see or sense their loved ones. Nor are they likely to be alone for days on end in tiny windowless cells.
What about the theory that sheer longing for someone could cause a hallucination? Unfortunately for the sceptics, this falls at the first hurdle. Think of all those long-term lovers who leave people heartbroken when they run off with someone else. No one reports having visions of them.
In any case, the vision may not even be of someone close to you. That was certainly the case when a lawyer — interviewed by psychologist Erlendur Haraldsson in 2006 — had an unexpected encounter.
One day, as dawn was breaking, he was coming home from a dance at which he hadn’t drunk any alcohol. While he was walking over a hill, ‘a woman came towards me, kind of stooping, with a shawl over her head.
‘I didn’t pay any attention to her, but as she passed I said “Good morning” or something like that. She didn’t say anything.
‘Then I noticed she was following me. When I stopped, she also stopped. I started saying my prayers in my mind to calm myself. When I came close to home, she disappeared.’
But had she? The lawyer’s brother, who was awake, greeted him with the words: ‘What is this old woman doing here? Why is this old woman with you?’
The brothers lived with their father, who worked at the local psychiatric hospital. A few hours later, they were told by him that a patient at the hospital had just died.
When the brothers investigated further, they found out that she exactly fitted their description of the old woman.
Clearly, whatever had caused the woman to materialise after her death had nothing to do with the lawyer suffering from isolation. Nor had he been longing to see her.
Yet, bizarre as it was, his experience would not have amazed our ancestors.
Throughout most of our history, everyone has known that those who die can return as anything, from a sigh to a physical presence. Our ancestors simply assumed the dead continued to watch, console, guide and even meddle in their affairs.
Collective delusion? Mass hallucinations? Or perhaps our ancestors have something important to teach us.