"Am I Going Mad?" ~ Mystical Experiences in Grief


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Desire is indeed powerful. It engenders belief. ~ Marcel Proust

Of all the various ways that grief can express itself, perhaps one of the most unsettling is to experience the presence of a lost loved one— days, weeks or months after the death has occurred. When one so dear to you is gone, it can be very hard to accept that the person is really dead.

You may find yourself thinking and dreaming about your loved one much of the time, and it may seem that everything around you is a reminder of the person you have lost. Once in a while you may temporarily forget that your loved one is gone, and you’ll look and listen for him or her—and maybe even think that you’ve seen, heard, smelled or touched the person. Part of you believes your loved one is there, yet the other part of you knows that’s not the case.
At some point you may think you’ve received a symbolic communication or message from the person who has died. Some people find this to be very frightening and disorienting, while others find it to be quite helpful and even comforting. In any case, it’s important to know that such experiences are very common and perfectly normal during times of loss. Sometimes as long as a year after the death of a loved one, people will report sensing (hearing, feeling, seeing) the person in the room. They believe the person is there, yet they also know their loved one is dead. They may feel very foolish or embarrassed— they may be very frightened— and they often wonder, "Am I going mad?"

Be aware that, although grief responses differ from one person to another, it is normal to experience a wide range of emotions during the grieving process, including the sensation of hearing, seeing, touching or smelling your loved one who died.

In the first edition of Kenneth Doka's book Disenfranchised Grief: Recognizing Hidden Sorrow, therapist Jeffrey Kauffman writes about the intrapsychic dimensions of grief. He considers hallucinations and dreams about the deceased to be "extremely significant intrapsychic communications"—a sort of "grief language" that helps the griever realize the death and its meaning, and serves to resolve the griever's relationship to the deceased (pp. 27-28).

In her book Seven Choices: Finding Daylight after Loss Shatters Your World, Elizabeth Harper Neeld observes that "nearly everyone experiences some kind of strange phenomenon following a loss. But most people are embarrassed to talk about these unusual events for fear that others will think they are crazy." She writes,

There are many theories to explain strange events that occur. Physicists talk about “implicate order” and “morphogenic fields.” Scientists talk about “laws of seriality” and “object-impact interactions.” Theologians talk about “grace” and “a higher Being.” The most useful way to hold these mysterious events early in the experience of grieving is not to try to understand them but merely to acknowledge and reflect on them. And to realize that a grieving person who sees or hears something unexplainable has not suddenly become addled or weak-minded. We don’t have to be able to explain a phenomenon in order to take comfort from it or to marvel at it. Perhaps the most important thing about experiencing such occurrences is the truth they put before us: that we do not know everything. That there are sources of comfort and of Presence that we cannot explain. That life contains mysteries, and that it is possible to be greatly enriched and even strengthened by these mysteries. That we can be blessed by moments of grace (pp. 41-42) .

In his book, Love Lives On: Learning from the Extraordinary Encounters of the Bereaved, grief expert Louis LaGrand encourages mourners to seek—actively and intentionally—what he calls an extraordinary encounter with the deceased loved one:

I tell every client who comes to me that there is nothing wrong with asking or praying for a sign that your loved one is okay. You will receive a sign when you need it most. Be patient. Persist. Be specific. Keep petitioning. Stay alert and increase your awareness of the coincidences, feelings, unusual happenings, intuitions, and good things that occur during your day. Give thanks when what you have prayed for arrives. Persistent prayer cannot be denied. In particular, ask your Higher Power to allow you to have a visitation dream. Many spiritual counselors believe that dreams are the easiest way for spirits to communicate with survivors (p. 119).

Those who have loved and lost a cherished animal companion may be familiar with this phenomenon. In Losing Your Dog: Coping with Grief When a Pet Dies, psychologist Mickie Gustafson describes how bereaved animal lovers "against all reason were forever looking for their [pet] or listening for various sounds or signs of it." She explains:

This is because their sense of loss is so overwhelming that it simply dominates normal logical thinking. This watchfulness also means that you become more and more sensitive to everything that might remind you of the dead pet. You listen and look, expecting to see or hear the missing [animal]and sometimes it seems to you that you do. All your senses are on the alert and receptive to everything that might be a sign of communication from the dead animal. And thisthe momentary impression of seeing or hearing what you are looking forprovides both solace and a respite in your search ( p. 18).
  
No one really knows why grief produces such powerful, mystical processes—but we do know that hallucinations, communications, dreams, visions and visitations are a frequent experience of the bereaved. They are by no means abnormal, and they do not forecast a complicated grief reaction. While some people find them distressing, it is generally believed that such mystical grief experiences have great power and personal significance for the mourner, and may be an important if not vital part of healing.

Suggestions for Coping with Mystical Experiences
  • Make use of your dreams: record them, or share them with someone who will listen but not interpret them for you. Keep in mind that no one is a better expert at interpreting your dreams than you are.
  • Don’t judge yourself or others who have mystical experiences, and don’t think there’s something wrong with you if you’ve never had them. Grief responses differ from one person to another, and it is normal to experience a wide range of emotions during the grieving process.
  • Don’t worry whether such experiences are real or simply a figment of your imagination. If they bring you comfort, does it really matter? And if such an experience is unpleasant or frightening for you, make certain that you talk to someone who will support you.
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