Sometimes, when working with people who are grieving because someone has died, they trust me enough to disclose that they can feel the person’s presence with them. These feelings are often called grief hallucinations but I prefer to call them sensory grief experiences. They can affect all the senses. To the person who sees, hears, smells or feels them they are very real; not 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. They are often hidden because people don’t talk about them, and are worried that people will think they are psychotic. I think they are incredibly common and are part of a healing process for most people who have them.
Experiences in unexpected places
It might be a fleeting moment. As one client was shopping he ‘saw’ his mother behind him in a 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 clients, 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 of that death. Others can still have them years later. One client I saw still had occasional times when they happened, normally associated with a particular smell of cologne. Very occasionally, forty years later, she talked about ‘meeting’ her father and him putting his hand on her shoulder in a reassuring way.
In one session, there was enough trust in the therapeutic relationship for my client to actually have this experience in front of me. We had been working together for several weeks when I became aware that there was ‘somebody else’ in the room with us. My client could obviously ‘feel’ her mother hugging her and she sat differently in her seat. She still knew that I was there and she had her eyes open. This experience brought my client a deep sense of peace and reassurance in her grief. Afterwards we talked about how she had been worried about saying it to anyone because her grief seemed so unusual. She didn’t believe in ghosts and thought people would think she was crazy.
Grief experienced in different ways
Some people really want to have these sensory grief experiences and don’t experience them. This can be very distressing but does not have any correlation with the closeness of the relationship. One lady talked about her daughter having a sensory grief experience where she ‘saw’ her dead father. My client tried to have a similar experience because she was in the room at the time, but felt nothing. We talked about the feelings of jealousy and inadequacy she felt because she had not had this experience. She found herself ‘hunting’ for the release she felt this experience would bring and wondered about going to a spiritualist. 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, realising it did not mean that her husband didn’t love her enough.
Each person’s grief is unique. As a grief counsellor, I never know what my clients are going to bring. Some people never talk about sensory grief experiences, which doesn’t mean that they haven’t had them. They just may not seem relevant in the sessions. 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.