Spiritual Experiences and the Afterlife
Experiences in Which an Afterlife Is Perceived: After-Death Communications and Signs from the Departed
It is common for someone to have a powerful spiritual experience after the passing of a loved one. After-death communications (ADCs) are experiences in which the bereaved have a strong sense of the presence of the departed, such as smelling their perfume when there appears to be no obvious source of the perfume; feeling a hug that was just like how the departed person used to give; hearing the departed person’s voice; or even seeing the departed person. Sensing the presence of the departed is a common phenomenon among the bereaved. There is a range of prevalence between different bereaved groups, but about half of the bereaved across many studies have reported sensing in some form the presence of the departed (Steffen & Coyle, 2012).
It is normal for the bereaved to have questions such as “Will I see my departed loved one again?” “Can my loved one hear and see me now?” and “Does my loved one forgive me that I was not there when he died?” The desire to receive answers to such questions is normal and very understandable. For clients who believe in or desire to explore the possibility of an afterlife, Beth has often found it to be appropriate to provide them with optional non-psychotherapy resources that incorporate the belief or hope in an afterlife. Many clients feel hesitance about discussing their belief or questions about the afterlife due to fear of ridicule or that someone will think he/she is “crazy.” Beth understands it is normal to believe in or have hope in an afterlife. As there are a multitude of beliefs regarding the afterlife, Beth is committed to working within your belief system to augment the healing process. If you so desire and it is appropriate for your treatment, Beth can also provide additional spiritual resources if you would like to read more on afterlife/survival of consciousness research or engage in non-psychotherapy healing modalities that incorporate this belief.
Although different people define “signs” in a variety of ways, oftentimes signs implies something that seems like an unusual coincidence. For example, if Gerald’s father had passed away one year ago to the day, and Gerald saw and heard three different references to his father’s favorite movie, Star Wars, and came across a Star Wars action figure lying in the street, Gerald may interpret those combined events as a sign of greeting and joy from his dad. Many persons report after the death of a loved one seeing animals behave in strange ways or finding coins or feathers in odd places as well. If your grandmother’s favorite bird was a bluebird, for example, and you noticed that since her death you have seen a bluebird perching on your patio longer than is usual for a bird or that the bluebird is closely approaching you at times, you may interpret that as a sign and gift of love from your grandmother.
Most of the time after-death communications and signs bring comfort, but sometimes the person may feel as if he/she cannot share the experience with anyone or risk being seen as “crazy” or even “bothering the dead.” Or, the experiencer may have more questions after the visit from the departed but not be sure with whom to discuss their experience and questions. Beth understands the impact these experiences can have on one’s life and provides a comforting space to explore these encounters. She can provide appropriate spiritual resources based on the client’s needs and wants. Beth can also assist in the assessment and treatment of trauma symptoms, such as intrusive, disturbing images or memories. Intrusive images of the person’s passing, for example, are not the same as an ADC phenomena. Beth can use trauma-informed approaches to address trauma symptoms.
Other Kinds of Spiritual Experiences in Which an Afterlife is Perceived: Near-Death Experiences, Shared-Death Experiences, and End-of-Life Dreams and Visions
In addition to signs and after-death communications, there are other common spiritual experiences in which an afterlife is perceived. For example, near-death experiences (NDEs) occur in about 5% of the population (Gallup and Proctor, 1982). In a near-death experience, people often report that their consciousness/mind left their physical body and they could observe areas far from the location of where their physical body was. Some near-death experiencers (NDErs) also report meeting spiritual beings, such as departed loved ones, angels or beings-of-light and encountering a barrier/threshold (like a door, river, or curtain) that if they crossed they could not return to their physical body.
In addition, there are common aftereffects of NDEs that have been researched. The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences (Noyes, Fenwick, Holden, & Rozan Christian, 2009) discusses some common aftereffects from pleasurable NDEs, such as living more fully in the moment, enhanced appreciation of nature, a new sense of purpose, and greater compassion. Psychic phenomena, such as clairvoyance, precognition, healing abilities, and telepathy are also reported aftereffects by the NDErs. Furthermore, there are many persons who have near-death-like experiences even when they are not physically near-death, such as when in an emotional crisis or even during a meditative state. In other words, out-of-body experiences and experiences in which people report encountering spiritual beings such as departed loved ones are rather common and do not require a physical crisis for them to occur.
In addition to NDEs, there are other spiritual experiences in which an afterlife is perceived. End-of-life dreams and visions (ELDVs) in which a dying person reports a reunion with a deceased loved one during the sleeping and/or waking state are quite common. About half of the study patients who were in hospice care in the Kerr et al. study, 2014, reported experiencing ELDVs.
Shared-death experiences are also quite common. In a shared-death experience the healthy persons, such as family members, friends, and nurses, at the bedside of the dying person obtain a glimpse of the transition from life to death of the dying person. These glimpses may include phenomena such as seeing the room of the dying person fill with light, hearing beautiful music with no apparent source, or even having an out-of-body experience and going through a tunnel of light with the deceased person’s soul while witnessing him/her be greeted by previously departed loved ones. The book Glimpses of Eternity (2016) by Moody and Perry discusses in detail shared-death experience phenomena.
Beth has clinical training and experience in supporting these individuals and families and is well-read in the research on the variety of effects from these diversity of spiritual phenomena. On an on-going basis she attends conferences and courses on topics such as survival of consciousness, assessing and integrating spirituality into psychotherapy, integrating transformative spiritual experiences, and the diversity of spiritual practices.
Some spiritual experiences, such as distressing NDEs, may bring up fear. Beth is also comfortable and able to work with persons who have had distressing spiritual experiences and can assist the client in the process of understanding and integrating them so that they are more empowered and less fearful.
Gallup, G., Jr. (1982). Adventures in immortality. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Kerr, C. W., Donnelly, J. P., Wright, S. T., Kuszczak, S. M., Banas, A., Grant, P. C., & Luczkiewicz, D. L. (2014). End of life dreams and visions: A longitudinal study of hospice patients’ experiences. Journal of Palliative Medicine, 17, 1-8.
Noyes, R., Fenwick, P., Holden, J., & Rozan Christian, S. (2009). Aftereffects of Pleasurable Western Adult Near-Death Experiences. In J. M. Holden, B. Greyson, & D. James (Eds). The handbook of near-death experiences: Thirty years of investigation (pp. 185-211). Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger Publishers.
Steffen, E., & Coyle, A. (2012). ‘Sense of presence’ experiences in bereavement and their relationship to mental health: A critical examination of a continuing controversy. In C. Murray (Ed.), Mental health and anomalous experience (pp. 33-56). Hauppauge, NY: Nova Science Publishers.