The Bereaved and The Dead

by Dewi Rees

Now retired, Dr Dewi Rees has been a GP in mid-Wales, Medical Director of St Mary's Hospice, and an Honorary Senior Clinical Lecturer at Birmingham University. His MD degree was awarded for studies in bereavement. He is a former member of the Governing Body of the Church in Wales and of the Coventry Diocesan Synod.

There can never be absolute proof that life follows death. Jesus pointed to this truth in the story of the rich man and Lazarus, which ends with the comment he ascribed to Abraham: 'They will not be convinced even if someone were to rise from death.' But there is much evidence to support the idea that life continues in some way after a person dies, and the latter part of the twentieth century saw a considerable increase in the quality and content of this evidence.

Christian belief in 'the life everlasting' is based on the resurrection of Jesus, witnessed by many people two thousand years ago. It is recorded in the Gospels and supported by the traditions and teaching of the Church. It is also supported by the visions and personal experiences of saints and many ordinary people throughout the ages. Recently, I was at a meeting where a woman described her experience of Jesus as a real presence. Judith and I have a nodding acquaintance and I regard her as a strong character with a fairly robust outlook on life, so I found her story particularly surprising.

Some months ago, Judith was accepted for training as a voluntary lay worker with a hospital chaplaincy team. The training included a seminar on loss and bereavement, but because she was unable to attend the session as scheduled, the senior chaplain arranged to speak to her separately on that subject. They were talking in his office when he was bleeped and summoned to a terminally ill patient, so instead of leaving the trainee, he took her with him. Two relatives were awaiting them in the patient's room, and the chaplain immediately knelt down and prayed. The others followed his example and whilst they were kneeling in prayer, Judith had a powerful feeling that Jesus was there with them; it was almost palpable. The spiritual authenticity of this type of experience cannot be tested, but such an event does reinforce, both for the individual and within the collective psyche, the universal belief that life follows death.

This belief is also strengthened in other ways. Prominent among these are the 'out-of-the-body' states that 10% of people experience - giving credence to the idea that each person possesses a spiritual body which is distinct from the physical body and which survives its disintegration. There have also been numerous published reports of 'near-death experiences' and less frequently reported 'death-bed' visions, which can most simply be explained by the assumption that life continues after death.


Death-bed visions

I will not discuss the incidence or cultural variations associated with 'death-bed' visions, but remind you of their nature by giving brief accounts of three incidents in which I was personally interested. The first involved my mother, the others were seen by patients.

Mother was suffering from terminal cancer when she died at the age of 65. A few weeks previously, she had seen my 78-year-old father die—probably from the broken heart syndrome' and I can still remember her getting out of bed to care for him in the last days of his illness. Both parents died at my home, which enabled me to be at the bedside when mother died. It was so unexpected. She had passed into the final phase of her illness and was lying quietly in a comatose state when she suddenly sat upright and opened her arms in a gesture of welcome. She then lay back and said to me, 'Goodbye, Cariad', using a term of endearment that she commonly used in my childhood. I was overwhelmed by what I saw and felt, and left the room to recover my composure. When I returned a few moments later, mother was dead. The most striking feature of this episode, and one that I have not yet mentioned, was the way my mother's face changed, and became joyful and radiant as she sat up and extended her arms in greeting not to me but to someone she appeared to see at the foot of the bed.

Mother died during the daytime, but the next episode happened at night. It occurred about thirty years ago, when I was a GP in Llanidloes. I was called out late at night to an elderly lady who had collapsed. She was a patient of my partner, and not a person I knew well, though I believe she attended church regularly. She had gone to bed apparently quite well and then, most unusually, she got up and went downstairs. Then her husband heard her calling him, 'Come down quickly, I am dying, I can see Jesus'. By the time he got downstairs to help her, she was dead.

The third incident was different. I was visiting a ward in the hospice when an elderly man spoke to me. He had something personal that he wanted to tell me and asked me not to tell other members of the staff. The previous night he had seen a green man in the ward. It was a pixie-like figure, standing about five feet tall, with pointed ears. According to Carl Jung, this would have been an archetype of transformation, a fertility symbol representing birth, death, and renewal. The patient, who had terminal cancer, died soon after.


Bereavement and perceptions

NDEs, death-bed visions, and out-of-the-body states all support the idea that life persists after death, but the most convincing evidence to my mind are the experiences of breaved people. I rank these as of greater importance than NDEs because they occur much more frequently and are more deeply rooted in the human psyche. They are now regarded by psychiatrists as normal, and even helpful, aspects of bereavement, though this is a recent development. Also, one cannot help but like them to the disciples' experiences of the risen Christ, though still accepting that the resurrection has a cosmic significance that transcends these more human-scale events.

My interest in bereavement followed from the deaths of my parents. In 1967, I published a paper in the British Medical Journal with Sylvia Lutkins—then a lecturer in mathematics at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth. The paper was entitled 'The Mortality of Bereavement'. This had some success and is still quoted in the medical press. I then designed a longitudinal study on the effects of bereavement: the intention was to look at and monitor about seventy clinical/physiological variants such as the incidence of anorexia, weight loss, headaches, insomnia, tearfulness, depression, and anxiety—the obvious debilitating conditions someone interested in the effects of bereavement would include. However, no provision was made for the possibility that people who had lost a close relative would refer to their continuing encounters with the dead. But this is what happened. Most commonly, they spoke of a feeling—that the dead person was present with them. Less frequently, they spoke of seeing or hearing, or even being touched by them. Almost invariably, the experiences were described as being pleasant and helpful, though sometimes people were frightened, saying 'it was not right' that such a thing should happen. I also learned that people did not talk about them, which in retrospect makes it interesting that they spoke so easily to me. I suppose they knew me well, being the local doctor, and realised that I was interested in their stories.

At that time—the late 1960s—little was known about such occurrences. Standard textbooks on psychiatry did not mention them, and the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (25 volumes) dismissed them in three lines as psychotic hallucinations. When later I spoke on this subject to psychiatrists in Cardiff, a senior consultant told us that he had never encountered anything like this during his thirty years of practice in psychiatry. It was a taboo subject, never mentioned to doctors or clergy or family, so it is good to know that the situation has changed so radically and that people can talk about such things much more openly now.


So what did we find? Most importantly we were able to establish the exact incidence of such experiences among widows and widowers. Sylvia Lutkins, who did the statistical analyses, who was able to show that the finding were applicable not just for mid-Wales but for widowed people throughout the United Kingdom. Later, these findings were replicated by studies in the USA. In a letter accompanying a copy of a paper he published in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society (1985, 33.543-7), Dr Olson wrote from North Carolina: 'Your original article and a patient with this phenomenon stimulated me to pursue it further in our community. As you can see the incidence was strikingly similar to yours. It has been very helpful for those bereaved to know that this is a normative phenomenon.'

My survey showed that about 50% of widowed people have some experience of the dead spouse. Usually this is a 'sense of the presence' (39%), but some see (14%), hear (12%) or feel touched by (3%) their dead spouse. These perceptions are not restricted to the widowed. I have recently received letters from a brother and sister—writing separately—telling me that they sometimes detect their mother's presence by a distinctive smell in the house. They live in different localities but they both describe the same smell—a mixture of their mother's favourite perfume (Yardley's Freesia) and of the slight incontinence she acquired with increasing age.

The incidence of these experiences does not differ with the sex of the percipient or a wide range of sociological variables. They occur with equal frequency to widows and widowers. Social isolation is not a factor: if people feel lonely, live alone, have relatives living nearby, or are in regular employment, none of these factors affect the incidence. It makes no difference if the bereaved move house, live in a town or isolated farmhouse, attend Church regularly, speak more than one language, or remarry. I can still remember the look of surprise that appeared on the faces of subsequently married partners when their wife/husband told me that their dead spouse still appeared to them.

Normal and helpful

The main outcome of this study (and here I was helped by four senior psychiatrists—Professors Hinton and Rawnsley, and Drs Pollitt and Murray Parkes) is that a perception of the dead is a normal feature of widowhood. Almost half of all widowed people have such experiences, and they can continue for many years after the individual has been bereaved. Whilst affirming the normality of such experiences, it is important to emphasise that it is just as normal not to have them: and i might add that I have had no such experience myself.

Studies by other workers have shown that people who have these experiences are likely to cope better with widowhood than those who do not. This point needs emphasising because much bereavement counselling is based on Freud's famous dictum: 'Mourning has a quite precise psychical task to perform: its function is to detach the survivor's memories and hopes from the dead.' Moreover, researchers are beginning to point out that the 'grief work' hypothesis which is based on this dictum has never been properly tested. That is a separate issue, but some therapists are beginning to realise that the need is not to disconnect the links between the bereaved and the dead but to reinforce them.

Points of concern

It is important to emphasise that we are not talking here about people going to mediums, séances, using ouija boards, or seeking to make contact with the dead in any way. These are spontaneous happenings, occurring in clear consciousness whilst the individual is conducting their normal day-to-day affairs. Nor are we talking about forgetfulness or misrepresentations, when a person might forget mometarily about the death of their loved one and lay a place at the table for them, or mistake someone in the street for the dead partner. We are discussing experiences like that described by C.S. Lewis in A Grief Observed, when he wrote:

Sometimes quite unexpected has happened. ... suddenly, at the very moment when, so far, I mourned H. least, I remembered her best. Indeed it was something better than memory. ... I said several notebooks ago, that if I got what seemed like an assurance of H's presence, I wouldn't believe it. Easier said than done.

And again, the comment by Sir Basil Spence in Phoenix at Coventry on the un-veiling of Sir Jacob Epstein's sculpture, St Michael and teh Devil, at Coventry Cathedral. He wrote: 'Lady Epsetin unveiled it, for Sir Jacob did not live to see the finished sculpture in place. During the ceremony I felt his presence.'

Implications and explanations

The phenomena discussed about have important philosophical and psychological implications for the individual and society as a whole. They are also significant theologically and need to be considered from that standpoint. Whether this is happening, I do not know; but a recent letter from a clergyman opened with the sentence, 'Thank you for your letter to the Church Times 3.3.00 regarding reported contacts from dead loved ones. This is the first time I have read or heard anything on the subject.' Happily, he goes on to say that his parishioners are telling him of such experiences.

People deal with these phenomena in various ways. The traditional Western approach has been to pretend they do not exist and to ignore them. This approach is no longer tenable, as psychiatrists, nurses, social workers, and funeral directors all know that they are a common aspect of bereavement.

One may attempt to explain them in psychological terms, and psychiatrists are doing that. This is appropriate for their discipline, though I have yet to see an explanation which is satisfactory. The attempts tend to be based on Darwinian principles and I remain unconvinced that a perception of the dead is evolutionary helpful.

Some people associate such perceptions with demonic possession. This is not an explanation that I expected in the UK, so I was surprised to read, in a report on Christian Healing, that these bereaved people suffer from demonisation and are best treated by deliverance therapy. It is also suggested that this demonisation affects Christians as well as unbelievers and that nurses are particularly vulnerable.

The most satisfying explanation would be to link them in some way to the resurrection of Christ. This is obviously a difficult issue for the Church, but one that it must tackle. If we accept the resurrection of Jesus as attested by the witnesses of the time, then we should give some validity to the personal experiences that millions of bereaved people have every day, even though these lack the particular significance of the Resurrection.