ďThe Exclusive, Universal, and Multiple Experiences of After Death CommunicationĒ
By James A. Houck, Ph.D.
ďPlease donít think Iím crazy, butÖĒ is how most conversations typically begin around the subject of After Death Communication (ADC). Although I have experienced ADCís in the form of dreams, I have counseled many people who are looking for permission to share how their deceased loved-one has ďvisitedĒ them from the other side. Most of the research in this area has been done from a qualitative (e.g., structured interviews) approach (Devers and Robinson, 2002; Guggenheim, 1997; LaGrand, 1997), which is an excellent way for people to begin telling their stories and comparing similar experiences with other bereft people. Yet, are there others ways to statistically measure the frequency and uniqueness of such experiences? In other words, are ADCís random or purposeful to specific types of populations or bereavement groups?
As part of a larger research study on Comparing Grief Reactions and Religious/Spiritual Coping Methods Among Cancer, AIDS-Related, and Suicide Bereavement, Houck (2004) asked 162 bereft people to report if they have experienced specific types of ADC, as it related to their most recent death of a loved-one. A frequency analysis indicated three common themes: Universality, i.e., ADCís appear to cut across lines of gender, age, religious preference, education levels, time since the death, and types of death; Multiplicity, people typically experience more than one type of ADC by the same loved-one on different occasions; and Exclusively, the majority of ADCís are experienced without the assistance of a third-party (e.g., medium, spiritualist, shaman, etc.).
Participants included people who were grieving the loss of a loved-one to one of three types of death: Cancer (n=50), AIDS-related (n=50), and Suicide (n=50). A fourth bereavement group, who were grieving the loss of a loved-one from a sudden and unexpected death (n=12) were also included in the present ADC research. Volunteer participants were asked to complete a confidential survey packet via clinical case managers, nursing staff, and social workers from various hospice, support groups, and HIV/AIDS agencies. In order to maintain confidentiality, the researcher did not have direct contact with the participants. The packets included The Grief Experience Questionnaire (Barrett and Scott, 1989), The Brief Religious and Spiritual Coping Scale (Pargament, Smith, Koenig, and Perez, 1998), and a demographic sheet. All completed packets were sealed and returned to the various agencies within one month of receiving them.
Based on Guggenheimís (1997) and LaGrandís (1997) categories of ADC, participants were asked the following question:
After the death of your loved-one, was there ever a time when you sensed his/her presence? No _____ Yes _____ (if yes, please check all that apply)
Dreams (where visited by deceased) _______
Olfactory (familiar scents, perfume, or odors) ____
Audible (voice, footsteps, music, etc.) ______
Vision (seeing an outline or shape) ______
Tactile (feeling presence through touch) _______
Presence of bird/animal (deceased favorite) _______
Third-Party message from unknown person _________
In looking at the three bereavement groups as a whole, females (N=110) represented 2/3 participation as compared to the 1/3 participation of males (N=52). The range of ages was from 19 years (minimum) to 79 years (maximum), with the total mean age at 44.65 years (Table 1). Of the 162 participants, 40 (18=females, 22=males) reported that they did not experience any ADCís since their loved-oneís death.
Between Group Means for Age
Cancer 50.14 50 14.4 2.04
AIDS 39.62 50 11.29 1.60
Income ranged from $20,000 to $60,000, with a mean income of $36,111.11. The education level for the sample was 30.9% participants completed high school, 51.2% attended college, and 17.9% attended graduate school. No remarkable differences existed in comparing groups on this demographic.
Participants were asked to note their relationship to the deceased, how much time had passed since the death of their loved one; if they had attended any support groups for their grief; and their religious affiliation. In order to include a broader base sample in the current study, two different definitions of bereavement were expanded. First, the relationship of the survivor to the deceased was expanded to all those connections for whom the bereaved sought support. Participantsí relationship to the deceased included: 24% were grieving the death of a parent; 21% lost a spouse; 15.4% lost a sibling; 13.6% lost children; 10.5% lost a close friend; and 7.4% lost a life-partner. Another 9% lost an extended family member such as an uncle or grandparent.
At the time of completing the testing packet, participants were asked how much time had passed since their loved oneís death. The response for the time since death ranged 3 months to over 5 years. The mean time for each group is described in Table 2.
Type of Death Mean N SD SE
Cancer 26.64 50 24.01 3.40
AIDS 25.74 50 19.55 2.76
Each of the participating agencies in the study provided bereaved individuals the opportunity to attend a support group. For the most part, these groups were offered approximately every three months and ran for 6-10 weeks. A large number, i.e., of the participants, indicated that 78.4% (N=127) of participants reported that they did not attend support group meetings following the death of their loved one, whereas 21.6% (N=35) did attend.
Because the original study also examined what kinds of religious and spiritual coping methods were used by survivors (Houck, 2004), participants were asked about their religious affiliation. In response, 21.6% stated Catholic; 22.8, Methodist; 9.9%, Presbyterian; 8.0%, Lutheran; 7.4% stated the Metropolitan Community Church; 6.8%, Baptist, 1.9%, Episcopalian; and 6.2% reported no religious affiliation.
This study did not assign a numerical value to the various individual ADC criteria, but instead reflected the frequency in which participants reported experiencing ADCís. In addition, 32% (N=40) of the participants did not report experiencing any ADC. Therefore, in order to calculate a descriptive analysis of the data, case summaries from SPSS version 12.0 were used on the 122 reports. As a result, three patterns emerged:
The different types of ADCís were compared to other demographic information (e.g., type of death, survivorís gender, age, level of education, income, and religion) and showed no significant differences. In other words, no one group experienced specific types of ADC over/against another. In a previous study, Houck (2004) noted that not only do self-identified bereavement groups (cancer, AIDS-related, and suicide) have different grief reactions that are distinct to each type of death, these groups are further distinguished by their different religious/spiritual coping methods. However, the different types of ADC do not appear to make this distinction, and therefore, may be interpreted as having a universal nature.
Olfactory and Audible 8
Sensed in Same Room and Vision 6
Presence of animal 9
Olfactory Audible 16
Audible and Tactile 5
Presence of animal 8
Audible Vision 6
Within the 122 participants, 15% (N=19) reported having experienced an ADC via a third party involvement, e.g., medium, spiritualist, shaman, etc. The data did not report whether the survivors were part of a group, e.g., audience participation or seminar format, or received their ADC during a private session with a medium/spiritualist. Nonetheless, each of the 19 participants in this study reported experiencing a third-party ADC in addition to other types of ADC since their loved-oneís death (see Table 4).
Third-party message and Dreams 1
and Olfactory 6
and Animal Presence 2
and Vision 2
Olfactory and Audible 4
From this data, one may conclude that ADC is not solely dependent on professional mediums, spiritualists, shamans, etc., i.e., those who make a purposeful contact with the spirit world, in order for them to occur. If anything, one may conclude that the third-party involvement of an ADC may operate more as an objective confirmation to what the survivor may have already experienced.
From the frequency analysis, it appears that the phenomena called After Death Communication is experienced by a majority of people grieving the loss of a loved-one. LaGrand (1997) asserts that one reason why some people receive ADCís whereas others do not, may be due to the role it plays in survivorsí bereavement, namely to help those survivors who are having difficulty accepting the reality of the death, accommodating the loss, and moving on with their lives without their loved-one. The data also indicated that ADCís are universal in nature, i.e., no one socio-economic, religious group, type of death one is grieving, and time since the death, reported experiencing any specific type of ADC over/against another. In addition, those who reported experiencing ADCís reported more than one. In fact, the majority reported a minimum of two-four ADCís since their loved-oneís death. Although specific details of each type of ADC was lacking, survivors indicated the various ADCís all were related to their most recent loved-oneís death. From this data, one may conclude that multiple ADCís may function as a means of confirmation, or additional assurance, of their loved-oneís present state.
Finally, the majority of people in this study reported having experienced ADCís without the assistance of a third-party contact. Again, specific details as to why certain people experienced this whereas others did not, is lacking. Walliss (2001) suggests that the reason why some people may contact a medium, spiritualist, shaman, etc., is maintain a sense of connection, or continuing bond, with the deceased loved one. Nonetheless, this study suggests that this particular ADC may not occur in isolation, and may also function as a means of confirmation with other experiences.
This study focused on the frequency of ADC as reported by survivors from three bereavement groups: cancer, AIDS-related, and suicide. Other types of death, e.g., tragic and violent, were not included. Therefore, a future area of research may include a comparison of ADCís experienced by survivors from multiple types of death, both across socio-economic lines, but also including comparing multiple deaths a person grieves throughout his/her lifetime.
Another limitation of this study was that it reported the frequency of ADCís from a western perspective. A future area of research would be to compare the frequency of ADCís from other world cultures, e.g., Asian, Latino, African, Middle-Eastern, etc. In addition, personal resilience (Bonanno, 2004) to loss might also be studied to determine if any correlations exists between the type of ADC experienced, and a survivorís resiliency.
Finally, this study was limited to a descriptive analysis of ADC. Perhaps a more rigorous inferential statistical design could measure grief outcomes with the existing bereavement paradigms, e.g., Kubler-Ross Stages of Grief, Murray-Parkes Phases of Bereavement, and Wordenís Tasks of Grief.
For further inquires, please contact Dr. Jim Houck at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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