Communicating with the dead

I was talking with someone recently and during the conversation, she started telling me about the psychic she visits who had been very helpful in enabling her to communicate with her dead husband who had given her various kinds of advice. She said that the psychic has also told her many things that were accurate. She also said that on one occasion, she had seen her dead husband in the corner of the room and had made eye contact with him. She said that another person who was with her had also seen her husband.

I got to know this person just within the last couple of years, and while we are not close friends, she is very nice and I like her. While she was telling me this, I simply kept silent, even though I am dyed-in-the-wool materialist who does not believe in the existence of the afterlife and the spirit world. I am also aware that psychics and mediums use cold reading and other methods to give the impression of channeling the voices of dead people. And yet, my friend was so obviously happy with her experience that I did not have the heart to try and disabuse her of her belief.

However, I am aware that people sometimes take advantage of elderly people who have such beliefs in order to defraud them. My friend is older and lives alone. She has no children and just one brother who lives across the country, so she belongs to the demographic of someone who might be susceptible to this kind of fraud. So all I said to her was that I recommend that she not make any major decisions involving her life or finances without first consulting with her brother or a trusted financial advisor and let it go at that. She realized what I was driving at and said that she understood.

However, I was curious about her saying that she had actually seen her husband and that someone with her had seem him too. That seemed out of the ordinary. By coincidence, the next week the radio show This American Life had an entire show devoted to ghosts and spirits that shed some light on this topic. They said that this seeing and talking with dead people is a well known phenomenon that has been studied for some time and that Sigmund Freud labeled it ‘wishful psychosis’. The spiritualism movement gained a lot of popularity in the early part of the 20th century. World War I and the pandemic of 1918 had resulted in massive numbers of people dying and so there were huge numbers of bereaved people grieving for their lost loved ones and seeking to make contact with them.

The show had a series of segments and the ones I found most fascinating were the first and the last. In the first one (8 minutes), a woman discussed how her mother visIted her multiple times after she died from Parkinsons but never told her anything important. Her mother would give her advice about how it was important for her to go early to the funeral to get a good parking spot and stuff like that. She never thought to ask her mother any major questions, like what happens to us after we die and what the experience is like.

The last clip (13 minutes) was about the effort by Arthur Conan Doyle to convince his friend Harry Houdini that mediums could enable one to talk with the dead. Yes, Doyle, the creator of the ultra-rational detective Sherlock Holmes, was himself a very strong believer in the spiritual world and the ability of psychics to channel the dead. His wife was also a medium. Houdini had started life making a living as a ‘spiritualist’ even though he was not a believer, and so knew all the tricks of the trade. When he visited psychics, including the ones Doyle advised him to see, he could quickly spot how they were achieving their effects. But Houdini had had a very close relationship with his own dead mother and did not rule out that there might be a genuine psychic somewhere who might be able to put him in contact with her, and since he missed her tremendously, he was willing to keep searching. But he finally concluded that there was nothing there, that they were all frauds, and became an outspoken exposer of the trickery used by psychics. This led to a bitter public falling out with Doyle, who believed that Houdini himself had supernatural powers that he used in his debunking.

It turns out that the problem that I confronted, of what to do when someone tells you they are communicating with dead people, is a dilemma that therapists constantly confront. Patricia Pearson (who seems sympathetic to the idea that these may not all be hallucinations) writes about how in 1970, author Sylvia Townsend Warner recounted an unexpected visit from her lover, who had died previous year from breast cancer, and how they had shared an ‘actual’ embrace.

Ought anyone to have argued with her? Death and its accompanying grief are often shrouded by awkward silences, but the unwavering prevalence of these apparitions, whether viewed as grief hallucinations or as ghosts, lays bare a metaphysical crisis at the heart of our common model of mourning: for there to be efficacy in recovery, these experiences must be respected as real. As counselling psychologist Edith Maria Steffen notes in her book, Continuing Bonds in Bereavement, there is a “controversial reality status” at play that can erode the trusting relationship between therapist and bereaved person if not handled with care and nuance. The same can be said for family and friends. The question is not whether these apparitions are real, it’s why the first impulse of many is to stifle these stories and dismiss the experiences as impossible.

WITH THE RISE of psychology as a discipline, grief therapy invariably evolved as a specialty, and Freud’s “severing bonds” model took the form of advising the bereaved to make peace and move on. They would “recover” from a loss only by redirecting their emotional energy toward new relationships. In this context, ghostly presences, now dubbed grief hallucinations, were viewed as obstacles to recovery because they represented an unhealthy clinging to the past. A study of London widows undertaken in 1972 by British psychiatrist Colin Murray Parkes led him to conclude that seeing or sensing a deceased partner—which the widows unexpectedly described to him—must pertain to a frustrated attempt to reaffirm a lost attachment. The hallucination was thus an ineffective coping mechanism and “may delay acceptance of the true situation.”

Klass and his colleagues observed that some mourners didn’t experience their grief hallucinations or private conversations with their dead as impediments to recovery. One study of widows near Boston found that all sensed their spouses and none were swooning face down on their beds. “The widows who continued to have vivid illusions of perceiving the deceased did not differ from other widows in the study in their acceptance of death, apparent self-esteem, or movement to building a new life,” the researchers reported. “They also did not seem to be more isolated socially or to perceive themselves as more abandoned. They seemed rather to be better at this style of expressing grief, more accepting of it and more convinced of its meaning.”

Even so, the first reaction for many upon hearing that someone has, say, seen their dead husband perched on the end of their bed one evening is to explain it away. You were tired. Did you eat that day? It must have been a dream. But what does that accomplish other than stranding the grieving in a liminal place between solace and madness? Do we uphold a materialist scientific viewpoint because we believe all the great questions have been answered, or are we being gestural—afraid to appear out of sync with a consensus that presumes the mind is bounded by brain?

So according to Pearson, I was right in not expressing my own skepticism. But I am still not sure. It bothers me that my silence could be construed as tacit acceptance that there might be something there. But is my unease simply because I do not want to risk appearing to be a believer in the supernatural? Is it purely a selfish, ego-driven reason that does not take into account the emotional needs of the person telling me about their experiences?


  1. Jörg says

    Supernatural relationsships are being accompanied by strong emotions, and fiercely defended, by rejecting criticism and doubling down. So far, your sound advice for “consulting with her brother or a trusted financial advisor” for major decisions was probably the right level of involvement.

  2. sonofrojblake says

    Your response sounds about right. It’s important to pitch it according to your estimation of the person you’re talking to. If it’s someone you’ve just met, or don’t know well, and they’ve recently lost someone important to them, it would seem sensitivity would be appropriate.

    If it’s a family member or someone you’re not likely to meet again -- someone whose ongoing opinion of you isn’t as important -- and/or they’re breathlessly telling you about how their recently deceased dog is not only visiting and comforting them, but it now actually talking to them in English, then I think it’s more appropriate to laugh out loud in their face and tell them to grow the fuck up.

    While this approach doesn’t achieve the ideal effect of disabusing them of their delusions (a task I don’t believe is worth bothering to try to achieve), it does achieve the almost-as-ideal effect of making sure you never have to listen to that specific moron regale you with their rubbish fictions ever again. You’ve got to have boundaries.

  3. Tethys says

    I agree that psychics are a form of grifting, and your advice to her is wise. Beware of anyone who claims they can communicate with the dead.

    However, just because you are a strict materialist is not a good reason to dismiss her seeing her husband as some sort of hallucination or delusion. It might be driven by wishful thinking, but it’s not necessarily a delusion. Dreams are very real to the dreamer.

    I don’t see ghosts, but too many people have inquired about the old man looking out of my windows for me to not believe that they see an old man in my house. They all describe him exactly the same way, and had no reason not to assume he was not real resident. I live alone, and have never seen this man they describe. Now I simply tell anyone who asks about ‘ that old man’ that he is a time echo, aka ghost.

  4. Tethys says

    Ugh, once again the stupid autocorrect has changed my spelling.

    That should read psychics, not physics.

    [I corrected it. -Mano]

  5. John Morales says

    It turns out that the problem that I confronted, of what to do when someone tells you they are communicating with dead people, is a dilemma that therapists constantly confront.

    Since I’m not a therapist, I don’t face such a dilemma, nor is it a problem for me to confront. I would certainly ask how much she pays this psychic to give her bullshit that makes her happy, if it came up. And then I’d take it from there.

    In short, what I’d do is to tell them what I think about it.
    Not a problem.

  6. sonofrojblake says

    Just fyi, one of the key features of a PREdiction is that it is made before the event concerned, rather than alluded to afterwards. Postdiction is a less impressive talent.

  7. Bruce says

    What would we say to some friend if they “expressed an emotional need” to believe they could fly, and wanted us to come upstairs and help open the window so they could do so? It would not be good friendship to help enable their delusional demise. So I think in any such cases we have to assess the likely harmlessness as with Mano, or the likely danger, as in my hypothetical case. Cases might go either way, but I wouldn’t want to be responsible for someone hurting themselves.

  8. Bruce says

    We should also note the idea behind Bayes’s Theorem, which basically is that our two categories of information are specific case data (if any), and the prior likelihood of such things. In many psychic cases, the only real data is the fact that prior similar cases have NEVER been shown to be based on actual psychic phenomena.
    If one’s friend says to you to please stay with them because they are worried about the effects of some LSD dose they just took, do we stay around to deny the really of their terrifying hallucinations if any, or do we just tell them to have a nice trip and walk out, washing our hands of our former friendship? I can see it either way, which means it’s not always right to just leave them to their delusions.

  9. Holms says

    #6 Tabby
    “Could have predicted” -- but didn’t. This is why I write my commentary predictions in a cipher, when I write them at all. It’s there in text, decipherable (and checkable by others) later, but without the down side of changing the person’s behaviour if they see that it has been predicted.

  10. No Respect says

    When someone tells you bullshit like this, you nod along and find a way to change the subject, or just offer an excuse and leave. Anything else is pointless, unless you’re a sociopath like sonofrojblake, John and Holms I guess. By the way, I look forward to visiting a medium to mock them from beyond their graves, if I happen to survive them. The sooner the better! (Time for you to nod along to this and leave).

  11. John Morales says


    When someone tells you bullshit like this, you nod along and find a way to change the subject, or just offer an excuse and leave.

    Heh. That’s exactly what you have conspicuously not done.
    Instead, you offered that sad excuse of a comment.

  12. KG says

    Conan Doyle was not the only surprising believer in spiritualism. Last weekend I attended an online talk by the Marxist sociologist and entomologist Ted Benton about Alfred Russel Wallace, co-discoverer of natural selection with Darwin, who as well as being an anti-imperialist, socialist, and supporter of women’s emancipation, later in life became a convinced spiritualist. He died in 1913, so in his case this was not a result of WW1. Conan Doyle seems to have been more generally credulous about supernaturalism, even believing in the Cottingley Fairies! I’ve long had a suspicion that he couldn’t actually have been the author of the Sherlock Holmes stories, but that in a clever double bluff the real author was a Dr. J.H. Watson, late of the Indian Army :-p

  13. flex says

    I don’t think it should be too surprising that in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century some educated and critical thinking people also believed in spiritualism or physic phenomena.

    There were a lot of established action-at-a-distance phenomena which didn’t have a clear explanation. The relationship of magnetism to electricity and how magnetism worked is a good example. Magnetism clearly is experimentally confirmed, but how it worked was unknown at the time. It’s still a mystery for a lot of people today, although most people accept the physicists who say that the explanation for why magnetism exists is known.

    Then there was the Michelson-Morley experiment which raised more questions than it answered, and proved that the universe was still filled with unknown forces. Mix in the discovery of x-rays, and other phenomena which are invisible to humans but detectable with instruments.

    Combine all this with a strong belief in mind/body duality, where a soul can exist outside of the body, and it’s not really surprising that people started suggesting that specialized equipment or “gifted” people might be able to detect and communicate with said souls.

    As testable theories of all the other phenomena were proposed, and shown to be largely true, all the theories and controlled experiments of spiritualism revealed only chicanery and self-delusion. Which has led to today’s world where critical-thinking people have rejected spiritualism as lacking any evidence for existence. But in the late 1800’s, those tests had not been performed and anecdotal evidence suggested something might exist, and so it’s not surprising that people who in other areas of their lives relied on solid evidence might also believe in spiritualism.

    I wonder what beliefs I have which will be seen as foolish in 100 years?

  14. KG says

    There were a lot of established action-at-a-distance phenomena which didn’t have a clear explanation. The relationship of magnetism to electricity and how magnetism worked is a good example. -- flex@14

    Well, Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetic radiation, which linked electricity, magnetism and light in a mathematically sophisticated theory dates from 1865. And conversely, the Fox sisters admitted in 1888 that their claim of contact with the dead which set spiritualism going in 1848 was fraudulent. Admittedly, they then recanted this confession, but by this very act condemned themselves as liars.

  15. says

    KG: Maxwell’s theories probably took a long time to percolate down to the general public; and the confessions of religious charlatans rarely result in any serious loss of support for religious movements. Look how many End Times prophecies have been proven false, and how many Christian ministers have been exposed as blatant knowing frauds — it’s been happening since Jesus died, and yet over a billion people are still Christians.

  16. KG says

    Maxwell’s theories probably took a long time to percolate down to the general public; and the confessions of religious charlatans rarely result in any serious loss of support for religious movements. -- Raging Bee@16

    Sure, as regards the general public -- but one might have expected an eminent scientist, or a qualified medic and author of a series of stories centred on a rational and evidence-driven “consulting detective”, to take note of both! However, as we’ve had ample reason to realise, such expectations are highly optimistic.

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