Calling All Souls
When my cat Tiger died she left an unbearable ache in my heart. Animals do this. They hold joy and love and solace in a way humans can’t, and then they die. But after she died, I heard her.
I was sitting at my desk and the sounds of her nails tap-tapping down the wood floor of the hall came to my ears, and only when I turned to look for her did I remember that she was gone. Sometimes I felt her presence, like her heaviness on my lap or her brushing up against my leg.
It turns out that this is not uncommon. As many as 80% of those who lose loved ones report that they sense that person after death. These are real sensory events. People hear a voice; they feel a touch; they recognize a presence.
A friend told me that a year after her husband’s death, she would still see him sitting on their bench in the park, waiting for her. She liked that. In fact, one of the central research findings in this area is that post-bereavement experiences are helpful. They’re also more likely to occur after long and happy marriages. (There appears to be no research yet on pet loss.)
One study found that 1 in 10 people had sensory experiences so rich and frequent that they felt their dead spouse was always with them. “Part of my life is gone,” Dame Thora Hird, a British actress, told Reporters in 2000 referencing the loss of her husband after 58 years of marriage. “But he isn’t a long way away. Don’t think I’m being silly, but I sit in his easy chair in the loft and so often, I have a feeling he’s there sitting with me.”
Our ancestors thought that the dead could walk and speak to us. That, of course, is the point of Halloween, or All Hallows Eve, the time of year when the veil between the worlds is thought to be thin.
Sir James George Frazer, a Scottish anthropologist of the Edwardian era, wrote in his magisterial Golden Bough, “The approach of winter drives the poor shivering hungry ghosts from the bare fields and the leafless woodlands to the shelter of the cottage with its familiar fireside.”
Of course, it is not only the dead who roam on that night: “Witches speed on their errands of mischief, some sweeping through the air on brooms, others galloping along the roads on tabby cats, which for that evening are turned into coal-black steeds,” wrote Frazer.
We tend to treat old folklore as fluff — the stuff of masks and costumes — but increasingly, scholars are finding evidence of experiential underpinnings.
The fact that we can identify in-the-body phenomena such as hallucinations and sleep paralysis associated with ideas about the supernatural, means that those ideas likely have some validity. Mr. Hufford, who studies near-death and other remarkable experiences at Stanford states: “Learning as much as we can about spiritual experience does not make spirituality go away, it sometimes brings it closer.”
Research makes clear that when people report they hear a dead husband or are terrified by a presence in the night, they are not necessarily making it up, nor are they crazy. Events like these are rather what Ann Taves, professor of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, calls the “building blocks” of religious experience or bereavement processing. The experiences are psychologically real events. How you interpret them is up to you.
So as we prepare for All Hallows Eve may your departed loved ones, human and animal alike, bid you warm greetings and love.