A very surprising topic June 16, 2018

The following article is an abridged version of that featured in the Summer 2008 edition of Dialogue, produced by WN Bull.

Michele Knight surprised me when she told me the topic of her doctoral thesis: “ Ways of being: The alchemy of bereavement, grief and post-death contact”.  It is an unusual topic, not because there are not plenty of stories of this happening, in fact, grief literature note frequent reports of “post-death contact” between the bereaved and the deceased.  Often these reports are pathologised, and/or seen as hallucinations brought on by grief, yearning or searching for the deceased by way of locating similarities, resemblances, or unusual coincidences as evidence of the presence of the deceased.  Michele’s approach is not along these lines.

We discussed the tendency to find a “rational explanation” for everything, particularly something that seems beyond our rational understanding.  This approach is part of the air we breathe.  This is where we feel safe, with explanations, causes and diagnoses.  It is the reason why doctors and scientists and all other accepted experts are given respect and attention.  As our conversation continued, I was reminded of a quote from Shakespeare’s Hamlet – “there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy, Horatio”.  These “more things” are the subject matter of Michele’s research.

From very early on in her life, Michele could identify experiences that she would later describe as spiritual.  Put simply, these were experiences of a reality whose explanation lay beyond ‘rational’ thought or intellectual reasoning.  These were matters of the spirit; they needed to be understood from a spiritual perspective rather than from a mental or psychological perspective.

By now, I was aware of feeling a little uncomfortable.  I could not quite identify the source of this discomfort other than perhaps it was resulting from being taken beyond the ordinary level/scope of discourse and explanation into a world where another person’s experiences and stories were on a different plane from mine.  In a less polite part of myself, I heard a voice saying “is Michele a nutter?”

Quickly pulling myself together, I asked, “What Faculty is sponsoring your post-graduate studies?”  “The Faculty of Education and Social Work, at the University of Sydney”, Michele replied.  With an incredulousness which I managed to contain, I asked, “How come they have accepted a topic like yours?”

Michele explained the rigorous process required by the University for candidates wishing to conduct post-graduate research.  She had devoted 12 months of intense investigation in researching her topic, which included writing an intellectually robust 13,000 word proposal.  In addition, she had completed 3 units of study to support her research.  When her proposal was approved by the Faculty Research Committee, she was told this was one of the most impressive presentations the approving authority had received.  I relaxed, but only for a moment.

The rational part of me was still hanging on to the edge of skating rink, so to speak.  To venture out into the movement and meaning that Michele was describing, I needed to take a risk.

Michele was obviously comfortable in the university world.  She could match it with the best of them.  She had two higher degrees, a Bachelor of Health Science, and a Master of Applied Science, both majoring in research and Indigenous health.  She had lectured in Indigenous health for the University, and had tutored Indigenous students for a number of years.  But why this interest in the world of the bereaved especially when it was in such contrast to her academic career and professional development?

As for many of us, Michele’s interests were affected by personal experiences.  Within 18 months her husband died after being diagnosed with cancer, her mother died shortly and her teenage son moved out of home.  Prior to the advent of her husband’s illness, Michele had a premonition that there was suffering ahead, “a dark cloud on the horizon”.

The grief Michele described after these losses was as painful as the stories of loss of many people.  She spoke of her grief as though it were a door which took her into a part of herself into a world she didn’t know existed.  A comforting thought at this time was that if she had entered this world through a door, then she could leave that world in the same way.  Michele spoke of seeing her life unfold through these events, as one area of experience or learning lead to another … which brings me back to the doctoral thesis.

This topic is about spirituality.  Michele explained spirituality as the reality of a world which exists at the edge of and beyond our rational understanding.  While her research and competence are both examples of robust application of “rationality”, they are also a bridge or common ground where people who have not had Michele’s experiences can meet with her.  As I understand it, this meeting point or bridge is what Michele would call meaning which is individually derived from the shared lived experience of aspects of life.

In a conversation with a hard-headed friend about Michele’s research, I was told by my friend that she knew what Michele meant by meaning.  My friend recalled two or three acquaintances, widows and widowers, who had had experiences of their deceased spouses being present in some way, for a time.  In each case, there came a time when that presence was simply no longer there. The absence of the loved one was understood as, “They felt the change when each of us had re-engaged with life”. In other words, the meaning of the experience of presence, something that could not be rationally explained, was a source of comfort and support.  When that comfort and support were no longer needed, the deceased simply weren’t there.

I am not sure what Michele would think about mediums and Ouija boards, but from our conversation, I suspect that she would say this was not what she was interested in.  The meaning she was speaking about was the link between the living and the dead.  There was something ordinary and unforced about this contact.  It was freely given, natural, if you like, and it unlocked or opened up a dimension of the bereaved person’s grief experience.

I was suddenly feeling more comfortable.  This spirituality or meaning was both similar to our ordinary experience, because it impacted on ordinary experience, and different from ordinary experience, because it was not limited by the boundary of human existence, death.

Meaning bridged the gap between our experience of limit and those realities not subject to this boundary.  The experience of meaning can transform death and disaster into the possibilities of new life.  Only meaning can enter the finality of death and the pain of loss and awaken hope.  And, from Michele’s experience and that of the people she was interviewing for her research, contact with deceased people, in whatever forms, gives that meaning.


Michele T Knight Written by:

Dr Michele Knight is a Social Worker, Social Scientist, researcher and independent scholar. Her interest and research in the end-of-life has its origin in the lived experiences of her own bereavements, her near-death and shared-death events, the returning deceased and attitudinal responses to those experiences. Since 2006, she has been extensively involved in community development, support and advocacy in both a professional and community services/voluntary capacity in the areas of bereavement and grief, hospital pastoral care, and academic lecturing/tutoring. Her PhD, Ways of Being: The alchemy of bereavement and communique, explores the lived experience of bereavement, grief, spirituality and unsought encounters with the returning deceased.

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