Bereavement and After Death Contact

The following exert is from my contributing chapter, “Ways of Seeing: Bereavement and After Death Contact” in the edited collection, Death Down Under (Cambridge, 2019)

ADC researcher and author Sylvia Wright observes that while dealing with death can be shattering, dealing with survival of the spirit after death is a learning experience, which can compel or drive the individual to, “rethink and perhaps to reshape their life” (2002, p. 211).  Not only does bereavement have the potential to impact each person’s “unique existential situation” (Kessler 1987, 229), it “reaches to the heart of what it means to be human and what it means to have a relationship” (ibid, 13).

These observations by Wright and Kessler were reflected in the findings of [the] my study, which suggest that ADC can result in post-traumatic psychosocial and psychospiritual growth outcomes for the individuals experiencing them.  Participant’s comments substantiate this and suggest that ADC was a catalyst which not only enabled them to ponder on the context of their lives, it resulted in psychosocial and psychospiritual growth in new directions because it generated new trains of thought in the mind and because it facilitated new understandings.

For example, comments from a number of participants revealed they had not considered themselves as anything other than material or corporeal beings.  After experiencing ADC however, they realised they were something other than their material selves, as were the deceased.  Consequently, how they defined and understood themselves as human beings, and how they defined their existence before and after death, changed.

For many participants, the narrating of the story of their bereavement and ADC was a journey of self-discovery and as they shared their experiences, thoughts and feelings with me they constructed their own bereavement narratives in terms of what death, life-after-death, the dead and ADC meant for them.

For some, guidance and reassurance was given, for others, encouragement, support or simply validation of what they either suspected or already knew.  Some felt they were being taught, educated or instructed in some way by the deceased.  Others believed that death did not make post-mortem reunion unattainable because their ADC had provided the assurance, and validation, that this was possible.  For those who had a sense of an alternate non-material reality existing, “over and above” material reality as they perceived it, ADC provided them with tangible experience which underpinned the existence and presence of a non-material reality.

This non-material reality was positioned within a spiritual context and variously defined as “God”, “being in the presence of the infinite”, “the universe” (as a metaphor for a living/higher intelligence), “heaven”, “the vastness that’s available to us all as spirit beings”, “the Gates of St Peter”, “the other side”, “a place where individuals are no longer bound by physical reality”, “something”, “that beautiful place”, and “a place where we live on [where] our souls, our spirit, our energy our life-force enjoys eternal life”.

These narratives revealed that the impact of ADC challenged how participants understood the deceased, how they understood themselves as human and spiritual beings, and how they lived in the world.  They also revealed that narratives can change over time as a result of changing understandings or perspectives.  This reflected how participants grew psychosocially and psychospiritually as a direct consequence of the lived experience of their bereavement and ADC, and of their inward reflections on what had happened to them.

Anthropologist and theologian Douglas Davies notes that “talking about death has never been more popular” (2007, 48) an observation that in contemporary Australian society certainly bears some testament.  Publicised events facilitating death education populate social media platforms, death-dedicated websites, blogs and Facebook pages dot the online landscape of the world-wide web, workshops, seminars, conferences and MOOCS (Massive Open Online Course) offer information sharing and professional networking opportunities for those working in an end-of-life context, hard and soft copy journal articles and books populate library and book store shelves.

Within this dynamic milieu of becoming “death literate” (Noonan et al, 2016, 31) how might ADC experiences and the narratives they engender for the bereaved contribute toward death understanding and death awareness in Australia?  For those already familiar and accepting of the phenomenon, these narratives will fit comfortably in an already established world-view which incorporates and accepts other-worldly experiences.  For those unfamiliar with such experiences, it will raise awareness and extend for them current social and cultural understandings of the intersectionality of bereavement, ADC and notions of an afterlife.

Narratives also have the potential to add new and positive dimensions to the human services workforce.  Persons participating within such an environment need to be familiar with the social and cultural diversity of their client population and the different understandings of bereavement accompanying them.  In doing so, they are better placed to more effectively deliver care and support to those who have experienced ADC.  Finally, findings from the study can foster and encourage national and international community awareness of bereavement and ADC from a uniquely Australian perspective as, “an outcome of people’s experiences of and learnings about, death and dying” (Noonan et al, 2016).

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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