Sensing the presence of someone who has died

Experiences of feeling or sensing the presence of a person who has died are quite common among those who are grieving. But it can be surprising to some people. Matthew Ratcliffe reports on research from the University of York.

By Matthew Ratcliffe · February 10, 2023

After a significant bereavement, there can be times when the person who has died appears vividly present to us – we might see them, hear them, feel their touch, or sense their presence in a way that is hard to describe. In this article Matthew Ratcliffe reports on some research carried out as part of the project Grief: A Study of Human Emotional Experience.

Bereavement hallucinations?

The experience of sensing the presence of someone who has died is sometimes referred to as a “bereavement hallucination”. A hallucination is usually defined as a perceptual experience of something that is not really there. So the term has connotations of wrongness; it concerns experiences that are mistaken, misleading, inaccurate, or deceptive. However, these experiences are actually very common and usually quite benign.

For instance, an influential study conducted back in 1971 involved interviews with 293 people whose husband or wife had died – nearly half of them reported these experiences. This is consistent with more recent studies, which report similar findings. People often find these experiences comforting and helpful. So it is generally accepted that they should not – in most cases – be seen as a symptom of illness.

Even so, by describing experiences of presence as “hallucinations”, we risk oversimplifying or misinterpreting them. Often, what people describe is not just a matter of taking an individual who is not really there to be physically present. What, then, do these experiences involve?

Kinds of presence

It is important to recognise that talk of feeling, sensing, perceiving, or experiencing someone’s presence spans a range of subtly different phenomena, and needs to be interpreted carefully. Some of the responses to a survey that I conducted with colleagues at the University of York as part our research project Grief: A Study of Human Emotional Experience show this clearly. We asked our participants to complete an on-line questionnaire, writing as much as they liked when answering 21 questions about their experiences of grief. Many of our 265 respondents described moments when it seemed to them that the person who had died was still somehow present.

This sometimes involved mistaking other people for a loved one due to the persistent expectation of seeing them.

“Every now and again I would see someone who looked like her and my heart would jump but then I would remember she was dead.”

Other experiences did seem to be involve experiencing an absent person as though they were right here, right now. “I felt him beside me in bed a few times – as if he were getting into bed and settling down to sleep”.

“I heard him tell me he loved me and I saw his head on the pillow by mine when that happened”.

Meaning and importance

We should be wary of labelling these experiences “hallucinations”, a term that does not convey the meaning and importance they have for many people.

“If I feel I need advice, comfort, or reassurance I nearly always see a white feather close by and that is when I feel my husband’s presence and that he is looking out for me”.

Some reports mentioned signs, symbols, and a feeling of being guided, looked after, or given advice. There were also experiences of interaction and conversation: “I talk to him regularly and I can hear him reply to me”. Those we have lost often appear in our dreams too.

“My dreams quite often feature my husband, and they are usually positive dreams and I wake up happy with whatever I can remember of them.”

Something else that people described was a diffuse experience of presence, which did not seem to originate in more specific sensory experiences of seeing or hearing someone, or feeling their touch: “I cannot see him, but I still feel him with me”.

Experiences of this nature can be brief or long-lasting, intense or subtle. But what do they consist of – what is it to sense or feel the presence of a particular person?

A Sense of connection

The word “presence” can have various different connotations, depending on context. When we experience those who have died, there is usually more an emphasis on the enduring feeling of connection than on actual physical nearness to someone: “I feel like I’m still married to him”; “I’m happy to have an ongoing connection – it’s a constant and I want that feeling to continue”.

Remarks like these complement the increasingly accepted view that we do not generally let go of those who have died, eventually severing all ties with them. Instead, there are a number of ways in which we maintain continuing bonds with them.

Experiencing the presence of someone who’s died is often better thought of in these terms than as a matter of hallucination. This applies even in those cases that do seem to involve perception-like experiences. It is all about connection and relatedness.

“When I am home alone, I feel connected to him. I can’t be clear, but I think about him and relate to him in my mind as if he is still here”.

The experience is often one of being affected in a distinctive way. Think of how going for a walk with someone we love can be a wholly different experience from walking alone or walking with a stranger, as can visiting a museum, watching a film, or having dinner. When we are with that person, our surroundings are infused with a certain kind of significance. That is what it feels like to be with them, for them to be there.

In my book Grief Worlds, I develop the view that loved ones who have died can continue to affect us in this sort of way. On occasion, our surroundings may look just as they did when we were with them. The person’s presence is not fully localised, like the presence of a nearby material object. Rather, it shapes how we experience and relate to the surrounding world as a whole. Such experiences need not occur only sporadically. One’s whole life can be shaped by a continuing connection, which permeates one’s experiences, thoughts, and activities.

“I can ALWAYS feel his presence – he is with me everywhere I go – he is part of me and always will be. I don't believe in afterlife or ghosts or anything like that, but I can really feel that he is here with me all the time. He was so much part of my life that I feel I have sort of become him in a way – his wonderful way of thinking, of seeing life clearly, his humanity, his kindness and generosity – he is still here in me.”

Sometimes, there is an experience of ongoing interaction. Or the person may carry on as part of oneself: “An internal connection. That’s where he continues. A very positive and comforting feeling”.

Or the connection may be mainly in memory: “She lives in me, in my memories of her and the intricacy of how we were together”. And, for some of us, there is no enduring connection, whether we seek it or not: “I feel strongly that she has absolutely gone”.

When responding to our own experiences and those of others, it can be helpful to know that those of us who are grieving continue – in all sorts of different ways – to encounter and feel connected to people who have died. There is no single, right way in which this happens.

So there is a need to be careful when interpreting experiences of personal presence. Many of these are not a matter of hallucination, illusion, of misrecognition. They instead consist in a sense or feeling of connection. Such connections matter to us in lots of different ways, often forming an important and ongoing part of our lives.