Uncle George, husband, father, friend, and legendary storyteller.
I thought a lot about my encounter with Alf and the Fly this weekend, about how vivid the sensation was when I felt Alf’s presence during the memorial service. The subject was up again because we drove down to Reno to join extended family in celebrating the life of an uncle who died earlier this year. During a conversation with one of my cousins (a daughter of said uncle), she described a moment, while going through his things shortly after he died, when she suddenly felt like he was right there with her, giving her an intimate message of love through, of all things, an obscure word in one of the National Geographic magazines that he loved.
She, too, experienced a sense of presence.
Many of you might recognize what she described because you’ve felt something like it yourself. It turns out that experiencing a sense of presence is fairly common, not only among the survivors of those who’ve recently died but in a variety of other settings as well. The experience is so common in fact that it’s been given names like the third man, widow effect, and the ever magical imaginary friend of young children. There has also been a fair amount of research done on the phenomenon and I’d like to touch on a few of the studies as referenced in a fascinating book called The Third Man Factor by John Geiger.
(BTW, if you ever get a wild hair and feel like reading a variety of personal accounts of a sense of presence, here’s a forum on The Third Man Factor website. These examples are unique because most of them result in a person surviving a situation where otherwise they might have perished.)
Geiger’s book deals primarily with the experience of a sensed presence in extreme, survival situations but he references other circumstances where the experience regularly manifests. Needless to say, given my focus on dying, I was particularly interested in those dealing with the widow effect, the experience of a sense of ongoing relationship with someone who’s died. He cites one study by researchers at the University of Arizona at Tuscon in 1988, where about half of the 500 widows questioned reported sensing the presence of their deceased partner, and another survey of 227 widows and 66 widowers in Wales which produced a similar finding.
“That study, by W. Dewi Rees, published in the British Medical Journal, found that most people who had the experience reported they had visits intermittently throughout the day, while 10 percent said they ‘felt that the dead spouse was always with them.’ All said they sensed the presence of the deceased; a few also said they actually saw or heard him. Rees found the experiences were in no way frightening, and concluded, ‘these hallucinations are…normal and helpful accompaniments of widowhood.’ Other research into widows of men killed in automobile accidents in Japan found the incidence even higher, and there, too, the researchers concluded the presence ‘may be a positive sign in helping them adapt to the loss.’” (pp. 153-154)
Geiger also sites a larger survey conducted in the UK in 1995 that didn’t just look at widows and widowers, but included a broader cross-section of society. It revealed that “the continuation of an important relationship after death is not confined to those who have lost a spouse.” People reported sensing the presence of parents and other family members as well as friends.
Clearly this experience of sensed presence is widespread among the recently bereaved. Yet prevalent or not, as most people are painfully aware, there’s a social stigma attached to talking about it. I’ve found the majority of people, at least initially, are reluctant. Some, deeply so. They’re afraid others will think less of them for believing in “that kind of thing,” or worse, that people won’t believe it happened at all. But it does happen, to a large segment of the population, and I hope that Geiger’s book will be a watershed, marking a shift in trend where it becomes more acceptable for people to speak openly about their experiences.
Because being able to speak about these experiences is important for reasons I’ll explain in a moment.
I found it interesting that Geiger himself expected a lot of resistance to the idea that the experience of a sensed presence is real and was surprised when none materialized. He realized most people don’t doubt that the experiences are actually happening. The controversy centers around what might be causing them.
The first thrust of The Third Man Factor is to confirm the experience itself and Geiger lays out evidence that makes it indisputable. People are sensing something that feels like a presence. (This is huge. Absolutely huge. He’s finally provided a framework within which people of all intellectual backgrounds can talk about the subject.)
The second purpose aims at reconciling the traditionally supernatural elements of these experiences with possible scientific explanations and he presents some compelling evidence for the role that stress, loneliness, and neurological function play in the phenomenon. The book is well researched and, while his conclusions ultimately raised as many questions for me as they answered, I was still wildly relieved to hear the subject discussed in a practical, factual manner instead of the half-embarrassed, half-apologetic whispers that I usually hear.
Now, let me be clear. While I’ve long been intrigued by the dynamic tension between science and spirituality, and I’m always curious to hear what both sides have to say, on a purely practical level I, personally, don’t care what’s causing these experiences of sensed presence. It’s not relevant to me. It’s an interesting question, don’t get me wrong, and fun to explore when nobody’s dying. But when someone is dying, the arguments are really just an intellectual exercise.
Once you’re in that room and it’s you or your loved one lying on the bed suffering, once it’s you facing down the maw of unbearable loss, once it’s your family that’s been swept away in the maelström of vulnerability that dying entails, you’ll probably discover that the arguments about what’s causing an experience of sensed presence aren’t nearly as important as whether or not it helps.
It’s like drowning in the middle of the ocean. If a boat pulls up and throws you a life buoy you probably won’t care about where the thing was manufactured. Nor will you ask to see a business card from whoever is throwing it to you. What you will care about, deeply, is whether or not it floats and, if it does, you’ll grab it with gusto and hang on for dear life.
I think everyone should be allowed to speak openly about any unusual experience they have during the dying process. (FYI, there are a lot of them.) Because even though no one can definitively explain them yet, they still provide enormous comfort and reassurance during a journey that’s tough at best and devastating at worst.
I’ve often felt frustrated by the fact that such a luminous, nourishing, (and it turns out commonplace) human experience is relegated to the back of the shame-closet where we stash our bogey men and under-the-bed monsters. I don’t think anyone should ever have to feel embarrassed because they experienced something that helped them cope and heal. Neither should anyone have to hide the fact that they’re experiencing something lovely even if it’s odd, because doing so robs the rest of us. I’ve studied the faces of those listening when this kind of thing is shared and the effect of these stories on others is almost always one of wonder, hope, or relief.
Which are good things, things that are in relatively short supply. We want more wonder, hope, and relief in the rooms of the dying. Trust me on this one. They help.
These days, in rational society, we tend to resist things that involve Mystery. We have our science and we like our rational explanations and we’re uncomfortable with odd-shaped things that sound weird and don’t fit. The problem with that is, as soon as we enter the dying process we also enter the Mystery. The two things are a package deal and the ticket covers both rides. Everyone has to grapple with the fact that questions grossly outnumber answers at the end of life, both existentially and physiologically.
Whether these questions revolve around an experience of sensed presence, or the surprising level of foreknowledge or control many have over the actual moment of death, or the perennial biggie concerning what will happen to us once it’s all over, or the most basic question of Well…what’s causing this symptom?, one thing is certain; sooner or later something will occur during dying that everyone will guess at but no one will know. And if that something is a sense of presence that lightens the load or eases the pain? If it provides a pool of nourishment from which we can drink a little courage, respite, or strength?
Then perhaps the most useful explanation is simply that these experiences of sensed presence are a rare and beautiful gift at a time when we need one the most. Maybe it’s okay to not know any more than that for now, but open both hands anyway, accept the gift, and whisper thanks.
For anyone interested, here’s a brief interview of John Geiger talking about the book, The Third Man Factor.
copyright 2010 Dia Osborn