The brain is an extraordinary organ. It is the most complex object in the universe. Is it any wonder that, for some people in the midst of grieving, it can bring back those who have died?
I was fascinated to read in the Santa Montefiore Mail the account of seeing the spirit of his late sister, Tara Palmer Tomkinson, sitting on her bed, and the subsequent series of reports last week from readers who had also “found” a loved one after her death.
I, too, have spoken with many patients over the years who have described seeing, hearing, or feeling people after they have left.
Grief hallucinations, in which people see their loved ones dead, are a surprisingly common response to grief. It’s something we tend not to talk about for fear of being ridiculed or considered mentally ill.
In fact, many patients have asked me if what they have experienced is a sign that they are ‘going crazy’. Fortunately, I can assure you that they are not, that these types of sightings are actually considered quite normal.
Dr Max Pemberton says he was ‘fascinated’ reading in the Santa Montefiore Mail (pictured) the account of seeing the spirit of his late sister, Tara Palmer Tomkinson.
Studies show that between 30 and 50 percent of people who have lost a spouse experience at least one hallucinatory episode in which they see their loved one.
Research in Japan showed that 90 percent of widows there experienced them.
Most common is a simple sighting of the dead person, and sometimes it’s just a fleeting glimpse. Others say they see the person in great detail and even have conversations with them.
Others simply experience a ‘presence’, a strong perception that the person is there with them. Far from being terrifying or terrifying, people tend to find these hallucinations incredibly comforting, and this is the key to understanding what’s going on.
Of course, some look for a spiritual explanation, but from a psychological perspective, it seems pretty clear to me.
Seeing a dead person is a form of wish fulfillment, the brain’s way of giving the bereaved person what they so desperately want, which is only slightly more so with the person they’ve lost.
It is actually a very moving phenomenon.
It is important to note that these experiences are not pathological; they are not a disease that needs treatment. They are a normal consequence of having loved someone very much.
Dr Max, pictured, says: “I, too, have spoken to many patients over the years who have described seeing, hearing or feeling people after they have left.”
For me, these tricks of the mind in response to the pain of grief are a testament to the power of love.
Evidence suggests that anyone can experience these visions, but they are more likely to occur after sudden or traumatic death, suicide, or after the death of a child.
Those with complex feelings towards the bereaved (such as a love/hate relationship) are also more likely to have them than those whose relationship was more direct.
In the past, they were considered a defense mechanism, a form of denial. People simply didn’t want to believe their loved one was gone, the theory went, so they mentally “wished” them back into existence.
But the latest thinking suggests that they may actually be beneficial. They are part of the complex psychological healing process that takes place after someone dies.
Rationally, the mind knows that the person is gone, but the emotional ties remain strong.
People often worry that by accepting a death, they are losing their connection to the deceased person. Hallucinations are a way for the mind to comfort itself and restore balance as it gradually recognizes the truth of what has happened.
Psychologists tend to view the experience as evidence that the brain is working through grief, allowing the mind to re-experience the person while processing their absence.
I remember seeing an old man whose wife of 50 years had died six months before. They brought him in early one night after he had a heart attack, but shortly after plans were made for him to be admitted to the hospital, they called me because he was desperate to be released.
Eventually, he confided in me that he wanted to go home because he would miss his wife. I checked the notes and it was clear that he was a widower. He then explained to her that every night, just before going to bed, he would see her.
Sometimes they would talk and other times she would just sit and smile at him as he reminisced about their life together.
He was worried that if he spent the night in the hospital, he would not see her and she might stop coming altogether.
While medicine tries to explain things as a set of biochemical pathways and neurological processes, sometimes the human experience is more complex than such a reductionist approach allows.
His visions may well have been a clever trick played on him by his brain, easily explained by neurochemical interactions.
But at the time, I could only see them as a moving testimonial to the love he had for his wife.
Durable agony of treason
Actress Tamzin Outhwaite, 52, has said that, ten years after the end of her marriage to actor Tom Ellis, she continues to discover more “infidelities and lies”. I have talked to so many people who have had the same experience. It’s one thing to discover a betrayal and have your marriage break up as a result.
But it’s the gradual and constant revelation of lie after lie that many people find emotionally draining.
It makes it incredibly difficult to move on when you feel like there’s more you need to figure out in order to understand what happened. I think that’s why some people defiantly refuse to come clean.
They know, deep down, that it keeps the other person tormented and tormented and therefore close to them. It means that they still have power over them. What a disgusting thing to do.
If you’re on the other side, ask your partner to tell you everything once, then try to put it behind you. Moving on emotionally is the best form of revenge.
I love that her children berate Susanna Reid for breaking one of the house rules: using her cell phone at the dinner table. Good for them. I often advise parents to ban mobile phones at the dining room table, but time and time again, children report that it is the parents who break the rule, not them!
Thinking back to 15 or 20 years ago, just as the Internet revolution was taking off, we were convinced that it would make us more connected and improve communication.
We thought it would set us free, and in fact it has imprisoned us. It has actually reduced and limited our communication because we are all interacting more and more via text or email. Has anyone actually felt better for spending 30 minutes of their life on Facebook? No.
Too often, those hours spent online leave us feeling insecure, guilty, and focused on ourselves rather than the world around us.
Are tiny blood clots the cause of long covid? New research says they may be. I have been amazed at the number of older people who have reported memory problems after Covid, and whose brain scans later show small heart attacks or blood clots. Coincidence or another consequence of the infection?
DR MAX RECIPE…
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