ACADEMY OF SPIRITUALITY AND PARANORMAL STUDIES, INC.  

ANNUAL CONFERENCE    2009 PROCEEDINGS 
 

WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM THE

EXTRAORDINARY EXPERIENCES OF THE BEREAVED 

Louis E. LaGrand, Ph.D., CT 

________________________________________________________________________ 

Abstract

Not a day goes by where someone somewhere comes face to face with the death of a loved one. Many of the survivors experience in their grief work what I have labeled Extraordinary Experiences (EEs). By definition Extraordinary Experiences are events in which a bereaved person is convinced that he or she has received a sign or message from the deceased loved one or a divine being. This experience is not invoked, although some therapists claim they can induce an experience in which a mourner connects with the deceased. In my interviews with the bereaved the EE occurs spontaneously and appears to originate from an outside source. That is, it is not a product of the unconscious mind or the disorganization of the grief process. This paper examines eight positive results as expressed by counselors and claimants reporting the experience. 

     Four pivotal factors guarantee passage through the aftermath of adapting to the death of a loved one: (1) knowledge of grief and grief work, (2) truth about the nature of the death and what coping well implies, (3) wise choices, and (4) persistence and perseverance. This presentation focuses on one small part of the essential knowledge about grief, namely, the Extraordinary Experiences of the bereaved, often referred to by the research community as after-death communication. These powerful belief-changing events have also been labeled death related sensory experiences, exceptional human experiences, and post-death contacts. 

     It is estimated that over 70 million people are convinced that they have received a sign or a message from a deceased loved one; this number does not include those who visit mediums. Yet, beyond the normal grief response, little is publicized about the mystery that commonly unfolds with exceptionally positive consequences. The experience has been occurring to mourners from the beginning of recorded history, although it has often been dismissed as the product of wish fulfillment or an overactive imagination. At the same time, the scientific community attempts to explain away the subject by employing terms such as aberrations, coincidences, illusions, anomalies, and the ever-popular hallucinations. 

     Why is it important to study these experiences? Here are several reasons: The EE is a mystery, which has yet to be fully explained. Nonetheless, it is very real to the claimant and helps immensely to accept the death (the major task of grieving) and reinforces the belief that there is an afterlife and there will be a reunion. Invariably, the EE impacts positively on the grief process. In the hands of a skilled counselor it has great therapeutic potential to assist the mourner in adapting to the changed circumstances that have to be faced. The experience always has a message which is individual to each mourner. For some, the interpretation is that the deceased is whole and healthy again. For others their philosophical or religious beliefs are strengthened as well as their belief that love lives on and will never die. Still others believe the experience is the way their Source starts a conversation with them through their deceased loved one. 

     Those who report an Extraordinary Experience have a deep personal need to share it with someone they trust. This can be filled by a family member, friend, or professional caregiver. The only requirement is for the listener to allow the recipient to freely talk about it and not pass judgment. Therefore, support persons in general need to be aware of the wide range of experiences that can occur and not minimize them when reported. To do so destroys the support relationship. Finally, these mysterious experiences often lead to personal growth, a new awareness, which affects the new identity that is formed after the death of a loved one. 

     In my 30 years of working with the bereaved, I have catalogued fifteen different types of experiences. For some, the event involves sensing the presence of the loved one, hearing the voice, smelling a fragrance associated with the person, and in some instances actually seeing the deceased. For others, the experience may be a visitation dream, a so-called coincidence or synchronicity, a touch on the arm or shoulder, or a kiss. A number of people have reported symbolic signs such as the blooming of a plant or bush that had long lain dormant, a bird or animal appearing at an unusual place or time, or a rainbow appearing at a distinguishing moment. In some cases, the Extraordinary Experience occurs to a person not directly related to the deceased who then passes on what was experienced to the primary mourner. These events invariably bring solace and comfort. 

     Here is an example as reported by Marilyn Zimmerman from Pinehurst, NC. 

     On Thursday morning, January 11, 2007, I had an unusual after-death experience or sign.  Two days prior, on the ninth of January, my husband and I met with a lady who had lost her 19 year-old son Brian.  He died in a freak accident in which he was struck by lightning and died three weeks laterWe talked for over two hours and told her many of the stories about our after-death experiences, many of which included finding pennies after mentioning our son Eric or thinking about him.

     My husband and I had been talking about the Tuesday meeting on Wednesday evening before we went to bed.   As I lay in bed that night, I was feeling sad.  I felt the pain of another mother having to lose her son and cried for her son, Brian, and my Eric.  I said my prayers and asked for Brian and Eric to give us some signs.  I prayed for my Mom and Dad and all of my passed relatives, my spirit guides and angels who could help us get some signs from them.  I finally fell asleep.                             
 
    
At 2:30 a.m., I woke up to go to the bathroom (as usual) and then again at 4:28.  This time I walked into the dark bathroom, did not turn on the lights, and started to sit down.  As I was just sitting down something hit my right shoulder and hit the floor.  I felt it then heard it.  I couldn't see anything.  At first I was scared, not being awake at all.  I sat down and popped right back up and turned the light on real quick. I look down and there was a penny laying on the right side of the toilet on the floor.  I bent over and picked it up, and said "Thank You," cried a little and woke up my husband Fred right away.  I verbally repeated the exact experience with the penny in my hand and we were both assured once again that these events are purposeful, spontaneous, and meant to give comfort even though there is no earthly explanation of how this could possibly happen. 

THE EIGHT WISDOM LESSONS

     What can we learn from these experiences as seen through the eyes of claimants and those who study the phenomena? Keep in mind that claimants are convinced of the authenticity of their experiences. 

1. THE EE SETS THE TONE OF GRIEVING 

     The comfort and new found awareness that is generated by the Extraordinary Experience brings a high energy dimension to grief that has a profound effect on grief work. The mourner is enabled to entertain new possibilities for the different relationship that has to be established with the deceased loved one. Although the physical presence of the loved one is no longer available, a more enduring spiritual relationship begins to unfold that affects the grief process. Beliefs are altered. For example, one person said, “I believe our loved ones can communicate in our daily lives if we're not afraid to receive the message they are trying to send.” 

     The work of adapting to the physical absence of the beloved is enhanced through the conviction that the deceased knows that the mourner is dealing with massive change and is there to assist. One is encouraged that s(he) will be able to meet the demands of life without the companionship of the loved one that they are not completely separated. Although sadness still predominates, the mourner realizes there is a light at the end of the tunnel. In short, hope is generated. Possibilities come into view for reinvesting in life and loving in separation. 

2. THERE IS ANOTHER DIMENSION

     One of the obvious new assumptions that mourners tend to make after an EE, and perhaps the most frequent one, is that there is some sort of an afterlife or another dimension in which the consciousness of the loved one exists. How else, they reason, can something like what they experience come from someone supposed dead if their consciousness or soul does not live on. Life must be ongoing and the physical body a shell that had held the essence of life. 

Often, religious or philosophical beliefs are strengthened and one begins to draw closer to their value traditions and begin to look at life more as a steppingstone to a more enduring existence. I have had people say, “I want to be a better person” or “I want to change my life and help others.” Others call on a Source greater than the self to deal with the turbulence within and draw closer to that Source. 

3. WHAT YOU FOCUS ON EXPANDS

     Many mourners use the EE as a resource for dealing with sadness and the downward spiral that often leads to reactive depression. The experience, when rerun again and again in the heart and mind of the bereaved, becomes a powerful adaptive response; it clearly limits the intensity and number of hurtful memories that often accompany the death of a loved one. At the same time, it is a source of inspiration for making personal changes in roles and skill development. 

     Once mourners realize the power of focusing on their Extraordinary Experiences and the implications they present, the process can be used in other ways. For example, recognizing that the more you focus on fear and the negative thoughts about the future, all the more you bring these obstacles into your thought processes in increasingly damaging ways. Conversely, focusing on the positive aspects of the motivation behind the EE, namely, love and caring, meets one of the basic of all human needs: connection. 

     In addition, what can be suggested to every mourner is that coping well is all about choices. Coping well can begin with the choice of deciding what thoughts they will allow to freely roam around in their minds. Negative thoughts and feelings block positive coping responses. However, the most critical choice of all is how the following question is answered: “Will I choose to be loss oriented for the rest of my life or restoration oriented?” The loss/restoration choice means the difference in long-term suffering or deciding to move into the next chapter of life. The more one focuses on the meaning of the Extraordinary Experience, and it becomes a prominent part of what the mourner retains from his/her life with the loved one, it results in a strong motivating force to give up the old for the new. This in no way means forgetting the deceased; it suggests merely relating in a different way. 

4. WE ARE NOT ALONE

     One of the most consistent responses of experiencing the extraordinary is the formation of the belief that the loved one knows what is going on in the life of the mourner. And, more importantly, the beloved is there to assist in the transition that has to be faced. A whole new view of spirituality unfolds with an emphasis on the reality that the mourner will always have a relationship with the deceased; it does not end with death. The relationship simply changes. It is built on four essential factors: (1) the intellectual and emotional acceptance of the death, (2) all decisions about the future are based on the needs of the mourner, not what the deceased loved one would have wanted (although that view can certainly be considered), (3) there is acceptance of the need to build a new life, and (4) the mourner accepts the death of the interactional self, that is, that part of the self that interacted with the physical presence of the now deceased loved one. That interaction died with the loved one and is no longer possible. 

     In the new relationship with the deceased it is perfectly normal to “talk” or pray to him/her for the strength needed to meet the transition to a life without the loved one. I have a co-facilitator of one of my grief support groups whose husband died eight years ago and has remarried. At certain time she still talks to her first husband. This is part of a healthy relationship many establish with deceased loved ones. One can, at the same time, love in separation and reinvest in life; they are not mutually exclusive processes. 

5. ACTION IS ESSENTIAL TO HEAL

     What you do says a lot about who you are. Talk without appropriate action always leads to more unnecessary suffering. However, someone set an example and took action through the gift of the Extraordinary Experience to assist the survivor. Some believe it was a gift the deceased is now capable of giving from their new environment, while others believe a divine being allows the experience to take place. The key question that presents itself to the mourner is: “Now that your loved one has demonstrated s(he) lives on and will always care, what are you going to do to start accepting the challenge of change and the reality of the loss?” Learning the big lesson that we must accept what we cannot control only begins when we decide to start the process of adapting to the new circumstances of life. 

     Grief work by its very nature implies taking action to cope with the changes imposed by loss. Survivors can take the lead of the loved one who took action on behalf of the mourner. As one mourner put it, “Time does not heal your grief unless you work between the minutes.” Instead of reacting, one needs to be proactive. Effort, determination, and persistence are crucial factors in establishing new routines and traditions dictated by loss. 

Allowing grief to work its way through mind and body without resisting, is part of the action that needs to be given freedom of expression. The lesson to be learned is an old psychological one: what you resist persists. Do what you dislike doing by facing the pain. Allow the tears to flow; don’t miss an opportunity to cry. 

     Furthermore, action—taking a step forward—generates hope; the mourner is doing something to cope with loss. The action may be a diversion or an appropriate plan to meet a specific goal (for example, to get through the next hour or day). As long as the action is positive in dealing with loss it can open up other possibilities. Possibilities are what hope is all about. If you have a little success in dealing with the absence of the beloved or a big success, it helps the way you feel about the self and the prospects of getting through this dark night of the soul. 

6. THE EE STRENGTHENS YOUR INNER LIFE

     Coping well with any major loss in life is all between the ears. What happens deep within is the central reason why great losses are surmounted and the mourner adapts to the many changes that take place in life. One of the things I suggest to those who have the experience is that the EE has a universal message: “I’m okay and you can be okay too.” So where do you go from here? Again, the focus is on accepting the new conditions of life and the new demands imposed, which means you must change. Making changes takes courage. 

     One also becomes acutely aware of the importance of peace of mind. Without question, peace of mind becomes one of the brightest outcomes of the Extraordinary Experience. In fact, it is one of the evaluation questions used to determine the authenticity of the experience, whenever the mourner is not sure of how to interpret what happened. Did it bring peace? Peace means one is being led by a source greater than the self. 

     Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning, writes, “Everything can be taken away from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” The open attitude toward the world of the spirit that is generated by the EE is another of the choices that is made by those who experience the unknown. It opens up a whole new way of finding meaning in life and death. New meaning brings inner strength and a more optimistic attitude. Mourners are more willing to explore that which was previously considered unimportant or of little benefit. Also, one begins to imagine that maybe, just maybe, I will be able to get through this nightmare. Their self-talk begins to change, which has a major impact on health, both physical and emotional. As many physiologists and counselors have said, the brain is everywhere in the body. Positive thoughts are immune enhancers. 

     The bottom line is: continually growing and learning—and death teaches so much if you allow your loss to transform you—brings the mourner back to reinvesting in life and gradually finding more moments of joy. 

7. CHOOSE SERVICE TO OTHERS

     The EE is an example of undying service by the way it transforms the mourner. The beloved has reached out in a display of service. Surgeon and noted author Bernie Siegel writes "To paraphrase something the anthropologist Ashley Montagu once said, the way I change my life is to act as if I'm the person I want to be. This is, to me, the simplest, wisest advice you can give anyone. When you wake up and act like a loving person, you realize not only that you are altered, but that the people around you are also transformed, because everybody is changed by the reception of this love." Service is born on the love of others. 

     Life holds little meaning without compassion, goals, service, companionship, purpose, love, and commitment. The Extraordinary Experience is in itself a service to the mourner by the beloved, or as suggested earlier, through the caring of a divine being. It says give as you have been given. Once again, when others are served, hope is generated. Service to others takes the focus of the mourner outside of the self. As an old Irish proverb puts it, “Hope is the physician of each misery.” Becoming a wounded healer is one of the oldest and universal responses that is recommended to those who are grieving. And not to be forgotten is the fact that we all thrive on interpersonal relationships; service to others facilitates this life-affirming factor. 

8. YOU ARE LOVED FOREVER

      Victor Hugo said, “The supreme happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved; loved for ourselves, or rather, loved in spite of ourselves." The EE tells us there is love after death; it is a universal confirmation that we are loved and most importantly that love never dies. The experience conveys the belief to the mourner that they are still important and remembered and loved from the other side. Love is spread and the survivor feels a renewal of the relationship and the inner glow of being cared about; this is a powerful need at a time when the mourner may feel alone or abandoned. The example of love is often passed on in the behavior of the recipient to others in their families or social circles. It cannot be overstated: love disposes of fear and breeds gratitude, a critical tool for managing change. 

     Equally important, the mourner can continue to love the deceased, though separated. You can always keep the departed alive in your heart. As the prolific author and psychotherapist Thomas More in Care of the Soul writes, “The ultimate cure, as many ancient and modern psychologies of depth have asserted, comes from love and not from logic. . . Most, if not all, problems brought to therapists are issues of love.” While physical relationships end, love never ends and this is where the greatest awareness with lifelong implications occurs. We are all connected. When massive change takes place in life we all need supportive people who show their love. Change is scary. Look around at those who have helped and given of their time; they teach us so much. 

     The Extraordinary Experience is a selfless kind of love. And, the lesson that the mourner can learn is to begin to discover ways to love back even though separated. One way this can be accomplished is to form the intention to use what the deceased admired in you or brought out in you. Each time the mourner shares what was received from the loved one, it perpetuates his/her influence and memory. One can also start new traditions that recognize and honor the deceased at various times during the year.

      To summarize, the above eight wisdom lessons depend on the beliefs of the mourner and the meaning they give to the experience. Meaning is highly individual and the experience turns beliefs upside down. Yet, beliefs mould new meaning. In particular, what is the message or messages that the mourner believes the experience conveys? Those helping the bereaved need to become adept at fleshing out the messages received and the implications mourners draw from them. Only then can specific behaviors be discussed and implemented by using the EE as a force for reinvesting in life and establishing a new identity. Encouragement and reinforcement of those behaviors then have significant impact on the course of one’s grief work. 

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________________________________________________________________________

Louis LaGrand, Ph.D., CT is a grief counselor and the author of eight books, the most recent, Love Lives On: Learning from the Extraordinary Encounters of the Bereaved. He is known world-wide for his research on the Extraordinary Experiences of the bereaved (after-death communication phenomena) and is one of the founders of Hospice of the St. Lawrence Valley, Inc. He is the Director of Loss Education Associates, 450 Fairway Isles Dr., Venice, Florida 34285. Telephone: 941-496-4391. Email: louislagrand@msn.com His monthly ezine-free website is www.extraordinarygriefexperiences.com