When my husband was dying, while in the midst of nurse visits, bandage and dressing changes, and extremely heightened tension, I would make my husband promise that he would come back and speak with me after he died. I was irrationally insistent about this, as one can be irrationally insistent when one is determined to control the uncontrollable.
So, imagine my disappointment, when he refused to visit, in dreams or otherwise, after he died. It didn’t matter that, rationally and perhaps even scientifically, I knew my request seemed nearly impossible to arrange ahead of time. It was no surprise when after his death, I was mad that he wouldn’t or couldn’t honor his promise. It became just another sign that he wouldn’t listen to me in life as his wife, and now, in death as his widow. Of course, the anger was just another mask of grief and deep love. And it didn’t help when others would talk about seeing or hearing signs of their loved one. The one voice that I desperately wanted to hear, I didn’t.
Yet despite his failure to make his presence known, hearing voices after a loved one dies is actually a really common experience. While some, like my husband, might rather keep quiet on the other side of the grave, many of the bereaved report hearing the voice of their loved one.
What about you? Have you ever heard your loved one speaking to you?
It can be comforting but also unnerving. Hearing something unexplainable can make you feel a little bit unsettled when your rational mind “tells” you one thing can’t be happening and your experience tells you another. But rest assured, Dr. Ronald Pies, a psychiatrist, has written “visionary experiences” also may be seen in normal or uncomplicated grief, following the death of a loved one. It appears to be common in many different cultures. In one Swedish study, researcher Agneta Grimby looked at the incidence of hallucinations in elderly widows and widowers, within the first year after the spouse’s death. She found that half of the subjects sometimes “felt the presence” of the deceased — an experience often termed an “illusion.” About one-third reported actually seeing, hearing and talking to the deceased.”
There are even famous examples of loved ones visiting their beloved. Paul McCartney, who lost his wife Linda to breast cancer in 1998, says he’s comforted by thoughts that her spirit lives on. “After Linda died, I think all of us in the family would hear noises or see things and think ‘That’s Linda; that’s mom…’ And I think in some ways, it’s very comforting to think she’s still here,” McCartney said.
People who are grieving will sometimes embark on new adventures after a beloved dies. McCartney was compelled to write poetry since the death of his wife, including a poem called “Her Spirit,” in which Linda’s spirit visits him in the woods, in the form of a white squirrel. McCartney said, “You don’t know if it’s true. But it’s a great thought. And it’s an uplifting thought. So I allow myself to go there.”
In another study published in the British Medical Journal, academics interviewed 227 widows and 66 widowers in Wales, finding that almost half of those interviewed had seen or heard their dead spouse. Researchers note that these kinds phenomena are most common during the first decade after widowhood. For most people in the study—nearly 68%– the experience of hearing a loved one’s voice was helpful.
Scholars have even speculated that the first followers of Jesus—after he died—experienced this phenomena. In an interview published in the Boston Globe (April 20, 2014), Bart Ehrman argued that the belief in Jesus’s resurrection may have been founded on visual and auditory hallucinations among Jesus’s grief-stricken disciples. Ehrman speculated that, “…the disciples had some kind of visionary experiences…and that these…led them to conclude that Jesus was still alive.”
This is all just to say, we yearn sometimes to hear the voice of those we have lost in this life, and often we can experience their presence beyond the grave.
Who can say if this Mystery is true or not? Perhaps questioning it is completely beside the point. If we can experience something of our loved one—something positive and healing—beyond death, then why not go with it? And if the voice itself is troubling, perhaps it is a sign that we still have some unfinished business with our relationship that we might dedicate some time to resolving or coming to terms with.
Still, I’d like to think that the dead try to communicate with us, even if my husband doesn’t specifically use his voice. Sometimes we might feel their presence in helping us with new directions and decisions. In a letter to William Hayley, dated May 6, 1800, the poet William Blake writes:
I know that our deceased friends are more really with us than when they were apparent to our mortal part. Thirteen years ago I lost a brother, and with his spirit I converse daily and hourly in the spirit, and see him in my remembrance, in the region of my imagination. I hear his advice, and even now write from his dictate.
They say God works in mysterious ways; perhaps God is working even now through the signs and wonders of the deceased.
Yet, if you yearn like me to hear the sounds of your loved ones, it is possible to hear those voices in others ways. Through the voice of a child. Through the words a stranger says that your loved one might have said…Through the sound of the radio and a song that speaks to your heart at just the right moment.
And then there are recordings…
John Pavolitz lost his father came across an antiquated mini cassette and unexpectedly heard his father’s voice thru the recording. He said, “I thought I’d missed my father but I didn’t realize how much until I could hear him again. It was all there: his humor, his warmth, the pride he had in his family—and it was a surprise to feel the muscle memory of what his voice triggered in me: security, belonging, the feeling of everything-will-be-alrightness that only his voice could create in my head when he was here. I miss that part of me.”
A yearning to hear a beloved one’s voice when he or she is gone may inspire us in other ways too. We might cherish the voices that surround our daily lives even more. While our loved ones are with us, let us notice and appreciate the gift of their voices: whether it is in asking us to go to the grocery store for them, or to bring the paper towels into the kitchen, their protest and challenge to us, or the way they call out “goodnite.” Let us cherish our own voices too, speaking up for those who can not speak out for themselves or whose voices have been diminished by others.