Bereavement hallucinations are reported to be common and, in most cases, benign. An early and widely cited study by Rees (1971) involved 227 widows and 66 widowers in Wales. nearly half of those interviewed reported experiencing the deceased. the most common experience was simply “feeling the presence of the dead spouse” and was reported by 39% of those surveyed. this was followed by visual hallucinations (14%), auditory verbal hallucinations (13.3%), and then tactile hallucinations (2.7%). Rees considers that most of these events are “normal and useful accompaniments of widowhood” (1971, pp. 37-8). more recent studies report similar findings (eg, bennett and bennett 2000; sharp et al. 2013; castelnovo et al. 2015). there are consistent references in the empirical literature to a sense or feeling of proximity that does not originate in a more specific sensory content, at least not one that is easily identifiable. for example, sharp et al. (2013, p.390) write that the most common type of experience is “a feeling or sensation that the deceased person is close to them without experiencing it in any sensory modality”, while longman et al. (1988, p.44) point out that “an overwhelming sense of presence was often expressed indicating that the subjects felt they were not alone”. Steffen and Coyle (2012, p. 35) similarly state that “people report that they can somehow feel or feel the physical proximity of the deceased loved one”. however, descriptions of the experience tend to be superficial and it is not entirely clear what it actually consists of (Castelnovo et al. 2015, p. 271).
Given this lack of clarity, there is a methodological concern that studies may be using the same terms to address different phenomena, without making those differences explicit (datson and marwit 1997, p.133). furthermore, when different terms are used, it is not always clear whether they have a common or overlapping referent. For example, Dannenbaum and Kinnier (2009) consider “imaginary relationships” with the dead, rather than hallucinations or experiences of sensory presence. such relationships may encompass some grief hallucinations (those that involve a connected experience), but not others (which are more detached). there are also questions about the nature and extent of cultural variability. according to kein et al. (2013), up to 90% of bereaved spouses in some cultures experience the presence of the deceased, but the prevalence varies considerably. Furthermore, different cultural attitudes influence how people interpret and respond to their own experiences and those of others, in ways that may well affect how those experiences play out. For example, whether or not a sensed presence experience is positive and ultimately beneficial may depend, to a large extent, on whether it conforms to cultural norms and is interpreted according to culturally accepted practices (Steffen and Coyle 2012). Given the degree and types of potential variation, it is debatable whether an underlying core experience can be identified cross-culturally and, if so, what that experience consists of. footnote 1
Researchers also explicitly or implicitly adopt different interpretive frameworks. consider the term “hallucination,” which suggests discrete experiential content that is aberrational in not tracking what is actually the case. for example, castelnovo et al. (2015, p. 266) define what they call “post-bereavement hallucinatory experiences” as “abnormal sensory experiences that are frequently reported by bereaved people without a history of mental disorder”. however, this is in tension with first-person interpretations, which often view the experience as valuable and/or as a source of information, integrating it into a larger account of the world. In addition, it is not always clear what the criteria are to consider a normal or abnormal experience. an untruthful experience could well be a normal reaction to certain events, that is, a reaction that is not only commonplace but also appropriate to the situation according to some criterion. One option is to interpret abnormality in specifically epistemic terms: a type of experience is abnormal when it is invariably misleading. however, things are not that simple, as an experience with non-veridical elements could still serve to reveal certain truths about oneself, one’s relationships, and one’s values.
An alternative way of conceptualizing these phenomena is suggested by Continuing Links approaches, which hold that grief does not culminate in simply letting go and severing ties with the deceased. instead, most people in most cultures continue to relate to the deceased in a variety of ways. Relationships are rearranged rather than lost entirely and can continue to play an important role in people’s lives (eg, Klass et al. 1996; Klass and Steffen 2018). The perspective we adopt will influence how experiences of perceived presence are conceived, including whether or not they are considered aberrant or pathological (Sanger 2009). In particular, I want to emphasize the difference between a hallucination (interpreted as a perceptual experience of p arising in the absence of p) and a sense of connection (where the emphasis is on in relating to someone rather than simply experiencing their presence). footnote 2 I will suggest that we can better understand what certain experiences of sensed presence entail by considering their relational phenomenology, rather than looking for some component of the experience that adds up to an elusive quality of presence.
I will adopt a tentative distinction between two broad and overlapping categories of experience: those with contents attributable to one or more sensory modalities and those involving a less specific sense or feeling of presence. the probability that the latter are sometimes described in terms of the former. More generally, terms like “see”, “hear” and “touch” are used in a variety of ways that do not refer to sensory phenomena: “let’s go back to the point you just mentioned”; “I hear you loud and clear”; “I see what you mean”. it could be that people also resort to those terms when trying to convey an unknown form of experience (that doesn’t seem to originate in a particular sensory modality) in a more familiar way. here, I am concerned with those experiences that do consist of a non-specific sense of presence, however they may be described.