Jacqueline Hayes presents on her research Experiences of continued presence: on the practical consequences of ‘hallucinations’ in bereavement .

To document the personal consequences of experiences of continued presence in grief, helping to resolve controversies about their significance.

Research outline

Design/Methodology: Narrative biographic interviews were carried out with 17 bereaved informants, and ethnomethodology used to identify sources of meaning and functions/consequences of these experiences. Inclusion criteria were: 1. at least one experience of presence since the loved one passed; 2. the bereavement occurred >3 months before the interview. Informants were recruited via adverts asking them to share their experiences of loss.

Results/Findings: Informants heard voices of the deceased, saw their images, felt their touch, and sometimes felt their presence unspecified in any of the senses. Analysis revealed that such experiences were meaningfully connected to the immediate environments in which they happened but also to the personal histories of the bereaved. The narratives revealed both helpful and destructive potentials of these experiences. In all cases, these consequences relied on the relationship with the deceased.

Research Limitations: The study cannot make statistical generalisations regarding the phenomenon. Due to the use of an opportunity sampling strategy, more females than males were interviewed. In addition, the study was not longitudinal, and thus could not follow informants over time to track changing meanings and consequences. 

Conclusions/Implications: The authors warn against oversimplification of experiences of continued presence, as significantly contrasting practical consequences commonly occurred within as well as between cases. The findings support the use of talking therapies based on personal meanings to help those distressed by their experiences of presence. The study made the following practitioner recommendations:

  1. Practitioners should not assume that such experiences are signs of pathology – most often they are beneficial for the bereaved and have healing consequences.
  2. When the experiences are distressing, the problem is likely to concern relationship difficulties with the deceased.
  3. Therapists can help clients with distressing experiences of presence by working on the relationship with the deceased.

Presenter profile

Jacqueline Hayes is a lecturer in counselling psychology at the University of Roehampton

Further information

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