My Patients Tell Me They've Had A Paranormal Experience. I Believe Them — I Had One Too.

"For years, I didn’t tell the story. I came up with what I thought was a rational explanation and buried it away."
Daniel Balakov via Getty Images

Tank’s life has been full of conflict and strife. Now he’s stuck in a wheelchair on his back porch with me, a hospice social worker, peppering him with questions.

He’s pondering my query about why he’s feeling peace about his impending death. His eyes soften as he motions with his head toward the workshop near the back fence.

“You remember me telling you about my older boy?” he asks.

“The one that died by suicide?” I ask. “Yeah, I remember.”

“If you count my old man, I was the second-worst father that ever lived. Most of my life I figured I’d go straight to hell when I died.”

I don’t argue. From what he’s told me, he was a lousy father — verbally and physically abusive to his kids, spending his paychecks on booze and drugs, leaving each of his three wives to fend for themselves and do their best to protect whichever of his children were in their care.

“You still think you’re going to hell?” I ask.

He shakes his head, and I ask what’s changed.

“I’m getting to that,” he says, looking again at his workshop.

“After Little Tank died, I went into a spiral — drinking, getting into fights, mouthing off to cops. Mostly, blaming myself for his death, thinking it should have been me that died instead of him. Last time I saw him alive, I told him to get out of my house or I’d shoot him.”

He looks down, his voice cracking. “Guess he thought he’d save me the trouble.”

I wait for him to continue.

“One day I decided to do the world a favor — not that anyone would have noticed. I took my .45 caliber and walked to that workshop to call it a day. I remember crying and saying out loud how sorry I was for all the pain I’ve caused. Then I put the pistol to my head.”

“What happened?” I ask.

He shakes his head.

“Scott, you know I’m a damn liar — that’s one of the few things I’m honest about. But what I’m about to tell you is no lie. And it wasn’t my imagination. It’s the pure-T truth.”

I nod.

“I was just about to squeeze the trigger when I heard Little Tank’s voice clear as you and me are talking. Clearer even.”

“What’d he say?” I ask.

“‘Stop!’ He just said ‘stop.’ I put the gun down and looked around. There was no one there, but I swear I felt some kind of presence over in the corner where I keep my air compressor — that’s where the voice came from.”

“What do you mean by presence?” I ask.

“Nothing I could see, but whenever I looked that direction, I felt warm and safe, which is not what I’m usually feeling. I said out loud, ′Tank, is that you?′ Then he said, kind of upbeat: ′It’s not your time. Keep going for now. I’ll see you again when it’s your time. I promise.′ I froze for a second or two, then asked if he was mad at me. But that was it; he was gone.”

“What do you make of it?” I ask.

“For a minute I thought I was going crazy,” he says, looking away as though lost in thought. After a long pause, he clears his throat and continues: “I once heard a so-called preacher say if you kill yourself, it’s a crime against God and you might as well get ready for a ride through hellfire in a gasoline suit. That’d been working on me — really working on me. Tank let me know he was safe, and that preacher was a lying jackass. That’s what I make of it. My boy came back to give me some peace. He ain’t suffering for what he done or taking the heat for the way I screwed things up. Him promising to see me again took away any fear of death. I don’t really know how to explain it.”

To many, Tank’s report of a visit from a deceased loved one, his conviction that it was real, and the fact that it has brought him peace may sound strange, even unbelievable. After 30 years of working with people who are grieving and hearing dozens, maybe hundreds, of reports like Tank’s, I believe him.

Whatever one calls these experiences — crisis apparitions, bereavement hallucinations, or after-death communications, also known as ADCs — studies show that they are very common, especially in the year or so after a loved one dies. One metastudy analyzing the research estimated that over the course of a lifetime, 30%-35% of people will experience some kind of ADC. This holds true across culture; race, gender, education; socioeconomic status; and religious tradition or spiritual beliefs.

As with Tank, most are comforted by these experiences, though some explain them away as imagination or coincidence. Others find them distressing, especially if they conflict with religious or philosophical beliefs, cause friction in relationships — for example, if family and friends ridicule them — or raise anxieties about one’s mental health (“Am I losing my mind?”).

Most ADCs are less dramatic than Tank’s. It may be the smell of a deceased loved one’s after-shave, or feeling a familiar hug or hand on one’s shoulder. Bill and Judy Guggenheim have collected, analyzed and archived thousands of firsthand ADC reports. In the book “Hello From Heaven!” they conclude — and others have confirmed — that these experiences take multiple forms, including hearing a loved one’s voice; feeling a touch; smelling a fragrance; visions or sightings in which the deceased person appears to be present; hyperreal dreams; and “twilight experiences” during altered states of consciousness such as when awakening or going into sleep.

There may be perceived messages associated with physical phenomena — e.g., lights spontaneously turning on or off, and objects falling from shelves. Or there may be events with symbolic meaning, including the strange behavior of birds or changes in the natural world — like the appearance of a rainbow that seems synchronized with thoughts or feelings related to the deceased. There are even reports of “out-of-body” ADCs where some report visitations with a deceased loved one in an alternate, transpersonal setting.

The Guggenheims also found accounts like Tank’s in which the deceased apparently acts to protect a loved one.

Skeptics often dismiss such reports as imagination, wishful thinking, coincidence, stress-induced hallucinations or dissociative states possibly related to grief or fatigue. Others posit underlying mental illness, or even the influence of “demonic” forces.

I get it. This stuff can be hard to believe. There’s no doubt that some accounts can be chalked up to the imaginations of those who are hurting and yearning to reconnect with, or receive assurances from, a departed loved one. But after decades of listening to people who are grieving, my guess is that many are real events that embody an enduring connection between a living person and one who has died.

A recent study by researcher Ken Vincent, which analyzed 1,667 reports compiled by the After Death Communication Research Foundation, found that 20.1% met the standard for having “evidentiary” proof beyond a firsthand, admittedly subjective report. These lines of evidence included people who had ADCs from loved ones they did not yet know were dead; apparitions that appeared to multiple witnesses; and apparitions “that convey knowledge unknown to the experiencer that is later proven to be true.”

Moreover, ADCs can occur years after a death, when a person is no longer actively grieving. They can happen to people who disbelieve such things are possible, undermining the argument that it is merely wishful thinking.

The look on Tank’s face is uncharacteristically vulnerable. This experience is important to him. He fidgets with a cigarette as he asks if I’ve ever heard anything like this before.

“Yeah,” I say, “from lots of folks.”

There’s something I don’t tell him, though. When I was much younger, I experienced an ADC myself.

Skeptics might protest that this suggests I’m biased in favor of a belief that consciousness survives death, and that our loved ones can cross the terminal divide to give comfort and reassurance.

It’s a valid point. But hold on — it’s not what you may be thinking.

It was April 1986. I was a graduate student in the History Department at Syracuse University, focusing my studies on the ways elites across time have used multidimensional forms of violence and power to subjugate and exploit marginalized groups and to push narratives that blame them for their own victimization.

I was as hard-nosed and cynical as it got. There was no life after death, no tunnel of light leading into the arms of family and friends who’d already died. And there was no freaking way that your dead grandpa was going to stop by for a cup of tea. Dead meant dead. Anyone who thought otherwise was either fooling themselves or trying to fool you.

It was after midnight on one of those snowy upstate New York nights. I was sound asleep when I was jolted awake by the loudest siren I’ve ever heard. It was coming — I know this sounds nuts — from the upper left-hand corner of my bedroom. Then two siren pulses, the kind you hear when an ambulance or police cruiser is rolling into, or out of, an active scene.

I jumped up, adrenaline pulsing, fists clenched, ready for anything. Realizing that there was no one breaking into my apartment, I took a deep breath and listened for a television, thinking maybe a neighbor was watching one of those cops shows with the volume all the way up. It was dead silent. Was I dreaming? I had no memory of being in a dream; besides, the siren had woken me instantly and was still audible when I was wide awake.

As my mind grasped for an explanation, I heard what sounded like an ambulance door opening and a gurney being rolled across asphalt. Then a voice: “Hurry, get over here!”

Thinking there was trouble in the parking lot, I pulled back the shade and peered out into the night, expecting to see an ambulance crew working on someone. Nothing. Just parking lot lights reflecting eerily off ice crystals that seemed to be floating in the air.

As though I wasn’t awake enough, I ran outside barefoot, thinking someone was playing a prank and hoping to catch them in the act. Inwardly, I was hoping for an explanation this mundane. Again, nothing.

Back inside, I did a quick mental status check, looking for issues with long- or short-term memory, doing math equations, checking my balance and motor coordination, looking at my pupils in the mirror, searching for indications of neurological issues. Everything checked out.

I ran through psychiatric diagnoses I could remember from my days as a psychology undergraduate, trying to remember any that could cause auditory hallucinations. The one that stood out was brief reactive psychosis. I did an inventory of all the stress I was under: teaching four sessions a week in support of one of those 500-student American history courses; pain-in-the-ass professors; a heavy course load; too many cheeseburgers; too little sleep. Stressful, yes, but not enough to cause psychosis.

Before going back to bed I opened the refrigerator, hoping to find something soothing. There was nothing but an unopened bottle of soda. I turned the cap, took a few swigs and thought: When I wake up later, I might think this was a dream. Look in the refrigerator. The bottle has been opened.

Sure enough, when I woke up my first thought was, Did that really happen? I checked the refrigerator and a chill went down my back. Minutes later the phone rang. It was my dad. My uncle, with whom I’d always been close, had been killed by a drunk driver in California. I asked what time. When adjusted for time zones, it was the same time I’d been woken by the siren.

That was a long, intense day with little time to think about these strange events. As night fell, I was sitting alone at my kitchen table, exhausted, thinking about how my uncle, a musician, and I had always connected over music. We’d had particular fun bantering about whether the Beatles were really the iconic band he thought they were, or just a bunch of shallow, media-hyped bums whose main contribution was to line the pockets of promoters and record companies, as was my assessment.

As a wave of sadness rolled through me, a beat-up, duct-taped radio suddenly cut on. It was one of those early prototypes that combined a radio with one of those newfangled cordless phones (over which I frequently picked up CB radio traffic). There must have been a short in the wires, since every now and then it would spontaneously cut on or off. This time, it cut on right as the first notes of a Beatles song, “Let It Be,” were playing.

Not one to wax metaphysical, I was conscious that as I absorbed the words about “times of trouble” and letting things be, I felt a deep calm and sense of peace. It was as if I was being held in a warm, protective blanket of energy.

As soon as the song stopped, the radio cut off. Weird, but true.

Unlike Tank, I was not comforted. I was freaked out. Not because it scared me or caused me to question my sanity, but because I had no explanatory box into which I could put such an unusual experience, no way to tell a story so at odds with my worldview. So, for years, I didn’t tell the story. I came up with what I thought was a rational explanation and buried it away.

That explanation? I convinced myself that the siren and voices in the parking lot never happened. I was close with my uncle, I reasoned (rationalized), and there must have been an unconscious part of me that wanted to believe we were connected in the moment he died. I must have just made it up amid the shock and disorientation of grief.

And the radio and that mystical sense of peace? They were coincidences. I knew the probability of the radio cutting on and off at just the right time and playing that song was likely around 0.000001%, but that was enough for me. The perceived peace I felt must have been an unconscious, in-the-moment desire to make something out of nothing, to falsely attribute meaning to the song as though sent from beyond rather than as a simple, garden-variety, 1-in-10-million coincidence.

For years, that was my story and, though I never told it to anyone but myself, I stuck to it.

Then, I became a hospice social worker and started meeting people like Tank. Lots of them. At first, I used the same tired psychiatric labels and Procrustean explanations on them that I’d used on myself. But they seemed so damned genuine, honest and credible. I scoured scholarly journals for research that had been done on these kinds of reports, expecting to find a closed case that proved my biases true.

In the early 1990s there wasn’t much, but I found a few studies that purported to suggest that these reports are attributable to physiological or psychological factors. For better or worse, though, I knew enough about research design, statistical analysis, and signs of potential experimenter bias to see that these studies were not convincing.

I came across an often-cited 1971 study by W. Dewi Rees showing that ADCs (he called them “hallucinations”) were reported by roughly half of the 293 research participants who’d survived the death of a spouse. Rees concluded that these experiences are normal during times of grief and usually have positive meaning for those who’ve had them.

I came away with my head swimming, and my assumptions that there’d be a well-worn chain of evidence supporting my reductionist viewpoint shattered.

Annoyingly, the people making these reports continued to seem like reliable sources. Many, like me, had had no expectation that such things were possible and had fished around for conclusions other than those suggesting the paranormal. They were not gullible. They were able to think critically. For most of them, the experience held such poignant meaning that it started to feel psychologically violent for me to not take their reports seriously. Who was I to try taking their experience away or denying its meaning?

It’s been 30 years since I first visited the Health Sciences Library at the University of North Carolina looking for proof that these reports could be explained away. These days, I stay abreast of the evolving and accumulating research, but the debate over what is behind ADCs is no closer to being solved than it was back in the early 1990s.

Are these experiences supernatural? Are they hallucinations? Frankly, I no longer think much about what causes them. I focus on what they mean to the people who’ve had them. And I trust them to decide for themselves what it means. In fact, my understanding of that snowy April night has changed completely, thanks to people like Tank.

Tank looks me dead in the eye as if saying: It’s important to me that you believe me. But if you don’t, I don’t give a shit. But really, I do. He coughs on some of the foul-looking liquid he’s been swilling from a Mason jar and then says, “What do you think happened out there in the shed?”

I shrug my shoulders. “What do you think happened, Tank?”

He holds up a bony fist, playfully insinuating that he’s going to hit me and grunts: “You’ve been running that social work-y ′what do you think?′ bullshit for weeks. What do you think happened?”

“Tank,” I say, “Your boy came back and gave you a message. That’s what I think.”

Note: Names and some details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals mentioned in this essay.

Scott Janssen is a hospice social worker and writer. He has written extensively about providing trauma-informed care for patients who are terminally ill and has spoken nationally about ways to better support veterans who are nearing the end of their lives. His work has appeared in dozens of publications, including Social Work Today, Psychotherapy Networker, the American Journal of Nursing, Reader’s Digest and The Washington Post. His novel, “Light Keepers,” is a visionary adventure about the transformational power of kindness and love when the world appears lost in anger, conflict and fear. His assessment and opinion of the Beatles has significantly improved.

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