Monday, July 8, 2013

Suicide Bereavement and After Death Communications: Preliminary Findings from Our Research

By Sally Spencer-Thomas
AAS Survivor Division Director

At the International Association for Suicide Prevention Congress in 2009, Tony Gee, a suicidologist from Australia said, “…when we closely look at the bereavement literature we find that it tells us time and time again, that the ‘lived experience’ of the bereaved has a range of dimensions, some of which may in fact be quite different from what some of the traditional theories (really coming from that ‘objective’ realm) have been prepared to recognize….”
He went on to explain that the continuing bond between the deceased and the living seems to continue on two levels:
1) “an internal representation, living on in memory, being part of the internal self-structure, being a sort of constant internal companion,” and
2) “an actual sense of presence of the deceased as a separate individual identity who is still around in some way after death and this presence may be experienced in a number of different ways.”
He described the two as not mutually exclusive.
This past spring Danielle Jahn and I, with support from Texas Tech University, conducted a survey asking people bereaved by suicide about these types of experiences.
Our recruitment efforts stated “People bereaved by suicide needed for research on spiritual experiences subsequent to their loss,” and we sent requests for participation to members of or visitors to the following:
·         American Association of Suicidology
·         International Association for Suicide Prevention
·         Survivor Support Networks
·         Social Media (Facebook, Twitter)
We got a strong response: almost 700 people completed our questionnaire. While it will be months before we have a published report of our findings, I wanted to give the membership a sense of what we discovered initially:
·       About 70% of our sample experienced some sort of “spiritual experience” with their loved one who died by suicide.
·       The most common manifestation was dreaming of the deceased (72%), followed by feeling the presence of the deceased (51%) and experiencing profound coincidences (41%).
·       About one third of our sample experienced their first “sign” immediately after death and another third experienced it within the first month.
·      About 90% of our group told another person about their after-death communication, and most found that the person they told was supportive or intrigued, but a few felt discounted. People most often told included:

o   Friends and family
o   Support groups
o   Faith leaders
o   Mental health professionals
o   Psychics
o   The most common emotional reactions to these experiences were love (60%), peace (55%), and sadness (47%).
Some of the survey responses that people wrote were deeply moving:
·       “My son came to me in a dream about 2 weeks after he died. He said mom, ‘I'm sorry, I can't get back.’ I said, ‘It's okay, I will see you again.’ I felt his hug and then I woke up. A few weeks later I had another dream. I went to hug him and I knew he was gone. He has moved on to another place.”
·       “The dream was most profound. It seemed so real. My son, who I found after he shot himself, came to me in dream as a toddler. He was wearing a striped shirt that he wore as a child. The following day, an old friend, who lives I'm another state, sent a photo she found of him with my deceased father. He was wearing the same shirt as in the dream. My friend and I had not spoken since his death and she had no knowledge of the dream. I had cried all morning after and even described the shirt to my husband before we received the photo. My only son was 28 when he died.”
·       “Initially, I 'lost' my faith, not sure I really 'believed' anymore. The Spiritual experiences were gentle, if not shocking reminders that God wasn't going to abandon me because I was doubting my upbringing and teachings. In fact, it was expected, and I knew 'God' would wait and be patient as I struggled on my grief journey. I was approached by total strangers in moments of need…music with specific messages at crucial times…. I even had one 'visitation' by the Holy Trinity (Father, Son, Holy Ghost), unmistakable, and life-changing, in all places, in the Washington DC Metro. I am a physician, a scientist, and also an advocate social worker, with expertise in mental health and emotional conditions. My perspective on mental fitness is totally changed, with a new-found realization how much we avoid dealing with ‘Spiritual Fitness.’”
Michelle Linn-Gust has often said, “The bond is not broken; the bond is changed. People really need to know that their loved one is still part of their life. There is so much fear that if we move forward we are letting them go.”
If you have experienced an after-death communication that you would like to share with me, I invite you to contact me at
Reposted with permission from the American Association for Suicidology.

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