Could there be an afterlife after all?

Patricia Pearson talks about her experiences with the unknown, and her journey to understand more about what happens to us when we die

My father died unexpectedly of cardiac arrest in his bed in the spring of 2008. He was 80. The next day, we all got the phone call. But my sister Katharine, 100 miles away in Montreal, Canada, received her message differently. “It was about 4:30am,” she said at his funeral, “and I couldn’t sleep, as usual, when all of a sudden I began having this amazing experience. For the next two hours I felt nothing but joy and healing.”

She sensed a presence in her bedroom. “I felt hands on my head, and experienced vision after vision of a happy future.” Unaware that our father had died the night before, she described her experience to her elder son the next morning, and wrote about it in her diary.

We were in shock. Had Katharine had a vision? My sister wasn’t prone to spiritual experiences. Stress she was familiar with, as the mother of two teenagers. Laughter she loved. Fitness of any kind. Fantastic intellect, fluent in three languages. But she hadn’t been paying much attention, in essence, to God.

"That autumn and summer, people came out of the woodwork to tell me their tales"

Later, I would learn that this sort of experience when someone has died is startlingly common. Families shelter their knowledge like a delicate heirloom. At the time, I only understood what a gift this was for Katharine, who was about to face her own death, from breast cancer.

Just two months after Dad died, Katharine was moved to a hospice. In her final ten days, she spoke little, yet seemed profoundly content.

“Wow, that was strange,” she remarked once upon waking up, her expression one of smiling delight. “I dreamed I was being smooshed in flowers.” She looked gorgeous, as if she were lit from within. Sometimes she would have happy whispered conversations with a person I couldn’t see. At other times, she would stare at the ceiling as a full panoply of expressions played across her face—puzzled, amused, sceptical, surprised, calmed—like a spectator in a planetarium.

The sister with whom I’d shared every secret couldn’t translate this for me.

“It’s so interesting,” she began one morning, and then couldn’t find the language. Forty-eight hours before she died, she told us, “I am leaving.” She left in silence and candlelight, while I lay with my cheek on her chest and my hand on her heart.

 

Why had my sister had a powerful spiritual experience in the hour of my father’s unexpected death? Why did she become increasingly joyful in her dying experience? What would she have told me if she could?

That summer and autumn, people came out of the woodwork to tell me their tales. Some were friends and colleagues, others were strangers sitting beside me on a flight. If I told them about my father and sister, they reciprocated. Almost invariably, they prefaced their remarks by saying, “I’ve never told anyone this, but…” or, “We’ve only ever discussed this in our family...” Then they offered extraordinary stories—deathbed visions, sensed presences, near-death experiences, sudden intimations of a loved one in danger.

"Often we are held back from embracing the comfort and reassurance of spirits"

A friend, the director of a large music company, told me that, as a boy, he had come down to breakfast and seen his father, as always, at the kitchen table. Then his mother broke the news that his father had died in the night. He briefly wondered if she’d gone insane. “He’s sitting right there,” he told her. It was the most baffling and unsettling moment of his life.

I had no idea there was this kept-hidden world all around me. I wanted to understand what we knew about these mysterious modes of awareness. For four years, as a journalist, I pursued the questions.

 

A 2014 study by The Palliative Care Institute and Hospice Buffalo in upstate New York found that 60 per cent of their dying patients, over an 18-month period, had comforting visions and dreams of living or deceased family members in the lead-up to their own deaths.

There is pain in loss, and then there is further pain in the silence borne by fear of being dismissed. Tell someone about it and the explanations come: Hallucination. Wishful thinking. Coincidence.

I attended a Christmas party with old university friends, and caught up with a man who works for a bank. I told him some of what had transpired with Katharine. He said gently: “I don’t mean to be unkind, but it’s very likely that she was imagining these things.” Why did he feel he could speak with authority about what the dying see?

 

Spirituality used to be considered an ordinary part of the human experience, but now it qualifies as an extraordinary state requiring extraordinary evidence. Why should this be? It has to do with the rise of scientism, a school of thought that believes anything that eludes scientific measurement cannot exist.

For my Irish and Scottish Highland ancestors, an extraordinary way of knowing things was always embedded comfortably within their culture. One summer afternoon, my elder aunts and cousins, women in their eighties and nineties, all gathered around the dining table at our summer cabin on Ontario Canada’s Stoney Lake.

Here, my grandmother had painted a saying on the wall: “Fra ghosties and ghoulies and long-leggedy beasties, and things that go bump in the night: the guid lord deliver us.” A playful nod to our witchy Celtic ancestresses. But now we had come to talk of such things seriously for the first time over our lunch.

We spoke of how great-grandmother Maude had absolute confidence in her way of knowing things; how, when my grandfather telephoned his mother to report her husband’s fatal heart attack on his sailboat, Maude replied disconsolately: “I know.”

My Aunt Bea recalled, “Granny would be in the living room reading a book, and she’d suddenly slam it down and mutter, ‘Damn! So-and-so is coming and I don’t want to see them.’ Sure enough,” Aunt Bea said, “so-and-so would show up ten minutes later.” The Norwegians have a word for this uncanny anticipation of visitors: vardoger.

Our Highland ancestors called the perception of a person’s double “second sight.” Cousin Marion offered that she had been working at a resort in Banff, Alberta, as a teenager when the hotel caught fire, prompting her mother in Montreal to wake in distress and call her. And my mother, the uber-rationalist, conceded she awoke suddenly one morning in her university dorm and phoned my grandmother, whom she somehow knew to be in crisis. Granny was; her dearest friend had died that night.

Each experience was different, but all were ways of knowing, and they tilted the world on its axis for a moment. Why hadn’t we talked of them before?

 

Cambridge physicist and Nobel Prize winner Brian D Josephson told the New York Times in 2003: “There’s really strong pressure not to allow these things to be talked about in a positive way.”

Harold Puthoff, a physicist at the Stanford Research Institute appointed to oversee the CIA’s remote viewing (or clairvoyant) experiments in the 1970s and 1980s, described this pressure in conversations with psychoanalyst Elizabeth Lloyd Mayer, as reported in her book Extraordinary Knowing, published in 2007. “The evidence we had (on clairvoyance) was rock hard,” he wrote. “I saw that. But I was having terrible trouble giving up my beliefs about how the world worked, even in the face of evidence that said my beliefs were wrong.”

"60 per cent of dying patients had comforting visions and dreams"

The prejudice in the Western world is beginning to change, particularly in the area of grief therapy, as counsellors take note of other cultural approaches. One influential study of Japanese widows found that their continuing bond with the presence of their deceased spouses—setting up altars in the home, leaving food, incense—made them much more psychologically resilient than their British counterparts.

Neuropsychiatrist Dr. Peter Fenwick of King’s College, London, has commented on the “sensed presence” experience. “Often its emotional impact is so great that it remains a lasting source of comfort to the recipient and often has the power to alter their own perception of what death means. For them, whether it’s dismissed by others as ‘simply coincidence’ is irrelevant. The simple fact that it’s happened is usually enough.”

But often we are held back from embracing the comfort and reassurance of spirits by a society that belittles the experience: “I don’t mean to be unkind, but your sister was clearly imagining things.”

 

One Autumn, with my sister Anne and her husband, Mark, we spent the afternoon tucking the cottage up for winter. Much of what we do confounds the squirrels, who appear to have spent most of their autumn hiding acorns. Each time we strip a bed, acorns tumble out. Anne and I keep laughing.

As I shutter the windows, I wonder what will have happened when they are next thrown open to soft spring light. What will have transpired in my life, in ours, in the history of the world? Who else will have died?

But the grace I see now comes from the comfort I draw from this tribe, with my cousins and aunts and uncles and friends. The extended family has drawn ever closer. It’s like a footprint in the sand that needs to be filled in. Where the water rushes in, where love rushes in.