OVER the years, I have asked hundreds of bereaved people — often months after the event, even years — whether they feel as though their loved one has ceased to exist. So far, I have never had the answer “Yes”.
This feeling is not confined to my contacts. Robert Peston, the former BBC economics correspondent, was interviewed a year after the death of his wife, a young woman in her forties. Asked about how he thought about her now, he replied that, although he was not conventionally religious, he had a strong feeling that she was still “there”.
Forty years ago, a Welsh GP, Dewi Rees, conducted a major piece of research into this experience. His findings were eventually published in the BMJ (more recently he has expanded on them in a book, Pointers to Eternity, Y Lofla, 2010).
To his surprise, he found that similar pieces of research undertaken in several different countries and in other parts of Britain produced almost identical results. About half the bereaved people interviewed in all of these samples, covering, in all, many hundreds of people, said that they had had a specific experience relating to their loved one. This sometimes took the form of a spoken word, or a sense of presence, or a visual experience, or even occasionally a touch. All but a tiny minority (six per cent) found the experience positive rather than disturbing.
A few days after my wife Christine died in 2001, I had a similar experience — not of a word or a touch, but of an inexplicable event — which assured me that she was happy and I was not to grieve for her. This was witnessed by the visiting Macmillan bereavement counsellor.
The counsellor was talking about possible books that might help my grandchildren to cope with Grandma’s death. She was holding one in her hand, “a Christian book”, she said, slightly apologetically (she didn’t know I was a priest!), which children often enjoyed. It was about a larva that left the others in the pool to rise into the sky as a dragonfly.
At that moment, something landed on the book. “What’s that?” I asked. She looked shocked. “It’s a dragonfly!” she said. This happened on a cool day in early May, with all the windows shut. I had never seen a dragonfly anywhere near the house before, nor have I subsequently.
By nature, I am a typically sceptical journalist; yet even I could not deny that this seemed to be some kind of a sign, an intentional message to me. Rightly or wrongly, I took it as such, and was relieved to discover from Dewi Rees’s research that such events were not at all unusual — though not often in so dramatic a form.
In a more recent book, Daniel, My Son, a father, David Thomas, writes movingly of the death of his brilliant young son of bone cancer. A few months after his death, the author was staying the night alone in a hotel and casually switched on the television. The programme that came on was University Challenge, and soon a question came up about hymn tunes. Of the four hymn tunes played, three were of hymns sung at Daniel’s funeral.
That was surprising enough, but then Mr Thomas realised that the college attempting the answers was Daniel’s old college, Magdalen, Oxford. Being of a statistical frame of mind, he began to work out the odds, factoring in the further piece of evidence, provided by the BBC, that this was the first time since 1994 that there had been a question about hymn tunes. He calculated that the likelihood that this had happened by chance was between five million and ten million to one.
As he says in his book, “sadly none of this proves that Daniel still exists,” but two other similar experiences, one involving Daniel’s mother, and many stories that he has heard from bereaved parents of other sarcoma victims, do at the least bear out the findings of the research by Dewi Rees.
FOR the most part, it seems to me, these experiences are testimonies of the enduring power of love. When Robert Peston was asked whether he had any explanation of his “feeling” that his late wife was still with him, his eventual reply was one word: “love”. Paul says that “love never ends” (1 Corinthians 13.8). Indeed, love “abides”, or “lasts for ever” (see v.13). For the Christian, that is not surprising, because “God is love” (1 John 4.8), and God is, by very definition, eternal.
If love is the key to these bereavement experiences, it would be a wrong conclusion to assume that that is all it is. It may well be that human love at its best is so powerful and inextinguishable a force that its echo, as it were, could produce feelings and sensual experiences like those described by so many bereaved people — but not, surely, I would have to add, embody itself as an actual dragonfly landing on an actual book in the presence of witnesses.
It would, however, be equally wrong to assume that the occasional apparently inexplicable experience “proves” life after death. Such experiences are, as Rees’s book is titled, “pointers” rather than conclusive evidence. What they are “‘proof” of, in fact, is the remarkable durability of truly loving relationships.
That is one of the “pointers”, and not a minimal one. After all, in Christian belief the very Godhead is a relationship of love. The Holy Trinity is held together, we are told, by love (John 17.23).
POINTERS to Eternity elicited, among many responses, a debate about the difference between experiences and appearances. Could it be, for instance, that the biblical accounts of the appearances of Jesus to his followers after his crucifixion were, in fact, experiences of the kind that the book describes?
After all, the title of Rees’s original paper for the British Medical Association was Hallucinations of Widowhood, though later he very deliberately rejected the word “hallucination” as a description of the experiences that he recorded.
Nevertheless, human history is replete with examples of hallucinations — visionary experiences that are intensely real to those who see them, but generally unconvincing for everyone else. Most ghost stories seem to fall into that category. Could it be that the first disciples, in the aftermath of the hideous events of the crucifixion, and full of profound affection for the Leader whom they had lost, may have experienced what one could call hallucinations?
This was the subject of a 1976 article, “The Resurrection and Bereavement Experiences”, by the Roman Catholic biblical scholar Fr Gerald O’Collins SJ in the Irish Theological Quarterly (vol. 76, no. 3, pp. 224-237). He was concerned that Rees’s research might lead people to suppose that the appearances of Jesus recorded in the Gospels after his death might be no more than similar experiences born of intense personal loss.
He and Rees exchanged papers, and both came to the conclusion that the biblical appearances were of a different category from the recorded experiences of the bereaved.
This is our first edited extract from Heaven’s Morning: Rethinking the destination by David Winter (BRF, £7.99; CT Bookshop). Another follows next week.