Talking to the dead isn’t as unusual as you might think

Whispers from beyond the grave: Why people who think they can talk to the dead AREN’T going out of their minds

  • There is a growing body of evidence to suggest it is not that unusual at all 
  • Maria-Louise Warne, 61 and from Devon, finds sightings of her mother a relief
  • In Wales, 13 per cent of widows and widowers have heard dead spouse’s voice
  • Have you experienced ‘continued presence’? Email [email protected] 

A ghostly figure lingering at the bedside; whispers from beyond the grave: For many people, this is the stuff of nightmares that might drive them to madness – if they didn’t think they were there already.

But not for Maria-Louise Warne.

On the contrary, the 61-year-old language teacher from Devon finds the sightings of her mother – who died 20 years ago – oddly comforting. In fact, the ‘advice’ of her late mother Irene has even proved useful for making some of life’s biggest decisions.

Maria-Louise says: ‘When I move house, I feel her pushing me forward on the small of my back at property viewings. It’s a sign I should make an offer.’

Demi Moore as Molly is visited by her late husband Sam (Patrick Swayze) in the film Ghost (both pictured)

It may sound like she has lost her mind. Yet there is a growing body of evidence that suggests the experiences she described are a perfectly normal, even a commonplace part of the grieving process.

A recent study of widows and widowers in Wales found that 13 per cent had heard their dead spouse’s voice, while 14 per cent had ‘seen’ them. Some had felt their touch and more than one in ten claimed to have spoken to their lost loved one. 

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More importantly, those who experience these phenomena report that they are coping with their grief far better than those who don’t.

Last year pop singer Celine Dion said she still senses the presence of her husband, Rene Angelil, who died of cancer in January 2016. The couple were married for 22 years and the Canadian singer explained that she still talks to him and can even hear him at times.

Last year pop singer Celine Dion (pictured) said she still senses the presence of her husband, Rene Angelil, who died of cancer in January 2016

And Sir Bruce Forsyth’s widow Lady Wilnelia, 60, admitted in an interview with The Mail on Sunday: ‘I talk to him all the time.’

This interacting with the dead – whether it’s experiencing visions, voices or tactile sensations such as taste and smell – has even been given a name by psychologists: experienced continued presence, or ECP.

Maria-Louise has no doubt her experiences are genuine.

‘I could smell her fragrance in every room of a bungalow I viewed once,’ she says. ‘Another time, I spotted her favourite flowers in a pot next to the front door and immediately sensed her around me. Each time, I felt she was giving me her seal of approval.’

She believes her mother’s appearances hark back to the promise she made in her final hours.

‘She said, “You’ll never be alone Maria, I’ll always be with you.” And I feel like she kept her word.’

While some might explain these things as proof of an afterlife, scientists have a more rational theory: all perception starts with the brain creating predictions of the world around us.

Once we have experienced something, the mind creates a ‘scheme’ of that event or interaction, so we know what to expect.

This prediction is then revised using real-world ‘feedback’ – sights, sounds, smells.

Perception is, say some experts, a sort of edited hallucination.

The brain becomes used to predicting those who are a consistent presence in our lives, and may continue to do so, even after they have gone.

Sir Bruce Forsyth’s widow Lady Wilnelia, 60, admitted in an interview with The Mail on Sunday: ‘I talk to him all the time’. Sir Bruce is pictured here

This is why, very often, people see or hear these ‘ghosts’ in places that are very familiar – a favourite armchair or seat at the dining table, or on their side of the bed at night.

‘The loss of a loved one who has been a near-constant presence in our life is often literally unimaginable,’ explains Dr Simon McCarthy Jones, Associate Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Trinity College Dublin, who has studied the ECP phenomenon.

A recent study into ECP by a team at the University of Roehampton, published in the Journal of Psychology & Psychotherapy, revealed that, typically, those who experience this phenomenon are spouses who have lost partners, those who have lost parents, and parents of deceased children.

Despite ECP being common, many people are reluctant to speak about their experiences. ‘The biggest fear if they talk about it to their friends is the risk that they will be judged and told they’re going mad,’ says psychotherapist Pablo Sabucedo, deputy investigator at Roehampton’s Centre for Research in Social and Psychological Transformation. ‘The other worry is that if they disclose this to their GP, then they might be put on medication or labelled as psychotic. 

‘But if you’re seeing your late husband in their favourite chair in the living room, there is no cause for panic. It’s not leaving you open to be diagnosed with schizophrenia or any other psychiatric disorder. It is part of the grieving process.

‘But we know there are people who are quite distressed as a result of ECP. They hear malevolent voices or have a sinister feeling of someone being present in the room with them. A lot of the time they are unsure about what to do,’ says Dr Sabucedo.

These people can benefit from therapy, he says, on top of bereavement counselling. The Roehampton researchers offer dedicated therapy for ECP at the university – and expect the majority of people to see an improvement after 12 sessions.

‘Our aims are to improve our patients’ wellbeing and to change the distressing, ambivalent or frightening relationship with these experiences,’ says Dr Sabucedo.

But for Maria-Louise, her mother’s continuing presence remains reassuring. She says: ‘At first I did worry that people would think I was going mad.

‘Yet the rational part of me recognises it is a coping mechanism for me. I live alone. It’s rather rural where I’m located. If Mum appears to me, and it’s not hurting anyone, then why should I worry?’

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