Why Do We See Dead People?


Humans have always sensed the ghosts of loved ones. It's only in the last century that we convinced ourselves this was a problem


In the late spring of 2015, my brother-in-law paid a visit to my sister’s grave, in a lush meadow cemetery amid the Gatineau Hills of southern Quebec. My sister had been dead, at this point, for seven years, and the couple had been separated for twelve. Doug sat in the grass among planted geraniums for half an hour or so, musing about the rise and fall of their marriage. He told Katharine, or her grave, that he was sorry for the part he had played in the dissolution. Then, plucking up and tossing a handful of grass, desultory, he began his two-and-a-half-hour motorcycle journey back to Montreal.

“The landscape is open there, with a big wide sky, but it was overcast and had started to rain—just barely, but it made me a bit nervous,” Doug later told me. Even fit riders in their fifties experience the occasional lapse in confidence. “It wasn’t until I was maybe halfway home that I felt her presence.”

“The sense wasn’t physical at first,” he went on, “just this really nice, strong awareness of her. And then I had the distinct sensation of her arms around me and her leaning in close against my back. It was tactile and fantastic. I felt warm. I was completely calm and happy, smiling from ear to ear. That hardly ever happens to me.” His nervousness about the rain ebbed, and it occurred to him that Katharine was there to keep him safe on behalf of their two sons. She—her presence, her spirit—rode behind him for twenty minutes or so. “What I know is that it did not feel at all like a product of my imagination,” he said. “It felt external to me. It felt real.”

He wasn’t prepared to name what the experience pointed to: that he had been visited by my sister’s ghost. Like other secular North Americans, he is aware that we must uphold a certain paradigm and say “this cannot be.” After all, Doug considers himself a rationalist: the son of an engineer, himself an amateur astronomer. Nevertheless, the sensed presence mattered deeply to him. “It was,” he said, “a remarkable, indelible experience.”

Sigmund Freud was the first to articulate the concept of “wishful psychosis” in grief, a notion of temporary madness featuring willfully conjured visions of the dead. A person who’s lost someone might see the face of their beloved, hear their voice, notice the smell of their pipe or perfume, or simply be struck by a feeling of their presence. Such ghostly apparitions were diagnosed as fanciful yearnings by Freud—warning signs of some lingering dependency. In his 1917 essay “Mourning and Melancholia,” he urged his patients toward recovery by severing bonds with the dead: move on and let go, lest sorrow bedevil and sink you. For decades, this was one of the counselling profession’s central models for grief recovery: a sort of tacit agreement played out between therapist and patient that what the latter sensed, no matter how comforting it may be or how real it may seem, dwelled in their head and would best be forgotten. When the physician W. Dewi Rees uncovered the prevalence rate of these hallucinations in a 1972 study of Welsh widows and widowers—about 50 percent—he also found that three-quarters of them had never spoken of the experience before being asked in his survey. Unsurprisingly, these people didn’t wish to be pathologized. They also didn’t want to move on.

In 1970, English author Sylvia Townsend Warner, a frequent contributor of short stories to The New Yorker, had an unexpected visit from her dead lover, Valentine Ackland, lost the previous year to breast cancer. Roused one night at three, Warner found, as she later wrote in her diary, that Ackland had followed her to bed. “Not remembered,” she clarified, “not evoked, not a sense of presence. Actual.” In the dark quiet of their British cottage, this “actual” Ackland, solid yet ephemeral, engaged in a reuniting embrace. Then she was gone. “I held her again,” Warner noted with deep satisfaction. “It was. It is.”

Ought anyone to have argued with her? Death and its accompanying grief are often shrouded by awkward silences, but the unwavering prevalence of these apparitions, whether viewed as grief hallucinations or as ghosts, lays bare a metaphysical crisis at the heart of our common model of mourning: for there to be efficacy in recovery, these experiences must be respected as real. As counselling psychologist Edith Maria Steffen notes in her book, Continuing Bonds in Bereavement, there is a “controversial reality status” at play that can erode the trusting relationship between therapist and bereaved person if not handled with care and nuance. The same can be said for family and friends. The question is not whether these apparitions are real, it’s why the first impulse of many is to stifle these stories and dismiss the experiences as impossible.