On the CNN website today there’s an article about people who experience communication with a loved one after they’ve died. The article describes these communications as “crisis apparitions.” Here’s the link if you’re interested in reading about this: http://www.cnn.com/2011/09/23/living/crisis-apparitions/index.html?
In May of 1995 I had this experience. I had been visiting Jack, a patient of Delaware Hospice in his final days (dying from brain cancer), since early February of that year. We visited weekly and had grown close. Our primary topic of conversation was the Vietnam War, during which Jack had flown on “Huey” helicopters as a medical specialist. He had seen a lot of brutal combat, and had witnessed the suffering and death of many soldiers who were picked up in the midst of battle and med-evac’ed out. He had strong and painful memories, which he needed to narrate and process. We formed a strong team.
The night he died I was preparing to go visit when I heard a sighing sound as I walked out of the closet with my shoes. I turned around to see my favorite tie drop from the tie rack, and the thought “Jack’s dead” flashed loudly through my mind. It was like a voice, in a way. I drove to his house immediately and found the hospice nurse doing her death pronouncement; his time of death coincided exactly with the time that I had the crisis apparition. Later one of the hospice social workers told me that this was a common experience for hospice workers and volunteers who formed close relationships with the patients. For me it was a comfort and a kindness. I felt that Jack was OK and was flattered that he took the time to say goodbye to me.
The CNN article offers a variety of suggestions as explanations for this phenomenon. I offer one: deep empathy. When you really get to know someone, you experience very strongly how they’re thinking and feeling. Strong empathy is uncanny; how many times have you had a good laugh with a best friend or loved one when you started to say the same thing at the same time and it had an “out of the blue” quality to it? Neuroscience is demonstrating how similar brain activity becomes in two people with an empathic bond. Quantum physics has postulated and shown for decades that reality has a “non-local” quality to it. Perhaps when we’ve grown so close that our brains begin to mirror one another we remain “local” to those people we connect with most deeply. Perhaps the energy that drives a mind can have one last biological phenomenon with those people it is most in tune with.
Sometimes I think that I might have had a hallucination so many years ago, but mostly I accept the reality of that experience. And I believe strongly it was about empathy. Empathy is what makes us most human, and the animals we love best have it, as well. Our mindfulness practice ultimately is about empathy. The capacity to notice our own experience, without judgment. The capacity to notice the experience of another, without judgment. The ability to name our experience, and respond to it with skill. The ability to name the experience of another, and respond to it with skill. With empathy comes compassion, and with compassion comes wisdom. When two are gathered in a mindset of deep compassion and shared wisdom, perhaps the bond that is created persists, even beyond death.