Jamie Foxx talks to his late grandmother. The most poignant (and reportedly the most TIVO'd) moment of this year's Academy Awards ceremony was when the Oscar winner expressed gratitude for his grandmother’s formative teachings and explained that even though she’s passed on, "she still talks to me now—only now she talks to me in my dreams." Before walking off the stage he told the audience of 42.1 million viewers that he couldn't wait to get to sleep that night because "we got a lot to talk about."
Many Beliefnet readers also seem to have a lot to say to their deceased loved ones. In a recent online Beliefnet survey, 10,000 people answered detailed questions about how they communicate, or do not communicate, with the dead. A striking 69% of respondents indicated that they have attempted to talk to the dead, and many believe they've succeeded in making contact.
Our survey asked our readers if they had ever consulted a medium or psychic (21% said yes), used a Ouija board (28%), or participated in a séance (14%). But the vast majority said they attempted to communicate with loved ones directly without resorting to outside help—through prayer and meditation (63%) and speaking to them aloud or in their minds (69%). A final question, "Have you ever felt as if a dead person was trying to communicate with you?" elicited more than 3,800 essay responses. The testimonials detail everything from the spirit of a dead cat appearing in a woman's lap to a deceased son giving his mother one last hug in a dream. Others used the essay space to submit a simple, emphatic "No"—often in all capital letters, with multiple exclamation points.
But the skeptics were greatly outnumbered. Clearly, most people in this survey audience indicated that they reach across a divide to dead loved ones as a matter of course. Their stories and experiences, whether you credit them or not, reveal a vast and varied landscape of beliefs that warrants a closer look.
What It Feels Like
What's it like to contact the dead? Here's how some of our users describe their experiences:
"It's like chills going up your spine. It's like someone's in the room with you and they're watching you, but you can't really see them."
"I feel a rush of cold air, something will brush against my neck."
"It's more like a voice in my head—when I ask for guidance from angels, guardians, and guides, I sometimes hear the answer in my head. Or I simply feel their presence and know they are working on my behalf."
"They appear before me like a hologram in my mind, meaning they aren't in the air space in front of me. Then we converse, like the living. No big deal."
"After losing my best friend to a sudden, accidental death, I dreamed of him. I saw him as clear as I did in life... that visit from him came to give me great peace and comfort."
"My brother who was killed in a car accident often visited me by sitting in the passenger seat of my truck for several years after. Sometimes he would just be there, other times he would send comforting 'hugs' in my head."
What the Dead Have to Say
Jamie Foxx notwithstanding, Hollywood tends to depict close encounters with the dead as very scary or at least somewhat creepy: witness the ghostly twin girls in "The Shining," visions of corpses in "Sixth Sense," and the girl in the well in "The Ring." But most of those responding to the Beliefnet survey seemed to consider contact with the dead a comforting part of their lives, and only 2.4% classified their experiences "negative."
Although presumably most people do not confer about how these things happen—receiving messages from the dead is rarely cocktail or water-cooler conversation—we found a surprising number of common themes. Many respondents believe passed loved ones were watching over or protecting them, assuring the living that they're O.K., or delivering a final message. One respondent writes of her son, who died when he was just three weeks old, "Suddenly I had this feeling that my baby son had entered the room and that he had come to say goodbye. It was a very real experience, leaving me tearful and shaky."
Although several people write about being visited by spirits they don't recognize, the overwhelming majority of people see visions of loved ones whom they are mourning. Carol Staudacher, a grief counselor and the author of "A Time To Grieve," believes these experiences can be very therapeutic. "The most important qualities of these visitations are that they most often offer sustenance to the survivor and provide a unique peace that cannot be achieved in any other context or with any other person.
The heartfelt essays of our readers offer compelling evidence that connecting with the dead can have a powerful impact on those dealing with a significant loss. For example, a mother coping with the suicide of her son writes about how the paramedics would not allow her to hug him before they took his body away: "About three or four months after he died, I met him in my dreams and told him I didn't think I was going to make it. That regret of not just doing it, instead of listening to someone else, was killing me. He replied 'I'm here now, Mom. Hug me now.' So I did and kissed him on the top of the head. I truly believe that experience helped me to continue on my healing journey."
John Edward, the psychic medium famous for his "Crossing Over" television show, told us that his clients, who go to him with the express purpose of contacting the dead, are seeking "answers about consciousness after death," and want to believe that "their loved ones are still a part of their lives." Indeed, many of our survey-takers cited messages along the lines of "I never left you, I'll always be with you."
Other deceased loved ones have advice for those they've left behind: "My mother came to me in a dream. All she did was point her finger at me and say, 'Quit smoking!'" Some respondents received messages particularly when they were going through a rough time in their lives, like one who wrote, "When I am troubled or stressed they communicate through dreams to point me in the right direction." One person said he hears voices in his head saying "Stop" or "Watch it" that have helped him avoid car accidents. And the ghost of one woman's mother-in-law continues to give her recipes from the afterlife.
However, not all messages from beyond the grave are helpful or comforting. One woman writes of recurring visits from people who died in a nightclub fire in her town. For weeks she would awaken to the smell of smoke and hear voices. "I am scared to let them talk or show themselves to me so I usually tell them to go away," she says. "They try to have me feel what it was like to burn to death alive. I have seen visions of this and it is terrifying."
Still other visitations offer glimpses of an afterlife. A deceased aunt has told her niece she is "with Jesus and he is handsome." Another voice from the spirit world describes death as "a freeing and amazing experience." A departed father has a more ambivalent message for his son: "Being dead takes some getting used to, but you'll like it."
Signs From Beyond the Grave
People who believe they communicate with the dead recount many different ways of contact, but we found many common experiences—ranging from feeling soft breezes in a windowless room to hearing clanging pots and pans coming out of nowhere. Among the most frequently cited phenomena involves a variety of smells: Dad's cigarette smoke, Mom's rose-scented perfume, even Grandma's Ben Gay wafting through a room long after any traces should have faded. Most people found these smells reassuring. As one respondent wrote, " I have been in my house and have been suddenly surrounded by the smell of my late mother's perfume as if to let me know she was near me and watching over me."
Some people find evidence of lost loved ones' presence in seemingly mundane incidents—finding coins on the street or in odd places, a grandfather's favorite bird perching on a windowsill, a butterfly alighting on their shoulder, or "lost" items appearing out of the blue. Certainly one person's coincidence is another's message from the beyond. On a visit to the grave of her best friend, one woman writes about her "check engine" light suddenly blinking, noting that it had never lit up before and that she has no problems with her car. She said, "I felt it was an acknowledgement that I was there and he knew."
By far, the most common point of contact is through dreams. Ninety-two percent of respondents indicate they have dreamed about dead people—and though we can't be sure how many think these visions were actual souls or spirits trying to communicate, many respondents did share stories of dream visits they believed were real.
Many people were visited in dreams by loved ones who wanted to say goodbye. One respondent nodded off in class before hearing the voice of her grandmother, who told her "She was sorry that I could not be with her, but she had to go now." When she woke up she was called to the principal's office—not for sleeping in class—but to receive the message that her grandmother had just died.
John Edward believes that dreams are the most accessible way for the dead to reach us, where "the mind becomes the playground of the soul." In other cases, the kitchen (or the bedroom, or the living room) becomes the playground for mischievous spirits that make themselves known via objects misplaced, toys playing by themselves, and electrical hijinks. A whopping 56% of respondents claim to have experienced paranormal activity. One wrote that after her mother died, "The TV and stereo would turn on during the night or early morning. Randomly. Even when unplugged." Another person thought he heard the garbled voice of his dead father in the house alarm box, and had the distinct feeling that it was "from the depths of somewhere."
The religious group most likely to talk to the dead was the Wiccans, while those who consider themselves "spiritual but not religious" came in a close second. Among Christians we found some of the most passionate responses—both for and vehemently against the whole idea of communicating with the dead. However, respondents of all faiths represented in the survey shared stories of supernatural encounters, and even among the atheists/agnostics, we found such testimonials.
There was no consensus among Christians about what to make of contact with the dead. While some seemed to consider communication with the dead "evil" or "a dangerous occult activity" (10.4%—higher than any other faith) and generally wouldn't touch a ghost with a 10-foot Ouija board, 50% classified their experiences as positive, and many indicated that they felt profound comfort in supernatural interaction, sometimes deeming the ability to communicate with the dead a "privilege" or a "gift from God."
Of those who dismissed the idea altogether, many alluded to scripture, and in particular, referred to 2 Corinthians 5:8: "The Bible says to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord," wrote one respondent. In other words, once you're dead, your spirit is with God and not roaming around the earth spooking (or comforting) your living relatives. Others believe that if loved ones do seem to appear, it's actually the devil in disguise: "Satan does use familiar spirits to make us think the dead 'speak' with us. But it is simply a way to try to move us away from our close relationship with God."
Many other Christians seemed to consider their encounters with the dead deeply spiritual experiences: "I have seen saints or passed-on loved ones in the spirit when I am praying. I feel this is a gift from God to encourage, exhort, or comfort through the Holy Spirit when I am missing them, or need assurance I am not alone. I know I always have Jesus, but it helps." Another person wrote that God sends angels to the living to "remind us of our dead loved ones."
After the death of her best friend, another Christian "asked for a sign" and then felt someone touch her in a dream: "It was as if the hand of God had touched me. It felt like pure love. I awoke and I could still feel the hand still patting my head. The feeling was of love and awe. Joy flooded my body and soul and removed some of the darkness of her death."
Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims
Most faiths had their skeptics, although the reasons for doubt differed. Overall, 12.8% believe "the dead cannot communicate with the living in any way," and 23.7% aren't sure if it's possible. In response to the essay question, "Have you ever felt as if a dead person was trying to communicate with you?" there were hundreds of answers saying "no" or "never" and some along the lines of "Don't be ridiculous" and "Only poor, deluded folks fall for it."
In a virtual tie for least likely to have "felt the presence of a dead person" were Muslims (38%) and those who consider themselves atheist or agnostic (37%)—compared to 68% of respondents overall. But even among these groups, people wrote in with detailed and often moving stories of contact with the dead.
One Muslim wrote of spirits or guardians who come to him to "give me strength when I am weak," and believes "These spirits were once humans whose occupations were Muslim sheikhs and healers." Another Muslim objected to the idea of communication altogether: "We should allow them to live in their world with calm and only pray for them."
Of those who checked off "atheist/agnostic" for faith, 46% believe "the dead cannot communicate in any way"—a number much higher than any other faith. But others indicated that they have felt the presence of the dead and 33% have used to a Ouija board to attempt to make contact. One writes of an apparition that appears to him during crises: "An angel type vision appears in my eyes when closed; she is near a waterfall and helps me think of a solution or way to get help."
Jewish respondents were more likely than those of any other faith to check "I don't know" in response to whether communication with the dead is possible (39%), Hindus were next at 31.3%, and then Buddhists (28.8%). Nevertheless, respondents from all three groups related stories of supernatural communication.
One Jewish respondent wrote that after death, "the soul returns to G-d and exists in another dimension not perceivable by flesh humanity." Another, who explained, "I am not a psychic. I am just a simple Jewish Rabbi," said that the dead appeared to him in dreams requesting he "help them transition to the afterlife more easily."
One Buddhist wrote of contact through dreams and "physical pushes" that often guided his direction. But another found the notion not worthy of attention: "Talking to the dead takes one's mind away from the true nature of human suffering."
A Hindu reader, whose religion incorporates the belief in reincarnation, believes the spirit of her daughter was reborn in her son. " I know she is reborn to me because my little son gives me the feeling always that he is her."
Wiccans in the survey seem to have the closest relationship with the dead. They are most likely to believe "The souls of the dead protect the living as angels or spirit guides" (62%), and 70% of them believe they have "spoken with the spirit of someone who has died"—compared with 25% of respondents overall.
Two wrote about incidents that occurred during Samhain (Oct. 31, a Wiccan holiday that focuses on honoring the dead). One woman, whose mother died when she was a child, said she saw her mother during a ritual, 31 years after her death. "I looked up and noticed that the Moon was shining brightly, and there was a beautiful double ring, or halo around it. I felt as if my mother was there holding me in her arms, and gently weeping for the lost relationship that we might have shared if she had lived."
"Spiritual But Not Religious"
Respondents who don't identify with any one particular faith and consider themselves "spiritual but not religious" comprised, after Christians, the largest group, making up 18.4% of respondents overall. They were more likely than the average respondent to have "seen a sign from one who has died" (73% compared with 57% of all survey-takers) and to have contacted a psychic or medium to contact the dead (37% compared with 21% overall). One wrote "It is as normal to me as talking to a living person," and another said "it's just a part of my life."
Their experiences were overwhelmingly positive. One writes, "I was asleep one night after my mother died and having a rough time. I woke up with a feeling like when someone brushes your hair back. I responded with 'Thank You Mom,' because somehow I knew it was her." Another "spiritual but not religious" person writes that her deceased brother often appears out of the corner of her eye in the passenger seat of her pickup truck. She considers his visits "a special treat."
Is contact with the dead something many people wish for? Our survey said yes--and revealed a certain wistfulness among those who hadn't succeeded. One user, in response to whether she'd ever communicated with a dead person, wrote, "Never. I wish."
Perhaps she is setting the bar too high. Of those who believe the dead have contacted them not all think the experience has to come in the form of visitations or poltergeist-type activity. Others believe that there is a more subtle connection that the living can tap into—if they are open to it. One respondent writes: "I believe the communication between the living and the dead may be as simple as hearing your answer in the words of the next song you hear, words on a billboard, in a newspaper, or the utterances of a stranger on the street. We only need to listen and look for the answers and not expect to hear the exact 'voice' of a person who has passed on."