Experiencing the presence of the deceased: Symptoms, spirits, or ordinary life?

  • Jacqueline Hayes

    Student thesis: Phd


    Experiences of presence are common in bereavement. The bereaved person may see the deceased, hear their familiar voice, or otherwise feel they are close at hand. But although common, they are experiences not without controversy. They have come under a variety of descriptions, from 'hallucinations', lacking in meaning and even essentially meaningless, to 'continuing relationships', of rich personal significance. The current thesis represents the first systematic investigation of the properties and meaning of experiences of presence. Narrative biographic interviews with bereaved informants were analysed using Ethnomethodology and Conversation Analysis. Analytical focus was on the ways in which participants made such experiences meaningful. As a novel approach, this thesis reports several new findings about these phenomena. Firstly, the experiences happened in a variety of bonds (including spouses, parents, grandparents, children, siblings and others), and in a variety of circumstances of the bereavement (including sudden and expected deaths). In all cases, they were described as richly meaningful experiences and as relying on several sources for this meaning. The personal histories of participants were of particular importance in making sense of experiences of presence. Within this context, the experience acquired sense as a continuation of some aspect of the relationship with the deceased. The experiences also had diverse functions, from soothing to destructive. Sometimes, the experiences helped the bereaved to resolve unfinished business with the deceased; at other times, the help was with a much more ordinary problem. On some occasions the experiences of presence caused the bereaved more problems; they simply pronounced the grief or continued a fraught relationship. Participants showed that they had many cultural resources available to them in making sense of their experiences but they did not use all of them. Many informants used some spiritual and psychological ideas to make sense of their experiences. The thesis concludes that many of the most popular theories for these experiences impoverish them by stripping them of their diversity and important aspects of their meaning. The thesis also makes recommendations for psychotherapy for those who have problems of living as a result of their experiences of presence. The study also has implications for psychological research as none of these findings could have been observed through the use of an experimental methodology.
    Date of Award1 Aug 2011
    Original languageEnglish
    Awarding Institution
    • The University of Manchester
    SupervisorIvan Leudar (Supervisor)


    • conversation analysis
    • thematic field
    • ethnomethodology
    • narrative biographic interviews
    • hallucination
    • bereavement
    • experiences of presence
    • visions
    • hearing voices

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