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Twenty-First-Century American Ghosts: The After-Death Communication—Therapy and Revelation from beyond the Grave

  • Susan Kwilecki


This paper examines a recent arrival on the American pop cultural scene, a type of ghost encounter called After-Death Communications (ADCs). Delivered in dreams, visions, voices, odors, coincidences, etc., these cheerful greetings from deceased loved ones help bereaved survivors cope with their loss. Since the Enlightenment, spirits of the dead have become increasingly irrelevant to collective life. The new phantoms, however, are assigned roles in the family, health, and faith. How has this occurred? Strands of a complicated process are delineated, including medical origins in the bereavement hallucination, a designated symptom of grief. Cultural dynamics behind the current ADC phenomenon are contrasted with national trends that shaped the nineteenth-century spiritualist enthusiasm for ghosts. The literature, published since the 1990s, is reviewed in which the ADC has been formalized as a source of bereavement therapy and revelation. A tally of the peculiar features and functions of this twenty-first-century ghost experience links it to two American industries, psychotherapy and spiritual seeking.



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1. In pertinent literature, authors have used various labels for this type of ghost experience: “Afterlife Encounters” (Dianne Arcangel, Afterlife Encounters: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Experiences [Charlottesville, Va.: Hampton Roads, 2005]); “after-life gifts” (Sinclair Browning, Feathers Brush My Heart: True Stories of Mothers Connecting with their Daughters after Death [New York: Warner Books, 2002], xxiii); “postdeath communication” (Woods, Kay Witmer, Visions of the Bereaved: Hallucination or Reality? [Pittsburgh: Sterling House, 1998], 1); and “Extraordinary Encounters” ( LaGrand, Louis, Love Lives On: Learning from Extraordinary Encounters of the Bereaved [New York: Penguin Group, 2006]). However, the most common formal designation is “After-Death Communication,” coined by Bill and Judy Guggenheim in their preeminent study of the phenomenon (Bill Guggenheim and Guggenheim, Judy, Hello from Heaven! A New Field of Research—After-Death Communication—Confirms that Life and Love Are Eternal [New York: Bantam Books, 1996]). I will follow this usage.

2. Finucane, R. C., Ghosts: Appearances of the Dead and Cultural Transformation (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1996), 223 ; on the medieval period, see 49–89.

3. Greeley, Andrew, “Mysticism Goes Mainstream,” American Health 6 (January/February 1987): 47 ; “Traditional and Non-traditional Beliefs Exist Side-by-Side in United States,” Emerging Trends 23, no. 7 (September 2001): 3; “Growing Number Believe in Ghosts, Witches,” Emerging Trends 22, no. 10 (December 2000): 2; HumphreyTaylor, “The Religious and Other Beliefs of Americans 2003,” available online at, accessed July 24, 2007; Scheitle, Christopher, “Bringing Out the Dead: Gender and Historical Cycles of Spiritualism,” Omega 50, no. 3 (2004–2005): 237 .

4. By “postmodern” I mean originating in a cultural environment of extreme ideological pluralism, in which individuals are not merely free but “required,” as Walter Anderson puts it, “to make choices about [their] realities” (Anderson, Walter, Reality Isn't What It Used to Be: Theatrical Politics, Ready-to-Wear Religion, Global Myths, Primitive Chic, and Other Wonders of the Postmodern World [San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1990], 7). In traditional societies, the existence of ghosts was given within a dominant, broadly reinforced world view. In modern cultures, those who believe in ghosts must defy or negotiate with science as the arbiter of reality. In a postmodern setting, individuals approach ghost beliefs as one among many ideological options which, self-consciously and for personal reasons, they select, edit, reject, or revise. In depicting the nineteenth- and late-twentieth century religious background of ADCs, I return to this theme.

5. Some ADC writers tout ghost encounters reported by famous persons, such as C. S. Lewis, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, Winston Churchill, Carl Jung, Charles Dickens, and Otis Williams (founder of the Temptations). Thus, the reader is assailed with what may be America's favorite argument for legitimacy: celebrity endorsement. One ADC Web site ( presents quotes from Dr. Phil, Paul McCartney, and Michael Landon's daughter attesting to belief in or actual contact with the dead. See also the Hollywood testimonies from Shirley MacLaine, Cher, Jane Seymour, Beau Bridges, etc., in Greer, Jane, The Afterlife Connection: A Therapist Reveals How to Communicate with Departed Loved Ones (New York: St. Martin’s, 2003), 5057 .

6. Amanda Onion, “Seeking Meaning Beyond: Can People Send Signals after They Die? Psychologist Claims Science Has the Answer,” June 18, 2002, http://wysiwyg://1/, accessed August 25, 2003.

7. Carter-Scott, Cherie, “Presence from Mom,” in Hot Chocolate for the Mystical Soul: 101 True Stories of Angels, Miracles, and Healings, ed. Ford, Arielle (New York: Plume, 1998), 295 , 296.

8. LaGrand, Louis, Messages and Miracles: Extraordinary Experiences of the Bereaved (St. Paul, Minn.: Llewellyn Publications, 1999), 151 .

9. Ibid., 152, 153–54.

10. Duminiak, Christine, God's Gift of Love: After-Death Communications (Xlibris, 2003), 131–33.

11. Martin, Joel and Romanowski, Patricia, Love beyond Life: The Healing Power of After-Death Communications (New York: Dell Books, 1997), 187, 188.

12. Botkin, Allan, with Craig Hogan, R., Induced After-Death Communication: A New Therapy for Healing Grief and Trauma (Charlottesville, Va.: Hampton Roads, 2005), 4041 . In regard to EMDR, it is a technique used to treat Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The therapist moves his or her hand left and right before the patient's eyes while the latter follows the movement and thinks of the traumatic event. According to practitioners, the technique alters the brain process of remembering so that the troublesome memory may be more fully recovered and its intrusive recurrence stopped (see ibid., 3–10).

13. Aries, Phillippe, The Hour of Our Death, tr. Weaver, Helen (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), 409556, 609–11; Douglas, Ann, “Heaven our Home: Consolation Literature in the Northern United States, 1830–1880,” in Death in America, ed. Stannard, David (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1975), 55 .

14. Guggenheim and Guggenheim, Hello from Heaven!

15. See Laurence Moore, R., In Search of White Crows: Spiritualism, Parapsychology, and American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), and Finucane, , Ghosts, 172216 .

16. See, for example, Rosenblatt, Paul, Bitter, Bitter Tears: Nineteenth Century Diarists and Twentieth Century Grief Theories (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), 128–32, for the case of nineteenth-century Canadian diarist Marcus Gunn, whose wife, in the absence of a spiritualist medium, began to facilitate “delightful and long communication[s]” with the couple's dead sons.

17. See Moore, , In Search of White Crows, and Finucane, Ghosts, 172216 .

18. Moore, , In Search of White Crows, 61 ; Fuller, Robert, Spiritual, but not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 8 (on Fuller's location of spiritualism outside the Christian mainstream, see 38–43).

19. See Wuthnow, Robert, After Heaven: Spirituality in America since the 1950s (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), and Fuller, Spiritual, but not Religious .

20. Roof, Wade Clark, Spiritual Marketplace: Baby Boomers and the Remaking of American Religion (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999), 12 .

21. This is the postmodern scenario. Reflecting popular usage, I will refer to the nonecclesiastical, eclectic approach to faith, wherein the individual is the arbiter of truth, as “spirituality” and the traditional reliance on the authority of a religious institution as “religion” (following Fuller, Spiritual, but not Religious, 2–7).

22. See Walter, Tony, The Revival of Death (London: Routledge, 1994), and Walter, Tony, The Eclipse of Eternity: A Sociology of the Afterlife (New York: St. Martin’s, 1996).

23. See Cimino, Richard and Lattin, Don, Shopping for Faith: American Religion in the New Millennium (San Francisco: Jossey–Bass, 1998); Roof, , Spiritual Marketplace, 3738 ; and Fuller, , Spiritual, but not Religious, 153–74.

24. See Cimino, and Lattin, , Shopping for Faith, 1820 , and Wuthnow, , After Heaven, 114–41.

25. See Fuller, , Spiritual, but not Religious, 3044, 101–51.

26. See Roof, , Spiritual Marketplace, 3941 .

27. Ward, Steven, Modernizing the Mind: Psychological Knowledge and the Remaking of Society (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2002), 189 .

28. See Conrad, Peter, The Medicalization of Society: On the Transformation of Human Conditions into Treatable Disorders (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007), 38, 34–40.

29. See Walter, The Eclipse of Eternity .

30. See Aries, , The Hour of Our Death, 557614 .

31. See Walter, , The Revival of Death, 1213 , and Bregman, Lucy, Death and Dying, Spirituality and Religions: A Study of the Death Awareness Movement (New York: Peter Lang, 2003), 13

32. See Rando, Therese, Treatment of Complicated Mourning (Champaign, Ill.: Research Press, 1993), 79 .

33. Freud, Sigmund, “Mourning and Melancholia,” in On Murder, Mourning and Melancholia, tr. Whiteside, Shaun (1917; repr., New York: Penguin, 2005), 204 .

34. Yamamoto, Joe, Okonogi, Keigo, Iwasaki, Tetsuya, and Yoshimura, Saburo, “Mourning in Japan,” American Journal of Psychiatry 125, no. 2 (1969): 1660–65.

35. Dewi Rees, W., “The Hallucinations of Widowhood,” British Medical Journal 4 (1971): 41 ; Dewi Rees, W., Death and Bereavement: The Psychological, Religious and Cultural Interfaces (London: Whurr Publishers, 1997), 198 .

36. Kalish, Richard and Reynolds, David, “Widows View Death: A Brief Research Note,” Omega 5 (1974): 191 ; Rosenblatt, Paul R., Walsh, Patricia, and Jackson, Douglas, Grief and Mourning in Cross-Cultural Perspective (New Haven, Conn.: Human Relations Area Files Press, 1976), 5758, 53.

37. Burton, Julian, “Contact with the Dead: A Common Experience?Fate 35, no. 4, issue 385 (April 1982): 6573 .

38. For example, see Guggenheim, and Guggenheim, , Hello from Heaven! 16 .

39. For example, see Daggett, Luann, “Continued Encounters: The Experience of After-Death Communication,” Journal of Holistic Nursing 23, no. 2 (2005): 191207 .

40. Morse, Melvin M.D., with Perry, Paul, Parting Visions: Uses and Meanings of Pre-death, Psychic, and Spiritual Experiences (New York: Villard Books, 1994); Anderson, George and Barone, Andrew, Lessons from the Light: Extraordinary Messages of Comfort and Hope from the Other Side (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1999), 1820 ; Wills-Brandon, Carla, A Glimpse of Heaven: The Remarkable World of Spiritually Transformative Experiences (Avon, Mass.: Adams Media, 2004), 7593 .

41. Guggenheim, and Guggenheim, , Hello from Heaven! 322 .

42. Ibid., 13.

43. Devers, Edie, After-Death Communications: Experiences with Departed Loved Ones (London: Robert Hale, 1997), 16 .

44. LaGrand, Louis, After Death Communication: Final Farewells (St. Paul, Minn.: Llewellyn Publications, 1997); LaGrand, Messages and Miracles; LaGrand, Louis, Gifts from the Unknown: Using Extraordinary Experiences to Cope with Loss and Change (San Jose, Calif.: Authors Choice Press, 2001); and LaGrand, Love Lives On .

45. Moody, Raymond M.D., with Perry, Paul, Reunions: Visionary Encounters with Departed Loved Ones (New York: Ivy Books, 1993), xvii, 81, 22.

46. Botkin, , Induced After-Death Communication, xixiii .

47. On the emotional exchange and results, see ibid., 3–19, 47–52; on the percentage of clients having an ADC, see ibid., 53–54, 129–30.

48. Greer, , The Afterlife Connection, 811, 23.

49. Martin, and Romanowski, , Love beyond Life, xvxxii .

50. Duminiak, , God's Gift of Love, 1323 .

51. Rosenblatt, , Walsh, , and Jackson, , Grief and Mourning in Cross- Cultural Perspective, 5355 , explain ghost perceptions from a behaviorist perspective. Sensing, seeing, or hearing the dead, survivors are enacting established responses to environmental cues that previously signaled the presence of the deceased. For example, at 5:00 P.M., when the decedent used to arrive home, the widow still hears him open the door.

52. Guggenheim, and Guggenheim, , Hello from Heaven! 226 ; LaGrand, , After Death Communication, 103 .

53. Duminiak, , God's Gift of Love, 185–86; Guggenheim, and Guggenheim, , Hello from Heaven! 38 .

54. Devers, , After-Death Communications, 15, 26.

55. Guggenheim, and Guggenheim, , Hello from Heaven! 269 ; Greer, , The Afterlife Connection, 100101 ; Guggenheim, and Guggenheim, , Hello from Heaven! 185 ; Browning, , Feathers Brush My Heart; Hobe, Phyllis, ed., Until We Meet Again: Stories of Everlasting Love (Carmel, N.Y.: Guideposts, 2003).

56. Duminiak, , God's Gift of Love, 222 .

57. Greer, , The Afterlife Connection, 35 .

58. Hobe, , Until We Meet Again, 109114 .

59. Duminiak, , God's Gift of Love, 226 .

60. See Guggenheim, and Guggenheim, , Hello from Heaven! 375–78; Martin, and Romanowski, , Love beyond Life, 245–66; and Greer, , The Afterlife Connection, 107–42.

61. See Guggenheim, and Guggenheim, , Hello from Heaven! 191 , and Woods, , Visions of the Bereaved, 113 .

62. Duminiak, , God's Gift of Love, 225 .

63. Guggenheim, and Guggenheim, , Hello from Heaven! 134 .

64. Finucane, , Ghosts, 81 ; Guggenheim, and Guggenheim, , Hello from Heaven! 8283, 99.

65. Browning, , Feathers Brush My Heart; xix ; Guggenheim, and Guggenheim, , Hello from Heaven! 94 .

66. Encounters with sad spirits should not be confused with socalled fearful or negative ADCs. The latter are characterized by a percipient reaction of panic, terror, or renewed grief (see Guggenheim, and Guggenheim, , Hello from Heaven! 229–42, and LaGrand, , Messages and Miracles, 154–57). Not everyone, it turns out, likes seeing a dead person, even a loved one, at the foot of the bed. According to ADC promoters, the negative reaction reflects percipient shortcomings—ignorance of ADCs, naïve acceptance of Hollywood portrayals of the dead, or a perverse determination to be sad rather than comforted.

67. Guggenheim, and Guggenheim, , Hello from Heaven! 235, 241.

68. See ibid., 175, and Woods, , Visions of the Bereaved, 112–13. Like spirits in crisis, souls with chronic emotional problems also receive therapy. For example, Martin and Romanowski, Love beyond Life, 211–12, report a visitation from an unhappy dead man who, in life, tended to blame his troubles on others. The percipient, his daughter, felt that, in the next life, her father was finally “working through” unresolved psychological problems and recognizing his own part in them. Psychic John Edward reveals that, when spirits cross over, their first business is to “understand why they made the choices they did, see how their actions affected others, and realize what they still need to work on while on the Other Side.” “If you have a difficult relationship with a parent, child, or someone who has crossed over,” he reassures the living, “please know that you still have a chance to work on that relationship after they’re gone.” John Edward, “‘Dad, Can you Hear Me?’” 2003, available online at, accessed January 25, 2005.

69. Guggenheim, and Guggenheim, , Hello from Heaven! 83 .

70. Ibid., 260.

71. Duminiak, , God's Gift of Love, 223 .

72. Martin, and Romanowski, , Love beyond Life, 193207 , quote on 201; Botkin, , Induced After-Death Communication, 114–18, 122–28, on Tucker in particular, see 124–26;.

73. Guggenheim, and Guggenheim, , Hello from Heaven! 355–56. Frazer, James, The Fear of the Dead in Primitive Religion (1933; repr., New York: Biblo and Tannen, 1966), 33 ; Finucane, , Ghosts, 2233 , 98–100, 126–28, 137–38, reference to the trivial offense at 137.

74. On European spirits making amends, see Finucane, , Ghosts, 5968 ; for the dead medieval father and the seventeenth-century spirit, see, respectively, ibid., 83 and 134; quote at the end of the paragraph comes from Guggenheim, and Guggenheim, , Hello from Heaven! 135 .

75. LaGrand, , After Death Communication, 171–89; LaGrand, Gifts from the Unknown ; LaGrand, Love Lives On ; Botkin, Induced After-Death Communication .

76. See William Worden, J., Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy: A Handbook for the Mental Health Practitioner, 2d ed. (New York: Springer, 1991), 1618 ; Rando, , Treatment of Complicated Mourning, 48 ; Silverman, Phyllis and Klass, Dennis, “Introduction: What's the Problem?” in Continuing Bonds: New Understandings of Grief, ed. Klass, Denis, Silverman, Phyllis, and Nickman, Steven (Washington, D.C.: Taylor and Francis, 1996), 327 ; Klass, Dennis, The Spiritual Lives of Bereaved Parents (Philadelphia: Brunner/Mazel, 1999); and Botkin, , Induced After-Death Communication, 2634 .

77. Klass, Dennis, “Grief, Religion, and Spirituality,” in Death and Religion in a Changing World, ed. Garces-Foley, Kathleen (Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 2006), 287 ; for Klass's argument on the best way to continue a relationship with the deceased, see Klass, The Spiritual Lives of Bereaved Parents.

78. See Shuchter, Stephen, Dimensions of Grief: Adjusting to the Death of a Spouse (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1986), 78 , 116–64; Rando, , Treatment of Complicated Mourning, 5358 ; and Silverman, Phyllis and Nickman, Steven, “Children's Construction of their Dead Parents,” in Continuing Bonds, ed. Klass, , Silverman, , and Nickman, , 7386 .

79. LaGrand, , Messages and Miracles, 239 .

80. See Rando, , Treatment of Complicated Mourning, 453–88, 503–16; Worden, , Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy, 6580 ; and Shuchter, , Dimensions of Grief, 2427, 34–41.

81. Rando, , Treatment of Complicated Mourning, 6669 , and Shuchter, , Dimensions of Grief, 146–51.

82. Klass, , The Spiritual Lives of Bereaved Parents, 8993 . The recognition of ADCs in Mothers Against Drunk Driving and Parents of Murdered Children originates with the founders’ experiences. Candy Lightner had a vision of the daughter killed by a drunk driver ( Lightner, Candy and Hathaway, Nancy, Giving Sorrow Words: How to Cope with Grief and Get On with Your Life [New York: Warner Books, 1990], 4); Phyllis Hotchkiss received numerous communications from her murdered son, Brian (Duminiak, , God's Gift of Love, 127–30).

83. Patrick McGee, “UNT Professor, Students Believe Contact with the Dead Can Aid Healing,” Fort Worth Star-Telegram, March 13, 2006, B1, available online at, accessed May 17, 2006.

84. While the Guggenheims relentlessly argue for the reality of the ghosts ( Guggenheim, and Guggenheim, , Hello from Heaven! 243–58, 275–90, 323–40), and other ADC writers clearly assume it, two authors, both therapists, stop short of explicit endorsement. LaGrand attributes ADCs to “a Loving Intelligence” ( LaGrand, , Messages and Miracles, 96 ), leaving the existence of the ghosts per se unconfirmed. Still, in his most recent book, he presents stories that, he notes, would require “a real stretch” to dismiss as hallucinations (LaGrand, Love Lives On, 43). Similarly ambivalent, Botkin deftly evades taking a stance on the origins of ADCs ( Botkin, , Induced After-Death Communication, 161, 167–69) but devotes three chapters to IADCs that cannot be explained as mere hallucinations (ibid., 71–91). The distinctly postmodern nature of the ADC is reflected in the fact that writers vary in their commitment to “proof.” They stand united not on the ontological status of the ghosts but on the therapeutic effects of encountering one. Thus, Arcangel instructs readers: “Regardless whether [the spirits] are, or are not, from the hereafter … recognize and appreciate them for what they have been proved to be—growth promoting” ( Arcangel, , Afterlife Encounters, xiii). Likewise, Linda Pendleton observes of ADCs: “It is our experience, our perception, our reality. So we can choose to call it what we want—imagination or reality” ( Pendleton, Linda, A Walk through Grief: Crossing the Bridge between Worlds [New York: Writers Club Press, 2003], 49).

85. See Greeley, “Mysticism Goes Mainstream,” 48, and Wuthnow, , After Heaven, 230 .

86. Guggenheim and Guggenheim, Hello from Heaven! 19; Jody Long, “ADCRF research,” 2005, available online at, accessed May 13, 2006.

87. Koppleman, Kent, The Fall of a Sparrow: Of Death and Dreams and Healing (Amityville, N.Y.: Baywood, 1994); Schreiber, Le Anne, Midstream: The Story of a Mother's Death and a Daughter's Renewal (New York: Viking Penguin, 1990), 299309 , quote on 309.

88. Wuthnow, , After Heaven, 130–33.

89. On Emily, see Guggenheim, and Guggenheim, , Hello from Heaven! 349–50; Lewis, C. S., A Grief Observed (New York: Bantam, 1963); Bair, Alisa, A Table for Two: A Mother and her Young Daughter Face Death Together (Intercourse, Pa.: Good Books, 1998); Duminiak, God's Gift of Love.

90. Guggenheim and Guggenheim, Hello from Heaven! 374–88, quote on 380; Conan, Arthur Doyle, , The History of Spiritualism, vol. 2 (1926; repr., New York: Arno Press, 1975), 278–90; Kübler-Ross, Elisabeth, On Life after Death (Berkeley, Calif.: Celestial Arts, 1991), 920 ; Walter, Tony, “Death in the New Age,” Religion 23 (1993): 127–45.

91. On other-worldly moorings, see Guggenheim, and Guggenheim, , Hello from Heaven! 374–88; quotes from 386, 383, 273, and 279, respectively.

92. Wright, Sylvia, When Spirits Come Calling: The Open-Minded Skeptic's Guide to After-Death Contacts (Nevada City, Calif.: Blue Dolphin, 2002), 223, 216; on features that also appear in the Guggenheims portrayal, 211–23.

93. Pendleton, , A Walk through Grief, xiv ; Puryear, Anne, Stephen Lives! My Son Stephen: His Life, Suicide, and Afterlife (New York: Pocket Books, 1992).

94. Collier, Judy, Quit Kissing My Ashes: A Mother's Journey through Grief (Baton Rouge, La.: Forty-Two Publishing, 2002).

95. Blauner, Robert, “Death and Social Structure,” Psychiatry 29, no. 4 (1966): 381–83; Finucane, , Ghosts, 222–23.

Twenty-First-Century American Ghosts: The After-Death Communication—Therapy and Revelation from beyond the Grave

  • Susan Kwilecki


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