Talking to a loved one who has died

4 min read

What to know about communicating with the dead

  • Talking to your loved one after their death is a common experience, and many people feel that the connection goes both ways.

  • Grief experts say these conversations can be a healthy coping tool and a source of comfort.

  • The desire to communicate with the dead is deeply human; cultures throughout history have practiced it in different ways.

  • In grief, we see the world a little differently. Try to be patient with what you’re observing and not to control it.

  • Remember that this is your own experience with your loved one—beware of anyone promising to intercede for a price.

When someone close to you dies, one of the most painful things is the idea that you’ll never speak with them again. You’ll never share another inside joke. You’ll never again have a late-night heart-to-heart, or get to ask them for advice.

If you feel like you still want to continue the conversation with them, you’re not alone. It may take your mind a while to catch up to the painful finality of death, and it is not unusual to continue feeling their presence. It may thus feel natural to talk to your loved one when you visit their gravesite, or when you see something that reminds you of them.

If you shared a home with them, such reminders may be constant. It makes sense that you’d have the urge to speak to them throughout the day, if you’ve been spending your lives together for years.

You may get some raised eyebrows if you tell others about conversations you’re having with your loved one, but experts say it is a normal desire, and a healthy way to cope with loss.

Of course, trying to reach beyond death also has a storied history, spanning from the earliest religions and occult beliefs to more recent technologies. In the 19th century, Thomas Edison tried (and failed) to invent a “spirit phone” to speak to the dead. The desire to connect beyond the grave remains so strong that today developers are creating artificial intelligence programs to simulate a loved one who died.

This might have seemed “out there” to you before you experienced deep loss, but remember that when we are in grief, we are in a different state of mind. Especially if these experiences are comforting, feeling like you are communicating with a loved one who has died can be a healthy and even healing part of grief.

The spiritual perspective

The desire to communicate with the dead is deeply human—and it is often interpreted through the lens of religion, spiritualism, or the occult.

If you feel that you are communicating with your loved one or feeling their presence, this does not mean that any one religion or philosophy is more or less valid than any other. If a practice or belief appeals to you and gives you strength, that is a good thing.

Cultures across history have had different ways of communicating with the dead. Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) in Mexico, where families create altars to connect with their dead relatives is likely the most well-known modern example.

Other celebrations to honor and commune with the dead include the 500-year-old Bon Festival in Japan, the Hungry Ghost Festival in China, and Pchum Ben in Cambodia.

Less formally, many people in Western cultures and religions believe that their loved ones become angels or other spiritual beings after they die, and are looking down on them from heaven, protecting them, or even giving them subtle guidance, and these believers may pray or speak to these people on a regular basis

What it may feel like

Besides having the desire to talk to your loved one, it is common for people in grief to report hearing messages back.

This can mean anything from hearing their voice to sensing their presence—perhaps even feeling physically embraced by them. Known as bereavement hallucinations, a 2015 study found that between 30% and 60% of elderly widowed people have physically felt the presence of their dead spouse.

In our grief-altered state of mind, patterns can also jump out at us. Spotting your loved one’s car everywhere you go or seeing the same number over and over again, for example, is something many people experience.

Spotting your loved one’s car everywhere you go or seeing the same number over and over again, for example, is something many people experience.

These kinds of experiences are often attributed to the Baader Meinhof effect, a scientific theory about how the brain processes new information. When your awareness of something increases, you start to see it everywhere—because that is how your brain integrates new information. Under this theory, the intense focus on your loved one could lead you to hear and see them.

But whether it is the mechanisms of your mind at play, or a more mystical explanation, getting specific answers is really not the point. Know that it is nothing to fear and nothing you have to solve—if you are communing with your loved one in some way, enjoy it for the intimate experience that it is.

When problems come up

While the desire to speak to the dead is a natural and common part of grieving, these experiences can also be upsetting.

You may be a part of a religion or culture that believes there’s something inherently evil or spooky about imagining you’re talking to the dead. You may be hearing messages that you don’t like. Or you may feel compelled to understand what you’re seeing and hearing.

Remember to take a breath, slow down, and be kind to yourself now. Share your experiences with people who love you and are there for you.

Before you ask someone else to tell you what it all means, remember that unscrupulous people have always stepped in to offer answers, absolution, and more to grief-stricken people—for a price.

Avoid anyone who would seek to profit off of your pain.

Unscrupulous people have always stepped in to offer answers, absolution, and more to grief-stricken people—for a price.

As in every other part of the grief process, we are not in control and there is no right way to proceed. Be wary of anyone who promises to give you more control, offering quick answers or promising to contact your loved ones on demand.

It’s really more important what you think about any messages you feel are being sent your way. This is about your connection with your loved one, so who better to interpret them?

Continuing the conversation is a way to feel supported as your mind and heart deal with the reality of your loved one’s death, and the traumatic change as you begin a life without them.

If you can find a sense of comfort in this closeness, and the feeling that the connection between you will never really die, that can be a powerful tool for coping with deep grief ●