Last weekend I spent a delightful twenty-four hours with a group of Christian parapsychologists. Yes, those belonging to the Churches’ Fellowship for Psychical and Spiritual Studies are more than open to the weird and wonderful, and even the downright scary and unexplainable.
Thank goodness for that, because every few years they hold a conference to share their experiences with each other, and to add to the paranormal research that is happening in the UK, and in fact, all over the world. I was there because I had been invited to give a paper on The D-Word:Talking about Dying – but more about that a little later.
In my time, I (like I am sure many of you reading this blog) have heard many a strange story about things that go bump in the night, or people feeling an invisible presence that seems to want to communicate something, or folk reporting poltergeists, and wondering what to do with them.
I’ve also had my own personal experience of meeting a ghost. At the time I was working in an old stately home which had been turned into a spiritual growth centre. I was perching on a stool in the corridor outside the kitchens talking to a colleague who was standing in front of me, when I suddenly saw what I can only describe as the energetic shape of a man coming towards me. He walked straight through me, and immediately disappeared. My colleague clearly witnessed what had happened, and looked at me in amazement. ‘Good heavens,’ he said, ‘Are you okay?’ I nodded, feeling very odd for a moment or two, and then we carried on chatting.
It was only five years later when I began working as a researcher on a qualitative study into end-of-life experiences, led by Dr Peter Fenwick, Fellow of the Royal College of Psychiatry, that I thought about this incident in greater depth.
Our end-of-life experience study included over 800 extraordinary accounts from relatives, nurses, doctors and carers who had witnessed the dying seeing apparitions of much-loved dead relatives or children appearing to them in the last few weeks, days, hours, sometimes minutes of life. The apparitions seemed to soothe the dying person and help them to let go. Some of the dying said they believed these apparitions had come to ‘take them away’, or to help them to ‘pass over.’
Many relatives who reported these stories felt greatly comforted in the knowledge that the dying person wasn’t alone, and they were being helped to die. This in turn, eased their grieving process.
It’s easy to disregard these stories as flights of fancy, or caused by chemical changes in the brain as it closes down near to death, or wishful thinking that there is some kind of life after death. After my encounter with my own ghost, I believe there’s much more to these reports than that. Granted, my ghost wasn’t a deathbed vision, but to me he certainly existed, and I physically felt something as he walked through my body. Added to which, my colleague unquestionably saw something odd happening too.
If I hadn’t experienced my ghost, I think I would have been much more sceptical and cynical about hearing of dead people or children appearing to the dying.
But, then again – and, this is what really matters – it’s not about whether these visions are real or not. What matters is that the dying believe they see them, and are comforted and helped by them.
Returning to the conference, I was fascinated to hear Christian ministers, vicars and priests talking passionately and eloquently about their experiences of the paranormal and how healing through prayer can help to release dark forces and invisible disturbances.
My ghost wasn’t a dark force. But, even though I am not a Christian, if I ever encountered what I considered to be a dark force, I am sure I would now turn to prayer, just as a vampire’s victim desperately tries to fend off those fangs by creating the sign of the cross from whatever is at hand.
It was an absolute joy to share my experiences of the supernatural – deathbed visions certainly fall into this category for some – with people willing to learn more about the mysteries of life. I returned home enriched and heart-warmed, and more open myself to this remarkable Churches’ Fellowship who are brave enough to talk about what many people regard as a load of old tosh. Personally, I believe it isn’t.