Mental Health and Anomalous Experience

Abstract Submission

Edith Steffen and Adrian Coyle: ‘The experience of “sensing the presence of the deceased” in bereavement and mental health.’


Edith Steffen is a doctoral trainee in Psychotherapeutic and Counselling Psychology at the University of Surrey. As part of her doctoral research under the supervision of Dr Adrian Coyle she has conducted a literature review on the experience of sensing the presence of the deceased in bereavement which is currently awaiting publication in Mental Health, Religion & Culture. This has been followed by an interview-based qualitative investigation of the impact of this experience on meaning-making processes in bereavement. She is currently planning an ethnographic study into the impact this experience might have on bereaved families.

Adrian Coyle is a senior lecturer in the Department of Psychology at the University of Surrey. He is the Course Director of the MSc in Social Psychology but also contributes to the practitioner doctorate programmes of Psychotherapeutic and Counselling Psychology as well as Clinical Psychology. Apart from his special interest in the psychology of religion and spirituality and in the area of qualitative research methods, a large portion of his research has been in the area of lesbian and gay psychology.

Contact address

Department of Psychology

University of Surrey


Surrey GU2 7XH


The proposed chapter focuses on the common experience of ‘sensing the presence of the deceased’ following bereavement. It critically and systematically reviews the relevant literature, which includes between 30 and 40 empirical studies and some 20-plus theoretical papers and book chapters, mostly stemming from the last two decades. Although there is a broad consensus that this phenomenon is generally experienced as helpful and constitutes a non-pathological event, there is an ongoing debate within bereavement scholarship regarding the nature and healthiness of this experience. This chapter argues that the challenge this experience poses for researchers and clinicians is possibly partly conceptual in kind. While the empirical evidence points to a qualitatively distinct and cross-culturally stable perceptual phenomenon, the literature contains a large diversity of definitions and conceptualisations, reflecting the scope for interpretation with regard to this often difficult-to-capture phenomenon. This is not only of theoretical relevance as there appears to be a relationship between the way this experience is defined and understood by the perceiver and its reported effects. Qualitative research focusing on this phenomenon has repeatedly stressed the importance of the meaning of this experience for perceivers, particularly as there is evidence that those who can make sense of their experience within culturally-sanctioned (spiritual) frameworks enjoy greater benefits as a result. However, such interpretative frameworks may not always be available to perceivers as evidenced in their documented reluctance to disclose this experience for fear of ridicule or disbelief. This has important implications for bereavement counselling and psychotherapy.