Ben and Family (Photo courtesy of The Reinart Family)
Thelma Reinart's 3-year-old son, Ben, drowned in a creek in August 1997. Six months later, the signs began.
First, there were feathers. They were everywhere: on the newly vacuumed floor, drifting towards Reinart's face at a theme park, in the hand of a stranger who gave a feather to Ben's father and said, "Something told me to give this to you."
Later, there was the light bulb that never died, the tree frog with the mighty jump and the dreams, the wonderful dreams. Of Ben, fully grown, a tall handsome man with sandy brown hair. Of Ben, laughing. Of Ben, still a child, telling his mother he chose this death because the alternative – being accidentally shot by his grandfather – would have been even worse.
These were signs, Reinart said, after-death communications from the child she lost.
"So many people are scared of death. But if they open their eyes a bit, they'll see there is something else," Reinart, of Pennsylvania, said. "Everybody's here to either teach or learn. I think Ben's here to teach us there is life after death."
Are after-death communications – referred to as ADCs – real? Or are they hallucinations, fantasies created by those who mourn? What we know is they are a worldwide phenomenon that has existed as long as people have loved and lost.
Researchers in the 1800s coined the term "hallucinations of the sane" to label encounters with the deceased, according a 2011 study from the University of North Texas..The study found that people are afraid to admit they have had such an encounter for fear of being judged or ridiculed.
Since the 1970s, ADCs have been a popular subject for research, Lucy Bregman, a Temple University religion professor, told The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2005. The thinking, she said, is that "the presence of the dead person is real and part of the grieving process. For the person who has it (the event or visit) – real enough."
ADC believers, such as grief counselor Christine Marie Duminiak, encourage those in mourning to open their minds. She understands skeptics because she used to be one.
"The grieving need to know it's real and they're not crazy,"
said Duminiak, author of God's Gift of Love: After-Death Communications for Those Who Grieve. "Unless you've had a spiritual experience, you will be skeptical. But if they lose a loved one and something happens to them, they might come around and finally get it."
That's doubtful, said Joe Nickell, a senior research fellow for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, who has been investigating supernatural occurrences such as ADCs since attending his first séance in 1969. Many people who are grieving want to see signs from the dead so they do, "willy-nilly imbuing things with meaning," he said.
A blur in a photograph shows the lost person is still around. A whiff of perfume means your loved one is sending a message. A waking dream becomes a visit from the dead.
"If you want something to happen, you will look for it. You will dismiss contrary evidence," said Nickell, whose books include The Science of Ghosts: Searching for Spirits of the Dead. "There's a name for this, 'confirmation bias.' You're seeking to confirm your belief."
He understands why people are so drawn to believing in ADCs, but he also believes such "magical thinking" can be harmful. It's "very bad logic,” he said. “It's an argument from ignorance."
"The paranormal, by and large, promises pretty wonderful things," he said. "If ghosts are real, then we don't really die. If I were voting, I would vote for that."
On his website www.after-death.com, Bill Guggenheim, author of Hello from Heaven, said ADCs generally fall into one of four categories:
I’m okay … I’m fine … Everything is okay … Don’t worry about me … Don’t grieve for me.
I’m happy … Everything will be alright … Go on with your life … Please forgive _______.
Thank you for taking care of me … I’ll always be there for you … I’m watching over you.
Please let me go on with my new life … I’ll see you again … I love you … Goodbye.
"Many people report feeling an incredible sense of peace – 'the peace that passeth all understanding' – during and after an ADC experience," the website says. "Almost all after-death communications provide comfort, hope, and profound emotional and spiritual healing, especially to those who are bereaved or are fearful of death."
As webmaster for the After-Death Communication Research Foundation, Jody Long has compiled more than 2,000 ADC stories at adcrf.org. She, too, found that primary reason the dead return is to reassure the living that the dead are doing well. "It's like a final goodbye. 'I'm doing just fine. Don't worry about me,'" she said.
She's heard from people upset because they haven't received an ADC. She believes that when people are too emotional, the messages can't get through. Duminiak agreed that strong grief can make it difficult for people to recognize an ADC.
So many people are dying to get a sign from their loved ones. But when they're in the midst of their grief, they miss the signs," she said. "When they are calmer and more accepting, they begin to notice the signs."
Duminiak said she, too, used to be a skeptic. When a friend would describe an ADC, "my eyes would glaze over. It wasn't until it happened to me that I changed," she said.
But after ADCs from her inlaws and her parents, she became a believer. You'll see, she tells doubters. Wait until it happens to you.
"That's when they'll finally get it."
Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she's now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, "Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone's world that we're often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we're alive."