Spontaneous post-death experiences and the cognition of hope: An examination of bereavement and recovery

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


Although psychical research identified through structured research the commonality of anomalous experiences for the bereaved from as early as the 1880s, it wasn’t until the 1970s with the publication of a medical doctorate on such phenomena that medical communities and social science began to recognise them too. Beyond this point, research became more popular on the subject. Extensive research conducted on post-death experiences (aka, Post-Death Contacts – ADCs) since the 1970s, has largely focused on what impact they have on the bereaved, rather than the ontology of the phenomena themselves. All such studies have found these experiences to be therapeutic for the bereaved, and a natural aid to recovery. However, no research findings to this point have been presented on what cognitive mechanisms create the therapeutic gains experienced, as a direct result of the spontaneous anomalous experiences. This thesis set out to investigate what makes such experience therapeutic, and aid the process of recovery from grief. From a critical review of the previous literature, it was noted that several of the extensive studies, and related popular literature, identified hope to a consistent reported outcome of such experiences. However, no existing studies appeared to have investigated its presence and process in this context. Therefore, a mixed method study design was developed to investigate the impact of such experiences further and the role of hope within them. A questionnaire approach of validated scales found levels of hope to be significantly higher in groups of the bereaved who do report post-death experience than those who don’t. The bereaved who do not report such experiences appear to encounter a significant drop in hope. Content and thematic analyses were conducted on written feedback of experiences collected from the questionnaires; this highlighted the variety of experiences and their commonality. It also highlighted significant shifts in ‘states of mind’ from negative to positive emotions, from the point of loss, to following the first anomalous encounter. Continued bonds with the deceased were also expressed, as well as previously noted therapeutic gains and themes of hope. In-depth interviews were conducted as the final study of this thesis, with an interpretative phenomenological analysis applied to the data. New findings are presented on the personal changes that take place within post-death events. Experients defined hope and how they saw it acting within their lives and experiences as a support system to feelings of loss, which fell in line with previous positive psychology theories on hope. Several key points are concluded. Firstly, the findings of this thesis have practical applications to clinical practice surrounding palliative care and applied positive psychology, regarding the importance of anomalous experiences encountered by the bereaved. Secondly, the thesis and its findings demonstrate the multi-disciplinary approaches which can be taken to parapsychological issues, in this case combining positive psychology, thanatology and healthcare. And finally, the thesis highlights the usefulness of the mixed method approaches, to provide ‘sweeping maps’ of any given phenomena under investigation, particularly in cases where the previous research findings are limited or are yet to be explored.
Date of Award24 Jul 2017
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Northampton
SupervisorChris Roe (Supervisor) & Graham Mitchell (Supervisor)

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