Can your sixth sense tell when a loved one has died miles awayIt’s something many of us suspect – and now there’s startling evidence it really happens
Leaning against the back of her chair, Annie Cap clutched at her chest as she coughed and battled for breath. ‘I’d never experienced anything like this before. I felt like I had a blockage in my airways and I couldn’t take in any air,’ she recalls. ‘It was a horrible sensation.’
At the same time, Annie felt suffused with an urgent sense of purpose: she knew she must call the hospital thousands of miles away, where she knew her mother lay gravely ill.
Still gasping for breath as she dialled the number, Annie asked to be put through to her mother’s room. ‘My sister answered the phone and was stunned to hear my voice. She and the rest of my family were just about to call me to tell me Mum was dying.
Extraordinary bond: Annie is convinced she had a so-called “empathic” death experience when her mother died
‘She had been coughing and fighting for breath for the last half-an-hour. My sister put the telephone to my mother’s ear so I was able to tell her I loved her, and it was ok, she could let go. She took her last breath as the phone was being held to her head.’
Could Annie’s own sensation of fighting for breath have been a coincidence She doesn’t think so. ‘To me, there is no doubt Mum was very deliberately reaching out to me across the miles. She wanted to say goodbye, and this was her way.’
Annie had no way of putting a name to her experience at the time, but in the seven years since her mother passed away she has become convinced that what happened was a shared or so-called ‘empathic’ death experience, in which she physically felt her mother’s fatal symptoms.
The notion so overwhelmed her that she has spent the last few years trying to make sense of it. The result is a book, Beyond Goodbye, in which Annie explores the notion of synchronicity in death — that we can, sometimes, connect with a loved one in extraordinary ways that are not easily explained by science.
As she puts it: ‘I found there are thousands of reports of people halfway around the world from their loved ones who sensed something at the time they passed on. It can be as simple as a feeling of dread, seeing a fleeting image or just an absolute knowledge that a particular person has died.
‘At the more extreme end of the spectrum, it can be a physical experience. But people just didn’t feel they could talk about it.’ That’s hardly surprising: plenty of people remain sceptical about the notion of any near-death phenomena.
Until seven years ago, in fact, Annie, now 51, was one of them. ‘I was the last person to believe in this stuff,’ she says. ‘I thought when you died you died, there was nothing fancy about it. I was agnostic, a sceptic — all those things.
Raised in Oregon in the U.S. as one of seven children, she moved to Britain 13 years ago and settled in Canterbury, Kent, after meeting her husband Matthew, a cider producer. Despite the physical distance between them, however, she remained incredibly close to her mother, Betty.
Reaching out: Annie pictured with her late mother, whose presence she has felt from beyond the grave
‘I was the last child left at home with Mum, and when my mother and father divorced I also lived with her for a couple of years as an adult. We were more like close friends.’ Her mother, she says, remained in reasonably good health until, aged 78, she became ill very suddenly.
‘She fell ill on Boxing Day 2004. No one thought it was serious until tests showed that all her major organs were shutting down,’ Annie recalls. ‘I desperately wanted to fly home but by the time I realised how serious it was, I couldn’t get a flight — because of the time of year everything was fully booked. All I could do was sit and wait for the news.’
Yet instead of a telephone call from a family member, she now firmly believes she received a spiritual message from her mother in the form of those acute physical symptoms.
‘My mother died on January 2, but at first I didn’t really compute what had happened as I was dealing with the most horrendous grief. I was distraught, and cried constantly. At the same time, I was just grateful I’d had a chance to say goodbye,’ she says.
‘As time went on, I did try to talk about what had happened with my siblings but it was difficult. I encountered a lot of resistance. Most of them seemed sceptical.’
As she tried to make sense of what had happened, Annie was also battling other sensations. ‘I had this extraordinarily profound conviction that my mum was back with me,’ she says. ‘In the darkest moments of my grief, I had very distinct sensations of her stroking my hair to comfort me, just as she used to do when I was a child.’
“In the darkest moments of my grief, I had very distinct sensations of her stroking my hair to comfort me, justas she used to do when I was a child”
There were other peculiarities, too.
‘I started to find hair pins, of the kind my mother used to wear, dotted around the house. They would be in random places — by the coffee-maker, on the sofa. My husband noticed them, too. I had very short hair and didn’t use anything like that, so it was hugely odd.’ Annie continues: ‘My mother was a smoker and I woke up in the morning to the smell of cigarettes even though our house was totally smoke-free.
‘It took me a long time to admit these things were happening, although it helped that I wasn’t alone. My husband is a very rational man, with a science degree, but he was there when a lot of these things happened.’
Intrigued, Annie started to research her experiences, discovering that they had much in common with people who had undergone near-death experiences.
‘Those people often end up with heightened sensation, a sort of sixth sense if you like, which is how I felt. I was taken aback, but it was also a relief to find I wasn’t alone, that what I’d felt was normal.’
Nor is Annie alone in believing she experienced a moment of extraordinary empathy with a dying relative despite being separated by a vast physical distance. Astonishing though it may sound, an increasing number of people believe they were physically connected with their loved ones as they passed away, while others speak of experiencing visions of a world beyond while gathered at the bedside of a loved one as they take their last breath.
Women like Hannah Evans, a 41-year-old teacher from Newcastle upon Tyne, who believes she ‘shared’ in the death of her father, Eric, when he died from lung cancer two years ago.
‘Dad and I were very close and I was devastated when he diagnosed with cancer,’ she says. ‘He was given a year to live and for the last few days he was hospitalised. I was an only child and Mum had died several years earlier, so our relationship was quite intense. I barely left his side.’
Scientific explanation: Cynics dismiss near-death experiences as simply hallucinations caused by lack of oxygen to the brain
As her father’s condition worsened, nurses told Hannah to prepare for the end. ‘I knew he didn’t have long. He was drifting in and out of consciousness and I don’t think he even knew I was there,’ she recalls. Yet what happened next was utterly unexpected.
‘I felt like I was having my own out-of-body experience. I felt like I was watching everything from above, my dad’s body, the nurses. And I could see myself, too. And in the distance I saw light and my mum smiling.’
Hannah has no idea how long it lasted, but the next thing she can remember, the trance was over. ‘I felt myself pulled back, as it were, and I was just in my chair, with the nurses saying: “I’m sorry, he’s gone.”
‘It was an extraordinary feeling, and one that, at the time, I had no real comprehension of.’ Of course, what Hannah experienced can be dismissed as the grief-stricken hallucinations of a tired and emotional daughter. Yet Hannah says she cannot shake off her conviction that she accompanied her father on his first steps of his journey to the afterlife, undergoing an altered state of consciousness which coincided with her father’s dying breaths.
‘I was never one for believing anything like that, but this has changed me,’ she says. ‘I had never heard of shared death experiences. I only know how I felt and what I saw.’
Nonetheless, her conviction is not enough to convince the cynics. Large parts of the scientific community tend to dismiss near-death experiences as simply hallucinations caused by anoxia — or lack of oxygen to the brain. Shared death experiences, they reason, are the product of coincidence, or hallucination, viewed afterwards through the understandable human desire to connect with a loved one as they pass away.
Not so, says Dr Peter Fenwick, an eminent neuropsychiatrist who has spent many years studying near-death experiences and shared death experiences. He has become increasingly convinced they are a result of a ‘loosening of consciousness’ that occurs around the death process.
‘In effect, this means the mind of the dying person is then no longer bound by any constraints of time and space, which seem to limit us while we’re in physical form,’ he explains. ‘This can then encompass someone with whom the dying person is closely connected.’
Nor is Dr Fenwick alone among the medical community in believing the received view on the relationship between the brain and consciousness held by most physicians, philosophers and psychologists is too narrow for a proper understanding of what happens as people approach death.
Dr Pim van Lommel, a Dutch cardiologist, also believes the way we view consciousness needs to change.
He has spent years studying near-death phenomena, sparked by the realisation that a sizeable portion of patients who had suffered cardiac arrest reported the same sensations and phenomena at a time when they had been pronounced brain dead, and says he has moved from a position of scepticism to acceptance.
A recent study found that approximately one in five heart attack patients who survived reported having near-death experience
‘What I’ve witnessed and the data I have gathered have convinced me the hypothesis that consciousness is a by-product of brain-function has to be discussed again,’ he says. ‘It’s hard for people to accept because it goes against the basic principles you learn in medical school, which holds that consciousness is only there when the body is functioning.
‘NowI am convinced it is not true, that it can exist separately. Moreover, Ibelieve in an altered state of consciousness where there is no time andspace in the way that we understand it.’
This,he says, goes some way to explaining shared death experiences in which people undergo vivid and sometimes terrifying dreams in which their loved ones appear to them to ‘tell’ them they have passed away — only towake and find the prophecy has come true.
RobertLennox, 46, from Gloucestershire, remains convinced that his wife Sharon appeared to him in a dream at the exact moment she was killed in aroad accident on the A1 five years ago. An engineer, Robert was in California on business when he underwent what he is convinced is a shared death experience.
‘Ihad the most terrifying nightmare, unlike anything I had ever experienced before. Sharon was standing by a roadside just saying over and over: “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
‘I woke with the certain knowledge she was gone. When I turned on my phone, I had several messages to call home and found she had been killed instantly when a lorry had collided with her car at lunchtime.’
Robert says he shared what had taken place with only his closest friends, aware of the cynicism that surrounds such proclamations. ‘A lot of them have said it was clearly coincidence. One friend said it was a product of misplaced guilt that I wasn’t with Sharon when she died in clearly horrible circumstances. But it doesn’t explain the conviction I felt. I feel convinced Sharon did speak to me that night.’ For Dr Fenwick, the scepticism is understandable.
‘These instances are outside one’s normal experience, and that frightens people,’ he says. ‘For some people, even discussing them feels like we are harking back to an era of shamen, even though increasingly the bright light of science is a very good way of examining this phenomenon.’
Meanwhile, Dr Penny Sartori, who was prompted to investigate near-death and shared death experiences after nearly 20 years as an intensive-care nurse, also believes many people have experienced empathic death moments with a loved one but have chosen to suppress them.
‘One problem is we haven’t really got the language for these shared experiences,’ she says. ‘Some people call it synchronicity, some call it energy resonance, some call it linkage. However you chose to label it, I believe it’s not uncommon, it’s just that people tend not to talk about it for fear of being ridiculed.’
For Annie, however, the experience has proved life-changing. ‘I have encountered scepticism about what I went through but I also know how it felt, and what it has meant for me.
‘It enabled me to feel my mother’s presence in my life long after she’d gone, and it has also made me unafraid of death. That’s a wonderful thing.’