What grief does to your body isn’t yet fully understood. It may include hallucinations in some cases. But they may have a purpose.
Everyone experiences and expresses grief differently. There’s certainly no right or wrong way to mourn a loss. In some cases, this may include seeing or feeling the presence of a departed loved one.
Although rare, bereavement hallucinations are possible when someone’s in a heightened state of emotional pain.
What are hallucinations?
Hallucinations are perceptions that are unique to you and that others can’t perceive at the same time. For example, seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, or tasting something without a stimulus.
A grief hallucination may involve seeing, feeling, or hearing someone you’ve recently lost.
Yes, you can experience hallucinations of a loved one during your grieving time.
You may hear their voice or feel their touch, for example, or you may see their presence in places you go.
Dr. Joseph Shrand, a psychiatrist in Dedham, Massachusetts, explains that hallucinations come in two general categories:
- enjoyable “egosyntonic”
- not enjoyable “egodystonic”
These terms come from psychoanalysis. Egosyntonic refers to experiences that are consistent with your idea of self and your needs, likes, or goals.
Egodystonic refers to experiences that feel intrusive, offensive, hurtful, contradictory, or that you feel go against your sense of self.
Visions of a lost loved one tend to be egosyntonic hallucinations. They’re typically comforting and may make you feel like they’re still around, explains Shrand.
How common are grief hallucinations?
Since the early 1970s, research has indicated that bereavement hallucinations are commonplace.
Some of the most recent data, from 2015, indicates that as many as 60% of people who’ve lost their spouses report at least one grieving hallucinatory experience.
Research is inconclusive about what exactly causes someone to experience hallucinations of a loved one who has passed away.
According to research on the neuroscience behind grief and loss, grieving can be a form of emotional learning. The brain may process the emotions related to grieving as a learning experience that helps reduce separation distress.
In other words, creating opportunities to feel like a part of your loved one is still with you might help you deal with intense emotional pain. Grief hallucinations may be the result of your brain trying to cope.
The same research suggests that prolonged grief disorder could be related to the brain having difficulty processing the loss.
Prolonged grief disorder, once known as complicated grief, is a condition listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5). You may be experiencing this long lasting grief if your pain doesn’t ease with time, escalates, or makes daily functioning a challenge.
There is no compelling evidence that grief causes psychosis. However, 2014 research suggests that the unexpected death of a loved one may lead to experiencing mental health conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and major depressive disorder.
In some cases, these conditions can appear with symptoms of psychosis, including hallucinations.
Psychosis is a mental state that occurs when your brain isn’t able to distinguish between what’s real in your environment and what isn’t.
It’s possible some people may experience hallucinations when facing the loss of a loved one, explains Barbara Rubel, a board certified expert in traumatic stress from Kendall Park, New Jersey. But, most people don’t experience an episode of psychosis when grieving, she adds.
While they might sometimes fit the hallucination diagnostic criteria, grief hallucinations may not necessarily be a lapse in reality.
Research suggests sensory experiences during mourning, particularly sensing the presence of a lost loved one, might come from a subconscious effort to maintain a connection to that person.
Depression vs. grief
Symptoms of depression can accompany grief, so how can you tell what’s clinical depression and what’s bereavement?
Uncomplicated grief — and the intense emotions it may cause you — will tend to get better in time.
Clinical depression, however, is a mental health condition that lasts longer than 2 weeks and lasts even in the absence of grief. It may also intensify with time if no formal treatment is sought.
People living with prolonged grief disorder are more likely to experience grief hallucinations, according to the DSM-5.
But it’s also possible that anyone grieving a recent and unexpected loss can experience them as well.
“Anyone bereaved can experience a hallucination,” says Rubel. “However, there are many influences that impact grief, such as sudden death, traumatic death, suicide, a love/hate relationship, a young child, for example.”
The exact nature of bereavement sensory experiences is unclear.
By definition, seeing a loved one who has passed, hearing their voice, or feeling their touch are experiences that can be defined clinically as hallucinations.
What’s less clear is many people’s feeling of a loved one’s presence. Unlike traditional hallucinations, the perception that your loved one is near or in the same space as you isn’t clearly linked to one of your five senses.
It cannot be defined as a delusion either, another symptom of psychosis that refers to a firm belief that defies evidence.
Similarly, reminders of a loved one aren’t necessarily hallucinations. Smelling their essence when you’re in a store, for example, isn’t necessarily a hallucination.
The stimulus might be there — for example, a similar odor. You could associate the similarity to something familiar that makes you feel close to your lost loved one.
If you’re experiencing vivid, disruptive, or disorienting sensory changes, a health professional can help you explore potential causes.
A mental health specialist can also help you work through the grieving process, especially if you feel you’re having a hard time coping with the emotional pain.
If bereavement hallucinations aren’t impairing or persistent, Shrand suggests allowing them to take a natural course.
“I would not try to convince the person they were hallucinating and deprive them of that comfort,” he says. “Some spouses talk to their departed loved ones for decades. Some parents know their child is contacting them even if they can’t see them. Rather than experience overwhelming loss, they find a way to keep that loved one close.”
Sensing a loved one who has passed, hearing their voice, or catching a glimpse of them can be sensory experiences known as bereavement or grief hallucinations.
Many people find these moments comforting. In fact, grief hallucinations are considered by some experts as a common feature of the bereavement process.
Some forms of grief, like prolonged grief disorder, may present with other mental health symptoms and may require professional attention.
Experiencing a grief hallucination doesn’t mean you’ve developed psychosis or another mental health condition. Sometimes, bereavement hallucinations may be your way of coping with a loved one’s loss.
If you’re finding it hard to cope with your loss, it may be a good idea to reach out to a support group or mental health professional.