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Sensing the presence of the deceased and meaning-making ...

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‘I thought they should know... that daddy is not completely gone’:Aqualitativecase studyinvestigation of ‘sense of presence’ experiences in bereavement and family meaningmakingEdith Steffen and Adrian CoyleDepartment of Psychology, University of Surrey
© Edith Steffen and Adrian Coyle
Sensing the presence of the deceased
SensoryQuasi-sensory‘feeling of presence’Sense ofveridicalityPositive affective concomitantsIncidence: 50per centof the bereaved population
Sense of presence experiences in the Western bereavement literature
Griefwork perspective – ‘wishful psychosis’, ‘denial’Attachment theory – ‘searching behaviour’, ‘secure-base’ functionMedical model – ‘hallucinations’, ‘illusions’
Recent theoretical perspectives
Continuing bonds (Klass, SilvermanandNickman, 1996)Meaning making/meaningreconstruction (Neimeyer, 2001, 2006)Post-traumatic growth (Calhoun &Tedeschi, 2006)
Rationale for the family study
Socio-cultural dimension ofmeaning makingSignificance of familymeaning makingin bereavement (Nadeau, 2008)Lack of social acceptance, reluctance to disclose (SteffenandCoyle, 2011)Impact of cultural context on family meaning making (DoranandDowning-Hansen, 2006)
Research questions
What role(s), if any, might sense-of-presence experiences play in a bereaved family?How do family members experience and make (shared) sense of this phenomenon?What might be the personal and social implications of disclosing this experience?How is this experience perceived to impact, if at all, on the family as a whole?
Family case study (1 mother, 3 children – 12, 14, 16)‘Ethnographic’ frameworkPrimary data: group and individual interviewsSecondary data: notes from participant observation opportunities collected over six monthsAnalysis:interpretativepluralism (Coyle, 2010; Frost, 2009, 2011;Kincheloeet al., 2011)
Analytic procedure
Primary data analysisThematic analysis of interview data from a phenomenological perspectiveMicro-level discursive analysis of interview dataSecondarydata analysisRepeated readings of field notes and noting key themesContextualisationof primary findings by drawing on ethnographicobservations/interpretations
A. Making sense of sense of presence
1. Sense of presence experiences as veridical events‘He said clearly my name, and it was, it’s his voice.’ (Mother)2. Sense of presence as requiring a scientific explanation‘I think that a lot of things like this do have a scientific explanation behind them. I don’t think that it’sa- asupernatural kind of message or something. I think whilst we can’t explain it, um I think there is probably some sort of explanation behind it.’ (Anna)
B. Individual meanings of sense of presence experiences (1)
3. Sense of presence as beneficial‘I see this as a sign of comfort. “I’m with you still and always will be”’ (Mother)Sense of presence as comfortingSense of presence as confirming the continuing bondSense of presence as strengthening beliefs
B. Individual meanings of sense of presence experiences (2)
4. Sense of presence as disturbing‘I think it’s slightly scary because to me it doesn’t seem right, so it’s something unnatural that shouldn’t happen.’ (Anna)‘[I]f he was here, he wouldn’t really be in heaven and that would be like breaking the rules of religion’ (Neil)Senseof presence as dissonantSense of presence as uncomfortableNeed for certainty
C. Perceived impact of sense of presence on the family
5. Sense of presence as conveying the father’scontinued participation in family life6.Sense of presence as concerning the perceiver7. Lack of impact of sense of presence on the family as a whole‘I’m sure that they’ve impacted the person who’s had these sort of experiences but I think as a family it hasn’t really, or at least it hasn’t affected me because I don’t really believe it and I’m not sure my brothers do either.’ (Anna)
Summary of findings (1)
Phenomenologicalsupernaturalversus scientifically explainablebeneficialversus disturbingimpactversus no impactDiscursiveclaimingobjectivitydismissingexperiencesminimisation
Summary of findings (2)
Ethnographicdivisionbetween the mother and the childrengenerationaldifferencesculturaldifferenceschallenges to the mother’s parentalauthority
Key points
Macro-social tendencies played out at local levelCase-specific findingsMeaningful insights from different epistemological perspectives (pluralist paradigm)Complexity is highlightedGoing beyond intra-psychic focus
Thank you
Dr. Edith SteffenCPsycholHPC Registered Counselling PsychologistSurrey and Borders NHS Foundation TrustThe Open UniversityNew School of Psychotherapy andCounselling





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Sensing the presence of the deceased and meaning-making ...