This shows a woman and a dog.
"Psychologically, it was good for people." Credit: Neuroscience News

“Supernatural” Experiences Comfort Grieving Pet Owners

Summary: A new study explores the phenomenon of supernatural visits from deceased pets. Analyzing 544 accounts from dog owners on social media, researchers found that about half of these experiences were physical manifestations, such as hearing a dog’s nails on the floor, while the others were symbolic signs like dreams or rainbows.

These encounters are generally peaceful and provide comfort, contrasting with the typical portrayal of paranormal experiences as negative. The research considers the psychological impact of these experiences, highlighting their importance in the grieving process for pet owners.

Key Facts:

  1. Golbeck’s study is based on 544 reports of supernatural visits from deceased pets, collected through social media.
  2. The experiences reported are mostly comforting and include both physical manifestations and symbolic signs.
  3. The research emphasizes the deep emotional bonds between humans and pets, comparing them to familial relationships and underscoring the significant psychological impact of pet loss.

Source: University of Maryland

Less than a week after her golden retriever Riley died, information studies Professor Jen Golbeck found him napping in her living room, “curled up like a croissant like he always was,” on his red and gray-fleece dog bed.

“It took me a second to be like, ‘That’s not right,'” she said. “And when I looked back, he wasn’t there anymore.”

Golbeck doesn’t believe in ghosts, to be clear. But the moment was real for her—real enough to bring tears to her eyes then, and even now, as she recounts the story—just as similar encounters are for pet lovers around the world.

In a paper published in the journal Anthrozoös, the University of Maryland researcher analyzes supernatural visits reported by 544 dog owners on Twitter/X and Instagram, in response to a query she posted on her popular accounts that detail the adventures of her pack of golden retrievers.

About half were physical manifestations, such as hearing the click-click-click of nails across hardwood, feeling a little wet nose against their cheek or sensing a furry warm creature in the bed next to them. The other half were signs, like seeing butterfly or a rainbow (a callback to a popular poem about the loss of pets, “Over the Rainbow Bridge”) or meeting the dog in a dream.

“Universally, these were peaceful interactions and almost universally comforting,” she said, in contrast to research that shows paranormal experiences to be negative. “Psychologically, it was good for people.”

Golbeck’s interest in the topic is both personal and professional. Since she and her husband, Ingo Burghardt, started rescuing sick or older golden retrievers in 2017, she’s lost nearly a dozen dogs. And as a computer scientist seeking to understand online radicalization, she’s delved into psychology, wrapping up a master’s degree on the topic this semester from Harvard University.

Research shows that “people who see ghosts of human deceased loved ones often refer to them as hallucinations,” she said. “Scientifically, that’s true. But at the same time, it feels so dismissive of the psychology of that experience.”

In the case of Riley, Golbeck believes her guilt over his passing that brought him back, however fleetingly, into her life. He was 7 years old when she and Burghardt, rescued him. But it turned out he was suffering from kidney failure due to Lyme disease, and they had to put him down after he slowly declined, just nine months later.

“Losing a dog is always hard, but when you feel like you failed them in your responsibility to give them a gentle exit—we probably waited two or three days too long to euthanize him—it’s just a crushing loss,” she said.

Society gives pet owners few public outlets for grief, she said. While people get bereavement days for the death of a family member, discounted flights to travel to their funeral, or sympathy if they burst into tears weeks or months after, the same understanding doesn’t extend to those who lose an animal. But research shows people form attachment bonds with their dogs, similar to those between mothers and children, Golbeck said.

“Don’t just say, ‘You can get another one!’ You would never say that to someone who lost a friend,” she said. “Giving people that space is really important.”

About this psychology and grief research news

Author: Karen Shih
Source: University of Maryland
Contact: Karen Shih – University of Maryland
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Open access.
“I Saw Her With My Heart”: Supernatural Experiences and Continuing Bonds After the Death of a Dog” by Jennifer Golbeck. Anthrozoös


“I Saw Her With My Heart”: Supernatural Experiences and Continuing Bonds After the Death of a Dog

Experiencing the ghosts of the departed is a common, cross-cultural experience of grief; such interactions are part of so-called externalized continuing bonds and represent an ongoing relationship with the departed.

This paper characterizes people’s reported supernatural experiences with the spirits of their deceased dogs and analyzes them in the context of bereavement, externalized continuing bonds, and disenfranchised grief.

Using a thematic analysis, 544 candid online comments from social media where people shared their supernatural experiences were studied.

These comments fell into two major themes with six subthemes: physical experiences (hearing, seeing, and touching the ghost of a dog) and interpreted experiences (seeing signs in nature, receiving visits from the deceased dog in dreams, and attributing feelings and phenomena to the spirit of the dog).

How people described the feelings associated with these supernatural visits were also studied; three themes were found: Positive Feelings, Mixed to Sad Feelings, and Messages.

The vast majority of reported feelings (74.6%) were positive, bringing people comfort, reassurance, and a sense of protection.

While psychology largely characterizes externalized continuing bonds – particularly seeing ghosts – as negative and even maladaptive, this is in conflict with the findings. These supernatural experiences may serve a different role for grieving dog guardians.

Given that disenfranchised grief is common due to the lack of cultural support for people mourning their dogs, and grief over companion animals is often complicated by guilt, these supernatural experiences may serve as an important source of comfort and a way for the bereaved to engage with loss.

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