He was a brawny former Maine lobsterman with a booming baritone. She was a redhead with freckles from Wisconsin who worked in corporate recruiting. They talked about everything from sci-fi movies and her love for the rock group Bon Jovi to whether the Lord of the Rings film trilogy did justice to J.R.R. Tolkien’s books. He asked for permission to kiss her on their first date. She said yes.
When Ian and Michelle Horne got married, he wore a purple tie on their wedding day because it was her favorite color. As the years rolled by, they got matching tattoos and gave each other nicknames from the movie, The Princess Bride. He called her Princess Buttercup and she called him Farm Boy Wesley. They made plans to visit Ireland this year to celebrate her Irish roots.
Then came the pandemic. Last fall, after a long battle, Michelle Horne died from complications caused by Covid-19. Ian Horne’s superpower, as he called her, was gone. They had been married almost 10 years.
But not long after his wife’s death, the morning radio deejay in Wichita, Kansas, wondered if Michelle was still speaking to him. He was driving to his job in the predawn darkness when he spotted something odd. About two dozen streetlights flanking the highway had turned purple. They looked like a lavender string of pearls glowing in the night sky.
Horne took it as a sign.
Michelle knew that was my route to work that I take every morning and was the route she took on her final drive to the hospital, says Horne, who hosts his morning show on 101.3 KFDI as JJ Hayes.
I remember simply smiling and feeling overwhelmed with the idea that Michelle was close.
The coronavirus pandemic has now killed more than 600,000 Americans. Many of us never had a chance to hug or say farewell to loved ones who died alone and isolated in hospital wards due to fears of spreading the virus.
But there is another group of pandemic survivors who say they have been granted a second chance to say goodbye. They are people like Horne who believe they’ve been contacted by a loved one who died from coronavirus.
These experiences can be subtle: relatives appearing in hyper-real dreams, a sudden whiff of fragrance worn by a departed loved one, or unusual behavior by animals. Other encounters are more dramatic: feeling a touch on your shoulder at night, hearing a sudden warning from a loved one, or seeing the full-bodied form of a recently departed relative appear at the foot of your bed.
These stories may sound implausible, but they are in fact part of a historical pattern. There is something in us — or in our lost loved ones — that won’t accept not being able to say goodbye.
And whenever there is a massive tragedy such as a pandemic, a war or a natural disaster, there is a corresponding surge in reports of people seeing the dead or trying to contact them.
The 1918 influenza epidemic sparked a spiritualism craze as Americans turned to seances and Ouija boards to contact departed loved ones. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks came a wave of people reporting sightings of and even conversations with those who had been snatched from their lives.
When a tsunami struck Japan in 2011, killing at least 20,000 people, so many inhabitants of Ishinomaki reported seeing their loved ones appear that a book and a documentary were made about this city of wandering ghosts.
These kind of reports are normal in my world, says Scott Janssen, an author who has worked in the hospice field for years and studies these experiences. It would make sense that in a pandemic or other event that leads to mass deaths that there will be a numerical increase in reports and experiences, given the shared grief and trauma.
These experiences are so common in the psychological field that there is a name for them: ADCs, or after death communications. Research suggests at least 60 million Americans have these experiences, and that they occur across cultures, religious beliefs, ethnicities and income levels. Many of these encounters occur in the twilight state between sleeping and waking, but others have been reported by people who were alert.
Bill Guggenheim, co-author of Hello from Heaven, a book that explores ADCs, believes there is a spiritual purpose behind the visits.
They want you to know they’re still alive, and that you’ll be reunited with them when it’s your turn to leave your lifetime on Earth, he writes. They want to assure you they’ll be there to meet you and greet you — and perhaps even to assist you — as you make your own transition.
ADCs may serve another function in the world created by Covid — to reassure people who couldn’t be at the side of their loved ones when they died.
Consider the story of Jamie Jackson, an office manager who lives near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and her beloved Aunt Pat. Jackson’s aunt died of a heart attack last summer after complications from Covid. Jackson said her aunt was like a mother to her — someone she spent summers with and accompanied to the hospital for routine medical visits.
But when her aunt was afflicted with Covid, Jackson couldn’t visit the hospital to reassure her.
That was the hardest thing, Jackson says. You can’t say goodbye and you can’t be there as an advocate for your loved one, which is difficult because you have somebody who’s in the hospital, who’s scared and not used to being alone.