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Getting closure from the other side

Psychics such as John Edward are ‘mostly harmless’ and often quite helpful to the living, experts say.

“I don’t know if someone had an accident in a hang-glider or air balloon, or with a bungee cord. I’m getting a sense of an ‘oops’ in the air,” John Edward says, walking across the stage and staring at a young blonde woman in the 2 000-plus audience.

She’s standing near the back of the auditorium at Montecasino in Johannesburg, but her face is blown up on screen behind Edward, the American psychic.  

“Yes, my best friend’s dad just passed away in an aeroplane crash,” she says excitedly. 

Good guess, the sceptic in me thinks. 

“There was poor weather and they couldn’t tell which direction to go,” says Edward, translating for the dead man.

“Yes, that’s exactly what happened,” says the woman.

A likely scenario for a plane crash, I think.

“Is he gone in the last year?” asks Edward.

“Yes, a few weeks ago!” she exclaims.

Another broad assumption, I think.

“Why am I seeing the number 319?” Edward asks.

The woman almost drops the microphone as she squeaks: “That was the number on his aeroplane.” 

She shudders. Unwillingly, I shudder too, and the hairs on my forearms stand on end.

Edward was a sceptic too

I met Edward, the fast-talking New Yorker who claims to have a special connection with those who have “crossed over” to the “other side”, on a visit to the country in March, when he performed two sold-out shows at Montecasino and Gold Reef City. 

“I used to be a sceptic too,” he says, sitting in a Jo’burg coffee shop. 

His first experience with the psychic world came in an attempt to prove his family wrong.

“My mom used to have psychics and mediums over to the house and one day, after a reading, my grandma came down the stairs, crying.” 

She was overcome by emotion because the medium had told her that she had seen Tony, her dead husband, standing next to her.

“I have a very logical brain, so I was thinking: ‘Grandma, you introduced yourself as Mrs Esposito, a very Italian name; Tony’s not a far stretch.’ So I went to a reading with her to prove to my family that Lydia Clar would not be able to read me.”

But she did. And, according to Edward, everything she said came true, including his rise to fame as a psychic medium connecting the living with the “other side”.

‘Other side’ like the internet

Taking a sip of water, he says the “other side” is like the internet.

“It’s a vast place that you can’t go to with your physical body; you have to connect with it in some way. When you’re online, a lot of stuff opens up – positive and negative.” 

He says communicating with the other side is like watching a photo develop. 

“It’s like I’ve been given a negative of a wedding and I have to try figure out who the people are and, slowly, as the negative develops, I’m able to see what the relationships are.”

Clinical psychologist Colin Mitchell, also a sceptic, tells me later that whether Edward is actually talking to the dead or not, his actions seem to be useful for some people.

“With sudden death especially,  [in the case of] accidents in particular, all kinds of difficulties can arise,” he says. Acceptance or closure is the final stage of dealing with loss and grief, according to Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s 1969 theory, still widely accepted in psychological circles. 

As opposed to death following a long-term illness, a sense of closure can often be more difficult to reach after an unexpected accident, particularly if the person died while on bad terms with his or her loved ones, says Mitchell.

“The difficulty is that there’s literally no way of repairing that relationship once the person is no longer there,” Mitchell says.

Unless one contacts them through a medium, of course. Mitchell says that, although this is not something he would necessarily recommend, it may help people to cope. 

A sense of closure is important, he says, because one needs to move on with one’s life. Finding closure often means “cherishing memories”, which can take the form of a conversation with family, looking at an old photograph or even communicating with that person through a medium.

But he warns that sometimes “spiritualising phenomena too much can act as a way of escaping reality”.

Shivers and ancestors

So was Edward’s accuracy at his show a coincidence or was it real, and why was I getting the shivers? 

“The shivers can convey a sense of tremendous conviction,” says Mitchell. “It can make one think: ‘My goodness, there is something deep and mysterious happening here.’ It’s an ancient feeling, that prickling on one’s neck, that makes one feel one is in the presence of something powerful and archetypal.” It doesn’t necessarily mean Edward is right: “It just means something interesting is going on.” 

It seems that communicating with the dead isn’t as far-fetched as I thought. 

Mathole Motshekga, from the National Interfaith Council of South Africa, tells me all the “primal” religions are based on communication between the spiritual and material worlds. Traditional African religion is centred on talking to the ancestors. Ancient cultures such as the South American Mayans also connected with their ancestors through trance. 

He warns, however, that it should be done with caution. “You can know so much about other people from your ancestors, and if you wanted, you could use that to harm them.”

But Mitchell says that, from a psychological point of view, Edward doesn’t appear to be doing any harm. And he says there is a saying among therapists that they will do whatever it takes to help a patient – “even bark at the moon”. 

Back in the auditorium, Edward paces the stage.

“His youngest child is 25 or 26?” he asks the woman.

“Yes,” she says.

“And someone just got engaged?” 

“Yes, yes!” she exclaims. 

“He wants you to know that he is okay. I know from what you have said that he is not your biological dad, but I feel like I’m supposed to be talking about you calling him ‘pa’ or ‘papa’,” he says. 

She starts to speak, but her voice cracks with emotion. She mumbles: ‘I used to call him ‘pops’.”

The shivers on my forearms return. 

Amy Green was a health reporter at Bhekisisa from 2013 until 2016.