The first time Denise E. Esposito knew her late husband was watching over her was the night of Sept. 11 — hours after he died in the World Trade Center attacks.
"I was hysterical crying, so I went outside and there must have been a million stars up there — I've never seen so many stars over Staten Island," remembers Esposito whose husband, Capt. Michael Esposito, was a New York City firefighter. "I said, 'Mike are you there?'
"As I'm saying that, one star fell down. It was a shooting star. And I said 'Thanks, Mike.' I knew then he was all right and he was trying to tell me that so I'd be OK."
Gary Schwartz, a Harvard University-trained psychologist, argues these kinds of incidents are not necessarily coincidence, but could actually be signals from lost ones whose energy and information linger in the universe.
"Human beings are like stars," says Schwartz who co-founded the Human Energy Systems Lab at the University of Arizona with his wife, Linda Russek. "We are constantly emitting invisible and visible photons of light. Those photons go into space and are as consistent as distant stars.
"The probability that our energy and information continues and our consciousness continues is the same probability that stars' light continues."
Schwartz' theories, as outlined in his 1999 book, The Living Energy Universe, which he co-wrote with Russek, remain controversial within the science community. Michael Shermer, a psychologist who heads the California-based Skeptics Society, calls Schwartz' theories "word salads of scientific terms that sound scientific but are not."
But while Schwartz' critics have trouble making sense of his theories about how life extends beyond death, they hardly balk at stories about people who experience signs and sensations from lost loved ones — particularly since Sept. 11.
Rather than explaining such experiences in terms of photons and energy and the universe, psychologists say they illustrate how bonds between people persist long after one life has ended.
"People who have experienced loss continue to have a very strong connection with the person they've lost," says Stuart Vyse, a Connecticut College psychologist who specializes in human belief. "They're highly motivated to see that connection extend beyond death and sometimes that motivation can create a sense of connectedness through small things."
Gary Laderman, a religion professor at Emory University, argues no science has a role in explaining people's spiritual connection with the dead.
"It's not about what's true or false," said Laderman, who is finishing a book called Rest in Peace about funeral homes and how people cope with death. "I don't think anyone can explain what people are experiencing using science."
He points out that people have long sought continued relationships with lost ones and that religions throughout time have provided a framework for understanding life after death. The tragedies of Sept. 11 have only stressed that need.
Afterlife in the Spotlight
A recent Gallup Poll showed 38 percent of Americans believe that ghosts or spirits can come back in certain situations — up from 25 percent in 1990. The poll also found that 28 percent believe that some people can hear from or talk to the dead, compared with 18 percent 11 years ago.