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.
Some have sought to respond to this renewed interest. John Edward, a psychic and host of the television program Crossing Over proposed a special last October that would have featured family members of Sept. 11 victims communicating with their lost loved ones. The taped show was later dropped amid complaints of exploitation.
So-called mediums — people who claim to talk with the dead — have enjoyed increased visibility. In fact Schwartz' latest book, The Afterlife Experiments, published this March, describes studies that he says proves some mediums consistently receive information from the dead.
Vyse, the psychologist, questions the motivations behind such projects. He says people like Schwartz and Russek profit from sales of their books, while psychics like Edwards enjoy success as television personalities. (In April, ABC aired a one-hour special with psychic George Anderson where Anderson claimed to contact the dead and the network may air another special this summer involving Schwartz.)
But Schwartz says such criticism only deflects attention from his ideas, which he thinks scientists are generally too closed-minded to embrace.
"I was raised to believe 'ashes to ashes dust to dust,' and it has taken a lot of data to convince me otherwise."
Schwartz says communication from the dead can be explained by the idea that human energy and information continues. He argues that energy is constantly interacting with other energy and these constant interactions create changes that persist throughout time.
Paul Halpern, a physicist at University of the Sciences in Philadelphia, says it's true that energy persists forever. It's neither created nor destroyed but is converted from one form to another. It's also true that all people (and all things that are warmer than their surroundings for that matter) emit photons.
Most of these photons are absorbed by air or other objects before they reach space.
But Halpern adds, "these photons would not carry much information about us at all, except perhaps our temperature."
Comfort from Strange Coincidence
Laderman stresses even if science can't provide all the answers, people's experiences following the death of a loved one are not diminished. As he says, "It's still to be taken seriously." He adds it may be especially difficult for people to grieve for victims of the World Trade Center attacks since the remains of many were lost completely.
"It's important for people to have a last look at their loved one before they disappear for good. If you don't have that chance, it's harder to come to grips with goodbye," he says.
Andrew Cary, a production manager in Washington, D.C. who lost his good friend, Greg Rodriguez, in the World Trade Center attacks, says he realizes recent strange experiences that felt like signals from Rodriguez likely stem from his own sense of loss.
But he still takes comfort in the idea that they may have been more than coincidence.
The night before a service for Rodriguez, Cary and Dave Hackenburg were drinking toasts to their friend's honor at a local bar where the three had often hung out. At that moment, Hackenburg got a call on his cell phone.
When he took the phone from his pocket the phone's screen read "Greg" followed by Rodriguez' old number. They called the number back (using the bar's phone since Hackenburg couldn't get a signal to call out on his cell phone) and Rodriguez' sister, who was staying at her late brother's place at the time, answered. She said no one had made any calls.
It just made them wonder if their friend, who had been famous for his sense of humor, was dropping a mischievously friendly sign.
"Bottom line, is I know it's just coincidence, but a part of my mind really wants to believe and so I'll kind of let myself believe it," he says. "It's just a bit comforting and the rest of it is still so overwhelming."
Denise Esposito says she also thinks some might be skeptical when she tells them about the times she has sensed her husband has sent her signs of encouragement, but it doesn't bother her.
"I know it sounds weird to some people, but I know it's him," she says. "That's what matters."