As the world grieves, spiritualism is thriving. But can we really connect with those we have lost? Or is the industry sharking on our vulnerability? Seven years on from losing her dad, Jessica Davis finds out...
It's not until I approach the house that I wonder what the hell I’m doing. The street is suburban calm, the leafy green trees dancing in the breeze. Inside, my stomach twists and turns. I take a breath and open the iron gate, before ringing the doorbell.
‘Come in,’ he says, leading me to his front room. We’ve never met before, but he feels strangely comforting, with a soft buttery voice and a stillness that makes me forget about what could happen next. I study his face for a reason to recognise him, but I can’t find one.
‘You look so much like your father,’ he says, knowing how much those words will mean to me. But he has never met my father. Not really. And there are no photographs of Dad, in this white-washed room, with creaky wooden floorboards. This man knows nothing of my family, or my past. Yet he also seems to know absolutely everything. How?
Turning to a medium for answers, as I have, is becoming increasingly common. Spiritualism, the religion that is based on the belief that the spirits of the dead exist and want to communicate with us, is booming right now. There are more than 300 spiritualist churches in the UK, and the Spiritualists’ National Union has seen a surge of interest since the pandemic began – in the first month of lockdown, applications for membership increased by 325%. Over on TikTok, there’s @kendallthemedium who does ‘collective readings’ for her 690k followers, while @chrisrileypsychicposts tarot readings on his Insta page, and counts various Love Islanders and reality TV stars as his clients.
I’ve long been interested in spiritualism as a practice and have found it – in the past – to be incredibly helpful in guiding me through tough times. I lost my dad when I was 18 and not a day goes by when I don’t think of him, and all the parts of my life he’s missing. Spiritualism tells me he’s still here, in a way, and thinking of that has helped me through my toughest moments.
So I really do understand why spiritualism is appealing to so many right now – at the time of writing, four million people around the world have died from COVID-19. With so many of us mourning the loss of loved ones, it’s understandable that people are turning to spiritualism and its ability to provide a sense of comfort and control, during one of the most uncontrollable times in history.
But, from the outset, spiritualism has had both sceptics and frauds who – some say – take advantage of those grieving when they’re at their weakest. And, even if we can have access to our lost loved ones, is it healthy to keep visiting them through a medium? Or does it stop us from moving on with the grieving process?
Just before I rang medium Anthony Kesner’s doorbell, I was on the verge of a panic attack. The reality of what I was doing hit me and nervous energy filled my body, with intrusive thoughts swirling around my head. I’d been dreaming of my dad almost nightly, something that happened over and over just after he died. I wanted some sort of confirmation that he was okay. I’d chosen Anthony after reading almost every single Google review of him. He describes himself as a psychic, medium and clairvoyant and he charges £50 for half an hour – during which he tries to reconnect you with someone you thought you’d lost forever.
This is fairly reasonable – celebrity medium Thomas John, who advises the likes of Jennifer Lopez, Jenna Dewan and Sam Smith, costs around £580 per hour and has a waiting list of several years, with emergency sessions costing £920 per hour.
But it’s more than just money at stake. Grieving is a long, painful process. I’ve come a long way in understanding my personal journey, and there was a risk all that work could unravel if this went wrong. I wasn’t sure I could take any more heartbreak over Dad. I felt vulnerable, like my fears were written all over my face – something that could easily be taken advantage of in the wrong hands. Heartbroken people are paying for a glimmer of hope.
I sat expectantly on the opposite end of the room, Anthony began by shutting his eyes, putting his palms on his knees and breathing deeply. After a few seconds, which seemed to stretch out for an eternity, he said,‘You’re here for your father, aren’t you?’ He then proceeded to tell me I looked like him, describe vivid memories of my childhood spent outdoors and detail what my life is like now and the people in it. He even knew the nickname Dad had for me – there’s no way he could know that level of detail. He knew about family holidays and childhood hobbies. There was no way he could have researched this information as I’d given false details and, during my session, I gave nothing away – no reactions to go off. It was obvious this was not a cold reading – where mediums and psychics give general information that anyone could relate to, hoping to reel someone in. Speaking as my dad, he told me how proud he was of me and how excited he was that I’d come to speak to him.
‘It’s a joy to have him here with me, he’s so illuminating. He says he could sit here and watch you all day,’ Anthony said. ‘He loves you so much.’
It was at that point that happy tears rolled down my cheeks, my face hurting from my unstoppable grin. The half-hour session felt like being snuggled up in a blanket on a cold day. ‘You can’t ask more from a person than living life like he did,’ Anthony told me, smiling. ‘He embraced it and that’s what he wants you to do.’
On my way home, I felt different. For the first time in months, I felt calm and reassured that things are going to be fine. Dad might not be physically here for a beer in the pub or a hug when times get hard, but just knowing he's with me wherever I am is enough. It's an addictive feeling, the kind you want to bottle up. I wanted to book another session immediately, feeling as if I'd found a huge secret that no one else knows. It's clear how this could become an addictive high to keep chasing and that could, eventually, do more harm than good.
'Most people go to see mediums and psychics not because they’re freshly bereaved, but because time has passed, and they don’t want to let go. It’s an attempt to keep that connection with the dead,' Felicity Carter tells me on the phone from Germany. As an ex-astrologer, she spent a lot of time in the spiritual world and with people who claim to see the dead.
Four years ago, Linda Nash lost her husband and son in the space of just five months. After seeing an advert, she first went to see a medium a couple of months following her son’s death. Today, she sees her sometimes twice a week, and did so during lockdown via Zoom. It’s these sessions and the reminder that there is an afterlife that helps keep her feeling positive in the wake of such tragedy.
‘The first time my son came through, she said she’d never seen such a big angel,’ Linda laughs and explains that he was 6ft 7in. Her medium knew nothing about her story previously or who she was.‘It’s so specific what she says, the only person that would know it is you or the person that has died. She once asked me, "Mum, has your new ring arrived yet?" I'd ordered a new "mum" ring shortly after my son Wes had died. I hadn’t told anyone I’d ordered it. It’s those little details that make it impossible for her to know unless it was him telling her,’ she explains to me. ‘I cope because I believe. I now know they’re just fine where they are and that they’re in a better place.’
It’s a confirmation that Dennie Smith wants to find. She has visited around 15 different psychic mediums and various group sessions to try to contact her grandmother, who died 10 years ago. ‘I visited a lot of mediums when I was really down,’ she says. ‘You go for two reasons: either when you’re feeling vulnerable or grieving. I don’t want to be hoodwinked just because I want to talk to my nan.’ Some, she says, got all the details wrong, leaving her frustrated. But she did manage to find one who knew her grandma’s name was Margaret, with the nickname Peggy. ‘I remember when she was dying, she asked me how she could get in touch. I told her she’d find a way and she did. I came out of there feeling content and believing she was there.’
‘I’ve been to so many now trying to find that comfort,’ she says, wanting to try different people to see if they match up with others. ‘Once at a group session, I wanted to scream because it felt like such a sham. They kept picking on this shy woman until she agreed with what they were saying to find a tedious link to prove they were right.’
It’s these kinds of experiences that give the industry a bad name, of preying on people’s vulnerability for their own monetary gain. So, what makes a good medium? It’s all about the smaller details. Try booking under a fake name and give nothing away during your session – it’s surprising how much someone can piece together after a quick Google search. If they are the real deal, they’ll give you specifics and tiny details only you and that person would know. But it’s not just about the medium, it’s about where you are at in your journey and the impact the process might have on you – positive or negative.
When my dad died, I noticed something: it was really hard to speak about my grief and the reality of losing him. After the funeral, it felt like I was expected to snap back and be ‘normal.’ The messages of support started to disappear, and I was left alone with the aching loss. It took me a longtime to realise that I would have to carry my grief with me for the rest of my life, and that was okay – others were going through the same thing.
It’s something I’ve learned from being part of The Grief Network – a supportive platform to talk about the harsh reality of being young and grieving. Which is why I found myself nodding in agreement when Felicity spoke of another reason those grieving find comfort in spiritualism. ‘They offer one thing that the modern world doesn’t: a place where you can actually talk about death. It’s probably the last place where people can sit down and just remember them,’ she says. ‘Grief in our society has become very corporatised. If you’re not coping, you’re told to see a professional, offered antidepressants and people avoid talking to you until you’re over it because it’s too uncomfortable for them. Spirituals and mediums offer understanding.’
Throughout history, people have turned to mediums after times of crisis. After the Great War and Spanish influenza, there were around 2,000 registered spiritualist societies and an estimated 250,000 adherents in the UK. And, as we emerge from a year of great loss, more and more people are likely to seek out comfort from spiritualists and their world. I feel more centred than ever after my experience. It’s comforting to know my dad is still present
in my life.
Seeing the medium smile and laugh at my dad’s presence reminded me of the person he was. His energy lit up a room and other people were drawn to that, like moths dancing around a streetlight. ‘[Mediums] are talking about [death] all the time, which makes them one of the few people in the world who are comfortable with death in the western world,’ adds Felicity.
But I could see how easy it would be to get sucked into visiting Anthony Kesner consistently, just for that slice of time with my dad, and how that perhaps might not be the healthiest thing. It’s important to ensure that visiting mediums is something to complement your healing process, rather than encompass it. Always seek professional help if you’re worried about yourself, how you’re coping or about someone else.
Grieving is a lonely place, but the thought of them staying around makes it a bit more bearable. And, even hardcore sceptics can’t deny the comfort visiting a good medium can bring.
That said, the sad reality is that conversations about death and grief are still seen as taboo for so many cultures. But if we start talking more often and openly with those around us, perhaps fewer people would have to visit a medium and pay for that privilege.
Cosmopolitan UK's October/November issue is out now.
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