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Medicine Science

Visual Hallucinations Are a Normal Grief Reaction 550

Posted by kdawson
from the who-goes-there dept.
Hugh Pickens writes "Vaughn Bell has written an interesting essay at Scientific American about grief hallucinations. This phenomenon is a normal reaction to bereavement that is rarely discussed, although researchers now know that hallucinations are more likely during times of stress. Mourning seems to be a time when hallucinations are particularly common, to the point where feeling the presence of the deceased is the norm rather than the exception. A study by Agneta Grimby at the University of Goteborg found that over 80 percent of elderly people experience hallucinations associated with their dead partner one month after bereavement, as if their perception had yet to catch up with the knowledge of their beloved's passing. It's not unusual for people who have lost a partner to clearly see or hear the person about the house, and sometimes even converse with them at length. 'Despite the fact that hallucinations are one of the most common reactions to loss, they have barely been investigated and we know little more about them. Like sorrow itself, we seem a little uncomfortable with it, unwilling to broach the subject,' writes Bell. 'We often fall back on the cultural catch all of the "ghost" while the reality is, in many ways, more profound.' "
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Visual Hallucinations Are a Normal Grief Reaction

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  • And yet.... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @08:16AM (#25974045)

    Yet, there are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy...

    • by PinkyDead (862370)

      Good point.

      • by MrMr (219533) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @09:11AM (#25974487)
        Bad point. There may well be less things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of. Especially if you consider for instance pre-election rethoric as dreams.
        • Re:And yet.... (Score:5, Insightful)

          by Paranatural (661514) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @09:41AM (#25974877)

          Like sorrow itself, we seem a little uncomfortable with it, unwilling to broach the subject,' writes Bell. 'We often fall back on the cultural catch all of the "ghost" while the reality is, in many ways, more profound.' "

          I think you may be inadvertently particlaly correct. I believe there are both more and less things here on Earth than we think. Less ghosts and spirits, more real things like elbowed squid and shrimp that breathe methane and live in 500 C thermal vents.

          Truthfully though, I think the reason people are uncomfortable to research it is who wants to tell the 70 year old woman that the conversation she had last night with her dead husband that has now brought her some peace was a hallucination/dream?

          Besides, the researchers may well find themselves on the other end of that hallucination.

          • by thePowerOfGrayskull (905905) <marc,paradise&gmail,com> on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @10:01AM (#25975147) Homepage Journal

            Besides, the researchers may well find themselves on the other end of that hallucination.

            I totally hate when the people I'm studying start hallucinating me.

          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by cyphercell (843398)

            This happened to me when my best friend died. I was 18 and I had been good friends with him since I was 5. At the time I understood the situation in several ways. First I knew very well what lucid dreaming was and how profoundly real dreams can seem (it's a matter of attaining awareness/consciousness while you are dreaming). Second I had understood this situation to be a potential root for the near ubiquitous belief in zombies/ghosts/vampires, due to an armchair study of demonology. None of this information

            • Re:And yet.... (Score:4, Interesting)

              by AugstWest (79042) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @01:49PM (#25978195)

              My Paternal grandfather had died, and my grandmother was still kicking around 5 or 6 years later. I was dreaming one night that I was hanging out in the woods behind their house, when my grandfather came walking out of the woods and said to me, "It's time to call your grandmother."

              Normal dream fare, but for some reason it woke me up and I stored that I should call her. So, the next day, I woke up, went about my day, and called my grandmother and had a nice conversattion with her, which was fortunate because she died that night.

              I still have that walking stick in my office.

              Being certain that such things are impossible is just as stupid as believing in them, imho. We are just a bunch of monkeys. There's far stuff more going on that we don't understand than there is stuff we've scratched the surface of.

              You can smile and nod at me and think I'm a looney toon for thinking that the deceased may linger. I would be just as much in the right to smile and nod at you for thinking otherwise.

              Neither of us knows.

              • Re:And yet.... (Score:5, Insightful)

                by brkello (642429) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @03:49PM (#25980019)
                And I had a dream last night that there was a loud speaker in my house that said one of my co-workers had died and I needed to come in to work. Here I am at work and no one has died. Not really interesting since nothing happened...but if it did, then I would have the same sort of story you did.

                We dream all kinds of crazy things. Just because every now and then a coincidence happens doesn't really mean anything. It isn't science because it isn't repeatable. Now if every night your dreams could predict something real, then you might have something. Right now you just have a +5 interesting story.
              • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

                by ffflala (793437)

                I had a similar experience. One detail that you mentioned grabbed my attention: it woke you up.

                I had a dream in which my grandmother (by then confined to a wheelchair) came for a visit, was walking with braces and my aunts on either side, then stepped away from the braces, their arms, and walked into our house.

                My dream woke me up; wide awake, clear, not at all groggy, and much earlier than usual. I knew she had passed. It was a peaceful sensation, somehow allowing me to skip the initial, painful stages of g

        • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

          by INT_QRK (1043164)
          Ah, but in politics, as well as governance, there's but a fine line between "Vision" and hallucination, which which we tend to comprehend mainly in retrospect...
    • Imagine that (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @09:37AM (#25974831)
      On the human brain: Large enough to support a vast, fertile imagination, yet still too small to often recognize imagination for what it is.
      • by MickLinux (579158) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @12:01PM (#25976783) Journal

        The human brain seems to be very good at making shortcuts to speed up processing.

        So when I'm around my wife, my human brain assumes that the person I see is my wife (shoot, it even assumes the warmth next to me in bed is my wife, and that the person I'm talking to is my wife), and interprets it that way for me.

        So in bereavement, suddenly you're deprived of the actual stimulus. But that doesn't mean that the brain is going to let those circuits sit idle. No... the moment any unknown stimulus comes in, it's going to try to match it to the "wife" circuit. And if the "wife" circuit triggers better than anything else, then that's what I'm going to see.

        In other words, we don't see things as they are; we see them as we interpret them.

        So I suspect that this is just a case of the bereaved person mistaking a cat streaking around the house for their spouse. Or a bird in the air, etc.

        Which doesn't mean that I don't believe in the human soul, and heaven and hell. But I don't think this is it. There's a better, simpler explaination at hand, and one that matches my occasional experience even nowadays, when I'm not bereaved.

        "Laura, is that you out there?" ... oh no, sorry. It's just my son's friend.

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          I've noticed a similar effect learning foreign languages... when I came back from Japan, every conversation I half-heard in the background sounded like Japanese until I got close enough to make out what was being said. When I got back from Argentina, everything sounded Spanish.

        • by syousef (465911) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @03:01PM (#25979219) Journal

          The human brain seems to be very good at making shortcuts to speed up processing.

          So when I'm around my wife, my human brain assumes that the person I see is my wife (shoot, it even assumes the warmth next to me in bed is my wife, and that the person I'm talking to is my wife), and interprets it that way for me.

          If your brain was REALLY good at making shortcuts, it'd skip all that and use the only shortcut a married man needs: "Yes dear" ;-)

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by macraig (621737)

        Sometimes delusion masquerades as imagination.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by yakmans_dad (1144003)
      My father was in the hospital when my grandmother (his mother) came by to see how he was recovering. Pretty well, he said. They talked of this and that and finally my father had to mention that though he was pleased that Grandma had stopped by he was puzzled because she'd died the month before.

      A couple of years later, after Dad died, he came by to see me and would have said something except that his mouth had been sewn shut.
    • Re:And yet.... (Score:4, Interesting)

      by AugstWest (79042) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @01:43PM (#25978117)

      Seriously, this statement:

      'We often fall back on the cultural catch all of the "ghost" while the reality is, in many ways, more profound.' "

      What could be more profound than the spirit of the deceased lingering?

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        It seems pretty mundane to suppose that after going through the most fundamental transformation a person can possibly experience, they have nothing better to do than hang around their old family some more.

  • What if.. (Score:2, Funny)

    by jimshatt (1002452)
    ..they are actually not hallucinating? (I, for one, welcome our dead, elderly, overlords)
  • Ghosts (Score:4, Insightful)

    by tehcyder (746570) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @08:18AM (#25974053) Journal
    One thing that the death of someone I loved has proved to me is that there are no ghosts, and certainly no afterlife.

    The dead only live on in people's memories.

    • Re:Ghosts (Score:4, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @08:28AM (#25974117)

      One thing that the death of someone I loved has proved to me is that there are no ghosts, and certainly no afterlife.

      How exactly did someone's death prove there is no afterlife? I can understand not believing in an afterlife, but how did someone you love's dying prove it?

      • Re:Ghosts (Score:5, Funny)

        by Hijacked Public (999535) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @09:05AM (#25974419)
        Dug 'em up, they were still in there.
      • Re:Ghosts (Score:4, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @09:11AM (#25974491)

        One thing that the death of someone I loved has proved to me is that there are no ghosts, and certainly no afterlife.

        How exactly did someone's death prove there is no afterlife? I can understand not believing in an afterlife, but how did someone you love's dying prove it?

        Seems like a very subjective opinion, and no "proof" as such.

        I can only assume he was referring to the fact that his grief caused him to feel that the person was still there (i.e. hallucinating), and this experience was resembling the "ghost" phenomenon to such an extent that he can see why people would think there are ghosts.

        • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

          by krewemaynard (665044)

          Seems like a very subjective opinion, and no "proof" as such.

          Subjectivism, on my Slashdot? It's more likely than you think.

      • Re:Ghosts (Score:4, Insightful)

        by ObsessiveMathsFreak (773371) <obsessivemathsfreakNO@SPAMeircom.net> on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @09:20AM (#25974621) Homepage Journal

        Because belief in an afterlife didn't make him feel any better. Since that was in fact its major selling point, as an all purpose disaster recovery solution, he wisely decided not to renew the license after the incident.

        People really need to understand that while religious solution providers have great marketing departments, by objective measures their systems leave a lot to be desired and often don't justify the TCO, or the inevitable lock in to the providers total solution suite.

      • Re:Ghosts (Score:5, Funny)

        by clam666 (1178429) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @09:45AM (#25974913)

        How exactly did someone's death prove there is no afterlife? I can understand not believing in an afterlife, but how did someone you love's dying prove it?/

        He postulated his epistemology a priori then pronounced it a posteriori posthumously.

        Probably.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by rdnetto (955205)

      Who is to say that living on in your memories is not a form of ghostliness? Its an unorthodox view, but I believe this is what the summary is getting at.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      One thing that my death has proved to me is that certainly there is afterlife.

  • Eh (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Futile Rhetoric (1105323) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @08:20AM (#25974055)

    Yes, misfiring braincells are way more profound than the possibility of a life after death and all that it entails.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Jamu (852752)
      They've seen their partner almost everyday for several years, and when they suddenly disappear, they occasionally see them for a bit afterwards. The adaptability of the human brain is less than perfect.
      • Re:Eh (Score:5, Insightful)

        by DriedClexler (814907) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @10:41AM (#25975651)

        Yes, plus, your perceptions are also highly influence by your expectations, both conscious and unconscious. I think that applies here too: if you've come to expect someone being around, your brain will "fill in the missing gaps" (similar in concept to a running-average algorithm).

        In another context, that's why you can't tickle yourself: because your brain "expects" the feeling of your fingers, since you're also the one generating that touch. In order to successfully tickle yourself, you have to introduce a time lag: set up some device such that when you operate it, a few seconds later it your motions get transformed into a tickling motion against your skin.

  • Morning (Score:5, Funny)

    by Dan East (318230) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @08:22AM (#25974069) Homepage Journal

    Mourning seems to be a time when hallucinations are particularly common

    Yes, this is very common, and is usually attributed to the caffeine withdrawal symptoms prior to morning coffee.

    • Re:Morning (Score:5, Interesting)

      by elrous0 (869638) * on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @09:17AM (#25974571)
      A lot of early morning hallucinations probably also come when a person is still asleep, but doesn't realize it. I saw a documentary on sleep research not long ago where they showed that during certain phases of a sleep cycle, a person could actually be asleep and still think they're awake. People in these phases would often interpret lingering sleep paralysis as some weight on their chest, not realizing it was just the remnants of them dreaming.
      • Re:Morning (Score:4, Insightful)

        by yakmans_dad (1144003) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @09:53AM (#25975039)
        I suffer from bad insomnia which I had thought was even worse until my wife proved to me that a lot of my sleeplessness was caused by my habit of dreaming that I was awake. I'd be lying in bed fretful because I couldn't sleep while my wife was trying to rouse me because I was snoring so loud.

        The illusion of being awake was so strong -- the cliche that we can tell the difference between reality and dreams is a crock -- that I refused to believe her until I had to rouse her for doing the same thing.
    • "mourning coffee"
      There, fixed it for you!

  • by Mister Transistor (259842) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @08:22AM (#25974071) Journal

    For several weeks after a beloved cat of mine died, I swear I saw him out of the corner of my eye a few times! Most of the "hallucinations" were brief glimpses, but one I particularly remember I turned a corner and swear I saw him sitting there. I even said involuntarily "Hi, Prince..." then realized after a few seconds that nothing was there. Pretty creepy, huh? After about a month or so I stopped "seeing" him around. So long, my friend.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @08:25AM (#25974085)

      That's quite clearly just a simple glitch in the Matrix.

    • by pdh11 (227974) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @08:37AM (#25974189) Homepage

      I turned a corner and swear I saw him sitting there. I even said involuntarily "Hi, Prince..."

      Stories like this make me wonder whether we actually hallucinate the presence of cats, maybe even people, all the time, and it's only when it happens after the cat has passed away that we think twice about such events and realise that they must have been hallucinations...

      Peter

      • by MrMr (219533) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @09:20AM (#25974613)
        I have been told "You don't exist, go away!" [cygwin.com]. Perhaps that was no error message.
      • Ghost stories (Score:5, Interesting)

        by mcgrew (92797) * on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @09:56AM (#25975061) Homepage Journal

        The mind is a wierd thing to live in. I've "seen a ghost" twice in my life. Both were wierd. Neither was explicable.

        The first time my oldest was an infant and my youngest wasn't born. We lived in a funny shaped house by a railroad track (we were dirt poor). The (now ex) wife and I had just gone to bed, and both of us saw a thin, very pale woman with long black hair and wearing what looked like a "dressing gown"' from ages past walking past the bedroom door! We thought there was an intruder. We both jumped up, I looking for the intruder and she checking to make sure the baby was alright.

        It was extremely strange that we would both have the same hallucination at the same time. We finally decided that we'd seen the ghost of a woman who'd been struck by a train.

        The second time I saw a ghost I came to the conclusion that seeing ghosts isn't a hallucination or sight of a disembodied spirit but a wrinkle in the spacetime continuum. The girls were visiting the wife's family in Missouri and I had the house to myself. I was sitting on the toilet, and since I was alone I didn't bother shutting the bathroom door.

        I looked up just as a woman wearing contemporary-looking clothing walked up to the door, startled out of her wits as if she'd seen a ghost, as was I, -- and then she vanished.

        There is a lot about the physical world that we not only have never investigated, but never expected or suspected.

    • by elrous0 (869638) * on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @09:11AM (#25974493)

      In the same way a human brain seems wired to see recognizable patterns in random material, I think a part of us is also hard-wired to seek familiarity and anticipate familiar sights by "seeing" them before they actually appear. That's why it's so shocking (or even traumatizing) when you see the same sight your whole life, only to have it disappear or radically change one day. I remember one story from a New Yorker after 9-11 who said he occasionally still spotted the towers out of the corner of his eye because he was so used to them being there.

      Most humans find comfort in the familiar. And when it's not there, it can be very hard for us to accept--and take even more time for the brain to adjust to that absence.

    • you did (Score:3, Funny)

      by unity100 (970058)
      it takes time for a soul passed to the other side to adjust to higher frequency and eventually become unperceptible for us.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by penguin_dance (536599)

      I really don't agree with this all being just a hallucination. I have had a close connection to several pets. Some that lived with me and some that no longer did. The first time I experienced this phenomenon, I was on vacation with the furry family kenneled and I had a dream that had a lot of dogs in it. It was a pleasant dream, not bad at all, but when I awoke, I had this overwhelming need to call the kennel and check on my pack. It turns out my elder dog had passed away that morning and they had just gott

  • by Anonymous Coward

    But that's because the only time I ever lost a friend (you expect to lose grandparents) all the young folk she knew went and dropped acid. It's what she would have wanted...

  • Jesus. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by DoofusOfDeath (636671) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @08:40AM (#25974207)

    I'm not trying to start a flamewar (seriously), but I wonder if this is what happened when Jesus' disciples reportedly met with him after his death.

    Although that would require multiple people to have similar hallucinations at the same time, since some of the accounts describe Jesus meeting with groups of disciples after his death.

  • by theilliterate (1381151) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @08:45AM (#25974251)
    That in 80% of cases some remnant, some energy of that person was left behind? Just because it happens frequently doesn't mean it is *not* supernatural in nature.

    Do they have MRIs of people while they are experiencing a hallucination like this? Something to show the brain is dreaming, and not simply observing?

    By the same token, I suppose we can't really prove that there is an observation going on. I've had family members relate to me that they remember a sequence of events, in a very specific way. I remember the same events differently. Either we are people from different dimensions who have slipped between worlds to share this one, or we have altered our own memories to suit what we would have liked to happen. One of these is more consistent with current science. It doesn't guarantee that the other option won't be found to be possible at some point.
    • by Andr T. (1006215) <andretaffNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @08:55AM (#25974317)

      Just because it happens frequently doesn't mean it is *not* supernatural in nature.

      That's why I pray every day to our great Flying Spaghetti Monster so I can see his terrific, supernatural tentacles grabbing down everything where others just see "gravity".

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Ian Alexander (997430)
      It's possible. So are flying spaghetti monsters, Santa Claus, and God. I can haz evidence, plz?
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      That in 80% of cases some remnant, some energy of that person was left behind? Just because it happens frequently doesn't mean it is *not* supernatural in nature.

      Absolutely. Why, in 46% of documented cases, energy inductance drain has been detected in the vicinity of dead bodies, decaying exponentially with time and oscillating about a void karma mean. And in 67.2% of such cases, inductance eddies were suggested by gathered data as having occurred before the obituarial event. Couple this evidence with well

  • by seanellis (302682) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @08:48AM (#25974269) Homepage Journal

    You've been living with someone for years, you develop a model of their behavior in your brain. With them there, this helps to predict where they are likely to be, what they said in that indistinct murmur from the other room, how they are likely to react when you say that you're late for the third time this week.

    So this model is going to be still running even after they have gone. You "know" that your spouse will be in the living room watching "Strictly Come Dancing" because it's 7pm. So your mental model will fill them in, and as you walk into the room it will take a little time for the model to adjust. Is this the "corner of the eye" effect at work?

    OK, so I'm not a clinical psychologist, not even close. But it seems a very plausible model to me.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by gunnk (463227)
      I lost a much-loved dog (Indy -- "we named the dog Indiana") last fall.

      I felt his presence for quite some time though I never saw him.

      Then again, someone that barely knew him DID see him. She came around a corner and saw him sitting there for a couple of seconds. Real surprise for her!

      I'm not making any claims here -- extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence -- but she certainly had no mental model to follow nor strong attachment that would lead you to expect her to hallucinate his presence.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by hey! (33014)

      I've said this for years. You leave a you-shaped hole in the people around you when you die; and they in the people around them. Added up, it's a kind of immortality. After all "I" am not a collection of cells, I think of myself more as a collection of habits, behaviors, ideas and beliefs.

    • by theilliterate (1381151) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @09:11AM (#25974495)
      I remember when I was a kid, I shared a bedroom with my older brother.

      I would hear him whispering in his sleep, it would go on for hours.

      Then he went away on a school trip and I could still hear the whispering.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Seakip18 (1106315)

      Exactly. My dad passed away a little over three weeks ago and my mom swears up and down she has seen him. My dad had dialysis in a chair right across from their bed, so my mom naturally started seeing him in or around that chair. Though, to be fair, she's under a lot of stress and her potassium levels were pretty low for 2 weeks.

  • by handy_vandal (606174) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @09:05AM (#25974429) Homepage Journal

    Sounds to me like the social equivalent of phantom limb pain [wikipedia.org]: "My other half is gone, but I still feel his/her presence."

    I'm also reminded of sensory deprivation [wikipedia.org] -- when deprived of normal sensory input, the mind generates hallucinatory sensations.

  • by Xelios (822510) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @09:24AM (#25974679)
    They've barely been investigated because one of the best avenues for investigating them, hallucinogenic drugs, has been actively suppressed. Take the tryptamines for example. Here we have a class of chemicals that are, for the most part, physically harmless, that can be administered in a controlled setting and are all but guaranteed to produce hallucinations. Hell one of them, dimethyltryptamine (DMT), is even produced naturally in the human brain. This is the most powerful hallucinogen known to exist, yet we know almost nothing about it or what it's doing there, because (ironically) it's a Schedule I drug. Technically, we're all guilty of possession of a controlled substance.

    Whether these things should be legalized is another topic, but at least make it easier for researchers to do legitimate science with them. Just tell me where to sign up.
    • Hallucinations (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Tuidjy (321055) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @01:56PM (#25978309)

      I've had one hallucination, without any grief or drugs. I think stress is enough.

      I was kayaking nears rocks, surfing very high waves, lost my kayak, and spent 15 minutes in the surf, hitting rocks multiple times. I got out, retrieved my kayak, launched, and paddled to a place where I could relax... then I had a pretty long and elaborate hallucination.

      It involved three-four deities (Tangra, Athena, Poseidon and the Lady) and the appropriate sacrifices I should perform for my pretty damn miraculous survival. I'm an atheist, and I cannot help but think that this is how religions get started.

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by Raenex (947668)

        It involved three-four deities (Tangra, Athena, Poseidon and the Lady) and the appropriate sacrifices I should perform for my pretty damn miraculous survival.

        Ok, don't leave us hanging. What were the sacrifices, and did you perform them?

  • not just death (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Lord Ender (156273) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @09:45AM (#25974915) Homepage

    I observed this phenomenon with grief over a girlfriend. We broke up after four years together. Afterward, I kept seeing her out of the corner of my eye, and my heart would skip a beat. It was always someone else, though.

    Another unusual visual phenomenon: when the grief was particularly overwhelming, I started seeing in black-and-white, or at least with muted perception of color.

    Since then I have avoided this problem by always breaking up with a girl as soon as things start getting serious. Hey, it works.

  • Ghosts (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Doc Ruby (173196) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @09:52AM (#25975021) Homepage Journal

    Or, they're ghosts.

The trouble with opportunity is that it always comes disguised as hard work. -- Herbert V. Prochnow

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