Sydney Sherman wants you to understand the afterlife as she sees it—and she means she literally sees it.
The Madison resident says she always has been "gifted," as she calls it, with the ability to connect with the dead. It's a talent she first realized when she was 5 years old.
Sherman was talking with a kindergarten classmate when a little girl walked up to her.
"Being the polite little child I was, I said, 'Hello' to her," says Sherman, who was surprised when her friend looked at her quizzically and began laughing.
"I turned around and ran home crying to my mommy," Sherman recalls.
Fortunately for the young girl, her mother knew exactly how to respond—Sherman's grandfather also was gifted.
"I just didn't realize that other people couldn't see what I could see," Sherman notes. "As I got older and started to see all the misconceptions people have...about what happens in the afterlife, I thought, 'People are missing the (point)—they're so tied up in the falsehood" that the dead manifest themselves as wounded, gory spectres or vengeance-seeking demons.
"I'm 50 years old now...and I have never seen a demon," she adds.
Sherman explains the media's preoccupation with frightening afterlife phenomena (think the blockbuster "Paranormal Activity" franchise and popular ghost-hunting shows) simply: "People have a basic need to want to be scared"—a need often matched by their desire to be entertained.
And the entertainment industry is indeed brimming with individuals claiming to be mediums. It's a group from which Sherman proudly distinguishes herself.
"The real, true legitimate (mediums) you're not going to see on TV because we don't fit the mold...I'm considered a medium because of what I do, but I don't like the term; it sounds like a carnival act...I don't want to be associated with that," she says.
Sherman thinks that perpetuating the idea that it takes "magical" powers to communicate with the dead does a disservice to everyday people.
"Every one of us has an ability. We all have an ability to connect with (those who have passed away)...It's very hard to see them—that's the least common ability—but usually (people can perceive the dead through) smell or touch," she says.
Sherman's first book, "You Are Not Alone: Our Loved Ones Are Here...You're Just Not Listening," released this past June, outlines ways she says laypeople can tap into "the extraordinary possibilities of extending our relationships beyond death."
Her ideas are taking off—about 3,000 copies of the book have been sold so far, and Sherman's calendar is filling up with book-signing engagements across the state.
"The response has been awesome," she says. "People are very open to it. I have not had anybody, to my surprise, give me a hard time...I thought...there would be pushback, but I'm talking about stuff that's made more sense to people than what we see on TV—that our loved ones who've passed are really here all the time...It's not 'Mom' and 'Dad' like they were when they were alive—you can't go shopping with them—but you can still have some type of relationship with them."
What it takes to achieve this, says Sherman, is a heightened awareness of daily phenomena.
"When I speak to audiences, I'll ask how many people have ever noticed a familiar smell" but have been unable to identify its source. "Probably three-quarters of the room put their hand in the air...What you do then is you stop, right then and there...You look for a rational reason for why you would be smelling that...You've got to be rational first, and the reason I want people to be rational first is that I want them to have the real experience...and they have to know for sure" that there isn't a logical explanation for the smell.
From there, Sherman says to ask the source of the smell to do something that can be observed, like touch his or her arm or move an object.
"Ask them to do this three times. Then you start having a conversation with them," she states.
Of course, Sherman says, even more important than being hyper-aware is being open to the idea that one can communicate with the dead. And she's no stranger to skeptics—her own husband was one until several years into their marriage. But, of all the non-believers she's encountered in the 10 years, she says she's only been unable to convince one. Inspired by that encounter, she asks, "Is it easier to believe what the mind tells you is true, or is it easier to see the truth and convince your mind otherwise?"
Sherman has publicly proclaimed herself a medium for about a decade, but her efforts to demystify the paranormal for the masses date back to 1971, when she founded the Connecticut Ghost Hunters. Her motivation then was the same as it is now.
"It's not because I wanted to see for myself if spirits existed; I know they do. I wanted to capture for others what I see," she explains.
"You Are Not Alone" is another part of that mission, and Sherman's day job as a geriatric nurse has enabled her to use her "gifts" to help others.
"When people are getting ready to pass away, the families are devastated by it....and one of the reasons is we don't want the thought of never seeing them again...By letting them know who's standing around the bed who's passed away and that Mom isn't hallucinating; Mom is actually going through a normal process and she's seeing the loved ones who are there, I help loved ones understand that they can actually be a part of the death process. It makes it so much easier for them to deal with the death."
While Sherman says she would love to sell books and pack the audience at her upcoming appearances, it's equally important to her to get her basic message across.
"Forget everything else—I just want people to know your loved ones are always with you. They're at every family party, every wedding, every anniversary. We should be saying, 'Good morning' to them every morning and 'Good night' to them before we go to bed."
For more information about Sydney Sherman, her book, and the Connecticut Ghost Hunters, visit www.sydneysherman.net.