The night before my 87-year-old mother died, she couldn’t stop talking. While asleep, she jabbered away through the night. Because of her slurred speech resulting from several strokes, as well as advanced dementia, I couldn’t make out what she was saying. However, she seemed to be desperately pleading with someone.
My wife and I had brought my mother up from her Berkeley, California rest home several days earlier to spend Thanksgiving 2003 with us at our Oregon home. We moved a spare bed into our bedroom so that we could better care for her. It was on the fourth or fifth night at our house, Thanksgiving night, that she began talking in her sleep.
The next morning, as I was carrying her from the bedroom downstairs to her wheelchair so that I could wheel her out to the car and drive her back to Berkeley, her eyes rolled back in her head and she “gave up the ghost.”
In retrospect, I suspect that all the talking the prior night was with deceased loved ones who were trying to convince her that it was time to leave the physical world. Mom seemed very much afraid of dying when she was lucid. Whether that fear remained with her in her demented state, I have no idea, but I have no other explanation for her all-night chatter, other than the possibility that she was pleading with someone to help her disengage her spirit body from her weary physical shell.
Very recently, my mother’s sister passed on at age 81. My cousin informed me that her mother, my aunt, had many conversations with deceased loved ones during the last week of her life.
Whether or not my mother and aunt actually communicated with deceased love ones before they died, I have no way of knowing for sure, but I do know that there is considerable evidence to suggest that such deathbed visits are not unusual.
“They’re so common I don’t think much about them any more,” said Ginny Chappelear, senior coordinator of bereavement services at the Tidewell Hospice in Sarasota, Florida, when I asked her if deathbed visions and visitations (DBVs) are common among hospice patients. “We call them the ‘Gathering of Spirits’.”
Chappelear, who has been doing hospice work for more than 20 years, recalled an early experience in which a woman was dying at home. “About five days before her death, she reported seeing a man looking in the window,” Chappelear offered. “This was out in the country and we were concerned that it was a peeping tom. But when the man came back, she told us that it was her brother who had died many years earlier. ‘He’s just waiting for me,’ she said. ‘I’ll go with him the next time he comes.’ It was very comforting to her.”
A more recent case involved a woman who was one of seven siblings and the sole survivor. “A day or two before she died, she started calling out the names of all her siblings,” Chappelear remembered, “as if she were greeting them and saying, ‘Come on take me.’”
She recalled another case in which a father was dying and told his daughter that there was a loved one standing right there with her hands on his shoulders. “You can’t see them,” the dying man said, “but some day you’ll understand what it is like.”
For “people of faith” these visions and visitations make the dying process much easier, Chappelear added.
Skeptics say that the visions of the dying are nothing more than hallucinations. Of course they are if we define a hallucination as something outside of the range of the five ordinary senses. Such a definition does not mean it is not real, whatever “real” means.
Delusions perhaps? However, it is very difficult to discount certain cases. Consider that of “Jennie” and “Bessie” (both pseudonyms for privacy purposes) as related by Dr. Minot J. Savage, a popular Unitarian clergyman and author, in his 1899 book, Life Beyond Death.
Jennie and Bessie, ages 8-9, were close friends in a city in Massachusetts, and both were afflicted with diphtheria. Jennie died on Wednesday, but Bessie was not informed of her friend’s death, as her family felt it might stand in the way of her recovery.
On Saturday, Bessie apparently realized that she was going to die and began telling her parents which of her brothers, sisters, and playmates should receive her treasured belongings. “Among these she pointed out certain things of which she was very fond, that were to go to Jennie—thus settling all question as to whether or not she had found out that Jennie was not still living,” Savage wrote.
A little later, as she approached death, she began seeing deceased grandparents and others gathered around her bed. “And then she turned to her father, with face and voice both expressing the greatest surprise, and exclaimed, ‘Why, Papa, why didn’t you tell me that Jennie had gone? Why didn’t you tell me of it?’” Savage ends the story, commenting that this and similar stories suggest that more than hallucination and imagination are involved.
Savage also reported the case of a small boy who had befriended a judge of some prominence living in the neighborhood. After the boy was put to bed one night, his parents heard him crying. They rushed to him and asked him what was wrong. “Judge says he’s dead! He has been here and told me that he is dead!” the boy sobbed. The next morning the parents found out that the judge had died at about that time the night before.
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the physician who revolutionized medicine’s approach to death and dying during the latter part of the twentieth century, wrote that many children with terminal diseases become aware of the ability to leave the physical body and have out-of-body experiences (OBEs). “It is during those out-of-body trips that dying patients become aware of the presence of beings who surround them, who guide them, and help them.”
Kübler-Ross, who frequently sat with critically injured children, recalled that many of them were not told which of their family members were killed in the same accident, yet they were invariably aware of who had preceded them in death. “Everything is all right now,” one critically injured child told Kübler-Ross. “Mommy and Peter are already waiting for me.” Kübler-Ross knew that the child’s mother had died at the accident scene, but was unaware that Peter, who had been in the burn unit in a different hospital, had also expired. It was not until she left the child’s bedside that she received a phone call from a nurse at the other hospital informing her that Peter had transitioned.
In another case, a 12-year-old girl reported that her brother was there with her and offering great tenderness, love, and compassion. However, the girl was confused because she had, to her knowledge, no brother, living or dead. The father explained that she did have a brother who died about three months before she was born, but he and her mother had decided not to tell her about him.
“[Such] cases form, perhaps, one of the most cogent arguments for survival after death, as the evidential value of these visions of the dying is greatly enhanced when the fact is undeniably established that the dying person was wholly ignorant of the decease of the person he or she so vividly sees,” wrote Sir William Barrett, a renowned British physicist, in his now classic book, Death-Bed Visions, first published in 1926, the year after his death.
Barrett reported on a case told to him by his wife, an obstetric surgeon. Lady (Florence) Barrett, who later became dean of the London School of Medicine for Women, was tending to a dying woman (“Mrs. B.”), who had just given birth. Mrs. B. commented that it was getting “darker and darker.” Her husband and mother were beckoned. “Suddenly she looked eagerly toward one part of the room, a radiant smile illuminating her whole countenance,” Lady Barrett recalled. “Oh, lovely, lovely,” the dying woman said. Lady Barrett asked her to what she was referring. “What I see,” the woman replied, “lovely brightness, wonderful beings.”
The woman then began to focus her attention on one place in the room and then cried out, “Why, it’s Father! Oh, he’s so glad I am coming; he is so glad. It would be perfect if only W. (her husband) could come too.”
The dying woman’s baby was brought to her and she wondered if she should not stay for the baby’s sake. She then said, “I can’t, I can’t stay. If you could see what I do, you would know; if you could see what I do, you would know I can’t stay.”
The woman’s husband entered the room and she requested that the baby not go to anyone who will not love him, after which she asked her husband to step aside so that she could see the “lovely brightness.” She died about an hour later.
Scientist that he was, Sir William corroborated his wife’s story by talking with a Dr. Phillips, another physician who had been present, as well as with the hospital matron, Miriam Castle, who added to Lady Barrett’s story by mentioning that the dying patient also reported seeing her sister, Vida, who had died some two weeks earlier. The news of her sister’s death had been kept from her because of her delicate condition.
In an earlier book, On the Threshold of the Unseen, Barrett printed a letter sent to him by a Dr. Wilson of New York, who was present at the last moments of James Moore, a well-known American tenor. Wilson told of being present during the early morning at Moore’s bedside. As he examined Moore, he noticed that his face was quite calm and his eyes clear. Moore then took the doctor’s hand in both of his and thanked him for being such a good friend. “While he appeared perfectly rational and sane as any man I have ever seen,” Wilson related, “the only way I can express it is that he was transported into another world; and although I cannot satisfactorily explain the matter to myself, I am fully convinced that he had entered the golden city—for he said in a stronger voice than he had used since I had attended him: ‘There is mother! Why, mother, have you come to see me? No, no, I am coming to see you. Just wait, mother, I am almost over. Wait, mother, wait, mother!’
“On his face there was a look of expressible happiness and the way in which he said the words impressed me as I have never been before, and I am as firmly convinced that he saw and talked with is mother as I am that I am sitting here.”
Wilson went on to say that he immediately recorded every word and that it was the most beautiful death he had ever seen.
In his 1900 book, Man and the Spiritual World, The Rev. Arthur Chambers, vicar of the Church of England in Brockenhurst, Hampshire, England, reported that a dying man said to him, “You consider, do you not, that my mind is perfectly clear?” Chambers assured him that he did and that he had never known him to be more so. “Very well, then,” the dying man continued. “Now I want to tell you what occurred last evening. But first you must understand that I was neither dreaming nor under a delusion. As I lay here, my father, who died some years ago, stood in the place where you are now and spoke to me. He told me I had only a very little longer to remain on Earth, and said that he and other dear ones passed away were waiting to welcome me into the spiritual world. I tried to raise myself in bed in order to attract the attention of the nurse who was at the other end of the ward. I thought you might still be in the building, and I wanted her to send for you, that you, too, might see my father. I supposed the effort to raise myself must have been too much for me, for I slipped back on the pillow and felt I was fainting. When I opened my eyes again, I looked for my father, but he was gone. Don’t tell me I was dreaming, because I tell you with my dying breath I was not. My father was as real there as you are now, and I think he will come again.”
The man died two days later, after which Chambers spoke to a man in a nearby bed. Without knowing what the dying man had told Chambers, the patient informed Chambers that just before the man died he saw him raise himself into a sitting position, fix his gaze earnestly on the spot where Chambers had so often prayed and conversed with him, smile, as if he were recognizing someone, and then fall back on his pillow motionless. A minute or two later, the screen was put around the bed, and he knew the man was gone.
Dr. Charles Richet, the 1913 Nobel Prize winner in medicine for his research on anaphylaxis, the sensitivity of the body to alien protein substance, believed in psychic phenomena, but resisted, at least publicly, a spiritist explanation. He advanced the theory of cryptesthesia, which, in effect, said that there was some sensory organ unknown to science by which certain individuals could see things or beings that others couldn’t. Nevertheless, he wrote that deathbed visions “are much more explicable on the spiritist theory than by the hypothesis of mere cryptesthesia.”
More recently, the subject of deathbed visions and visitations has been explored by Carla Wills-Brandon, Ph.D. in her book, One Last Hug Before I Go, and by Dr. Peter Fenwick, an internationally renowned British neuropsychiatrist, and Elizabeth Fenwick in their 2008 book, The Art of Dying.
Wills-Brandon looks at the various theories advanced by materialistic scientists to explain away such visions, including mental illness, excessive grief, wishful thinking, hysteria, drug-induced hallucinations of an overactive imagination, and the by-product of random firings of a dying brain, concluding that many DBVs, especially those involving visions of deceased loved ones whose death was unknown to the dying person, go beyond any of these theories. “Sadly, such explanations cannot completely explain the DBV phenomenon and they take away from the spiritual significance of such encounters,” Will-Brandon says, referring to caretakers who are unaware that deathbed visions are common, spiritual experiences and who therefore ignore or discount such reports.
The Fenwicks found that drug- and fever-induced hallucinations are quite different from true end-of-life visions and that they have quite a different effect on patients. Drug or fever-induced hallucinations, including such things as seeing animals walking around on the floor, children running in and out of the room, devils or dragons dancing in the light, or insects moving in wallpaper or on the carpet, are rarely, if ever, comforting. “True deathbed hallucinations are quite different,” they state. “They are not confusional. Most occur in full consciousness; often, moreover, an unconscious patient will regain consciousness and see the vision in a brief lucid interval before they die.”
Like Wills-Brandon, the Fenwicks lament the fact that many caregivers are not trained or prepared to deal with this aspect of the dying process. In fact, many of them do not discuss it as they fear ridicule.
“The evidence points to the fact that we are more than brain function, more than just a speck in creation, and that something, whether we regard it as soul or consciousness, will continue in some form or another, making its journey to ‘Elsewhere,’” the Fenwicks conclude their book. “It suggests that when we enter the light, we are coming home, that we do indeed touch the inner reaches of a universe that is composed of universal love. This is the territory of the dying. Until then, perhaps the best we can do is to continue living, prepare for death, and take as guidelines what we have learned about the process of dying.”