It’s not unusual for the dying to have visions of someone who has already passed on, yet it’s interesting to note that such a comforting phenomenon doesn’t seem to appear in other frightening situations . . . where death is not likely. For example, there are no documented cases of people being visited by deceased family members when they’re stuck in an elevator. And loved ones long gone don’t seem to show up to help when a person is lost on a hike. Yes, there are stories of visions and angels comforting and guiding individuals in extreme situations, but only when death is imminent.
I spend much of my days in at least three hospitals and a hospice, and you just don’t hear these stories from patients who are ill but not dying. With very few exceptions, these visions only occur when someone is clearly close to death.
Moreover, the visions people experience at the end of life are remarkably similar. For example, the dying are most often visited by a mother or mother figure. It shouldn’t be too surprising that the person who is actually present as we cross the threshold of life and take our first breath once again appears at the threshold as we take our last breath.
Hands passionately reaching upward to some unseen force is witnessed in many deathbed encounters. One person, for instance, recently shared that her father, who had cancer, was barely alive after a second cardiac arrest he’d had in the hospital. He was connected to every machine possible, and had a tube in his nose and another down his throat that enabled him to breathe. Suddenly, he lifted both arms up in the air, stretching and seemingly reaching toward something. The daughter quickly showed the nurse, who responded by explaining that patients are always trying to pull their tubes out. Although the daughter pointed out that her father wasn’t touching his nose or mouth, or any of the other tubes surrounding him, the nurse continued to turn a deaf ear and increased the patient’s level of sedation. The daughter, of course, felt that something significant had occurred.
Deathbed visions are also known by other names, including near-death awareness, deathbed phenomena, and death-related sensory experiences. They are different from near-death experiences, in which a person survives clinical death. While deathbed visions often involve a deceased messenger who appears days or moments before death, near-death experiences are out-of-body “journeys” by individuals who recall seeing light, a tunnel, and/or have an opportunity to review their lives. People usually pass on shortly after deathbed visions, whereas those who have near-death experiences survive and recount what they saw.
In terms of the overall ways in which society views what cannot be easily understood or proven, there may be an unintended arrogance in the judgment of the deathbed visions. Most of us think that we already know everything, and if there’s something outside our knowledge, a practical explanation must exist. We ask ourselves, If deceased loved ones really do appear to the dying, why can’t we, the healthy ones, see them? I believe that if there’s a power that lowers the veil between life and death, why wouldn’t it also have the ability to lift the veil and choose to reveal itself to certain individuals?
In my first book, The Needs of the Dying, I shared a story that I think says it all about the dead only appearing to those who are dying:
Roberta lay at death’s door going in and out of consciousness while her daughter, Audrey, sat attentively by her bed. Suddenly, Roberta whispered, “My mother is here. Audrey, your grandmother is here . . . she is so beautiful.”
Audrey glanced at the foot of her mother’s bed and looked around the room. “Mom, where is she? I don’t see her!” she responded frantically.
The dying woman turned abruptly to her daughter, as if withdrawing from the vision of her own dead mother, and replied sternly, “Of course you can’t see her—she’s here for me, not you!”
Her daughter understood the message.