In my years of working with the dying, I have noticed commonly shared experiences that remain beyond our ability to explain and fully understand. In the tapestry of life and death, we may begin to see connections to the past that we missed in life. While death may look like a loss to the living, the last hours of a dying person may be filled not with emptiness, but rather with fullness. Here are some of the most common visions and experiences that the dying have:
1. Our Mother Comes for Us. 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. The one who cared for us in life seems to also care just as much in death. If you find the concept of your loved one’s deceased mother greeting the dying to be impossible or ridiculous, consider this. As a parent, you protect your child from household dangers. You hold their hands when they cross the street on their first day of school, you take care of them when they have the flu and you see them through as many landmark moments as you can. Now fast forward 90 or 100 years into the future after you yourself have passed away. If there is an afterlife and you receive a message that your son or daughter, now old and afraid, will be dying soon, and you are allowed to go and meet them, wouldn’t you?
Roberta’s mother seemed to have made such a choice. 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 looked at the foot of her mother’s bed, looked up and around the room. “Mom, where is she? I don’t see her,” Audrey frantically asked. The dying woman turned abruptly to her daughter as if withdrawing from the vision of her own dead mother and said sternly, “Of course you can’t see her; she’s here for me, not you!” Her daughter understood perfectly.
2. Trips. The phenomenon of preparing oneself for a journey is not new or unusual. As much as death may be thought of as a transition or journey by a loved one, in their last hours, the dying do not associate this trip with death. I haven’t heard anyone say, “I have to pack my bags or get ready for my trip into death.” In their minds, the trip remains associated with life. Even though death is the trip of a lifetime, they just don’t make that association.
Many people don’t realize that this sense of a journey is part of the history of hospice itself. During the Middle Ages, a hospice was a way station where travelers could find safe haven, a small oasis of support for those on the road. Travelers were afforded the opportunity to rest and reenergize themselves before they resumed their long, wearying journeys to sacred destinations. Some travelers, literally at death’s door, were welcomed, given bedding, food and compassionate companionship. While many modern-day hospices may not know this history, the archetype remains embedded in the subconscious of the dying. Whatever the origins may be, dying may be the rest we need before our final journey.
3. Seeing Angels. We’ve all heard about the mysterious Angel of Death, the scary being who arrives unnoticed and whisks us off into the darkness. But society’s perception of this has been changing. Take, for instance, the recent portrayal of the Angel of Death as a kind-spirited being in the popular TV series, “Touched by an Angel.”
Likewise, my close friend Marianne Williamson once remarked: “I used to think that it would be a terrible thing to behold, but I now realize that the Angel of Death would have to be God’s most tender and understanding ally in order to be sent to us at such a significant, frightening juncture.”
It’s not necessary to debate the reality of angels and other deathbed phenomena. They’re much more than simple entities that can be proved or disproved. They comfort us and offer us hope. They’re part of a religious and spiritual belief system that many of us hold sacred. And although some like to think of angels as “New Age,” references to them can be traced back to the Old Testament. For example, in The Book of Genesis, God starts out using the word I, but then switches to We. Many interpret this as referring to the angels, who existed before creation.
There are those who firmly assert that no one dies alone; in fact, many cultures believe that from the moment of birth to the end of physical existence, we’re in the presence of God and angels. In time, they’ll help us transition to a purely spiritual existence; and they’ll also be there for those we leave behind, reminding us that our loved ones exist beyond death.
4. Crowded Rooms. I’ve been intrigued by the use of the words “crowd” and “crowded.” While I started compiling examples to include in my new book, “Visions, Trips and Crowded Rooms: Who and What You See Before You Die,” I was surprised by how similar they were. In fact, it was hard to pick which ones to use because they were all so much alike. Now I realize that the very thing that makes them repetitious is also what makes them unique.
Perhaps we don’t have a full grasp of how many people we’ve touched in our lives. We don’t remember everyone we’ve met, and we certainly can’t recall all of the individuals who crossed our paths when we were children. In our journeys of life and death, we may not always think about those who have come before us; we just know where we, as individuals, are positioned in the family tree. In dying, however, perhaps we’re able to make the connections to the past that we’d missed earlier in life.
I often say that when someone is dying, it may be a “standing-room only” experience. And as I’ve stated previously, I firmly believe that just as loving hands greet us when we’re born, loving arms will embrace us when we die.
5. Reaching Upward. Hands passionately reaching upward to some unseen force is witnessed in many deathbed encounters. The dying seem to always be reaching upward. Usually toward a corner of the room. In fact, most visions also appear upward and in the corner of the room.
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.
How should we respond to these experiences our loved ones may have in their last hours or days of life? There’s really no point in telling your father that he is hallucinating, that mom has been dead and can’t possibly be there. For all we know, the veil that separates life and death may lift in the last moments of life, and your father may be more in touch with that world than with ours.
And if Aunt Betty is not there, well, does it matter? Instead of disagreeing, t