Daughter with sick mother in bed
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When a loved one is dying, chances are he's experiencing more than pain and suffering. Grief expert David Kessler offers insight into what your family member is going through—whether you can understand it or not.
Throughout my years of working with the dying and the bereaved, I have noticed commonly shared experiences that remain beyond our ability to explain and fully understand. The first are visions. As the dying see less of this world, some people appear to begin looking into the world to come. It's not unusual for the dying to have visions, often of someone who has already passed on. Your loved one may tell you that his deceased father visited him last night, or your loved one might speak to his mom as if she were there in the room at that time.

It was almost 15 years ago that I was sitting at the bedside of my teacher, Elisabeth Kübler Ross', when she turned to me and asked, "What do you think about the deceased visiting those on their deathbeds to greet them?" I replied quickly, showing my knowledge back to her: "You're speaking of deathbed visions, most likely caused by a lack of oxygen to the brain or a side effect of morphine." She looked at me and sighed, "It will come with maturity."

I thought to myself: "Maturity? What did maturity have to do with anything?" Now, years later, I look at the events we still can't explain that happen at the end of life and realize what Elisabeth was saying. It would be arrogant to think we can explain everything, especially when it comes to dying. My mother died when I was still a preteen. My father remained an incredible optimist his whole life, even when he was dying. I was busy trying to make sure he was comfortable and pain-free, and at first didn't notice he had become very sad. He told me how much he was going to miss me once he was gone. And then he mentioned how much he was saying goodbye to: his loved ones, his favorite foods, the sky, the outdoors and a million other things of this world. He was overcome by sadness I could not (and would not) take away from him.

My father was very down-hearted for the next few days. But then one morning he told me my mother, his wife, had come to him the night before. "David, she was here for me," he said with an excitement I had not seen in him in years. "I was looking at all I was losing, and I'd forgotten that I was going to be with her again. I'm going to see her soon." He looked at me as he realized I would still remain here. Then he added, "We'll be there waiting for you." Over the next two days, his demeanor changed dramatically. He had gone from a hopeless dying man with only death in front of him to a hopeful man who was going to be reunited with the love of his life. My father lived with hope and also died with it.

When I started compiling examples to include in my 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 the very thing that makes them repetitious is also what makes them unique. As someone who has spent most of my life writing, teaching and working with the dying, I can't prove to you that my father's vision was real. I can only talk about my experience as a son and about countless other occurrences that take place every day. I used to believe the only thing we needed to alleviate was the suffering of the dying by providing good pain management and symptom control. I know now that we have more—we have the "who" and "what" we see before we die, which is perhaps the greatest comfort to the dying.

Some interesting and unexplainable items about deathbed visions:
  • Visions people experience at the end of life are remarkably similar.

  • The dying are most often visited by their mothers. It shouldn't be too surprising that the person who is actually present as we cross the threshold of life and take our first breaths once again appears at the threshold as we take our last breaths.

  • Hands passionately reaching upward to some unseen force is witnessed in many deathbed encounters.

  • Visions mostly occur toward a corner of the room.

  • Those family members at a deathbed are not able to see the vision or participate in the conversation.

  • Visions usually occur hours to weeks before death.

  • Visions don't seem to appear in other frightening situations where death is not likely, such as stuck in an elevator, lost in a foreign city or lost hiking.

  • Unlike traditional healthcare, the law treats a dying person's last words as the truth.

How to respond to loved ones experiencing deathbed visions

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