I held my grandmother’s hand as she lay dying in the hospital. She had been paranoid in the previous days, claiming the doctors were trying to kill her and even claiming to see aliens attempting to steal her away. Today, however, was different. As her hand lay limply in mine, Oma, as I called her, turned her face toward me, eyes bright and gleaming, cheeks flushed and a look of wonder on her face.
“They were here last night. They came to see me.”
“Who, Oma?” I said, “The doctors?”
“No”, she said wonderingly, her voice lowering to barely a whisper, as if she were confiding some special secret. “My father.. and my brother. They were here, singing and reading poetry to me.” She smiled broadly and relaxed back into her pillow, deeply satisfied.
Although her father and brother had passed away decades before, they were very dear to her in life. Her father was a part of a barber shop quartet, and both of his children grew up to be musically inclined. My grandmother played the piano, a talent she passed on to me.
She passed away a few days later and I knew exactly who welcomed her home.
Looking back, I find it interesting though not at all surprising that her deceased mother had not figured in her deathbed visions. While she had worshiped her father and loved her brother dearly, my grandmother had a rather cool relationship with her mother. It makes perfect sense that her mother might have known that appearing during the dying process would be stressful for my grandmother, which convinces me that this wasn’t a hallucination. When people hallucinate, generally, the visions are convoluted, anxiety-producing and non-nonsensical. This couldn’t have been more perfect than if my grandmother had designed it herself. What about the aliens? Well, at first I thought that was simply paranoia, but now I believe that she might have been initially visited by light beings, perhaps her guides, that she misinterpreted as aliens. Perhaps this is why her father and brother were sent in; to calm her and help her transition home. On the other hand, its possible the alien sighting was due to over-medication. I don’t know, but I don’t doubt the rest of her visitation.
Hospice nurses report these types of events as a matter of routine. The occurrence is so commonplace, that they use these visions as a sign of impending death, and a signal to call loved ones. These visions happen generally when a person is experiencing an extended dying process, from illness or old age. Even patients who are in coma or unconscious, have dementia, Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s may experience something known as terminal lucidity. Prior to death, people who couldn’t speak or recognize loved ones suddenly open their eyes, and address the gathered family with complete clarity and lucidity. This may also be incorporated into a deathbed vision, where the dying person simultaneously addresses the living and the vision of their deceased loved ones in turn.
Steve Jobs was said to have a deathbed visions. His final words as he looked out past his family were “Oh Wow. Oh Wow. Oh Wow.”
Roger Ebert, in the week before he died, also spoke about a vision:
“The one thing people might be surprised about—Roger said that he didn’t know if he could believe in God. He had his doubts. But toward the end, something really interesting happened. That week before Roger passed away, I would see him and he would talk about having visited this other place. I thought he was hallucinating. I thought they were giving him too much medication. But the day before he passed away, he wrote me a note: “This is all an elaborate hoax.” I asked him, “What’s a hoax?” And he was talking about this world, this place. He said it was all an illusion. I thought he was just confused. But he was not confused. He wasn’t visiting heaven, not the way we think of heaven. He described it as a vastness that you can’t even imagine. It was a place where the past, present, and future were happening all at once.”
Here are some additional stories of famous deathbed visions. Although the stories are anecdotal, it is true that the phenomena has been recorded for centuries, if not longer.
In a study conducted between 1959 and 1973 by the parapsychologists Karlis Osis and Erlendur Haraldsson, they reported that 50% of the tens of thousands of individuals they studied in the United States and India had experienced deathbed visions.
Medical science has accepted that deathbed visions do occur with statistically significant frequency, but opinions differ as to the cause.
Called death-related sensory experiences (DRSE), doctors attribute deathbed visions to either hallucinations caused by high doses of medications, such as morphine given in hospice environments, or cerebral hypoxia; a lack of oxygen in the brain.
Although no formal conclusive study has been done, it is reported that deathbed visions occur world-wide, and throughout history in subjects both medicated and non-medicated. Certainly, many people die without the benefit of hospice care and yet deathbed visions are continually reported. If it were causal with narcotics only, we might see an increase in highly ordered visions in all patients taking high doses of morphine, and yet only those close to death have these very particular types of visions.
Secondly, the visions are highly ordered and sensical. They typically make sense to the individual and the observers when described, and overwhelmingly these visions contain descriptions of people who are deceased. Hallucinations caused by a dying brain wouldn’t disginguish between the living and deceased, and one might suggest that hallucinations would contain people, place and images of the patient’s current surroundings and recent life, not deceased family members who may have died decades before. The conspicuous lack of living family members in the visions argues against the hallucination hypothesis. Lastly, a brain starved of oxygen wouldn’t produce clear, logical and ordered hallucinations. A lack of oxygen in the brain renders complex structures less able to create images, sound and memory, thus you would expect hallucinations to be fragmented, disjointed and nonsensical.
The jury is still out on what causes deathbed visions, but should we be fortunate enough to live to an old age, we can be assured that when our turn comes, we will be comforted by beautiful visions and the outstretched arms of parents and friends who died years before, welcoming us home.
In the end, “it really doesn’t matter why they happen, it matters that they do.”
What’s your opinion on deathbed visions? Have you ever witnessed one yourself with a loved one? Please share your thoughts and stories in the comments – I’d love to discuss them with you.