Do the dead greet the dying? That was the headline of a story that CNN carried some years ago. Written by David Kessler, one of the world’s most well known experts on death and dying and the author of five best sellers, the story was a fascinating narration and discussion of death bed visions. “If you find the concept of a dead loved one greeting you on your deathbed impossible or ridiculous, consider what I finally realised as a parent: You protect your children 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 milestones as you can.

Now fast-forward 70 years after you, yourself, have passed away. What if there really is an afterlife and you receive a message that your son or daughter will be dying soon? If you were allowed to go to your child, wouldn’t you?!

Kessler lists several commonly shared experiences which remain beyond our ability to explain fully and understand that often happen when a person is about to die.  These include: the dying are often visited by their dead mothers. Their hands often reach up toward a force that can’t be seen. Family members and friends of the dying can’t see these visions or participate in conversations.

While lack of oxygen and the consumption of various drugs which can do bizarre things to the brain have long been attributed as a cause behind this Nearing Death Awareness as it is called by those who work with the terminally ill, current research too assumes that a combination of physiological, pharmacological and psychological explanations may be at play. Apart from Kessler, numerous people with long experience of dealing with death and dying are certain that communication with deceased family members or friends is more real than assumed. After witnessing such phenomena when her mother was dying, Jen Engevik began deeper exploration and wrote last year about what she learnt.

As a hospice nurse for more than 27 years, Maggie Callanan has helped more than 2,000 dying men and women in their last days and this is what she explained, “People think it’s just confusion or the drugs, but frankly, the confusion is ours. The patient knows what is going on.” Dr Martha Twaddle, chief medical officer of the Midwest Palliative & Hospice Care Center, explained further, “You can write it off and say it’s a hallucination, they’re not getting enough oxygen in their brain, but no, it doesn’t apply to many people in these situations. I have to believe they are transitioning; they are in a phase we don’t understand physically or metaphysically.”

Earlier this month Steven Petrow wrote in the Washington Post about his dying mother’s chats with a ghost and what he discovered. “They are very common among dying patients in hospice situations,” Rebecca Valla, a psychiatrist in Winston-Salem, N.C., who specialises in treating terminally ill patients, wrote in an email. “Those who are dying and seem to be in and out of this world and the ‘next’ one often find their deceased loved ones present, and they communicate with them. In many cases, the predeceased loved ones seem to be aiding them in their ‘transition’ to the next world.”

“While death may look like a loss to the living, the last hours of a dying person may very well be filled with fullness rather than emptiness.” 

According to Petrow, while family members are often clueless about this phenomenon, at least at the outset, a small 2014 study of hospice patients concluded that “most participants” reported such visions and that as these people “approached death, comforting dreams/visions of the deceased became more prevalent.” Jim May, a licensed clinical social worker in Durham, N.C., said that family members—and patients themselves—are frequently surprised by these deathbed visitors, often asking him to help them understand what is happening.

While May acknowledged that it’s understandably “hard to have empirical evidence” for such episodes, he also said, “most patients find the conversations to be comforting.” “That certainly appeared to be the case with my mother,” wrote Petrow, “who had happy exchanges with several good friends, who, like my grandmother, were no longer living.” He goes on to reveal how in a moving 2015 TED talk, Christopher Kerr, the chief medical officer at the Center for Hospice and Palliative Care in Buffalo, showed a clip of one of his terminally ill patients discussing her deathbed visions, which included her saying, “My mom and dad, my uncle, everybody I knew that was dead was there. I remember seeing every piece of their face.” She was lucid and present.

In India, an ailing person seeing dead relatives and friends is seen as a certain sign of approaching death. There have been many accounts too from those who have undergone “near death experiences” of how dead loved ones had appeared before them but assured them that their time of death was still some while away. Dead pets too have been known to appear before dying people and made their last hours happy before presumably moving on with them back to the other world.

As David Kessler wrote, “While death may look like a loss to the living, the last hours of a dying person may very well be filled with fullness rather than emptiness. Sometimes all we can do is embrace the unknown and unexplainable and make our loved ones feel good about their experiences….The saying goes, “We come into this world alone, and we leave alone.” We’ve been brought up to believe that dying is a lonely, solitary event. But what if everything we know isn’t true?

“What if the long road that you thought you’ll eventually have to walk alone has unseen companions? …..the journey at the end of life is not a lonely path into eternity. Rather, it may be an incredible reunion with those we have loved and lost.” For someone who is dying, more than loving support from the living, it seems to be unseen companions and visitors from the other world who make the transition from death to afterlife an experience to be welcomed rather than dreaded.

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