According to a 2009 research paper entitled Comfort for the Dying (Fenwich etal) two-thirds of doctors, nurses and hospice caregivers have reported that their patients experienced “transpersonal end-of-life experiences, such as deathbed visions.”
One of the primary things that patients often did was look past “real people in the room” and appeared to be glimpsing something from another realm.
According to Dr. Carla Wills-Brandon, who has researched deathbed visions, those close to death sometimes say they see their deceased loved ones, who have come to help them make the transition. And this can happen days before a person actually dies, she noted.
“Many terminally ill people will experience these visitations to help prepare them for when they cross over to the other side,” she noted.
She added that even close family members who are near the patient might see this type of vision as well, “to reassure them that their dying loved one will be safe and will live on.”
In her extensive research, Dr.Wills-Brandon realized that deathbed visions are a “universal phenomenon. She has written her findings in a book entitled One Last Hug Before I Go, which also includes her own “personal encounters.” She also explores the history of this phenomenon from “ancient Egypt to modern-day America.
Such experiences can be found in many older books, as well as in folklore but science has been much slower to seriously look at this as a field of study. The first one to do so was physics professor at the Royal College of Science, Sir William Barrett.
Barrett felt compelled to do so after hearing about the experiences of his wife, who was an obstetrical surgeon. In January 1924, she told him about being called to the operating room to deliver a child. The child was fine but its mother suffered serious hemorrhaging.
Lady Barret said the woman began to see things that others could not.
“Suddenly, she looked eagerly towards part of the room, a radiant smile illuminating her whole countenance,” she said.
The woman exclaimed, “Oh, lovely, lovely.” When asked what she was referring to, the woman replied “What I see… lovely brightness – wonderful beings.” Then with a “joyous cry,” she added, “Why it’s Father! Oh, he’s so glad I’m coming; he is so glad. It would be perfect if ony W. (her husband) would come too.”
Her new infant was brought to her and looking at it with interest she asked, “Do you think I ought to stay for baby’s sake?” Then she turned in the direction of her vision and said, “I can’t. I can’t stay; if you could see what I do, you would know I can’t stay.”
Then as if speaking to her deceased father she said, “I am coming.” She then turned to Dr. Wills-Brandon and said, “Oh, he is so near.”
David Kessler of Grief.com, a web site aimed at helping those who have lost loved ones, told Oprah.com in October 2010 that he has spent years working with the dying and bereaved. In doing so, he said people appear to have “commonly shared experiences that remain beyond our capability to explain and fully understand.”
One commonality is having visions in which people “appear to begin looking into the world to come” as they prepare to leave this one.
“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.”
Kessler said when he sat with Elisabeth Kübler Ross, she turned to him and asked, “What do you think about the deceased visiting those on their deathbeds to greet them?” He responded that it was likely due to “a lack of oxygen to the brain or a side effect of morphine.”
He was somewhat taken aback when she replied, “It will come with maturity.” Although he did not understand at the time, he now does.
“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.”
He also noted the days prior to his own father’s death.
“My father was very downhearted for the next few days,” he said. “But then one morning he told me my mother, his wife, had come to him the night before.”
“David, she was here with me,” he said excitedly. “I was looking at all I was losing, and I’d forgotten that I was going to be with her again.”
Kessler went on to write a book entitled Visions, Trips and Crowded Rooms: Who and What You See Before You Die.
“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.”