We Do Not Die Alone

Companions at the bedside.

Posted May 23, 2020

Ricardo Moura/Unsplash
Source: Ricardo Moura/Unsplash

One of our greatest fears about death is the fear of dying alone. Sadly, during this pandemic, these fears are being realized by many. We have all heard accounts of families being unable to be by their loved one’s side as they lay dying in the hospital or nursing home. The inability to be at the bedside to provide comfort and support is one that haunts people in their grief. Even during normal times, when we are not there for our loved one as they die, we feel guilty. We are afraid our loved ones will believe that we have abandoned them or didn’t love them. No matter how much we have done for them, those feelings persist. The pain, sadness, and frustration we experience from longing to be with them and not being able to hold their hand or tell them we love them just intensifies our guilt and sorrow. When a patient dies alone, it not only impacts the family but the medical staff as well. While some members of the medical staff try to be with the actively dying patient, it is not always possible. 

There are experiences that those who work with the dying know of that others do not, and that is we do not die alone. These experiences the dying have are referred to as deathbed visions (DBV). The dying will tell us that a deceased family member or friend is present and has been sent to help them cross over from this life. The most frequently appearing figure is one’s mother. These DBVs tend to calm and soothe the dying. If anxious, angry or agitated before, they are more peaceful after the encounter. Initially, these were thought to be hallucinations of the dying brain. However, during a DBV, the dying have been found to be alert and cognizant of what is going on around them. They also talk about being in two places at once. They are aware of being on their deathbed as well as experiencing something that those around them can not see.

While there are examples of these experiences throughout history, the more serious investigation of the phenomenon began in the early 20th century with the publication of Sir William Barrett’s book Deathbed Visions.[1] For something that was dismissed as a delusion or hallucination, the deathbed vision experience is now included as a sign of approaching death in a handbook that families receive when their loved one enters hospice.[2] There has certainly been a good deal of controversy over what these experiences are. But the fact is that DBVs are frequent occurrences and happen all over the world, regardless of age, sex, nationality, religious beliefs, or income level. 

While seeing deceased relatives is one type of vision, there are others as well. Some see religious figures such as God, angels, and other spiritual beings. Another type of vision is that of beautiful scenery. People report seeing spectacular landscapes with intense and vibrant colors. Then there are the silent experiences in which the dying's actions alert us that they are having a deathbed vision. These might include staring into the corner of the room or reaching their arms out as though to pull someone closer to hug them. Sometimes they may even be silently following something with their eyes across the ceiling. Other times, the dying talk of hearing beautiful music and seeing a brilliant white light. Regardless of the type of experience the dying have, they all seem to have the same peaceful, soothing effect and appear to take away their fear of dying. Imagine what it would be like to have a deceased loved one whom you haven’t seen in a very long time appear to you and tell you they are there to help support you and make your transition from this life easier. 

Additionally, it also appears that the dying may choose when they will die. People working with the dying are aware that there are some who wait to be alone to die. I have heard of numerous situations in which a family member was determined to be by their loved one’s side as they died. But oftentimes even if they only briefly left the room, on their return they found their loved one had died in their absence. In addition to waiting to be alone to die, the dying also seem to be waiting to die until someone they have not seen comes to be with them.

In their last moments, the dying are soothed and comforted by these experiences. Deathbed visions have demonstrated that death is not the lonely, frightening experience most people believe it to be. In our final moments, that peace is what we all would want.

References

1) Barrett, Sir William (1926). Deathbed Visions: How The Dead Talk To the Dying. White Crow Books

2) Karnes, Barbara (1986). Gone From My Sight: The Dying Experience. Barbara Karnes Books, Inc.