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Deathbed Visions

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Man lying in hospital bed
David Sacks/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Close to the moment of death, apparitions of deceased friends and loved ones appear to escort the dying to the other side. It is a phenomenon that is more common than you might imagine.

Father lies dying. The hospital is quiet. Visiting hours are over and the sun has long since set. Father has been sleeping off and on all day. His doctor says the end could come at any time. His wrinkled, sunken eyes open slowly. His breathing has been labored, but now it seems to ease and soften. His eyes track to a corner of the room where there is only a faded green vinyl chair. Father smiles.

"You're here," he whispers.

His daughter, determined to be with him in his final moments, takes his hand. "Yes, I'm here, dad," she says. But she knows he's not looking at her.

"No," father says, never taking his eyes off the corner of the room. "There. It's your uncle Jerome. I never thought I'd see him again."

The daughter glances to the corner, but of course sees nothing. Father seems coherent. In fact, she hasn't seen him so alert in days.

"Oh my!" Father's smile broadens. "And Lucille! And mother is with them! They- they say they have come to help me. They have come to take me with them. Can't you see them? They look so wonderful!"

The daughter wraps her father's hand in both of hers. She doesn't know what to think. Father closes his eyes again and the smile slowly fades from his lips. He releases one long, last breath... and is gone.

Such deathbed visions are not just the stuff of stories and movies. They are, in fact, more common than you might think and are surprisingly similar across nationalities, religions and cultures. Instances of these unexplained visions have been recorded throughout history and stand as one of the most compelling proofs of life after death.

Anecdotes of deathbed visions have appeared in literature and biographies throughout the ages, but it wasn't until the 20th century that the subject received scientific study. One of the first to examine the subject seriously was Sir William Barrett, a Professor of Physics at the Royal College of Science in Dublin. In 1926 he published a summation of his findings in a book titled Death Bed Visions. In the many cases he studied, he discovered some interesting aspects of the experience that are not easily explained:

  • It was not uncommon for the dying people who saw these visions to identify friends and relatives who they thought were still living. But in each case, according to Barrett, it was later discovered that these people actually were dead. (Remember, communications then wasn't what it is today, and it might take weeks or even months to learn that a friend or loved one had died.)
  • Barrett found it curious that children quite often expressed surprise that the "angels" they saw in their dying moments did not have wings. If the deathbed vision is just a hallucination, wouldn't a child see an angel as it is most often depicted in art and literature - with large, white wings?

More extensive research into these mysterious visions was carried out in the 1960s and 1970s by Dr. Karlis Osis of the American Society for Psychical Research. In this research, and for a book he published in 1977 titled At the Hour of Death, Osis considered thousands of case studies and interviewed more than 1,000 doctors, nurses and others who attended the dying. The work found a number of fascinating consistencies:

  • Although some dying people report seeing angels and other religious figures (and sometimes even mythical figures), the vast majority claim to see familiar people who had previously passed away.
  • Very often, the friends and relatives seen in these visions express directly that they have come to help take them away.
  • The dying person is reassured by the experience and expresses great happiness with the vision. Contrast this with the confusion or fear that a non-dying person would experience at seeing a "ghost." The dying also seem quite willing to go with these apparitions.
  • The dying person's mood - even state of health - seems to change. During these visions, a once depressed or pain-riddled person is overcome with elation and momentarily relieved of pain... until death strikes.
  • These experiencers do not seem to be hallucinating or to be in an altered state of consciousness; rather, they appear to be quite aware of their real surroundings and conditions.
  • Whether or not the dying person believes in an afterlife is irrelevant; the experience and reactions are the same.

Next page: Fact or Fantasy?

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