Sunday, February 15, 2015

Deadbed visions

Our forebears in the faith used to write about deathbed visions. Seems as though that's fallen out of fashion. That may be because nowadays most people die in hospitals rather than homes. Sometimes they die alone––except for hospital staff. And the surroundings are distracting. 

This post isn't specifically about deadbed visions, but more generally about reported phenomena that happen to some dying patients and/or their loved ones. I'm going to post some anecdotes. In evaluating this material, we need to draw some distinctions and take some precautions:

i) Obviously, this depends on the credibility of the witness. In many cases this is not the kind of experience that a second party would be in a position to observe or corroborate. 

Since the witness is dying, I don't think they have anything to gain or lose by lying. Still, in most cases we only have their word for it.

ii) Even if they saw or heard what they say they saw or heard, that's still subject to interpretation. It's their impression of what they experienced. Whether what they experienced is what they think it was is a separate question.

So we need to distinguish between the reported experience and the interpretation of the reported experience. We can have a credible report of a particular experience. How best to interpret that experience is a different question.

iii) Apropos (ii), the same distinction holds true for witnesses who relay what the dying patient told them. For instance, I have no prior reason to think Trudy Harris is a liar. However, her evidential value lies in reporting what patients told her, and not in her theological interpretation of what they said. She can be a reliable reporter, but an unreliable interpreter. In addition, Trudy has a sugary style that I find off-putting. 

iv) Thus far I've mentioned some skeptical caveats. But now for something more positive. Given the fact of the afterlife, it would not be surprising if some people in the twilight hours of life, with this life nearly behind them and the afterlife just ahead of them, might experience glimpses of the great beyond. And this could be true for the heavenbound and the hellbound alike. In the borderland between life and death, a patient might become more aware of both realms–as they slip away. As their grip on this life loosens.

v) I think it would be a mistake to ignore what dying patients say. To dismiss their experience out of hand. 

For instance, this may be a time when the Lord prepares a Christian for death. For the journey through the shadow of death. Or to comfort the bereaved. 

Conversely, this might be a time when the sins of the wicked begin to catch up with them. 

vi) If some of the dying experience uncanny events, hospice nurses are in a better position than most folks to witness what dying patients experience. 

vii) Likewise, if a pattern emerges of characteristic things that some dying patients say they experience, I think that lends more credibility to their deadbed testimonies. 

Dear Trudy, 
My mother suffered from Alzheimer's and was in an assisted-living home for a few years before she had to be moved into the nursing home section for full-time care. Her sister was there every day to ensure that she was OK as well as to provide her with some company.
Her condition worsened and she died on Christmas night in 2000. She would have chosen this day for her "going home," and perhaps she did because it was the birthday of her Savior. She was 88. Prior to Mama's death, I had to place her sister in the assisted-living home and then quickly into the nursing home section, because she could no longer care for herself.
Her sister slept most of the time and was probably in a coma because she was not responsive to anyone. When my mother died, I went to her sister's room to tell her. I leaned over and whispered in her ear that Mama, her little sister, had died, and that it was all right for her to go home and join her.
There was no response. I didn't think much about it at the time. On her birthday, only two weeks after Mama died, she passed away. She was 91. At her funeral, I was talking with one of her friends from the assisted living/nursing home and mentioned how unusual it seemed to me that she died on her birthday. Her friend said it is very common to see patients pass away on their birthdays. She had witnessed many occasions in her 30 years at the home. It seemed to her that their birthday was a goal, and once it was achieved, it was OK to go.

A new friend recently told me about her elderly mother, who had been diagnosed with dementia years before. It was so painful for my friend not to be recognized by the one who had raised her so lovingly and whom she loved very much.
I have a long-held belief that people with dementia have frequent moments of lucidity and understanding that we do not know about. They experience momentary enlightenments during which they remember and understand just as we do, although we do not know about it at the time.
Necessity required that my friend’s mother enter an Episcopalian nursing residence, which she called home for the rest of her life. She was a very happy soul who smiled a great deal and seemed contented in the world she now occupied. The nurses and aides who cared for her loved her. They often said how wonderful it would be to have all the patients as contented and peaceful she was.
When her mother died, my friend was approached at the funeral by one of the nurses who had cared for her all those years.
“I have wanted to tell you something for a long time now but never got around to it,” she said. “Over the years we often found your mother sitting at the bedside of patients in the last days and hours of their lives. She would stop by, hold their hands and just stay with them while they were dying.” Somehow, on some level, she knew that God was calling them home to Himself and she did not want them to be alone on the journey.

The other evening I watched a Johnson & Johnson commercial celebrating nurses and all they do for their patients. The nurse introduced herself as a hospice nurse and was seated on the side of the bed with her patient, Berta Olsen.
Berta had told her of a tradition in Denmark that reminded people to leave a window open in the room of a dying person so that the soul could move on after death. The nurse replied, “Not tonight Berta, not tonight,” letting the patient know it was not yet her time to die. The piece was very, very accurate and so reminiscent of the many times I sat just like that with a patient close to death.
Many years ago I sat on the floor next to my father-in-law’s chair as he was dying and I had a similar experience. It was before hospice work had become part of my life and I had not yet experienced all the wonderful things God allows you to see and understand as he draws one of his children home.
My father-in-law’s breathing was slowing down, his color changing, and he was becoming very peaceful. Suddenly but very gently, I clearly saw something white move away from his body and glide out of the window in front of him. I remember saying, “You have his spirit now, Lord, please let his body shut down.” I had no idea why I said it except that what I had seen was real.
Years later, while I was actively caring for dying patients, a friend told me of a similar experience she’d had. She was sitting with her husband as he took his last breath when suddenly the window in the hospital room blew open with no wind or breeze in sight. My friend was startled because it was midsummer and a very quiet evening. 
Several years ago, we had in our care three children from the same family, all of whom had the same neuromuscular degenerative disease. For parents to discover, after giving birth to three children, that all had the same disease was more than the heart could comprehend.
Yet the parents of these children cared for them in a way that was deeply moving. All of the medical professionals caring for their children were touched by the dedication and love their parents exhibited, selflessly being on call for each and every need, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The oldest child died first, and the parents, siblings and all those involved in their care were devastated. But the way he died and the things he said held so much meaning later on.
He was admitted into the hospital for care and although he did not appear to be close to death, he suddenly began to rapidly decline. It became evident that his time was near and that he was dying. His dad was holding the oxygen mask close to his face in order to help him breath. Pushing his hand away, his son said to him, “Don’t hold me, Dad; you don’t understand, I’m already walking. If you could only see what I see ...” With that, he died.
Two other children were to die, much too soon after the older one...
Several years ago a dear friend was very ill and not expected to live. She, her daughter and I had traveled together to see a healing priest and she told me later that she knew God had healed her soul and her spirit while she was there, but was not going to heal her body.
She and her loving husband had exhausted every avenue known to them, all to no avail, and although she was only 42 years old, she knew she was going to die. She had left the Islands, where she had undergone experimental therapies, and had gone home to prepare to meet her God. Her daughter called to tell us that she was very peaceful.
While I was standing in the kitchen a day later preparing supper, the back door flew open and a soft breeze passed behind me and moved down the hall. I remember turning toward the movement and saying, “Oh, Diane.” I did not understand anything at the time since it was before my hospice days, but I knew it meant something important. I turned to my children and told them that dad and I needed to leave right away to go to see Diane and since they were old enough to be left alone, we were on the road within the hour.
Whatever told me that Diane was about to die I was not sure, but I knew it was imminent. As evening approached and the skies darkened, I suddenly saw a shooting star flash across the sky with all the beauty and power imaginable. I asked my husband to pull over at a phone at the side of the highway. He did so without asking me why.
Within minutes I was speaking to a nurse who had been caring for my friend in her hospital room. He hesitated when I admitted we were not family members but I am sure he heard the urgency in my voice when I said, “Did Diane just die?” “Yes,” he said, “just a few minutes ago.” 
Dear Trudy,
The youngest of my three daughters, Lisa, died of cancer in 2009. A year later, my oldest daughter, Linda, also died of cancer. Of course there is no way to describe the grief that followed. Soon after my youngest daughter died, a very close friend gave me a beautiful picture of butterflies. Attached to the picture was a lovely poem describing the wonderful change that takes place when a caterpillar becomes a butterfly.
The next day, my husband and I were sitting on a bench looking out over the ocean when a white butterfly came to rest on my leg for two or three minutes. I had never seen a butterfly at the beach before, probably because there is usually too much breeze for them. It was a very tender moment.
A few weeks ago, my surviving daughter, Lana, was at our house. We were sitting on the patio when two beautiful white butterflies began to flutter together around us.
Many years ago there was a very elegant store in Charlotte, North Carolina, called Montaldo’s. It carried exquisite women’s apparel.
Mary Anne, the friend I wrote about in my first book, Glimpses of Heaven, shopped there often and was always impeccably dressed. I have to admit I window-shopped there on many occasions and once was hired as their “house model,” which allowed me to play dress-up three times a week.
Mary Anne died after an illness the doctors said would take her life in six months. But God was ever so patient with her; he gave her two and a half years to find him, and find him she did. She was baptized on Christmas Eve and died in the wee hours of Christmas morning, with the peace and grace God gives to those who know and love him. She and I became very close friends through this experience, and during this time, God enabled me to learn some hard and valuable lessons he wanted me to understand.
About two weeks after Mary Anne’s death, I went with a neighbor to Montaldo’s to visit friends working there.
I thought I would shop for a new pair of shoes. Waiting to be helped, my eye was drawn to the center aisle of the store, leading into the very beautiful shoe department. A very elegant woman, dressed to the nines, entered the salon and sat across from me. As she did, she raised her eyes to look directly into my face. It was Mary Anne. She smiled a beautiful, loving smile while tipping her head in my direction. It was as if she was simply stopping by to let me know she had made the hard-fought journey she wanted for so long. In an instant she was gone, and the friend who was with me looked at my wide-eyed expression and said, “You look like you have seen a ghost.”
One morning, very early, the father of a child in our hospice program came to our office. He was frightened, agitated and confused and wanted to talk to someone right away. He had something important to share.
We had in our care at the time his six-year-old boy, Jack, who was the apple of his daddy’s eye. As much as everyone prayed and wished, this little one was very sick and would soon die. His mother and father, as well as his eight-year-old sister, dealt with this reality as well as they possibly could, but it was hardest for the dad.
They all talked and laughed and played board games in the bed together, and they comforted Jack and each other for as long as they could. And then one night he went on to heaven, without a whimper. His dad was more than heartbroken. His mom and sister were, too, but they dealt with it differently.
This dad had big plans for his boy. They would go to games together, play ball; he would teach Jack how to do everything and watch him grow into the man he dreamed he would become. There was no consolation for the dad. He simply could not believe his son was gone.
Jack’s sister slept on the floor in her parents’ bedroom at first, not wanting to be away from them all night long. She felt safe there. She awakened suddenly one night, the week after he died, to see Jack standing at the foot of the bed, smiling. She jumped up to awaken her father. He clearly saw Jack standing there and smiling. In some way, he understood that he had come to say goodbye and let his dad know that he was all right.
When his dad arrived at the office that morning, he wanted to tell us all about his son’s visit—and to make sure he wasn’t crazy. We assured him that he was not. He said he saw him so well and that he looked very happy. He left feeling relieved and at peace.
Lynda writes about her mother’s death and the guilt she and her sister felt because they were not with her. The middle sister, who was the primary caregiver, had taken a much-needed break. The other sister had taken her daughter out for breakfast, and Lynda herself lived a good distance away and could not get there in time.
A few weeks after her mother died, she had a dream that brought her peace. She was standing behind a railing on one side of a deep but narrow canyon. Her parents (her dad had died years earlier) were seated together on the patio of a restaurant in Mexico, where they had vacationed years before. It was a very happy scene and when her mother caught her eye, she smiled and waved. She knew she could not join them but was happy to see them together and to know her mother had made the transition peacefully. A week later, Lynda discovered that one of her sisters had had the same dream—with one difference. 
Dear Trudy,
I have a question for you that is not as positive as those normally associated with your column. My dad died of lung cancer and during his life he was far from a nice person. We had a very rocky relationship but, in the end, I tried to help him the best I could.
During the week I cared for him at home, he attempted to break everything in his room. I had to take out everything but the bed. He tried to break out the windows and escape, he yelled incessantly, he had delusions and visions. He was so destructive that I had to lock him in his room. I feared going in to feed him, give him water or his morphine. When I did, I'd open the door slowly to peek in and make sure he hadn't made it over to the door to wait for me, though by this time, he'd lost the use of his legs.
One day I cracked open the door and peeked in. The room was dimly lit and he lay staring at me from the bed with a sinister smile on his face, glowing eyes, saying something to the effect of, “I see you trying to come get me.” Then suddenly I saw what looked like one of those stone garden gargoyle statues leap up from his body, in ghost or spirit form, and fly through the door I had open.
I've never heard of anything like this. I have relived this moment a few times since his death; it is always scary. The glow was not like the kind people speak of when someone dies gently and well. It was dark and scary and very real. 

1 comment:

  1. Anecdotal, but a solid Christian brother told me that his father had confirmed deathbed visions of not one but two people that he reported as having died, because he saw them and knew them to be dead, before anyone else in the family found out about their passing.

    In one of the cases he even accurately described the clothing the decedent was wearing at the time of her death.

    This wasn't trumpeted about, because the family is from a very conservative Baptist context, and they weren't (and aren't) sure what to make of the experiences.