When We Die

john batho

When you die, whether you are spiritual or atheist, one thing seems quite likely – that you will see a departed loved one (your parents, your old friends) appear at your bedside in the hours or days before you pass.  Those who work with the dying believe they come to fetch you –  to whatever is next.

In this week’s New Yorker article entitled The Threshold, hospice worker Heather Meyerend explained that a third of her dying patients reported seeing  ‘people from their past appear in front of them as they lay in bed, often people who had died years before…it seems to the patient as though someone he loved who had gone on before had come back to accompany him to a life after.’

I suspect the real number of people who experience this is much higher, because in the hours and days before death the majority of the dying can barely speak and are barely conscious so would be unable to report back on what they are witnessing.

It blew my mind when a palliative care doctor told me two days before Laura died that she was reaching out for people in the room we couldn’t see  – ‘probably deceased loved ones. It is a sign she is preparing to pass’ the doctor said with a knowing smile.  I’ve asked many a hospice worker since about this phenomena and they all smile that same smile and nod. It is a truth which almost no-one outside the worlds of hospice, palliative care and death doulas talks about.  Probably for fear that their stories will be labeled as ‘agitated delirium’, which is what the New Yorker reporter dismissed Ms Meyerson’s patients as experiencing.

But anything that effects a third of us is huge. Scientists give their eye teeth for anything that effects even five percent of us.  My sister is doing chemo because it helps 1 in 20 people with her cancer.   Do these experiences get shunted aside because they are anecdotal?  Because they get tangled up with religion? Because we are afraid of the unknown?

If you want to read more about this, I suggest Dr Peter Fenwick’s wonderful book The Art of Dying.  Fenwick, a British neurologist who noticed his patients (both believers and non believers alike) were seeing departed loved ones before they died, spent over 30 years collecting these stories. I attended a lecture he gave at the New York Open Center’s Art of Dying Conference last year, where he simply handed over the microphone to audience members who had witnessed dying loved ones reaching out to invisible spirits in the room, and those who had connected with dying loved ones after they passed. It was one of the most astonishing events I’ve ever experienced.  The heartfelt and joy-filled stories of people criss-crossing back and forth between this world and whatever surrounds us felt almost miraculous.





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