“I asked her, ‘What did you see?’ She said, ‘I saw an angel.’ She died later that night.” — Hospice Care Nurse
For decades, we have read — and many have been fascinated by — tales of near-death experiences. Accounts of those who have crossed over only to be drawn back to their mortal bodies, returning to the world in which we work and play and love.
How every little has been written about the profound exclamations and observations spoken by those at what is often referred to as “death’s door.” Words are spoken before we leave our mortal bodies. Reflections on what we see and hear, and even feel in our last moments. What is happening around us as we die. Words that leave others not only with powerful emotions but often with life-changing knowledge. An experience that those present at that moment, witnesses to a soul crossing over, won’t forget. These moments, a few days or few hours or barely minutes before passing, we can think of as nearing-death experiences.
As we explore several of these accounts, we will learn not only what may await us but reminds us of what is here for us now. We will see bonds of love that transcend life itself. We will hear of the overlay of this life and the next. We will see that our seemingly smallest actions and words are, in the end, what gives our life meaning.
We are getting there. My dad used to remark that everyone wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die. My sisters and I would roll our eyes and chuckle at the irony of his pretty accurate observation. The concept of leaving our body, our comfortable shell for the previous 50- 70- 90-years, can be an understandably frightening one. It is the “unknown” taken to the extreme. Daunting. Well, at least for most.
That being said, as always, there’s an exception to every rule. Father Adrian VC was one of those exceptions. He wanted to go; he just struggled a bit with getting there.
During what would turn out to be my last visit with Father VC, my elderly priest friend, I was just about to leave when he reached for my hand, pulling me toward him. His crystal blue eyes were smiling; his brilliant mind seemed not to have dimmed in the least. He had been, as always, so perfectly lucid. Yet, now, his gaze disengaged to focus on a distant point, somewhere on the other side of the standard room windows. His smile seemed genuine, but the corners of his mouth twitched a bit.
“You know, Julianna, I keep missing the train.” I was surprised by the apparent change of direction and tone the conversation appeared to be taking. He began to tell me about a dream he had been having, each night without fail, for several weeks.
“It’s a dreamlike no other. You see, I can hear it coming,” he continued. “I am standing on a long platform at a station that feels familiar, but I can’t place it. As the train draws closer, I begin to wave my arms to catch the conductor’s attention. When it doesn’t seem to slow, I start to run. Run as fast as I can. I run along with the endless platform. It’s so real that I feel the air blowing from the tracks. Recently, I see faces in the passing windows. So many, I know!” He shifted his gaze from the window and met my eyes. The longing and joy on his face, the excitement in his voice, couldn’t be denied.
Not confident what I had suddenly found myself a part of, I smiled and chided back. “Father,” I said, teasingly, “I don’t think you should worry about boarding any trains right now. You know – in your slippers!” He smiled, beamed even, and laughed again, momentarily shaking off his reverie.
“Oh, well, maybe not right now. But very, very soon.” He met my eyes, and his voice changed, losing strength, turning quiet, as he confided, “I’m praying to catch the train, you know.” Then, “Pray for me, Julianna,” he whispered with urgency. “Please pray that I can catch the very next train.” That evening, Father boarded his train.
“I have to go in. The fog is rising.” Emily Dickenson
Common ground. The hospice nurse and author, Maggie Callahan, has written extensively on the last words phenomena. Maggie, a hospice nurse for 27 years, explains that she has witnessed more than 2,000 deaths and that the similarities in the nearing-death experiences were both surprising and insightful in-and-of themselves.
For example, many of Maggie’s patients shared that they could see family members who had died milling around their room. They often explained that their loved ones seemed to be waiting for them, sometimes even telling them it wasn’t time just yet. Patients often call out the names of the loved ones they see. An older woman, delighted, clapped her hands with joy at the arrival of each new, unexpected – and only seen by her – visitor.
One daughter recounted her mother’s final days. Knowing that her mother’s time was near, her daughter had begun spending the nights in her mother’s hospital room. She had positioned herself in a chair near the edge of her mother’s hospital bed and awakened one early morning to find her mom sitting up in bed, smiling and gazing at the door which was open to the hospital hallway.
“Do you see them?” she whispered to her daughter. “There are so many of them,” her mother explained. “They walk the halls all night.” Her daughter saw only an empty hallway.
Callahan reflects in Final Gifts: “You can write it off and say it’s a hallucination, they’re not getting enough oxygen in their brain, but no, it doesn’t apply to many people in these situations. I have to believe they are transitioning; they are in a phase we don’t understand physically or metaphysically. And it can be profoundly reassuring to see it happen.”
Last moment experiences seem to follow familiar patterns. Hospital workers have witnessed, routinely, that the dying – particularly dying men – speak the very same previous word: a variation of Mother or Mom. Author Truman Capote was no exception despite his well-documented challenges with an often neglectful mother.
Many days before their death, not unlike Father VC, many speak of traveling. One nursing home resident was found in the morning, dressed and cheerily emptying her drawers, stacking her clothes in neat piles on her bed. When the morning shift nurse happened into the room for her morning welfare check, she was surprised to see the nursing home resident up and about, for she had rarely been out of bed in weeks. When the nurse asked what she was doing, she explained with a giggle that she would never get all of this packed in time and that her husband would be back to pick her up just afternoon!
Knowing that the woman had been a widow for decades and curious to hear her answer, the worker asked where her husband was taking her. The woman paused, smiled her brightest smile, and gave a one-word answer: home. With that, she apologized for not being able to chat longer, opened another dresser drawer, and hurried about her packing. As promised, her husband came for her early that evening.
Witnessing what appears to be one-sided conversations and out-of-place actions can easily assume a dying loved one is merely confused. When we see someone transitioning and speaking in a way that may seem to make little sense, we are quickly left with more questions than answers. Could these final words and actions be logically explained away by the confusion that often accompanies end-of-life physiological changes? Could these simply be hallucinations, the result of robust and necessary pain medications? When logical possibilities are considered, it can be difficult to assign any mystical importance to what we are witnessing.
Yet, as we become more and more willing to talk about what we have experienced as a dear one begin their transition, what we have witnessed and heard, it becomes clear that it’s just as possible that it’s too often the living who are confused by what is being told and described to them – a place where they have never been.
Not Alone. For our passing loved ones, seeing and talking with friends and relatives who have already crossed over is perhaps the most common nearing-death phenomenon. A phenomenon that seems to transcend, at times, even the dying person’s long-held religious beliefs. It is a surprise, no doubt, to those who carried no pre-established religious beliefs or expectations to find themselves sharing everyday experiences with the profoundly faithful.
Several weeks before his death, poet, a clinical psychologist, and life-long atheist, Mort Felix, began seeing angels. He would routinely complain about his crowded (but empty) room. While unique to her personally, Felix’s daughter, Lisa Smartt, would find that her experience – and her father’s – was not uncommon. Based on her time spent with her father, Lisa would write “Words on the Threshold” in 2017 detailing his experiences and others’ similar experiences.
Are these the spirits of loved ones, or, as one theory suggests, are these angels who take the form of loved ones so that the patient isn’t afraid and, thus, can transition without fear? Again, we are faced with more questions than answers.
‘Oh, wow. Oh wow. Oh wow’ Steve Jobs
A glimpse of the other side. A curtain pulling back; a small slice of ceiling or wall becoming a porthole; a deceased loved one taking the hand of the dying, showing them what awaits. We have heard of the many ways that the Other Side has been demonstrated to the dying and have listened to their descriptions.
Often, nearing death, the dying enjoys what they describe as glimpses into what awaits them, and they often share those observations in their final hours or even moments.
A friend’s mother, a long-suffering cancer patient, greeted her daughter with an unexpected smile. Patting the bed next to her, she explained to her daughter that she was so relieved, so happy. “I have one foot here,” she smiled, “and one foot There. It can’t be long now!” Her eyes were filled with wonder when she explained, “Oh, Laura! It’s the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen!”
“There” is routinely described as a garden of unimaginable beauty. Colors so vibrant they can barely be represented. Often the dying will speak of the sound of glorious music, and one woman spoke of the whisper and brush of angel wings. Many report visions of happy, carefree children laughing and playing.
Back to Earth? There are three popular — two very practical — theories to consider for these shared, everyday experiences:
Are nearing-death visions produced by brain chemistry changes – a rush of endorphins; hallucinations brought on by lack of oxygen? Could these shifts in our brain pattern impact our brain’s memory center, creating holograms of those we’ve loved and lost? Are we drawing on memories of imaginary places we read about as a child or saw in a magazine?
Fear of the unknown is commonplace. Is there anything more “unknown” than dying? A second theory proposes that these visions are psychologically a way of calming ourselves as we move toward what awaits us and finding the familiar in the thoroughly unfamiliar in our effort to collect our hearts.
A spiritual experience? Deemed the least practical explanation, yet we still must ask, could it be a genuinely spiritual experience? Are the angels we see celestial beings? Are those friends and relatives who are deceased, whose spirits have crossed to the Other Side, coming to us in a mystical form at the time of our death to welcome us and guide us.
Perhaps we don’t have to choose a singular theory. Maybe these nearing-death experiences result from a shift in our brain chemicals, allowing us to perceive the unseen; emotions of fear and deep hope psychologically trigger us to see with new clarity, to consider possibilities we’ve never before felt in the hope of finding peace with the dying process. Both, considered together, and combined with our life-long held religious and spiritual beliefs, we can manifest in our final moments a knowing with assurance that those we have loved will be with us again. A knowing that we are entering a place of deep and profound comfort, unimaginable beauty and never-ending peace.
How honored are those who are there to share the final hours, to listen to the reflections of those we have loved? Those who are almost Home.
Just a note … Should you find yourself present in such a time, know that you are witnessing a most remarkable moment.
Should you find yourself so blessed, don’t be surprised and not at all disappointed by your loved one’s final words. For a while, they may not seem as mystically profound as some of our examples. Last names are always, without fail, significant to the speaker!
“How did the Mets do today?” Moe Berg, Boston Red Sox Catcher
Nostradamus predicted, “Tomorrow, at sunrise, I shall no longer be here.” He was right.
Baseball player “Moe” Berg’s last words: “How did the Mets do today?”