That quote in the title is probably hyperbole, and a play on “no atheists in foxholes”, but it came from a very interesting person I recently met.
I wanted to share her story with all of you.
We had a new face join our bible study last month (please don’t stop reading now just because I said “bible study”… this story does not
require a Christian worldview). I didn’t recognize this woman from our church… but that wasn’t too unusual because we welcome people from all
churches and people that don’t attend church at all into our group. She was quiet the first couple of weeks but then on the third week she started
talking. I’ll call her Amber. Wow. She had stories that could fill a book!
Amber attended church a few times when she was a kid (before the age of 10) but was agnostic through her teen years and an atheist by college. She
got married, had kids, raised them, and wanted to go back into the work force so she went back to school for nursing. She didn’t set out to be a
hospice nurse, but that is where she ended up.
The experience of being a hospice nurse changed her worldview profoundly. At first, Amber wrote off so-call “deathbed visions” as a side effect
of medication or a dying brain. But writing them off became increasingly difficult. After a couple of years of hospice nursing, the consistency of
these deathbed visions were too much for her. What Amber believed previously (that death was the end, there was no more… that we are all just
matter interacting as matter does, nothing more) began to look very incorrect.
Moments or days before dying, Amber’s patients were (and are) seeing loved ones that have already died. A few saw Jesus, but it is (according to
Amber) more common to see a relative that has already died. Even those who were barely commutative are suddenly lucid and telling her what they are
seeing. “My grandma is here! Do you see her? She is so lovely. She wants to take me with her. It’s so beautiful…”
Why would the visions be so consistent and so lucid if it were due to medications? (this is the question Amber asked) She became convinced that there
is “something more” to death than just turning off a switch and disappearing into nothingness. So… here she was at our bible study, looking
for that “something more”.
I wondered how true Amber’s statement was : “There are no atheists in hospice nursing”… I mean, how common is her experience for people in a
hospice healthcare profession?
I found an abstract of an article from The American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Medicine:
The purpose of this study was to determine the incidence of deathbed communications (DBCs) during the 30 days before death and their impact on the
dying process. A total of 60 hospice chart audits and 75 survey responses by hospice nurses across the United States were analyzed. Chart audits
revealed 5 (8.33%) of the 60 included descriptions of DBCs. The survey of 75 hospice nurses identified 363 incidences of DBCs, with an average of 4.8
patient occurrences per nurse per 30 days. In all, 89% of the hospice nurses reported patients who experienced a DBC had a peaceful and calm death,
with only 40.5% reporting a peaceful and calm death without the DBC. These DBCs have a positive impact on the dying process but are underreported in
patient records and under described in textbooks.
An average of 4.8 occurrences per hospice nurse per month. That would be enough to make most people want to look into what on earth is going on. Why
are deathbed visions so common and why are they so consistent?
I also came across this in Social Work Today…
According to Leslee Curtis, MSW, LGSW, a social worker at Mary T. Hospice, though some patients are able to report that they are experiencing such
visitations, others may simply "point to something, maybe in the corner of the room, at the end of the bed, or out the window that they can see but
which others cannot." She says other signs include comments such as, "Oh, there is Larry sitting in the chair" or, "Look at the angel;" gestures
like reaching out one's arms as if to greet an unseen presence; or a patient who appears to be asleep or in a light coma opening her eyes and saying
the name of a deceased loved one.
"Clinically," Curtis says, "deathbed visions may be an indicator that death is near." Though research into DBVs is limited, studies thus far
confirm this. The largest to date, a retrospective survey of medical professionals in the United States and India by Osis and Haraldsson, concluded
that DBVs occur across cultures, tend to be of short duration, and that in 62% of cases reported in their study the patient died within 24 hours of
reporting or showing signs of such a vision (Osis & Haraldsson, 1997).
Given that these events typically occur in the last weeks to hours of life, many have sought conventional explanations such as hallucinations
generated by terminal disease processes, opioid medications, or altered mentation due to extreme stress. While these speculations make sense, others
have pointed out that these visions tend to be thematically and sequentially coherent, have contextual meaning, and usually bring positive emotional
states, unlike hallucinations associated medications and organic confusional states that are frequently illogical, fragmentary, rarely of deceased
loved ones, and are often experienced as distracting, distressing, or irritating.
So these deathbed visions appear to be both common and commonly known in the world of hospice care – with nurses and social workers that are in the
privileged position of being at many people’s bedside the in their last days of life.
What do you make of all of this? (And, to be clear, we are talking about death bed visions (DBVs), which are different than NDEs)
Do you think it is the dying brain that conjures up dead relatives to keep us calm as our body goes about the business of dying? (And, if so, what
evolutionary advantage would that have? How would “dying well” be selected for? I’m not totally opposed to this concept, I’ve just never
understood the mechanism that would have allowed such a thing to evolve – because it serves no reproductive advantage. So I’d love to hear
insights on this angle if anyone has some to share.)
Are these hallucinations caused by medications? If so, why are they more orderly and consistent than typical drug-induced hallucinations?
Do you think these death bed visions are glimpses into what we will all experience one day? That none of us will die alone, but that we will be
lovingly escorted to our next realm?
I’d love to hear your stories of death bed visions if you’ve been at someone’s bedside in their last days. I know my grandpa became suddenly
lucid right before death, but I don't believe he reported seeing anything. But he was reaching for something and he was peaceful.
(PS- My apologies but I had no idea where to place this thread... health? religion? paranormal?)