Transition Stories from Caregivers
People facing death are usually confronted with spiritual issues and questions as to human origin, life purpose, and the destination after death. The dying also go through intense experiences near their death and during their crossing over, such as having visions, visionary dreams, and other spiritually charged phenomenon. The most likely witnesses historically and practically speaking to a person's crossing over have been, naturally, their caregivers. And as Tad Dunne says in his article “Spiritual Care at the End of Life,” “It is important to keep in mind that the work of giving spiritual care occurs originally and essentially within the caregivers.”
Hallucinations in Doubt
Some of these experiences near death involve powerful visions, which are too often not taken seriously. However, in “Are They Hallucinations or Are They Real? The Spirituality of Deathbed and Near-Death Visions,” L. Betty Stafford focuses on “visions of deceased relatives and friends that persons near death often report.” She asks questions about their validity and remarks on how seriously caregivers should perhaps take them: “Are they visions of real people who live in an afterlife environment or are they hallucinations? Most social scientists assume they are hallucinations, but a thorough and careful analysis of the evidence does not point to this conclusion. The argument for the reality of such visions” includes “a theory that makes sense of all aspects of these visions is developed and defended, then tied into our theme: the spirituality of death.”
During and before the crossing-over period visionary dreams also occur. In “A Dream Before Dying,” Anne Underwood discusses caregivers' observations of dreams of the dying in their care, and the idea that these dreams are indicators of the celestial and the afterlife. Here we see an account given by Reverend Patricia Bulkley and what she witnessed from Charles Rasmussen, retired merchant-marine captain, as he was dying of cancer:
He was consumed by fear until, in a dream one night, he saw himself sailing in uncharted waters. Once again, he felt the thrill of adventure as he pushed through a vast, dark, empty sea, knowing he was on course. “Strangely enough, I'm not afraid to die anymore,” he told Bulkley after that dream. Death was no longer an end, but a journey.
As Underwood elaborates, according to Bulkley, “Many people have extraordinary dreams in their final days and weeks. These dreams can help the dying grapple with their fears, find the larger meaning in their lives, even mend fences with relatives. Yet all too often, caregivers dismiss them as delusional or unworthy of attention.”
In a panel discussion about the psychological, emotional, relational, and spiritual experience of the dying and their caregivers, a symposium established to provide “an opportunity to hear and learn from the narratives of older adults who are facing death and their families and caregivers,” was summarized by S. Sanders in The Gerontologist. This discussion detailed problems that are faced when caregivers do not take seriously the spiritual aspect and phenomenon of dying when a person is crossing over, and the importance of understanding this phenomenon from the perspective of the dying.
According to Sanders,
Nearing Death Awareness (NDA) is a concept presently recognized primarily by staff and caregivers in some nursing homes, hospitals and hospices…. Knowledge of what NDA is, what typical NDA behaviors are and how to respond appropriately can assist people in providing valuable support and comfort, as well as foster preparedness for their own passing when the time comes. Caregivers and loved ones with an open-minded perspective are even more effectively equipped to nurture spiritual growth for the dying in their last days, an immeasurable service deserved by all who pass from this life to the next.
At the same time, it is inherent in a caregiver's role to collect and record these dreams and other crossing-over experiences, making their input invaluable to the understanding of spiritual and psychological deathbed phenomena.
Certainly, there is a commonality among these near-death visionary dreams, worth scientific exploration and deep consideration. For example, in addition to voyage imagery, many see stopped clocks, and are reunited with loved ones.
Is it possible to have a positive experience watching someone die?
The living can benefit greatly from observing all the phenomena surrounding the passing and contemplating these experiences as they witness and support the dying throughout their illness and crossing over.
Phenomena Surrounding the Passing
In One Last Hug Before I Go, Wills-Brandon highlights more stories about caregivers witnessing dying patients crossing over and some of the strange phenomena surrounding these events. One woman caring for a terminally ill great-aunt reported literally feeling a presence in the room just as and after her great-aunt died:
My great-aunt was nearing the end…. I had been with her for days, trying to make her as comfortable as possible…. She had not had the energy to speak for over a week. One morning, she started weakly calling out for Ted, her brother…. Ted had died…. My great-aunt called his name softly over and over again for about an hour. Then, as the woman passed, the great-niece says: “Suddenly, I could sense a presence in the room, over her dresser. It wasn't frightening or silly as you would expect a ghost to be.”
In another case, Wills-Brandon tells of a niece caring for her sick aunt, who shared in the crossing-over experience by realizing that her own prayers and intentions were holding her aunt back from making that final journey. She recounts what happened in her situation during the crossingover period of her aunt:
She looked at me and said, “Joan, I have been over there, over to the beyond and it is beautiful over there. I want to stay, but I can't as long as you keep praying for me to stay with you. Your prayers are holding me over here. Please don't pray anymore.” We did all stop and shortly after that she died.
As we can see from these accounts from caregivers, it is not only the dying that can benefit from the information and phenomena they experience in crossing over, but also those who attend, and listen. After all, we will all sooner or later be in their same position.