Visions, Voices and Visitors
I have seen the look of panic when a family member tells me their loved one is seeing people in their room and having conversations with them, people that they cannot see. I can appreciate how uncomfortable that might be, and the fear that might evoke, but I have heard it enough times now that while it can be startling, I truly believe it to be true.
Because we can’t see what they see, the concern they might be hallucinating elicits fear. I do not believe they are hallucinating or having a reaction to medication. I believe they see something we do not, that most people do not. It might not always be a person, and instead it could be a sound of music playing, or something they can smell that triggers a memory of someone who passed, like the strong scent of a cigar their grandpa smoked, assuming he was paying a visit. Some say they see many people, groups of complete strangers filling the room. All of these situations are common, not just in the final hours, sometimes it is weeks leading up to their death. If given the opportunity to make requests I hope my dog Jack comes back to curl up next to me and my sister Laura takes my hand.
I remember my first experience walking in the room of a patient who was having a conversation with someone I could not see. There was a moment where I felt like I was intruding and should probably step back out of the room, but my curiosity was piqued, and I wanted an introduction. I was not afraid. I was more in awe that she was able to communicate with someone that I could not see and who I assumed had passed away. Was this a ghost? A spirit? A family member? A stranger? A friend? I had so many questions.
From that day on, I asked the questions. I found out that most of the visitors were family or friends, the men seemed to wear hats and ties as though going to church, the women were usually older, and all were mostly kind, welcoming and provided a sense of safety. When the strangers came, they did not cause fear, and instead seemed to be coming as a guide, extending a hand as if to say, “you are not doing this alone” and that brought comfort.
I have heard many stories, sometimes weeks before they died, that their pets who have passed came back to lay rest at the foot of their bed, or on the floor next to them, and while they couldn’t see them, they felt their weight as they curled up next to them. Animals are incredibly intuitive. In general, they seem to sense when we are not well and know when we need them at our side, but I have also witnessed them seeming to know at just that exact moment their human is about to take last breaths and curl up next to them or sit as close to them as they can. We had a cat at the hospice house that would pace outside a patient’s door, which indicated to us that someone was about to take their last breaths. If we saw the cat doing this, it allowed us just enough time to gather the family to say their last goodbyes.
I am not an expert, and all of what I am saying here, is simply my interpretation of what I believe they see. My advice, if asked, is to let them feel safe with their visions, voices and visitors. And instead of assuming they are hallucinating or trying to talk them out of what they are seeing, ask them instead who it might be, what they are saying and how it feels to have them there. Unless they are afraid, which I have only seen one time, my advice is to accept it and know in your heart that at the very least… they feel as though someone will be at their side when they go.
What I witness most is someone lying in their bed and reaching towards something, which I always assume is a hand extended to them, and sometimes I find them staring up at the ceiling or at the wall with a fixed gaze. From the perspective of the loved one, I can appreciate how that might seem frightening, so I always try to provide a brief explanation in hopes to relieve them of their fears. The truth is, I do not know what they see and most times I am just assuming it is a welcoming spirit coming to take their hand and join them on their journey, and while that may or may not be true, it works for me and I believe it works for them as well. And most of the time, the family accepts it and is no longer fearful.
Only once, as I mentioned above, have I witnessed something that caused more fear than calm and it was because I happened to be there the first time this person was visited. I was sitting at the bedside when she grabbed my hand and told me her brother was in the room, joined with another man she did not know. She was afraid and when I told her I couldn’t see him, that made her even more afraid and she thought she was hallucinating. I asked her about her brother, their relationship, and when he died. It turned out that he had died when he was 15, which was about 40 years earlier and she had felt his absence in a really big way throughout the years. When he arrived to visit her, he was a grown man, still two years younger than her but a man, not a boy. She told me he was there with someone from the family, whom she didn’t recognize, but that he was there to let her know they would see each other again soon. After he left, she looked at me and said, “I think I am dying soon”. We talked a bit after that and the day after as well, and just before she died, she whispered, “Tommy, I can’t wait to see you again”.
While I have never seen anyone, or heard anyone, I have had a few experiences where I felt a presence. I remember one time in particular; we had a patient at our hospice house, she was lovely, she was beautiful, and she was kind. We all fell in love with her, we all spent time with her at her bedside, and we all had ache in our hearts when she died. A few days after, I went into her room and stood at the window to take a moment to think about her. I knew I was blessed to have spent time with her, I knew she was one of those people that left that feeling with anyone she crossed paths with. I was standing at the window thinking about her, and I whispered, “I miss you” and just seconds after I said that, I felt something brush past my shoulder. I looked around and no one was there. It could have been the wind, it could have been wishful thinking, but whatever it may or may not have been, my heart needed to believe it was her saying, “I miss you too”.
One of the things I strive for most relative to end of life care is the removal of fear. Death and dying can be scary and if you can relieve someone of that, even in the tiniest of ways, it can be a little more peaceful for them. I get it, the whole idea of spirits, ghosts and visions are for many, difficult to embrace, but if they bring comfort, doesn’t it make sense to step out of the way and just hold in your heart that someone took their hand so they wouldn’t go alone? That is what comforts me.
Photo Credit: This photo is of a painting I did awhile back, titled "A Gathering of Souls". There is a story behind the name, which you can read at: www.playingwithpaint.com