Why might my loved one have a deathbed vision?

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David Kessler
Hospice & Palliative Medicine Specialist

Deathbed visions are also known by other names, including near-death awareness, deathbed phenomena and death-related sensory experiences. They are different from near-death experiences, in which a person survives clinical death. While deathbed visions often involve a deceased messenger who appears days or moments before death, near-death experiences are out-of-body “journeys” by individuals who recall seeing light, a tunnel and/or have an opportunity to review their lives. People usually pass on shortly after deathbed visions, whereas those who have near-death experiences survive and recount what they saw.

Crowded-room deathbed visions
If we can accept that one person might greet us at the end of life, then couldn’t more than one person be there? Let’s go back to the other end of the spectrum: when a child is born, the waiting room in the maternity ward is usually overflowing with family and friends ready to welcome the newborn. Is it that much of a stretch, then, to assume that a crowd of well-wishers may be there to welcome us at death? Crowded-room visions are nothing new to the dying and many of their caretakers.

Journey or voyage deathbed visions
In many people’s final hours, they regard their impending death as an actual physical voyage—that is, they don’t really associate it with dying. I’ve never heard my patients say, “I have to pack my bags for my trip into death!” In their minds, the transition is still associated with life. Even though dying is the trip of a lifetime, that connection just isn’t made.

Most individuals don’t realize that this sense of taking a journey is actually a part of the history of end-of-life care. In fact, during the Middle Ages, a hospice was actually a way station where people could find a safe haven, a small oasis while on the road. Travelers were afforded the opportunity to rest and reenergize before they resumed their long, wearisome treks to unknown destinations. Those who were truly at death’s door were also welcomed and provided with bedding, food, and companionship. While we don’t tend to think about the origin of our modern-day hospices, the archetype remains embedded in our subconsciousness—the act of dying may be the rest we need before our final journey. 

This phenomenon can take many forms for an individual. For some, it may be about packing their bags and getting their tickets, while for others it’s all in preparing themselves “to go.” Certain diseases, such as terminal cancer, have a very clear trajectory, with peaks and valleys and a predictable decline at the end. Other illness, such as heart and lung diseases, may have periods of compromised health and then sudden death. The way in which we die definitely impacts how we prepare for the journey.

Visions, Trips, and Crowded Rooms: Who and What You See Before You Die

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Visions, Trips, and Crowded Rooms: Who and What You See Before You Die

David Kessler, one of the most renowned experts on death and grief, takes on three uniquely shared experiences that challenge our ability to explain and fully understand the mystery of our...

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.