Deathbed Phenomena September 11, 2016

“Dying is an exquisitely individual process and there is no way to change or fully
understand the experience, one must go through it alone. 
At the same time, it is the most social of all experiences.  It intimately involves and draws
upon the love, thought, feelings and states of those who are to remain on earth,
and it intimately involves  the vast love, affection and shared life and spirituality of the next world.  There is a subtle co-mingling of both worlds, without any sense of competition: only
sense of total sharing  prevails and this sometimes moves one to profound joyful tears, and even, paradoxically, to bitter tears on rare occasions.”

Philip W. Groves, The Process of Transition, The Philip W. Groves Centre, 1999.

As readers of this blog know, my interest in other-worldly non-material phenomena (or that which I term ‘spiritual’ phenomena as opposed to material and ‘worldly’ phenomena), is grounded in life experience and my previously completed Social Work doctoral research; a qualitative study which explored after-death contact between the bereaved and the deceased (Knight, 2011).

In conjunction with completing that research, an online  Midwifing Death (Barbato, 2015) course in 2015 and presently, the influence of my current enrolment in a Masters Social Work qualifying degree, my interest has turned toward other-worldly phenomena that the dying experience in an end-of-life context, vicariously termed ‘deathbed phenomena’. The term deathbed phenomena is adopted from Brayne et al, in that “death may be heralded by deathbed phenomena such as visions that comfort the dying and prepare them spiritually for death” (2006, p. 17).

The end-of-life can be contextualized as a period of transition from one way of life to another, from living life in the flesh, to, depending on one’s spiritual belief-system and/or sociocultural world-view, living life in a transformed state or just ceasing to exist. Depending on the nature of the event of dying and the type of death trajectory, this period can be deeply and profoundly distressing, destabilising and/or psychosocially and psychospiritually transformative for the dying individual, those who care for them, and their family and friends.

Dying, and the potentiality of impending death, can catapult the individual into an existential crisis of meaning, and it is within this often turbulent and frightening context, and frequently “on the threshold of death” (Greyson, 1994, p. 460) that deathbed phenomena such as deathbed visions, dreams and coincidences, deathbed escorts, and nearing death awareness experiences are widely reported (Alvardo, 2006; Barbato et al, 1999; Corliss, 2014; Fenwick & Fenwick, 2008: Greyson, 1994; MacConville & McQuillan, 2010; Stafford Betty, 2006).  Similarly reported is the beneficent impact such experiences have in providing comfort and security for the dying and for dispelling death-fears.

Metaphorically speaking, deathbed phenomena have a lot to say.  It tells us that there are those who have gone before us who continue to love and care for us as we do them.  It tells us that existence doesn’t end, it just changes.  It tells us that something deeply profound is at work which is operating beyond the confines of the empirical universe and the dominant materialistic, and reductionist, scientific paradigm.

The feeling of an experience confirms its reality and none more so than the feelings that accompany other-worldly phenomena such as this.  In the face of at times overwhelming fear, despair and uncertainty, these phenomena engender a sense of calm and peace. According to hospice Social Worker J Scott Janssen, “near-death experiences, deathbed visions, and after-death communication are phenomena that social workers in end-of-life settings say clients and their families encounter.  Knowing how to respond is the challenge” (Janssen, 2015, “Deathbed Phenomena in Hospice Care: The Social Work Response”, 2015).

Alvarado, C. S. (2006). Neglected Near-Death Phenomena. Journal of Near-Death Studies, 24(3), 131-151).

Barbato, M., Blunden, C., Reid, K., Irwin, H. & Rodriguez, P. (1999). Parapsychological phenomena near the time of death.  Journal of Palliative Care, 15(2), 30-37.

Barbato, M. (2015). Midwifing Death Correspondence Course (MDCC), online course,

Brayne, S., Farnham, C., & Fenwick, P. (2006) Deathbed phenomena and their effect on a palliative care team: a pilot study. American Journal of Hospice & Palliative Medicine 23(1):17-24.

Corliss, I. B. (2014). Transitions: Exploring the Frontier, OMEGA, 70(1), 57-65.

Fenwick, P. & Fenwick, E. (2008). The Art of Dying: A Journey to Elsewhere. London, England: Continuum

Greyson, B. (1994). Near-death experiences. In R. Corsini (Ed.), The encyclopaedia of psychology (pp. 460-462). New York, America: Wiley.

Groves, P. W. (1999). The Process of Transition. Balgowlah, Sydney, Australia: The Philip W. Groves Centre.

Janssen, J. S. (2015). Deathbed Phenomena in Hospice Care: The Social Work Response. Social Work Today,15(6), 26.  Retrieved from

Knight, M. (2011). Ways of Being: The alchemy of bereavement and communiqué (Doctoral thesis, the University of Sydney, Sydney, Australia). Available:

MacConville, U. & McQuillan, R. (2010).  Capturing the invisible: exploring Deathbed Experiences in Irish Palliative Care. The Irish Times: Going into the light. Available from:

Stafford Betty, L.  (2006). Are they hallucinations or are they real?  The spirituality of deathbed and near-death visions, OMEGA, 53(1-2), 37-49.

Michele T Knight Written by:

Dr Michele Knight is a Social Worker, Social Scientist, researcher and independent scholar. Her interest and research in the end-of-life has its origin in the lived experiences of her own bereavements, her near-death and shared-death events, the returning deceased and attitudinal responses to those experiences. Since 2006, she has been extensively involved in community development, support and advocacy in both a professional and community services/voluntary capacity in the areas of bereavement and grief, hospital pastoral care, and academic lecturing/tutoring. Her PhD, Ways of Being: The alchemy of bereavement and communique, explores the lived experience of bereavement, grief, spirituality and unsought encounters with the returning deceased.

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