End-of-life phenomena


I always know their time is close when they start telling me they’re seeing people who have previously gone over, sometimes having long conversations with [them] … These re not hallucinations.  The spirit body is simply beginning to make the transition.  The patient can genuinely see the spirits who are waiting for him.  Being half on the earth and half in the world of spirit, the dying person begins to relate to both worlds.  Just as it takes time to give birth to a soul, it takes time to leave the earth.  Death is birth into the realm of the spirit.

Mary Browne, 1994, Life After Death: A Renowned Psychic Reveals What Happens to Us When We Die, p. 9.

End-of-life phenomena is a panacea term for a host of inexplicable or transcendent other-worldly phenomena frequently reported by the terminally ill and their caregivers.  Occurring within an end-of-life context and prior to imminent death as opposed to during the lifespan, they are often not only experienced by those who are actively dying but witnessed and shared by caregivers and those at the bedside.

This phenomenon is not uncommon and is well documented historically and across cultures, in research studies and in published non-fiction accounts.  In addition to the humanities and social sciences literature, end-of-life phenomena has also been reported and discussed in neurological and psychiatric literature.  It is worth noting, that the first systematic study of end-of-life phenomena was conducted by English Physicist Sir William Barrett in 1926, who examined and recorded accounts of visions of previously deceased loved ones experienced by the dying.

The reported prevalence and frequency of end-of-life phenomena appear to evidence a number of recurring these and an emerging pattern.  Not only do they engender a sense of meaning and purpose, hope, connection and belief, they can be calming, soothing, and readying.  Occurring in close proximity to physical death, often days or even hours prior to it occurring, their prevalence is such that they are being increasingly recognised as phenomena associated with the transition from mortal life to death.

These experiences can include visions involving previously deceased family members or religious figures (which are culture-specific) who come to provide assistance with the dying process, the ability to transit to and from other realities which often involve love and light, and unusual coincidences experienced by someone who is emotionally close to the dying person but who is unable to be in attendance.  Other phenomena includes temperature changes in the room, clocks or watches stopping synchronistically, and the witnessing of vapours, mists and shapes around the body, which can be accompanied by feelings of love, light and reassurance.

Although the positive impact of end-of-life phenomena has been widely reported, so too is the fact that the dying and their caregivers are often reluctant to talk about their experiences for various reasons; embarrassment, fear of ridicule, fear of being othered or demonised, fear of not being believed.  How can we support those who report these experiences, and, what are these events telling us?

While it is important to be open-minded and to listen without judgement, it is also important to realise that we are, as Betty Stafford writes, ” … witnessing the momentary merging of two worlds [the material and the spiritual] that at all other times remain tightly compartmentalised and mutually inaccessible” (Are they hallucinations or are they real?, 2006, p. 48).  Such phenomena are intensely personal and profoundly meaningful occurrences, engendering comfort and hope for the dying and reassurance for their caregivers.    Openness, empathic listening, a willingness to metaphorically step into the reality that the individual is experiencing and being able to engage in open and frank discussions with the dying and their caregivers about their experiences, acknowledges their right to be heard and honours the lived experience of their dying in all its complexity.

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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