Visions of the dying
March 13 2006
by REBECCA McQUILLAN, The Herald

'I knew something had happened to him I just knew it"; "There was this light which seemed to come from him"; "She smiled, as if she was greeting someone and then she died". Intimations of a loved one's death; warm, enveloping lights; visions of dead relatives deathbed phenomena such as these have become a passion for Dr Peter Fenwick, a consultant in neuropsychiatry at the universities of London and Southampton.

Typical among them is the account of a young woman and her father who went to tell a woman called Kate, a sheep farmer near Inverness, that her brother John had died. "Dad and I drove the 20 or so miles and up a hill track to the farmhouse, to be met by Kate who said 'I know why you've come I heard him calling me saying "Kate, Kate" as he passed over'. She was quite matter of fact about it and gave us the time of death, which was exactly the same as that recorded by the hospital. I found it an amazing experience."

Dr Fenwick has heard many such stories. "That deathbed coincidences occur is supported by accounts from different cultures throughout history," he says. Yet he is one of a very small number of researchers to study the phenomena as he cheerfully admits, "to be a world expert, you only have to read three or four papers". It is still regarded as controversial by a scientific fraternity that baulks at its associations with beliefs in life after death, what Dr Fenwick refers to as its "black magic sort of feel". "It's not the sort of thing you'd be happy to give a lecture on at the Royal Academy," he says. So it has come down to a small, international group of doctors, nurses and neuroscientists to collect data.

One of the most important recent additions to the body of research is a study co-authored by Dr Fenwick published last month in the American Journal of Hospice & Palliative Medicine, conducted among palliative care staff at Camden Primary Care Trust, which reasserts the commonplace nature of these experiences, but also the widespread reluctance among both patients and staff to discuss them.

Deathbed phenomena, also known as approaching-death experiences, are different from near-death experiences, in which a person close to death has the sensation of leaving their body and being attracted to a bright light. Deathbed phenomena take place in the 24 hours before death and take three forms. The first and most common is deathbed visions, in which the dying person appears to see figures they recognise and welcome.

Very little research has been done on this area, but one of the largest studies, conducted 20 years ago, included this account of the passing of a 16-year-old girl. "She said: 'I can't get up' and she opened her eyes. I raised her up a little and she said 'I see him, I see him, I am coming'. She died immediately afterwards with a radiant face, exulted, elated."

The second group is experiences of uplifting light around the dying person, or when witnesses see what they believe to be person's soul leave the body. Typical are these examples, from Dr Fenwick's research: "There was the most beautiful light shining from my husband's chest"; and "I saw a plume of smoke rising, like the vapour that rises from a snuffed-out candle. It was being thrown off by a single blade of phosphorous light. It hung above dad's bed."

The third group is deathbed coincidences, where a friend or relative is suddenly possessed of a deep conviction that something has happened to a loved one, as in the case of the woman in Easter Ross. So do they indicate the existence of an afterlife or are they just down to psychological phenomena?

Uncertainty persists, as the study by Dr Fenwick and Sue Brayne and Chris Farnham of Camden Primary Care Trust demonstrates. It involved interviews with nine palliative carers five nurses, three doctors and a support worker all of whom had been present many times in the 48 hours before death and at the passing.

All had either been told of deathbed phenomena by patients or had experienced one themselves and all believed they were an intrinsic part of the dying process. There was confusion, however, over their cause. One ventured that it was an "altered state of consciousness"; another that it was "a real spiritual event". Others could not decide.

It will probably never be possible to say for sure, as consciousness itself is still little understood. However, certain points suggest that psychological factors and coincidence may be responsible. With deathbed visions, studies show that the figures witnessed by the dying person are culture specific: in the west, for instance, dead relatives are most commonly seen while children may see living friends. People with a faith see religious figures while, in certain eastern cultures, a messenger of the God of death appears.

This cultural determination suggests, not that they have visited from the afterlife, but that they have been created by the dying mind to ease the trauma of passing. Similarly, visions of light by the dying may be hallucinations; where they are witnessed by carers or relatives, it may be linked to stress; and as for deathbed coincidences, it is common for people to fear bad things have befallen their loved ones. Sometimes, by chance, these will coincide with an actual death.

Yet Dr Fenwick does not regard these as satisfactory explanations in all cases. He does not rule out the possibility of a "transcendent" spiritual dimension, or that these phenomena could represent capabilities of consciousness that are not yet understood. "There is certainly a construct of the mind component to it there would have to be or we couldn't understand it," he says. "The question is, how much?"

It is the whiff of the afterlife that ensures study of near-death and approaching-death experiences is still controversial. Those researching such phenomena are naturally suspected of doing so to support their own belief in an afterlife.

Dr Caroline Watt, a senior lecturer in psychology at Edinburgh University linked to the Koestler Parapsychology Unit, does not believe investigators' beliefs are relevant "so long as the studies are conducted using the usual scientific standards". She says: "I would say in general that if near-death-experience studies are published in high-quality peer-reviewed journals, then it is probably good-quality research that deserves to be taken seriously."

And it is not just important for the spiritually minded. As the Camden study showed, there is not only a lack of training for palliative carers in how to deal with deathbed experiences, but a widespread reluctance even to discuss them, even though, for the dying and the living alike, these can be the most momentous experiences of a person's life.

For more information or to report an experience, visit www.deathbed-experience-research.net.

The three types of experience
  • Deathbed visions seen by the person who is dying. The most common are "take away" visions, where the person sees figures who have apparently come to take them away on a journey through physical death. May be a dead relative or religious figure. It is often a joyful experience for them.
  • Experience of light seen by either the patient, the carers and sometimes by both. The light is often radiant and described as being infused with love; it may envelop the body and spread through the room. Sometimes something interpreted as a soul or essence of the dying person is seen leaving the body.
  • Deathbed coincidences reported by family or friends of the dying. They suddenly become convinced a loved one is dying or dead, even though they are far away and may not know the person is ill. The dying person may "visit", as though saying goodbye, or the relative may awaken at the moment of death.