Delirium? Delusions?

Deathbed visions are quickly dismissed by many, especially medical personnel, as hallucinations, delirium, side effects of medications or illness, or lack of oxygen to the brain.

On the website AgingCare.com, someone asked if her mother’s visit by a long-dead family nurse was a deathbed vision. One respondent stated assuredly:

This is a delusion, perhaps accompanied by hallucination. Since she is dying I suppose you could consider it a death bed vision if that means something special to you.

Before I go any further, I would like to emphasize that urinary tract infections or UTIs are very common in the elderly due to poor bladder emptying. UTIs are also very serious, partly because the elderly people may not exhibit the hallmark fever of an infection: their weakened immune systems are unable to mount a proper response.

UTIs in the elderly are often mistaken for the early stages of dementia or Alzheimer’s, according to National Institutes of Health (NIH), because symptoms include:

  • Confusion or delirium-like state
  • Agitation
  • Hallucinations
  • Other behavioral changes
  • Poor motor skills or dizziness
  • Falling

These are often the only symptoms that may present in the elderly, so it is crucial to keep an eye out for these sudden changes in mental state.

That said, the medical field’s response to deathbed visions as delusions deprives loved ones of some much-needed comfort. In describing how medical personnel can use deathbed visions to positively assist in the dying process, author Carla Wills-Brandon described the following in her book One Last Hug Before I Go:

Our son passed over on August 4, 1997. I believe he did have deathbed visions. The first one happened after he had a seizure. His heart stopped, and after he came back to life, he seemed all right. But then he looked at me and said, “Mom, what happened to me?” I didn’t want to scare him, so I told him he had fainted. He replied, “Whatever happened to me was wonderful! It felt so good! I liked that!”

When my husband visited with the doctor he told him what our son had said. The doctor said to him, “You do know that what your son experienced was a near-death experience.”

When the second vision took place, my son had been unconscious for over an hour. Suddenly, he sat up in an upright position! This happened very quickly. We were so shocked, we didn’t say a word to him. We thought, “My God, he came out of it!” so we just sat and stared.

He looked toward the foot of his bed and then up. He was looking as though he were seeing more than one person. He turned his head slightly from side to side. The look on his face was like he was confused with what he was staring at. Then, after a few minutes, he laid back down and looked very peaceful. He returned to his unconscious state and at this point all we could do was hold him. Not long after that, our son went into cardiac arrest and passed on. (p.107)

That doctor’s validation of their son’s statement by linking it to a near-death experience helped the parents understand what was happening when their son’s end arrived. A bit later in One Last Hug Before I Go, author Carla Wills-Brandon extols the attitude of a friend:

A good friend of mine employed in the medical profession shows incredible tenderness toward those who are passing. When a dying patient or family member presents him with a DBV [deathbed vision], he is quick to validate their experience. (p.108)

It comes as no surprise to learn that this friend had lost a son who, during his dying process, had seen Jesus and often spoke with his guardian angel. At first the parents thought their son was imagining things until they heard him in conversation with his guardian angel, later commenting, “Nicola was awake and he wasn’t in a coma. My son wasn’t delirious or on any strong medications like morphine or other related drugs.”

In her outstanding end-of-life guide Final Journeys, hospice nurse Maggie Callanan discusses this “nearing death awareness,” opening with the comments that the behavior is quickly labeled as confusion or delirium, then pleading for caregivers to look past their judgments and listen to the words and watch the behavior of the dying, because they may be sending us messages.

Maggie Callanan and colleague Patricia Kelley gathered stories of nearing death awareness into their book Final Gifts: Understanding the Special Awareness, Needs, and Communications of the Dying. They found that the messages fell into two categories. The first type of message spoke of the experience of dying, with the dying person perhaps talking of seeing a place of great beauty or talking with and being comforted by End Friends—dead people or religious figures. The second category of message expressed the needs the dying had in order to get on with their journey, perhaps a reconciliation with another person or the Almighty or themselves.

Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross was adamant that no one dies alone and directly confronted the dismissive medical establishment. Her book On Life After Death is a collection of four essays that present proof for her assertion that no one dies alone. For those who labeled End Friends as wishful thinking, Dr. Ross gathered stories from her dying child patients, asking them whom they would love to see the most, whom they would most want to have by their side always. Ninety-nine percent of her child patients named their mommies and daddies. Yet none of those children saw their mommies or their daddies when they died, because their mommies and daddies were still alive.

Dr. Ross tackled the medical’s community’s dismissal of deathbed visions as lack of oxygen to the brain by gathering near-death experiences of totally blind people. These people reported seeing who was present in the room during their near-death experiences, describing clothing down to the jewelry worn. Yet when they returned to life, they were as blind as before. Dr. Ross concluded that if this is a lack of oxygen, then she should prescribe it for all her blind patients.

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