The Stare

In Deathbed Visions by Sir William Barrett, a woman named Miss Cobbe provides a description of a typical deathbed vision:

The dying person is lying quietly, when suddenly, in the very act of expiring, he looks up—sometimes starts up in bed—and gazes on (what appears to be) vacancy, with an expression of astonishment, sometimes developing instantly into joy, and sometimes cut short in the first emotion of solemn wonder and awe. If the dying man were to see some utterly unexpected but instantly recognized vision, causing him a great surprise, or rapturous joy, his face could not better reveal the fact. The very instant this phenomenon occurs, Death is actually taking place, and the eyes glaze even while they gaze at the unknown sight. (p.18)

But sometimes the vision produces a less obvious reaction, resulting in the dying person simply staring at a spot, often a corner of the room: The Stare.

The dying person may be seeing End Friends or a glimpse of the world about to be entered, but can’t or won’t talk about it.

For example, on the AgingCare.com website, many people replied to a question about a mom in hospice constantly staring up:

  • Hospice told me that at the end people will often see and speak with deceased loved ones.
  • [My mother] had been pretty much unconscious for the past week or so. But just before she died, she opened her eyes and I could tell she was aware. She stared straight up, I don’t know at what, but I could tell she was conscious and alert for the first time in days. I will never forget it and I cherish it because it gave us a chance to say goodbye to her and know that she heard us.
  • My mom spoke to family members who had passed on in her final days.
  • My dad and grandmother stared into space and would smile and wave at the wall.
  • My grandmother saw my dad and aunt about two weeks before she died. My dad died ten years before she did and my aunt nineteen years before. She had a conversation with my dad and it was comforting to her. She did not have dementia. From what I’ve been reading on here, it’s quite common for dying people to see deceased loved ones. (https://www.agingcare.com/questions/do-patients-at-end-of-life-stare-up-at-nothing-192817.htm)

In her outstanding book Final Journeys, hospice nurse Maggie Callanan tells the story of Scott, a 10-year-old with an inoperable brain tumor. During one visit, Scott was flushed with excitement as he announced to Maggie that his Nana came to see him the night before; his beloved grandmother had died four years earlier. Scott went on to say that she was coming to get him and they would go to heaven together in a rocket ship. Scott was bursting with excitement.

A week or so later, the family called the nurse with the news that their dog was very agitated. Maggie recognized the dog’s heightened awareness and drove right over to visit Scott, who was in the thick fog of a coma. His eyes darted back and forth under nearly closed lids.

“Scottie!” I [Maggie] gently called. “Is there anybody else here in this room with you besides Mom, Dad, Tracy, Missy [the dog], and me?” His eyes shot open and darted around the room as if searching.

“Sweetie, is Nana here with us?” I whispered. I can only describe his face as beatific and full of joy and love as he nodded and looked from his mother to his father and then to Tracy. His gaze paused briefly on me, then swept past and settled for a long moment on someone unseen to us. Was it Nana? (pp.219–220)

In their book Final Gifts, authors Callanan and Kelley list signs to watch for to help recognize nearing death awareness:

[A] glassy-eyed look; the appearance of staring through you; distractedness or secretiveness; seemingly inappropriate smiles or gestures, such as pointing, reaching toward someone or something unseen, or waving when no one is there. (p.226)

They could be seeing End Friends or their next life to come. I’ve been told by hospice nurses that many people die reaching out. Reaching for what?

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2 Comments

  1. Thank you for this. Very thought provoking and beautifully written. I worked in a hospice once as a writer in residence, I collected the stories of those near the end of their life. I saw how time steals away lives, and yet somehow it also allowed a sort of freedom: to let go. To take one last strong look at the world.

    Like

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