Death is more than just a physical process. Many people who care for those who are dying report that something other than the physiological closing down of the body’s systems happens as we begin to approach death.
End of life experiences
Dying people often feel compelled to confront and resolve unfinished issues from their past, particularly with family members. They may want to write a letter or send an email, or meet with the person in question. They may also have a desire to visit childhood haunts or go through old family photographs. These experiences can be profoundly healing, and often enable the person to let go and die at peace.
It is also not uncommon in the weeks or days before death for a dying person to speak of being ‘visited’ by dead relatives, friends, groups of children, religious figures or even favourite pets. They will say these apparitions have come to “collect” them or help them let go.
The person may also talk about moving in and out of ‘reality’, and describe other-worldly realms. They may speak of embarking on a journey, or may suddenly stare at a point in the room or turn towards the window and experience a sense of amazement, joy or wonder.
Even when semi-conscious and unable to communicate with those sitting with them, it may appear that they are reaching out to take hold of something and then feeling it between their fingers as if puzzled.
They may also appear to be thinking deeply, as if they are being ‘shown’ information that they may not have considered before. Dying people, and those who witness these end of life experiences, usually describe them with loving, reassuring words such as calming, soothing, greeting, comforting, beautiful, readying.
It is not known how many dying people have such visions and experiences, but research suggests that end of life visions and dreams hold profound meaning for dying people, helping them to come to terms with their dying process.
Choosing the moment to go
It can often appear that people choose the moment to die. In fact, we are 14% more likely to die on our birthday than any other day. Dying people also seem to know who is strong enough to face the moment with them, and to protect those who aren’t. For example, it is not unusual for someone to hang on to life against medical odds until a relative or friend arrives at their bedside, or until a special anniversary or birthday. A person who is confused, semi-conscious or unconscious may also become lucid enough to be able to say a final goodbye before dying.
Some relatives may feel compelled to visit the dying person in the middle of the night, or experience being ‘called back’.
In contrast, some people seem to make a deliberate choice to die alone. They appear to wait until everyone has left the room – even for the shortest time – before they die.
Some appear to choose to die with only particular people in the room. This can be difficult when you have taken a break from being with them for many hours or even days. You may feel hurt that they haven’t ‘chosen’ to be with you at the moment of death. Or you feel guilty for believing you have let the person down by missing the crucial moment. It may be the case that sometimes a person needs emotional freedom to die in peace on their own or, perhaps because emotions are running high, they choose to die in the presence of other relatives or friends who are more able to cope with it.
So do take breaks to give them space. Just make sure you say goodbye each time you leave the room, just in case they die in your absence.
Esther, 44: "When my mother was dying of a brain tumour she mostly couldn't communicate, but during a moment of lucidity she told me that her Aunt Bridie, who had died around ten years before, had come to visit her in her hospital room. Aunt Bridie told my mum to stop being silly, it was time for mum to come with her and everyone was waiting to see her. While my mum was too ill to be aware of the fact she was dying, it does bring me comfort knowing that Aunt Bridie helped her through."