28 December 2016

What was He Seeing before He Passed on? Chronicling my Brother’s Seeming Deathbed Visions

Image credit:  Sai Rapture.

That my older brother had cancer was discovered around Holy Week this year; and from the time of this unnerving discovery, although none of us was to know it at the time, he only had until the end of November to live. When he passed on, he was just over a month past the age of 60, something that he called a milestone that he was proud to have achieved.

It was all painfully quick and to a point unexpected. My sister from Auckland was due to fly in for the Holiday Season; and we were all looking forward to our traditional Christmas family reunion. However, as has been the case with many cancer cases that I am personally acquainted with, it was downhill for him after he underwent surgery to remove the tumor. He was in and out of hospitals.

Over Christmas when I went to meet up with the rest of the family, I intimated to my two sisters that the possibility of my brother passing on first crossed my mind on the second week after surgery. He had to be rushed back to the hospital when his vital signs dropped after he was severely dehydrated.

He recovered enough from this episode to be discharged from the hospital, but there was something about him that really creeped me out while he was still there. When he was awake, his eyes would suddenly widen for no apparent reason and focus on the part of the hospital ward’s wall approaching the ceiling. It was as though he was seeing something that nobody else in the ward could.

To jolt him back to reality, I would swing my arm this way and that in front of his face. When he snapped back, I would ask him, “What are you seeing?” He had been intubated and could not speak, but each time he would just shake his head gently no.

I dared not mention it to anyone at the time, but I was afraid that he was seeing what researchers call deathbed visions. Dr. Carla Wills-Brandon defines these as phenomena which occur “when someone is very close to death and they see visions of deceased loved ones who greet them to help the dying make the transition of death.1

I could not make myself do it because I was afraid a positive answer would only confirm my greatest fear; but it did cross my mind to ask him if he was seeing my deceased parents. It would still be almost a full month later when my brother would pass on, but despite the term “deathbed” visions, these are known, according to David Kessler, to occur anything from hours to weeks before death.2

In an article, Jen Engevik stated that these so-called visions are usually explained as hallucinations brought on by diminished supply of oxygen to the brain or the effects of various drugs administered to the dying. In the same article, however, she also asked who really knows what occurs when a person is dying.3

My own mother, who died also of cancer way back in 1992, also had deathbed visions according to my older sister. Two weeks before she passed on, while confined in a hospital uptown in Lipa City, she admonished my sister one night not to close the door of the ward. When my sister asked her what she was looking at, she replied, “Madami.” My mother, as with many dying people, could barely speak, so my sister has always believed the she meant madami sila. (There are many of them.) Was my mother seeing visions of her deceased parents and siblings?

My mother’s younger brother, who died in Nasugbu a few years back, was supposed to have been observed occasionally talking to his deceased wife as though she was right there in the dining room the week before he died. This story was told to me by an aunt who lived nearby.

While visions of deceased relatives appear to be a common experience among the dying, there are other visions as well. Wills-Brandon, in her book “One Last Hug Before I Go,” narrates the experience of an 11-year old dying of lymphoma who described “beautiful colors in the sky” and reassured those around him not to be afraid because he had seen “God, angels and shepherds. I see the white horse.” Was he describing heaven?4

An article on Hawaii’s Hospice and Palliative Care Organization web site says that these visions, both visual and auditory, are normal but also thinks that these are hallucinations of the dying. The article noted, “The dying may turn their focus to “another world” and talk to people or see things that others do not see.”

But to return to my brother’s case, just what, pray tell, was he really seeing? Each time his eyes widened as though having visions, I would ask him what he was seeing. However Engevik, in her article, narrated how she asked her mother at her deathbed similar if more particular questions.

“Mom, do you see any of our dead relatives in the room? Do you see your dad?” she shook her head to indicate “no.” “Do you see your mom,” she shook her head. “Do you see dad?” (my dad had died when I was 10). Her response was quite different this time. She began nodding her head to indicate “yes.”

I was not prepared or brave enough to ask my brother the same questions, so I guess I will never know what my brother was seeing. I rather suspect my Mom and Dad were waiting.

Notes and references:
1 Deathbed Visions Research of Dr. Carla Wills-Brandon, online at Near-Death Experiences and the Afterlife.
2 What We Can't Explain at the End of Life: Who and What You See Before You Die by David Kessler, online at Oprah.com.
3 Why the Dying See Their Deceased Relatives Before They Go – And What My Dying Mom Told Me She Saw by Jen Engevik, online at FirsttoKnow.com.
4 One Last Hug Before I Go by Dr. Carla Wills-Brandon.
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