Nearly twenty-five years ago, my husband’s grandmother, Mary, had terminal cancer, and she lived with us during her final months. Hospice nurses cared for her medical needs while I made her meals and kept her company. She loved her morning farina and often requested lentil soup…with ketchup! Mary was a very matter-of-fact woman. She wasn’t one to dramatize an experience, and it was hard sometimes to remember she was dying. So much so, that it surprised me when she began talking about family members I knew had already passed on. Not only did she see them in her bedroom, but she talked with them as well. I was aware of people having these experiences, but I wanted to believe it was merely a side effect of pain medication. As the days passed, she would tell me about angelic beings hovering near the ceiling. They had “beautiful sparkly hair,” and she spoke about them with such conviction that I wanted to see them too! Anytime that I would ask for more details, she would smile and say, “You wouldn’t understand.”
The day Mary died, the hospice nurse came for a visit. I told her what Mary was saying and asked if she might die soon. The nurse didn’t think so, as she was still up and about and eating, and she wasn’t even in need of much medication. And yet, later in the afternoon, I met Mary at the top of the stairs by her bedroom door. She was dressed up with her pocketbook in hand. I asked her where she was going, and she replied, “There is a big feast over there (pointing to the wall); everyone is waiting for me, but I don’t know how to get there.” I had goosebumps. I looked, hoping to see what she was seeing, but I couldn’t. I nodded, and very calmly told her she would be there soon while I helped her back to bed. My husband (a chiropractor) checked on her a little while later. She was sleeping, and her breathing was slow. He left her for a moment to go get his stethoscope. But when he walked back into her room just minutes later, she had already passed away. Mary found her way to that feast!
As one approaches the end of life, their consciousness and experience of the world around them changes. This concept has been explored in various cultures and spiritual traditions for centuries, with many believing that a significant “shift” occurs within a person’s mindset as they come closer to passing away.
The dying person’s senses become sharper. They begin to connect more deeply with their environment, noticing even the most minor details, and yet, you might get the sense that they aren’t quite here anymore either. This heightened awareness can be confusing, frightening, and even awe-inspiring, especially when they share that they have been talking with loved ones who have already died or when they tell you they need to get to the train station or get in line at the airport. They may even tell you that they can see heaven!
A deep sense of peace may come over those nearing death as well. This can manifest in many forms: an acceptance and understanding of mortality, a willingness to move into the unknown, or simply a deep appreciation for life and all its beauty. They may even tell you when they will die, either directly or through indirect statements about a holiday or other meaningful day or even a seemingly random date that might turn out to be very meaningful to them.
These experiences are often called nearing death awareness or near death awareness (NDA). While not everyone experiences it (that we know of anyway), it is estimated that roughly 50-60% of people experience NDA at the end of life.
It is essential to understand the importance of this experience and not discount it as meaningless babble or a hallucination. According to Pallipedia, “The language patients use to communicate NDA may be symbolic. If caretakers are not aware that NDA can occur, patients may be ignored, treated condescendingly, or inappropriately medicated for delirium. Family, friends, and health professionals may respond with annoyance, frustration, or fear. This, in turn, may cause isolation, suffering, and impair the dying person’s ability to communicate meaningful experiences at the end of life.”
Nearing death awareness also raises interesting questions about our understanding of the afterlife. Many experiences include seeing a beautiful white light, talking with deceased loved ones, or feeling like they are being taken to a higher plane of existence. Though some scientists often dismiss these stories as fantasy, it is difficult to ignore the similarities between individual reports and traditional religious accounts of what happens after death. Some even believe that we can use this concept to gain insight into what we should expect after we pass away, providing us greater peace and closure when considering our mortality.
An excellent book about NDA and how people communicate with us at end of life is Final Gifts: Understanding the Special Awareness, Needs, and Communications of the Dying by Maggie Calanan and Patricia Kelly. It’s full of many different stories that will help you understand that there is indeed a purpose behind what is being shared.
IAHPC Pallipedia. https://pallipedia.org/near-death-awareness/