The Dying Experience & The Paranormal
*Talk given by Rich Hayes on June 7,2009 at The Unitarian Universalist Church, Pittsfield, MA

When we do an informational for admission to hospice care, we give a booklet to the patient and the family that speaks about what to expect as death approaches.

One of the things mentioned is the possibility that the patient may carry on conversations with unseen quests, or report seeing or hearing things. There may be comments that a deceased family member has visited.

This booklet also goes on to explain the physical changes that begin to take place. The goal of the booklet is to help patient and family as they move in to this uncharted territory of the dying, and it would not-could not- be complete or helpful if it didn't make note of this all too common occurrence of paranormal experience of contact from the “other side”.
Working for hospice you encounter people; both patients and families, as well as staff and coworkers; who share all kinds of stories of things they've witnessed personally, or been told by another.

“Paranormal” is defined as being beyond the range of normal experience or scientific explanation.

This morning I'll be talking about some paranormal experiences associated with the dying. Not with the intention of coming to any kind of conclusions, because quite frankly I don't think that is really possible. But I'm certain there will be plenty of opinions…and maybe even some new thoughts about possibilities.

Personally I've always been interested in what happens to us after this experience of life. When I die, do I continue? And if so am I still “me”?

This question began for me when I was 10 and my 9 yr old brother Jimmy died from cancer. I feel that through the things I've witnessed I have no doubt that what we see as death here in this world is just another leg of the journey we're all on.

So, because time is limited and this is a very large subject, this morning I'm going to focus on a few specific kinds of paranormal experiences: Visions, visitation & conversations, the NDE (or near death experience) and precognitive dreams. I should also mention that in the interest of protecting people's privacy I do not use anyone's real name in recounting these stories.

Doug, a man in his mid 60's with end stage lung cancer told me the following when I asked him if he had any fear about dying. In answering my question he replied: “No problem. I've already done it once”. So I asked him if he'd mind telling me about it. Here are his words: “About 20 years ago I had a major abdominal bleed and was rushed to the ER. As they wheeled me in and started to work on me I found myself out of my body and across the room, watching them work like crazy as they're trying to save me. I hear the doctor say “we're losing him”. But here's the thing: I feel fine. As a matter of fact I feel better than I've ever felt in my whole life! I can see my body laying there but I feel no attachment to it. It's like nothing more than a car to me-it's not me. Then it gets really weird. Suddenly there's this light to my left and it's growing brighter and brighter. It's brighter than anything I've ever seen, but it doesn't hurt my eyes. As a matter of fact I can “feel” this light and the way it feels is beyond anything I've ever felt before! I have no words to describe it. To call it “love” doesn't do it justice. It was like the most loving experience I've ever had turned up to a million! Then the light spoke to and told me it wasn't my time yet and that I had to go back. Next thing I know I'm back in my body”.

I spoke before a group of people awhile back and told this story. After the meeting a person came up and identified herself as the nurse who'd been in the ER that night, saying she remembered Doug quite well. She confirmed that he had indeed been on the verge of death.

I should also mention that I have shared this story from time to time with patients when I've felt it might be helpful to alleviate fear or anxiety.

I did so with Stan, a man in his 90's. And after I told him this story he said to me: “Yes, that's it exactly”. He then went on to tell me of an experience that was almost identical to Doug's experience from back when he was 17 and had been very ill. He'd had an NDE but had never spoken about it to anyone, fearing he'd be laughed at or worse, labeled “crazy”. So finally, some 70 odd years later he got to speak of his own experience and I could see that he felt relief as he did. He knew the experience had been real.

Charlie was a vet of WWII, a flight engineer on a B-17 and had flown numerous missions over place Europe in the last 2 years of the war. He had loads of friends and when his health began to fail he wound up in a Skilled nursing facility. I visited with him for over 4 months and got to know him pretty well. We had some great conversations and I found Charlie to be a truly nice and kind man with a good sense of humor. A few days before he died I stopped by one afternoon and he was in bed. I was surprised by this because Charlie did his best to stay active. Although in a wheel chair, he got around and went to what ever activities were being offered.
Anyway, on this day he was in bed and I kidded him about this. He told me he'd had a busy day with all kinds of visitors stopping by; old friends he hadn't seen in years. I'm not sure why, maybe a hunch, but I asked him if any of these people were people who had died. He got this look on his face, his eyes getting a little wider and then he said to me “Yes”. He said they looked as real as me. He asked me how that was possible. I told him that many people reported such visits as they neared the end of life, so he wasn't alone in his experience.

Elizabeth was a woman in her 70's who was living with her daughter, Diane. Diane was very attached to her mother and although she knew her mom was sick and on hospice, kept hoping that she'd get better. One day as I arrived for a visit Diane was visibly upset. As soon as I came into the kitchen she told me her mother had been talking with her brother the night before. Her brother had died about 15 years ago. When I went in to visit Elizabeth I asked about this. She told me her brother had been there and had told her she'd be dying very soon and that she shouldn't worry because he'd help her and that he would be there to meet her. She did die quite peacefully and Diane was comforted by the idea of her uncle meeting her mother and helping her “over”.

Gary was 90 years old when he came on to hospice services. He had been a fireman and his wall had numerous awards and mementos commemorating his distinguished career. One day while I was visiting Gary he told me of a visitor he'd had. On several occasions a young boy who, according to Gary, looked to be around 7 yrs old appeared. Gary described him as looking totally normal and solid. Yet when Gary had tried to touch him his hand passed through the boy and he disappeared. I suggested that if the boy shows himself again that Gary should ask him who he is and why he's there.
Some time went by and Gary didn't mention the boy again. Then, during a routine visit, Gary said to me that he'd seen the boy again the evening before and that he'd asked him who he was and why he was there. He said the boy's lips didn't move but he could hear him perfectly in his mind and that the boy told him he was there to help. Gary said that the boy never told him who he was. Just that he was there to help him.

I should tell you that I asked Gary if the boy looked familiar, or if any family members had died as children, and he had answered no to both of these.
I should also mention that many years earlier, when he'd been active with the fire department, Gary had been called to the sight of a particularly grisly accident involving a train that had collided with a car carrying a family of 6 in which all the members of that family were killed. Four of the occupants had been children under the age of 10; all of them boys. Gary had spoken of this awful accident and it was clear that he'd carried the horror of that day with him all these years. Could that boy have been associated with this? Only Gary knows the answer to this. Gary died peacefully shortly after that last visit.

John was a man in his early 60's dying of cancer. His decline was very rapid. In only 2 weeks he'd gone from being able to drive his car to not being able to get out of the hospital bed set up in the living room.
John and his wife Audrey had one child, a grown daughter Jennifer living in California. Sensing that things were going downhill much quicker then originally thought, Audrey told Jennifer to get the earliest flight home. Jenny was due in on Tuesday. On Sunday John's condition took a nose dive. By Monday he was having difficulty breathing, but he was conscious and aware and he knew Jennifer was coming. At one point that Monday afternoon Audrey was in the kitchen and heard John speaking. She came in to the room to see John talking and waving his hand as if to dismiss someone. To Audrey there was no one there. She asked John who he was talking to. By the way John had served two tours in Viet Nam. He told her that some of the guys had come for him. They told him they were there to escort him home. He waved them off, telling them he had to see his daughter first. Jennifer arrived late Tuesday morning and John died later that afternoon.

What this story would seem to indicate is that we do have some say over when we leave this life. It's comforting to think that we may still have some control over things.

This story was told to me by a hospice nurse who'd been making a visit when this happened.
Bill was in his 80's and had lost his wife Catherine 2 years earlier, and since then his own health had deteriorated. He had developed pneumonia. He was in the hospital and had slipped into a coma. His family had gotten permission to bring his dog, a golden retriever, to visit, hoping that having his much loved dog there might bring him out of it, or at least bring him some comfort. The dog immediately went to Bill and began licking his hand. Then something caught the dogs attention and he ran around to the other side of the bed and over to the corner of the room and began barking and wagging his tail, jumping up and down.

Bill opened his eyes and looked over at the corner of the room and smiled, and said: “Oh Catherine, there you are”
Bill died peacefully that evening.

The following story does not quite fit into the categories I'd originally outlined but I felt it should be included here. This story illustrates something I have encountered a few times: a person who has had dementia seems to have that dementia lift right before they die.

Mary Louise was a patient who'd had pronounced dementia. I'd visited her for several months but had never been able to have any meaningful conversation. On the morning she died she awoke at 3 a.m. and requested a glass of orange juice from the nurse. The nurse was amazed because she'd never heard Mary Louise speak anything but gobble-gook. After she got her the OJ Mary Louise said to the nurse and an aide “Thank you for taking such good care of me”. After drinking her juice she went back to sleep. She died peacefully at a little after 11 that morning.


I'm going to end with a very personal story. My mom had suffered from dementia and been in an Alzheimer's Care unit for almost 10 years. Despite her dementia and loss of mental capacity, her physical health had remained good. The thing that had always kept her healthy, an amazingly resilient immune system, had betrayed her and kept her alive well past the time I believe she would have chosen for herself. Staff members where she lived often commented on how healthy she always was, and that she never got sick like all the other residents.

One night I had a dream, which I will not go into here, but suffice it to say that the dream jolted me awake. The message the dream gave me was that my mother was going to die very soon. I shared this with my wife as we walked later that morning.
Five days later I received a phone call telling me that my mother had suddenly spiked a fever, but other than the fever, she seemed comfortable. Remembering my dream I decided to call the hospice that served the area where my mother lived. This was on a Tuesday afternoon. The following morning I'd heard nothing so I called the unit and was told that the hospice people had just finished evaluating my mother and then was asked if I'd like to speak to the hospice nurse. The nurse said my mom was appropriate for admission to hospice and they were going to admit her. I asked how my mom was doing and the nurse told me she was comfortable and that her fever was down. There was absolutely no mention of my mother being near death. As I hung up the phone I heard a voice say “Your mother is going to die today”. The voice seemed to come from inside my own head but it didn't sound like my voice. I was at work and I sat there for a moment, trying to tell myself that I'd imagined the whole thing. But then I listened to my gut and went and told my boss I thought my mother might be dying. He told me to get going. I made it to her place at 4:30 that afternoon and when I walked into her room I could see that she was actively dying. She died an hour and a half later. Note that the voice I heard didn't speak to me in the first person. It wasn't "Mom is going to die". It was "Your mother is going to die".

When I have spoken to audiences about some of the things I've shared with you this morning invariably someone comes up to me afterward and tells me of a personal experience they or someone they know has had.
Most of these people tell me they've not talked about these things because they feared what others might think.

So what are we to think of all of this? Tricks of the mind?
Delusion? Wishful thinking? Neurons misfiring? Or do the people we have known who have passed on really meet us and help us as we leave this world? Does everyone experience such things as they approach death?

No, at least not from what I can gather. BUT from my own experiences and through the people I've met over the past 12 years, a great many people do. And I suspect that more do than don't, although we who are not dying may not be aware of this because people who are dying may no longer be able to communicate what they are experiencing.

So what do we do with this information? Take comfort?

Yes, I think so. If these occurrences are real, and I believe they are, then it seems to indicate that no one dies alone; that there are others to meet us. And I don't know about you, but that certainly gives me comfort. For all those I've been with as they die, and for myself when it is eventually my time to go.

I don't know what happens to us after we die, but it certainly seems that as we die, we are helped.

I believe we do continue on, and the things I've seen for myself, or been told by coworkers, only serves to strengthen this belief.

And today, as I feel my own body aging, borrowing from my patient Doug who described his body as a “car”, it is comforting for me to think of this body as not me, but rather something I have used to get around here in this world.
As my body ages and gets more like that once loved car whose odometer has 150k on it and has started to burn oil and creak and groan on the highway, one day I'll pull it over to the curb, pat the dash board and thank it for all it's faithful service, and open the door and get out.
We are so much more than merely physical.

And to me that is a great, great comfort indeed!
Thank you.