In my book Stop Worrying! There Probably is an Afterlife I devoted an entire chapter to so-called ‘end-of-life experiences’ (ELEs) – one aspect of which is the death-bed vision, where a dying individual reports seeing deceased loved ones in their room and around their bed. It’s a fascinating topic that has long been overshadowed by the more-famous near-death experience (NDE), but it deserves much more attention. One large scale study that I mentioned in my book found that almost two-thirds of doctors, nurses and hospice carers reported witnessing ELEs in their patients in the lead-up to their passing.
A recent study by Japanese researchers has added some much-needed extra data about the phenomenon. In 2014 a questionnaire was sent out to bereaved family members of cancer patients across Japan who died in hospital, palliative care units, or at home, in order to evaluate the quality of the end-of-life care they received. Part of that nationwide survey asked about deathbed visions – in Japanese, Omukae (literally, someone visiting a dying patient to accompany them on death’s journey) – which the researchers defined as “visions of deceased persons or afterlife scenes”.
Of 2,221 survey responses, the researchers found that Omukae were reported in 463 cases (21%). Of those, 351 of the families stated that the patients themselves clearly described the deathbed vision, while 113 noted that, while the patient did not mention the vision, family members themselves witnessed the patient experiencing the phenomenon. Of the non-deathbed vision responses, 1,392 families reported no experience as occurring, while 365 families replied that they were unsure.
Of the patients who did experience deathbed visions, 87% had visions of deceased persons (most often parents), while 54% had visions of afterlife scenes. Some of the interesting findings were that deathbed visions were significantly more likely to be observed in older patients and female patients, and in families with more religious activities, or who believed the soul survive the body after death.
Overall the researchers believe that the study…
…highlights that deathbed visions are not distressing phenomena for all patients and families, and some regard them as transpersonal phenomena in the dying process, not hallucinations, consistent with previous preliminary studies.
Clinicians should not automatically regard deathbed visions as abnormal phenomena to be medically treated, and an individualized approach is strongly needed.
The findings that the contents of deathbed visions were mostly related to deceased persons, not religious figures, and that patients and families were reluctant to talk about this to healthcare professionals confirmed earlier observations.
In conclusion, the researchers note that their study shows that “deathbed visions are not uncommon phenomena”, and that “clinicians should not automatically regard such visions as abnormal, and an individualized approach is needed”.