Fascinating story by Steve Petrow in the Washington Post:
Last summer, six months before my mother died, I walked into her bedroom, and she greeted me with a tinny hello and a big smile. She then resumed a conversation with her mother — who had died in 1973. “Where are you?” Mom asked, as though Grandma, a onetime Fifth Avenue milliner, was on one of her many European hat-buying junkets. As I stood there dumbstruck, Mom continued chatting — in a young girl’s voice, no less — for several more minutes. Was this a reaction to medication, a sign of advancing dementia? Or was she preparing to “transition” to wherever she was going next?
Regardless, Mom was freaking me out — as well as my brother, sister and father.
As it turned out, my mother’s chat with a ghost was a signal that the end was inching closer. Those who work with the terminally ill, such as social workers and hospice caregivers, call these episodes or visions a manifestation of what is called Nearing Death Awareness.
“They are very common among dying patients in hospice situations,” Rebecca Valla, a psychiatrist in Winston-Salem, N.C., who specializes in treating terminally ill patients, wrote in an email. “Those who are dying and seem to be in and out of this world and the ‘next’ one often find their deceased loved ones present, and they communicate with them. In many cases, the predeceased loved ones seem [to the dying person] to be aiding them in their ‘transition’ to the next world.”
While family members are often clueless about this phenomenon, at least at the outset, a small 2014 study of hospice patients concluded that “most participants” reported such visions and that as these people “approached death, comforting dreams/visions of the deceased became more prevalent.”
This connects to much folklore about dying. For example it has been widely believed that people on the edge of death can serve as shamans, communicating with spirits and learning about the future or carrying messages to those long dead. From this you can see where those beliefs come from.
Unfortunately these visions can also have a dark side, as when dying people see old friends or relations suffering, sometimes their own infant children, and feel great distress about not being able to help them. When this happened to Steve Petrow's mother he tried to help by telling her that he was carrying for the babies she was worried about, or would take them to the doctor, which seemed to help for a while. But losing your grip on reality is always dangerous, as the shamans understood, for the other world contains monsters who would eat your soul.