Monday, October 5, 2020

Near Death Awareness

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.


G. Verloren said...

I think neurologists would be fascinated to study what's actually going on in the brain when this happens, but I don't have the first clue how you could set up a study.

We still understand so very little about the brain and how it functions (and malfunctions). One day, hopefully...

Shadow said...

The pineal gland acts up near death.

Shadow said...

Having done a little more research, the most recent science dismisses the pineal gland' role in hallucinations. Oh, well. Nice try.

Anonymous said...

Maybe they see ghost...

David said...

Fascinating post.

I think it would be interesting to investigate the family relationships of those who have these visions. Is there any correlation between people who have more or less happy family relationships with those who see relatives attending them to "ease their way"? What about those with unhappy relationships? Do divorced people see their ex-spouses, and what is the ex-spouse's mood? What about people whose parents were harsh, critical, or outright abusive?

Who are the suffering babies? Are they just babies in general? Recent newborns in the family?

G. Verloren said...


An excellent point. You never hear about people seeing people they don't want to see!

"Oh, for crying out loud... it's been twenty years since the divorce! Leave me alone! I just want to die in peace! Is that too much to ask? God, it's just like you, isn't it? You used to pull this kind of stunt all the time when we married!"

There's a similar phenomenon in more traditional "ghost stories". People never see ghosts of things they aren't already aware of.

To illustrate, one could easily imagine someone visiting the Great Wall of China and reporting seeing ghosts of stereotypical ancient Chinese soldiers wearing armor and wielding spears or swords - but how many visitors to the Great Wall see the ghosts of modern Japanese soldiers wearing WWII uniforms and wielding Arisaka rifles?

Most people have never heard of Operation Nekka / The First Battle of Hopei / The Defense of The Great Wall, which took place in 1933. And yet, it makes just as much sense to see the ghosts of modern Imperial Japanese soldiers at the Great Wall as it does to see some random Tang Dynasty warrior or something.

Isn't it interesting that people never seem to report seeing ghosts of events or contexts that aren't well known in the popular imagination?

David said...


One also wonders why people who've tried past-life regression don't simply report being peasants over and over and over. (I did have a friend who tried it and learned he was once an Eskimo. He didn't have much to say about it except there was "a lot of fish.")

On the ghost thing, though, certainly in fiction, seeing the ghost and then unearthing who it is is always part of the drama. Granted, that's fiction, but I actually think with ghosts figuring out who it is and what they might want is a very old part of many stories (not all of them, of course; Hamlet doesn't say, "Okay, now, could you tell me again, who were you and what happened to you?").

G. Verloren said...


The trouble with the whole "mystery ghost" angle is that in both real life and fiction, it always ends up having a tidy conclusion.

In real life, "ghost sightings" are often manifestations of underlying trauma or emotional disturbance - a person "sees a ghost", and then they get help from some exorcist or medium or whoever to identify the ghost, and wouldn't you know, the ghost always just so happens to have some important traumatic personal connection to the person being haunted, or to the place where that person lives. Weird, right?

No one ever loses their beloved child to a terrible sickness, then starts seeing the ghostly image of a tiny glowing figure, but when they have a medium conduct a seance to contact the ghost, it turns out it's actually just the spirit of a midget who used to live next door eighty years ago, and they're haunting this house temporarily because their old one just got torn down and is being replaced.

No one ever buys an old, creaky house that used to be the home of a misery widow that everyone in town thought was weird; sees an unidentified apparition; and then once they investigate and do some research, discovers that the mystery ghost that is haunting them is actually just some orthodontist who never even lived in that town, but who died in a traffic accident two blocks away while on his way to a concert.

No, it's always some lost loved one whom the haunting victim never got closure with, or it's some suitably dramatic figure from local rumor and lore. It's never something banal and wholly unrelated - which seems awfully convenient, doesn't it?

Ghosts stories always read like fiction, and never read like mundane reality.

A lone ghostly light in the water of the harbor? Surely it's the ghost of some sailor drowned at sea tragically, still carrying the oil lamp they carried when their wooden sailing ship was sunk by the legendarily terrible storm of 1893! It certainly couldn't be the ghost of a drunk who drowned when he accidentally drove his Toyota Tacoma with only one working headlight off the side of the pier in 2004.

Ghost stories are never not romantic and dramatic, which seems rather incredible.

And even more incredible, they never involve things that would be largely or wholly foreign to the person seeing the ghost. They'll see ghosts related to the history of a building that they are aware of, but not ghosts related to the periods of history they are NOT aware of. They'll see the ghosts of soldiers they know died on a given battlefield, but not ones they didn't realize ever fought there. They'll see what they expect to see, but not what they don't expect to see, regardless of history.

David said...

Well, I happen to love ghost stories, and I've read/watched/listened to a lot of them. Some use the gimmick of the ghost having a personal connection to the protagonist. But my experience is the majority do not. And they often do relate to things the protagonist starts out entirely unaware of. The process of discovery is part of the drama, and the fun.

My initial question about hostile relatives was not meant to undermine the phenomenon either as an experience or an object of study. I'm genuinely curious.

I did make a little joke about past life regressions, but mostly I find these phenomena, both as stories people love (and can't seem to help telling, from age to age) and as things people experience (regardless of what is actually going on in the experience) interesting, important, powerful, moving, and worth more than a jeer.

G. Verloren said...

Ghost stories are powerful, and a very human expression of our experiences in this crazy universe of ours, but people get the nature of them backwards.

We tell ghost stories not because the dead linger in the physical/spiritual world, but because they linger in our hearts and minds. Ghosts aren't things outside of ourselves that we stumble across randomly, they're things deep within ourselves that we give expression to.

They're the unsettling abstract parts of life, projected from our psyches. They are our anxieties, unfulfilled longings, unsettling lacks of answers, et cetera, made "real" through the power of the human mind. They are a subset of our dreams and hallucinations, which are not to be discounted merely for not being concrete reality, but which are a warning sign of (and even a method of coping with) the things in life we lack easy answers for.

We all have 'ghosts', the same way we all have 'demons' - metaphorically, taking something nebulous about our inner workings, and interpreting it through the lens of physical reality as perceived by our senses. Ghosts haunt people because trauma haunts people.

Ghosts are, in a very real sense, the psychic projections of trauma - they don't physically exist, but they very much exist as critical aspects of our minds. They are a real phenomenon - just an internal one, not an external one. They are akin to love, grief, joy, and all the other intangible phenomena of the mind. You can't photograph joy, you can't detect or measure it physically, and yet it does exist, obvious to us in the behaviors and mindstates of others.