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Dr. Carla Wills-Brandon’s Deathbed Visions Research

Dying old woman in hospital bed with caring man

Deathbed Visions (DBVs) – also known as “nearing death awareness” – refer to paranormal experiences occurring to people who are dying. There are many examples of deathbed phenomena in both non-fiction and fictional literature, which suggests that these occurrences have been noted by cultures around the world for centuries, although scientific study of them is relatively recent. Recent research by Neuropsychiatrist Peter Fenwick and Elizabeth Fenwick published in their book, The Art of Dying, collated examples of unusual happenings at the time of someone’s death. The dying person may report seeing deceased relatives or friends and having conversations with them or be overcome with a feeling of joy and happiness. If we accept deathbed visions at face value they provide glimpses of what awaits us when we ourselves make the transition. The following are some true accounts of deathbed visions from Dr. Carla Wills-Brandon’s research (www.carlawillsbrandon.com) into deathbed visions from her book, One Last Hug Before I Go. Included in this article are deathbed accounts from Sir William Barrett in his classic book entitled Death-Bed Visions: The Psychical Experiences of the Dying.

1. Introduction to Deathbed Visions

Carla Wills-Brandon

Staff working in hospices frequently relate paranormal occurrences around the time of a patient’s death. According to a study published in the American Journal of Hospice & Palliative care, The Incidence of Deathbed Communications and Their Impact on the Dying Process by Dr. Madelaine Lawrence and Dr. Elizabeth Repede, hospice nurses identified 363 incidences of DBCs, with the typical hospice nurse sees approximately five patients a month with deathbed communication (DBC). Lawrence and Repede prefer “deathbed communications” (DBCs) rather than “deathbed visions” because some communication is auditory and some tactile in addition to being visual. The purpose of their study was to determine the incidence of DBCs during the 30 days before death and their impact on the dying process. A total of 60 hospice chart audits and 75 survey responses by hospice nurses across the United States were analyzed. In all, 89% of the hospice nurses reported patients who experienced a DBC had a peaceful and calm death, with only 40.5% reporting a peaceful and calm death without the DBC. According to their study, these DBCs have a positive impact on the dying process but are underreported in patient records and under described in textbooks.

2. Examples of Cases of Deathbed Visions from Dr. Carla Wills-Brandon’s Research

a. A Dying Mother’s Deathbed Vision

My mother had been in and out of hospitals over the last year, near death at each admission. She was coherent and not delusional. She had congestive heart failure and lung and kidney cancer spread throughout her body. One morning in the hospital room, about 2 a.m. when all was quiet, my mother stared out the door of her room and into the hall that led to the nurse’s station and the other patient’s rooms.

I said, “Momma, what do you see?”

And she said, “Don’t you see them? They walk the hall day and night. They are dead.”

“She said this with quiet calmness. The revelation of this statement might send fear into some, but my mother and I had seen spiritual visions many years prior, so this statement was not a shock for me to hear, or for her to see. I, however, this time, I did not see them. This small conversation was not mentioned again. Her surgeon said there was no point in treatment as the cancer had spread throughout her body. He said she might have six months to live, at the most; maybe three months. I brought her home to die. She passed four weeks later.

The night of her (unexpected) passing, she was restless and anxious. Although my mother was a spiritual person, she had been in denial throughout her illness and declining health. She did not want to die, therefore she would not acknowledge the prognosis or her condition. She always talked as if she were going to get well and making plans of things to do in the coming spring.

About 7:30 p.m. she asked to be carried out to the enclosed front porch. It was winter and cold. But, she insisted and by this time, I would not deny my mother any request. I wrapped her in blankets and made her as comfortable as possible. My mother was an invalid and could not support herself in anyway without help. A few minutes before 8 p.m. she said, “I have to go. They’re here. They’re waiting for me.”

Her face glowed and the color returned to her pale face as she attempted to raise herself and stand up. Her last words were, “I have to go. It is beautiful!”

And she then passed at 8 p.m.

b. A Dying Uncle’s Deathbed Vision

I found the subject of deathbed visions oddly reassuring as my favorite uncle died this morning at 7:30 a.m. CST. He has been ill with terminal cancer for over two years now and we knew the end was near. My aunt said he knew it was time to go and asked his son-in-law to cut his hair and trim his beard last night, then asked to be bathed.

My aunt sat with him all night. A few hours before he died he said, “Uncle Charley, you’re here! I can’t believe it!”

He proceeded to talk to uncle Charley right up to the end, and told my aunt that Uncle Charley had come to help him over to the other side. His Uncle Charley was his favorite uncle, and is the only significant other in my uncle’s life who has passed on. So I believe Uncle Charley did come to take Uncle Timmy to the other side, and it brings me great comfort.

c. John’s Preview of Heaven

John was an eleven-year-old patient of Melvin Morse who was dying of lymphoma. In his last days, he was hospitalized with severe, untreatable pneumonia. Though he was having difficulty breathing and was in constant pain, he was given very few drugs such as morphine and Valium because they made breathing more difficult.

Three days before John died, a circle of loved ones gathered around his bed. They were startled when John suddenly sat upright and announced that Jesus was in the room. He then asked for everyone to pray for him.

At about three a.m., John sat up again, startling the four people who had gathered around the bed to pray.

“There are beautiful colors in the sky!” he shouted. “There are beautiful colors and more colors. You can double jump up here, double jump!”

At four a.m. an extraordinary event occurred. They were joined by a woman who said that she had received a strong premonition that she had to visit John right away. She was not known to John’s parents, but her son was a playmate of John’s. She had no explanation for why she would suddenly visit John at four a.m. except to explain that she had had a vivid dream about John and had felt a need to visit him that was overpowering.

By dawn, it seemed that life was almost over for John. His breathing was labored, and his heart was pounding like that of a marathon runner’s. Even then, little John had more to communicate. Opening his eyes wide, he asked his grieving parents to “let me go.”

“Don’t be afraid,” he said. “I’ve seen God, angels, and shepherds. I see the white horse.”

As sick as he was, John still begged his family not to feel sorry for him. He had seen where he was going, and it was a joyous and wondrous place.

“It’s wonderful. It’s beautiful,” he said, his hand held out in front of him. Soon he laid back and fell asleep. John never regained consciousness and died two days later.

John’s visions and the incidents surrounding them intrigued Dr. Morse. John’s mother believes that through God’s mediation, John communicated with his friend’s mother. Although she knew he had been hospitalized, it was during the period of his most powerful visions that she had her vision of John. Although Dr. Morse has nothing scientific to base it on, Dr. Morse believes coincidence was too great for these periods of vision activity not to be connected in some way.

d. It’s My Time To Die

The following deathbed account was told to Melvin Morse by a physician in Utah.

A five-year-old boy was in a coma, dying from a malignant brain tumor. He had been in the coma for three weeks and was surrounded almost the entire time by his family. They encircled his bed and prayed constantly for his recovery, taking only brief breaks to eat and rest. At the end of the third week, the pastor of the family’s church came into the hospital room and told them a remarkable story. He’d had a dream, he said, in which the boy told him:

“It’s my time to die. You must tell my parents to quit praying. I am supposed to go now.”

The pastor was nervous about delivering this message to the family. Still, he said, it was a message too vivid to ignore.

“It’s as though he was right there in the room, talking to me face to face.”

The family members accepted the minister’s dream as a message from their son. They prayed, they touched his comatose body, and they told him that he would be missed, but he had permission to die. Suddenly, the boy regained consciousness. He thanked his family for letting him go and told them he would be dying soon. He died the next day.

Perhaps the most important aspect of this story is its cathartic nature. This family was allowed to assuage its grief because they knew that their son was ready to die. Their resentment of life’s process and of God’s will was replaced by the assurance that something mystical had taken place.

e. It Felt So Good

The following report comes from Carla Wills-Brandon’s research and provides us with a beautiful example of how medical personnel can use these visions to positively assist in the dying process.

Our son passed over on August 4, 1997. I believe he did have deathbed visions. The first one happened after he had a seizure. His heart stopped, and after he came back to life, he seemed all right. But then he looked at me and said, “Mom, what happened to me?”

I didn’t want to scare him, so I told him he had fainted. He replied, “Whatever happened to me was wonderful! It felt so good! I liked that!”
When my husband visited with the doctor he told him what our son had said. The doctor said to him, “You do know that what your son experienced was a near-death experience.”

When the second vision took place, my son had been unconscious for over an hour. Suddenly, he sat up in an upright position! This happened very quickly. We were so shocked, we didn’t say a word to him. We thought, “My God, he came out of it!” so we just sat and stared.

He looked toward the foot of his bed and then up. He was looking as though he were seeing more than one person. He turned his head slightly from side to side. The look on his face was like he was confused with what he was staring at. Then, after a few minutes, he laid back down and looked very peaceful. He returned to his unconscious state and at this point all we could do was hold him. Not long after that, our son went into cardiac arrest and passed on.

3. Examples of Cases of Deathbed Visions from Sir William Barrett’s Research and Others

a. Visions of the Dying Who Are Greeted By People Unknown To Them To Be Dead

There are instances where the dying person is unaware of the previous death of a loved one, and is therefore astonished to find on their deathbed a vision of that deceased loved one whom the dying person believes to be still alive. These cases are, perhaps, one of the most convincing arguments for survival after death, as the accuracy of these deathbed visions are greatly enhanced when the fact is undeniably established that the dying person was completely ignorant of the death of the person they so vividly see. Such deathbed visions are also known as “Peak in Darien” experiences after a book by that name published in 1882 by Frances Power Cobbe (1822-1904) an Irish writer, social reformer and leading suffragette. The title of her book, “Peak in Darien” and the name of “Peak in Darien” deathbed visions, are taken from a poem entitled On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer by the English romantic poet, John Keats (1795-1821), who referred to the shock of the Spaniards, who, after sailing the Atlantic Ocean and scaling a peak in Darien (in what is now the Panama Canal), expected to see a continent but were awestruck when confronted instead with another ocean – the Pacific Ocean. People on their deathbeds are similarly awestruck when they meet a recently deceased person of whose death neither they nor anyone around them had any knowledge. Such “Peak in Darien” deathbed visions exclude the possibility of the vision being a hallucination related to the experiencer’s expectations. Frances Cobbe describes this phenomenon as follows:

“The dying person is lying quietly, when suddenly, in the very act of expiring, he looks up – sometimes starts up in bed – and gazes on (what appears to be) vacancy, with an expression of astonishment, sometimes developing instantly into joy, and sometimes cut short in the first emotion of solemn wonder and awe. If the dying man were to see some utterly – unexpected but instantly recognized vision, causing him a great surprise, or rapturous joy, his face could not better reveal the fact. The very instant this phenomenon occurs, death is actually taking place, and the eyes glaze even while they gaze at the unknown sight.”

Another “Peak in Darien” deathbed vision example comes from Frances Cobbe documents is an incident of a very striking nature:

“A dying lady, exhibiting the aspect of joyful surprise, spoke of seeing, one after another, three of her brothers who had been long dead, and then apparently recognized last of all a fourth brother, who was believed by the bystanders to be still living in India. The coupling of his name with that of his dead brothers excited such awe and horror in the mind of one of the persons present that she rushed from the room. In due course of time letters were received announcing the death of the brother in India, which had occurred some time before his dying sister seemed to recognize him.”

Sir William F. Barrett (1844-1925), an English physicist and parapsychologist, documented a “Peak in Darien” deathbed case in Chapter 2 of his book entitled Death-Bed Visions: The Psychical Experiences of the Dying. This case is a well authenticated one and comes from the distinguished doctor of divinity and Unitarian minister, Dr. Minot J. Savage (1841-1918), with whom Barrett was acquainted. Dr. Savage recorded the following case in one of James Hyslop books entitled Psychical Research and the Resurrection and was confirmed by Barrett as follows:

“Dr. Savage told me personally of the facts and gave me the names and addresses of the persons on whose authority he tells the incidents.”

Dr. Savage narrates, as follows:

“In a neighboring city were two little girls, Jennie and Edith, one about eight years of age and the other but a little older. They were schoolmates and intimate friends. In June, 1889, both were taken ill of diphtheria. At noon on Wednesday Jennie died. Then the parents of Edith, and her physician as well, took particular pains to keep from her the fact that her little playmate was gone. They feared the effect of the knowledge on her own condition. To prove that they succeeded and that she did not know, it may be mentioned that on Saturday, June 8th, at noon, just before she became unconscious of all that was passing about her, she selected two of her photographs to be sent to Jennie, and also told her attendants to bid her good-bye. She died at half-past six o’clock on the evening of Saturday, June 8th. She had roused and bidden her friends good-bye, and was talking of dying, and seemed to have no fear. She appeared to see one and another of the friends she knew were dead. So far it was like other similar cases. But now suddenly, and with every appearance of surprise, she turned to her father and exclaimed: “Why, papa, I am going to take Jennie with me!” Then she added, “Why, papa! you did not tell me that Jennie was here!” And immediately she reached out her arms as if in welcome, and said: “Oh, Jennie, I’m so glad you are here!'”

Another “Peak in Darien” deathbed vision was documented by the pioneering parapsychology researchers Edmund Gurney and Frederic W. H. Myers who described the case of John Alkin Ogle, who, an hour before he died, saw his brother who had died 16 years earlier, calling him by name. Ogle then called out in surprise, “George Hanley!,” which was the name of a casual acquaintance in a village 40 miles away, before expiring. His mother, who was visiting from Hanley’s village, then confirmed that Hanley had died 10 days earlier, a fact that no one else in the room had known.

“Peak in Darien” experiences are not limited to deathbed visions as they occur in NDEs as well. In a paper by Dr. Bruce Greyson from the Division of Perceptual Studies at the University of Virginia entitled, Seeing Dead People Not Known to Have Died: Peak in Darien Experiences (PDF), Greyson argues that in his collection of 665 NDEs, 138 (21%) included a meeting with a deceased person. Greyson reports in his paper, published in the academic journal “Anthropology and Humanism,” many examples, including that of Physician K. M. Dale who related the case of 9-year-old Eddie Cuomo:

“… whose fever finally broke after nearly 36 hours of anxious vigil on the part of his parents and hospital personnel. As soon as he opened his eyes, at 3:00 in the morning, Eddie urgently told his parents that he had been to heaven, where he saw his deceased Grandpa Cuomo, Auntie Rosa, and Uncle Lorenzo. Then Eddie added that he also saw his 19-year-old sister Teresa, who told him he had to go back. His father became agitated, because he had spoken with Teresa, who was attending college in Vermont, just two nights ago. Later that morning, when Eddie’s parents telephoned the college, they learned that Teresa had been killed in an automobile accident just after midnight, and that college officials had tried unsuccessfully to reach the Cuomos at their home to inform them of the tragic news.”

Dr. Greyson cites many other such examples which can be read online on Michael Prescott’s Blog including cases in which the deceased person seen was someone whom the experiencer had never known.

b. Deathbed Visions Seen by the Dying and by Others Present

Deathbed visions of the dying that are also viewed by person(s) present at the scene are called shared death experiences (SDEs), a term coined by Dr. Raymond Moody in his book entitled Glimpses of Eternity: An Investigation Into Shared Death Experiences. One very credible example of a SDE is the documented deathbed vision of the American poet, Horace Traubel (1858-1919), who is best known as the literary executor and biographer of his friend, famous poet Walt Whitman (1819 -1892), about whom he compiled nine volumes entitled “With Walt Whitman in Camden.” It is taken from a fuller narrative in the Journal of American Society of Psychical Research (1921, Vol. XV, pp. 114-123). An abridged account of the incident comes from Flora MacDonald Denison, who was present at Traubel’s deathbed, and was published in the April-May issue of a Magazine entitled, The Sunset of Bon Echo (PDF) as follows:

“All day on August 28th Horace was very low spirited. Anne’s illness and the going of the Bains was too much for him. Mildred was with him a good deal and we decided not to leave him a minute. He had been brought in from the veranda but absolutely radiant, and on seeing me, he called out: ‘Look, look, Flora, quick, quick, he is going.’ ‘What, Horace,’ I said, ‘what do you see? I cannot see anyone.’ ‘Why just over the rock Walt appeared, head and shoulders and hat on in a golden glory – brilliant and splendid. He reassured me – beckoned to me, and spoke to me. I heard his voice but did not understand all, he said, only ‘Come on.'” Frank Bain soon came in and he repeated the story to him. All the rest of the evening Horace was uplifted and happy. So often Horace would say, ‘Do not despise me for my weakness,’ but now he was quite confident, even jocular, as I handed him a drink. On the night of September 3rd Horace was very low. I stayed for a few hours with him. Once his eyes rolled; I thought he was dying, but he just wanted me to turn him. As I did so, he listened and seemed to hear something. Then he said: ‘I hear Walt’s voice, he is talking to me.’ ‘I said, ‘What does he say?’ ‘He said, ‘Walt says, ‘Come on, come on.’ ‘After a time he said, ‘Flora, I see them all about me, Bob and Bucke and Walt and the rest.’ Colonel Cosgrave had been with Horace in the afternoon and had seen Walt on the opposite side of the bed, and felt his presence. Then Walt passed through the bed and touched the Colonel’s hand, which was in his pocket. The contact was like an electric shock. Horace was also aware of Walt’s visible presence and said so. There was no gloom about the house. No one seemed depressed. A feeling of triumph, of pride, and of exultation permeated the atmosphere.”

Afterwards, a letter from Colonel Cosgrave was received by the American Society of Psychical Research confirming the statement given by Flora Denison above.

c. Other Types of Deathbed Visions Reported by Sir William Barrett

Barrett has also documented cases in Chapter 4 of his book where visions are seen by living people of persons who are dying from a great distance away from them. According to Barrett, in such cases the soul of the dying appears to be transported to a different place on Earth where they are able to be with living loved one(s) from a remote distance. Barrett referred to such cases as “travelling clairvoyance” and numerous well-attested facts of this kind have been collected in a two-volume classic entitled Phantasms of the Living by parapsychology researchers Edmund Gurney and Frederic W. H. Myers along with an opponent of spiritualism and well-known psychical investigator Frank Podmore. The modern term for such deathbed visions are called “empathetic death experiences.” According to Peter Fenwick in his book, The Art of Dying, people associated with the dying person have not only reported empathetic death visions of the dying person when they are many miles away; but they have also reported suddenly sensing the feelings of a loved one on the verge of death many miles away, the experience of pets howling or behaving as if someone has arrived when no one is visible, and having clocks stop and electrical devices spontaneously switching themselves on or malfunctioning in some way. A similar phenomenon can, called after-death communications (ADCs), can occur long after a loved one has died and a living person related to the deceased suddenly sees an apparition of the deceased or experiences some form of contact with them. The webmaster of this website, Kevin Williams and members of his family, experienced for several years ADCs of their deceased mother in the form of multiple synchronicity.

In Chapter 5 of Barrett’s book, he documents instances where music is heard at the time of death by the dying or by persons present at a deathbed. One example is a case published in the Journal of the Society of Psychical Research (Vol. IV, p. 181.) In this instance, the subject was a deaf mute by the name of John Britton who was taken dangerously ill with rheumatic fever which caused his hands and fingers (which were his only means of conversation) to become so swollen he could not use them, greatly to the distress of his relatives to whom he could not make known his wants nor his sufferings. The narrator was Mr. S. Allen of Steward of Haileybury College and a brother-in-law of John Britton who stated how the doctor, believing John would not recover, sent for members of his family. He adds that when he and his wife were in a room below John’s bedroom, they were greatly surprised to hear music coming from upstairs and ran up at once to find out what it was. He narrates as follows:

“We found Jack lying on his back with his eyes fixed on the ceiling, and his face lighted up with the brightest of smiles. After a little while Jack awoke and used the words ‘Heaven’ and ‘beautiful’ as well as he could by means of his lips and facial expression. As he became more conscious he also told us in the same manner that his brother Tom and his sister Harriet were coming to see him. This we considered very unlikely as they lived some distance off, but shortly afterwards a cab drove up from which they alighted. They had sent no intimation of their coming, nor had anyone else. After Jack’s partial recovery, when he was able to write or converse upon his fingers, he told us that he had been allowed to see into Heaven and to hear most beautiful music.” Mr. Allen asked: ‘How did John know that Tom and Harriet were travelling, and how could he have heard these musical sounds which we also heard?’ Mr. Allen remarked that the music could not have come from next door or from the street and gave a rough description of his house to show it was not in a row of houses nor could the music be due to any normal cause. Mrs. Allen confirms her husband’s statement and said she heard the sounds of singing which came from her brother’s bedroom and that when she entered the bedroom he was in a comatose state and smiling. His lips were moving as if he were in conversation with someone; but no sound came from them. Mrs. Allen continues: ‘When he had recovered sufficiently to use his hands he told me more details of what he had seen, and used the words ‘beautiful music.’ She adds that her brother died a few years later, and stated how: ‘The nurse and I were watching in the room, my brother was looking just as he did on the former occasion, smiling, and he said quite distinctly and articulately ‘Angels’ and ‘Home.'”

In Chapter 6 of Barrett’s book, he documents instances where living people observe of the spirit of a dying person leaving the body. According to Barrett:

“Many well authenticated cases are on record where the relatives of a person, watching by the deathbed, have seen at the moment of death a cloudy form rising from the body of the deceased and hovering for a time in the room and then passing away.”

Barrett gives an example of such a case from a letter sent to him by a well-known dignitary of a Church in New South Wales in which he describes the death of his son a few years ago. He wrote that at about 3.30 pm,

“… something rise as it were from his face like a delicate veil or mist, and slowly pass away.” He adds: ‘We were deeply impressed and remarked, ‘How wonderful! Surely that must be the departure of his spirit.’ We were not at all distracted so as to be mistaken in what we saw.'”

4. Links to Deathbed Vision Articles, Videos and Books

  1. The Official Site of Dr. Carla Wills-Brandon – (carlawillsbrandon.com)
  2. End of Life Experiences and “Deathbed Visions” – (victorzammit.com)
  3. The Deathbed Research of Dr. Carla Wills-Brandon – (near-death.com)
  4. Did Steve Jobs Have a Death-Bed Vision? – (dailygrail.com)
  5. Do the Dead Greet the Dying? – (cnn.com)
  6. General Nursing Discussion Forum: Death Bed Visions – (allnurses.com)
  7. Near-Death Experiences and Nearing Death Awareness in the Terminally Ill – (iands.org)
  8. Near-Death Experiences, Deathbed Visions, and Past-Life Memories: A Convergence in Support of van Lommel’s Consciousness Beyond Life (Journal of Near-Death Studies) – (iands.org)
  9. Deathbed Phenomena and Their Effect on a Palliative Care Team: A Pilot Study – (sagepub.com)
  10. End-of-life Experiences: Reaching Out for Compassion, Communication, and Connection-Meaning of Deathbed Visions and Coincidences – (sagepub.com)
  11. Deathbed Phenomena: Its Role in Peaceful Death and Terminal Restlessness – (sagepub.com)
  12. One Last Hug Before I Go: The Mystery and Meaning of Deathbed Visions (Book by Dr. Carla Wills-Brandon) – (amazon.com)
  13. Final Gifts: Understanding the Special Awareness, Needs, and Communications of the Dying (Book by Callanan & Kelley) – (amazon.com)
  14. When the Dying Speak: How to Listen to and Learn from Those Facing Death (Book by Wooten-Green & Champlin) – (amazon.com)