Thursday, January 6, 2011

A book about hope, from an expert on death and grief

It often comforts people who've lost a loved one to hear about ADCs, or after-death communications -- the direct, unmediated communications from those on the other side to those still here.

That includes a particular type of ADC called deathbed visions (or DBVs). This type of ADC is specifically to comfort someone who will be crossing over soon, but these visions can also, if understood by the people who are aware of what the dying person is experiencing, offer comfort to them.

The comfort of knowing that we don't cross over alone. That loved ones are there, waiting to welcome us home to Heaven.

Pets as well as humans apparently experience these visions. I've heard a number of stories over the years of dying pets who acted as if they were watching, and welcoming, someone others couldn't see.

And stories about dying people seeing loved ones on the other side seem to be as old as humankind.

David Kessler, who co-authored two bestsellers with Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, and whose first book about hospice care was praised by Mother Teresa, has written a book about deathbed visions, Visions, Trips, and Crowded Rooms: Who and What You See Before You Die.

Kessler explains in the introduction how much he was affected by the impact such a vision had on his dying father, who had been optimistic all his life but who had been overcome by sadness before the vision:

My father was very down for the next few days. But then one morning he told me that my mother, his wife, had come to him the night before. "I was looking at all I was losing, and I'd forgotten that I was going to be with her again. I'm going to see her soon," he said, He looked at me as if he realized I would still remain here. Then he added, "We'll be there waiting for you." Over the next two days, his demeanor changed dramatically. He had gone from a hopeless dying man with only death in front of him to a hopeful man who was going to be reunited with the love of his life. My father lived with hope...and also died with it.

As someone who has spent most of my life writing, teaching, and working with the dying, I can't prove to you that my father's vision was real. I can only talk about my experience as a son and about countless other occurrences that take place every day. I used to believe that the only thing we needed to alleviate was the suffering of the dying by providing good pain management and symptom control. I know now that we have more than opiates for pain, and we have more than anti-anxiety medication to combat fear and distress. We have the "who" and "what" we see before we die, which is perhaps the greatest comfort to the dying.

My wish is that you'll find the hope that my father did - the hope I felt after hearing his story. This is the same hope that so many patients and family members feel when they've experienced these visions.

So that is what this book is about: hope. Hope that there is more. Hope that we don't watch each other slowly die and then simply wait for our own deaths. We want to hope that there is a heaven, that some part of us doesn't die, so we can be reunited with those we love and maybe even with religious figures who've inspired us in our lives.

Kessler's book focuses on these visions of loved ones (and in some cases religious figures) seen by the dying, on the common deathbed experience of getting ready for a trip (always described as a physical journey they have to make), and on another common deathbed experience (which I hadn't heard of previously) of describing their room as being "crowded" by people others can't see (apparently the people whose lives they've touched who have already crossed over).

Kessler's book is remarkable in using the accounts of health care professionals describing the experiences of their patients and their own loved ones. The section on "Visions of the Dying, Part I" includes accounts from doctors and nurses, while "Visions of the Dying, Part II" consists of accounts from mental health professionals, professional counselors.

Kessler said in his introduction that he "can't prove" that his father's vision of the spirit of his mother was real. But the accounts in his book do include two deathbed visions in which the dying person saw the spirit of a person they weren't aware had died, someone they'd had every reason to believe was still alive. People whom their own family members, at the bedside of the dying person, believed were still alive -- not learning until afterward that the person whose spirit was so unexpectedly seen had in fact died by then. Such accounts are probably the strongest evidence that these deathbed visions are real experiences, not hallucinations.

In his Epilogue, Kessler cites a study by the palliative-care team at Camden Primary Care Trust in London, which found that these experiences (which they called DBP or deathbed phenomena) are "an important part of their dying process" for the people having them. The pilot study also showed that these experiences aren't drug-induced, and that patients would rather talk to nurses than doctors about their dying experiences, and that these experiences are underreported because patients and their families are worried about a negative reaction from health care professionals, who Kessler hopes will become more educated about these phenomena.