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End of life experiences

Death is more than just a physical process. Family and friends, and palliative care professionals, tell us that something more than the physical closing down of the body’s systems happens towards the very end of life.

Making peace and resolving emotional matters 

People who are nearing the end of life may want to resolve unfinished matters from their past, particularly with family members. They may choose to do this by writing a letter or sending an email, or meeting with the person. 

Sometimes there’ll be important unfinished business because the other person involved has already died or is unwilling to meet. You may be able to help by writing a letter they dictate if they’re no longer able to do this themselves. This may help them feel that they’ve done the best they can about the situation before they die. 

If physically able to, they may want to revisit significant places, like childhood haunts, or go through old family photographs. These experiences can be profoundly healing, and often enable the person to let go and die peacefully. 

People may also tell parts of their life story or family history that they’d kept secret but now want to share. This information isn’t always easy to hear and family and friends will sometimes need to make an effort to listen without judging. This can be especially difficult if the relationship between the person who is dying and the listener has been difficult in the past. Often, though, it can lead to greater understanding and mutual forgiveness.  

End of life visions and dreams 

It’s also not uncommon in the weeks or days before the death for the person to speak of being visited by dead relatives, friends, groups of children, religious figures or even favourite pets. They may say these visitors have come to “collect” them or help them let go of life. 

The person may also talk about moving in and out of reality, and describe experiences of what seems to be another world. They may speak of starting on a journey, or suddenly stare at a point in the room or turn towards the window and experience a sense of amazement, joy or wonder. 

Even when semi-conscious and unable to communicate, it may appear that they’re reaching out to take hold of something and then feeling it between their fingers as if puzzled. They may also appear to be thinking deeply, as if they’re being shown information that they may not have considered before. 

Calming, soothing or comforting experiences 

People nearing the end of life and those around them, usually describe these end of life experiences with loving, reassuring words, like: calming, soothing or comforting. 

It’s not known how many people have such visions and experiences, but research suggests that end of life visions and dreams hold significant meaning for dying people, helping them to come to terms with their death. 

These experiences and how they’re described will vary depending on the cultural and faith background of the person. 

Choosing the moment to go 

It can often appear that people choose the moment to die. For example, it’s not unusual for someone to hang on to life against medical odds until a relative or friend arrives at their bedside, or until a special anniversary or birthday. A person who is confused, semi-conscious or unconscious may also become lucid enough to be able to say a final goodbye before dying. 

If not already present at the bedside, some relatives may feel compelled to visit the person in the middle of the night, or experience being “called back”. 

In contrast, some people seem to make a deliberate choice to die alone. They appear to wait until everyone has left the room – even for the shortest time – before they die. 

Saying goodbye 

If someone dies when you’ve taken a break from being with them for many hours or even days, you may feel hurt that they haven’t chosen to be with you at the moment of death. Or you might feel you’ve let the person down by missing the crucial moment. 

It’s impossible to know why people die at the precise moment they do. It may be that they need emotional freedom to die on their own. But they may also have little control over those final moments. 

So do take breaks to give them space. Just make sure you say goodbye each time you leave the room in case they die when you’re not there.

When my mother was dying of a brain tumour she mostly couldn't communicate, but during a moment of lucidity she told me that her Aunt Bridie, who had died around ten years before, had come to visit her in her hospital room. Aunt Bridie told my mum to stop being silly, it was time for mum to come with her and everyone was waiting to see her. While my mum was too ill to be aware of the fact she was dying, it does bring me comfort knowing that Aunt Bridie helped her through.
Esther, daughter

External links

Dying matters website   – information about death and dying

Good life, Good death, Good grief  (Scotland)

Cruse Bereavement Care   (England, Northern Ireland, Wales)

Cruse Bereavement Care Scotland  

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