real life

The one heartbreaking thing people report seeing on their deathbed.


Last week, hospice chaplain Kerry Egan was interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air about what it’s like working with people who are in the process of dying.

Egan spoke about counselling people to calmly accept their own mortality, how most people are less afraid of death than we might assume, and why as a culture we need to place less emphasis on a dying person’s last words.

But the most fascinating part of the interview was a discussion about what people commonly report seeing during their final days.

“It’s really common for people who are dying to see their mothers,” Egan explained. “It’s not a necessary step, everybody doesn’t experience it, but it happens a lot… They come to them, they wave at them, sometimes they talk to them, and it’s really, really comforting to people.”

"It's really common for people who are dying to see their mothers." Image via iStock.

Egan is referring to deathbed visions, which are indeed a widely cited phenomenon.


Medical professionals believe they are likely caused by a lack of oxygen to the brain, or a side effect of strong medications.

Dr. Erlendur Haraldsson, a professor of psychology at the University of Iceland, interviewed 700 physicians and nurses about what their patients had reported while on their deathbed.

In the days before their death, many reported seeing "deceased friends or family members who said they were there to help them pass to the afterlife." Most patients found the visions comforting, and had their fears dissipated after such a visit.

In an interview with The Epoch TimesHaraldsson said “technically speaking, they were or are hallucinations,” which are defined as visions "not seen by others".  But it's important to acknowledge that they are also extremely realistic, and interestingly, they seem to be "clear, rational, and surprisingly uniform."

Andrew Denton talks to Mia Freedman about dying with dignity. Post continues below.

Haraldsson discovered that regardless of cultural influences or the types of medications one was administered, the visions remained consistent. They always involve real people that the patient knew and has deceased.

Like Haraldsson, Egan is not concerned with whether or not the visions reported are 'real'. “You know, I’ve come to this place where I don’t know and I’m okay with that,” she told Gross. “I think there are going to be a lot of things in life, whether you’ve experienced them yet or not, that we cannot fully understand, that we can’t fully make meaning of — we can try, and that at some point, you have to be okay saying, ‘I don’t know that I really know what that means, but it’s part of my experience and I need to accept it.’”

Perhaps, in our final moments, when we feel profoundly alone, there is something comforting about having our mum right by our side.