Four years ago, children’s author Shelley E. Parker suddenly had a strong premonition that her fiancé was about to die. This made no sense at all. If anyone was going to die, it was more likely to be Shelley herself, as she was seriously ill with cancer.
But that night in hospital, her premonition was reinforced by a bizarre dream in which she met God.
She recalled every moment of it when she woke: how God had told her that it was time for Steven to go, and turned down her plea to take her instead.
Why do so many people who have had a near death experience describe hauntingly similar visions? Intensive care nurse Penny Sartori has spent years investigating them
At noon the next day, Steven, who was a helicopter pilot, was killed in a crash.
‘I now wonder whether I could have stopped him dying if I’d told him,’ says Shelley, 41, who lives in Farnworth, Lancashire. ‘But I don’t think I could have.’
There was no doubt in Shelley’s mind that she’d somehow tuned in to the future. Ten years before, she’d had another premonition — this time about a little girl. The healthy three-year-old was the child of friends and Shelley had seen her only a few times. One night, she had a ‘very vivid’ dream about her.
‘I was walking along a path and in front of me was this little girl with her auntie,’ Shelley recalled. ‘I’m not sure how accurate the image of the auntie was, as I’d never met her or seen photographs of her — I just knew that she’d died about 20 years previously.
'She smiled and telepathically told me all was well'
'The aunt said she was there to take the little girl to heaven. The child was dressed in pink and had a pink bucket and spade and glitter make-up on the side of her face. She was very happy and dancing around.
'I woke up the next day and felt really unsettled. I thought about phoning the little girl’s father but then thought better of it, trying to rationalise that it was just a dream. That feeling of anxiety lasted all day.’
That evening, Shelley went to dinner with relatives. At one point, she glanced at her watch. It was 10.10pm.
‘Suddenly, all of the unsettled feeling and anxiety just fell away and I thought: at last I’m starting to relax.’
The next day, she learned that the little girl had died the night before — soon after 10pm. The cause of her death was a mystery.
Should we dismiss Shelley’s premonitions — and many others I’ve been told — as macabre coincidences? Or could they be a genuine phenomenon, experienced far more than people imagine?
Consider the case of Janice Wright, a British woman who was visiting friends in Virginia, USA. In the middle of the night, she told me, she’d suddenly snapped wide awake.
No scientific theory has yet come close to explaining why a few people have near-death experiences ¿ which can include visions of tunnels and bright lights
In her bedroom was her childhood nanny, whom she hadn’t seen in years, though they still corresponded.
‘In real life, she was well over 80,’ said Janice. ‘But in the vision, she was ageless and surrounded by an immensely bright light. She smiled at me, put her hand out and telepathically told me all was well.
‘I was shocked and stayed awake. The next morning, I told my hosts I thought my old nanny had died.
‘Later that day, a cousin called from England to tell me that’s exactly what had happened.’
How can we explain such accurate premonitions? Sadly, science has not even begun to find answers.
Similarly, no scientific theory has yet come close to explaining why a few people have near-death experiences — which can include visions of tunnels, bright lights and meetings with dead relatives.
Indeed, that was one of the problems facing me when I embarked on a PhD on the subject. Throughout my research, I was also working as a nurse in the intensive care ward of a British hospital. I was therefore able to learn at firsthand about some of the seemingly inexplicable events that can occur just before death.
Throughout Dr Sartori's research, she was also working as a nurse in the intensive care ward of a British hospital (file photo) and was able to learn at firsthand about some of the seemingly inexplicable events that can occur just before death
To my mind, however, it’s too easy to label these as paranormal or supernatural.
Instead, I’m increasingly open to the possibility that our brains are separate from our consciousness. In other words, the brain may be channelling what some people call the soul, rather than responsible for creating it.
As a theory, it deserves scientific investigation. If proved, it would explain, for instance, why enhanced consciousness can be experienced separately from the body.
And it would also help account for the extraordinary phenomenon known as ‘shared death experience’.
This is admittedly rare, but two separate cases have been reported to me by relatives who were present at a deathbed.
'I saw this tall man reach out to embrace mum'
The first took place in 2004 in the north of England. A dying woman in her 70s was unconscious in a hospital, with her family around her bed. Her husband, Peter, and son, Harry, were holding her hands, and her daughter, Gail, had placed a hand on her forehead.
Subsequently, I interviewed both Peter and Gail separately about what they’d seen. According to Peter, he suddenly noticed a bright light a little distance away. As he watched, a tall man stepped forward from the light with his hands outstretched. Then his unconscious wife seemed to rise from her bed and walk towards the man.
‘He was waiting there as if to give her a welcoming hug; there was a sense of peace and love,’ Peter recalled.
His daughter, Gail, appears to have had a fuller experience of the same vision. ‘All of a sudden, I could see Mum walking into the distance on a path,’ she said. ‘Around her head was like a sun, and on her right-hand side, I could see the silhouette of some people.
‘[Then] I saw this tall person — I don’t know who he was. When she reached him, he took her into his arms as if in a warm embrace that was full of love.
‘Mum’s breaths got shallower. And then there were no further breaths and the scene disappeared.’
One man Dr Sartori spoke to said he had seen a tall man step forward from a bright light, as his dying wife seemed to rise from her bed and walk towards him
Naturally, the family was devastated at their loss. But, unlike Harry, who’d seen nothing at all, father and daughter had what Peter described as ‘big smiles on our faces’.
‘There’d been such sadness leading up to my wife’s death — then this [vision] happened,’ he said. ‘The nurses and ward sister must have thought we were very insensitive because we felt this sense of elation and happiness.’
In the second case, a woman in her 40s called Laura was holding her mother’s hand as she started slipping into a coma. Then, suddenly, Laura said, her mother rose from her bed and began walking away. After just one pace, though, she turned around.
‘She looked so happy and well,’ said Laura. ‘Then she said: “Go back now — it’s not your turn.”’
When Laura next looked at her mother on the bed, she was in a deep coma. She died three days later, without regaining consciousness.
'He was making gestures to some invisible person'
I’ve since been told of several such experiences. What makes them particularly fascinating is that they can’t simply be dismissed by cynics as the product of a malfunctioning brain.
Why? Because, unlike conventional near-death experiences, they happen to people who aren’t close to death themselves.
But what about Laura and Gail’s mothers — the people who actually died? Were they, too, experiencing the vision? Evidence from other cases seems to suggest they were.
My first encounter with deathbed visions in hospital was when I was a student nurse arriving for a morning shift.
‘Billy’s in bed six — he’s been talking to his dead mother since three o’clock this morning,’ said the night-shift nurse. ‘He’ll be gone by the end of the day.’
After the handover, I kept my eye on Billy Jones, who was 78. He appeared to be asleep, but throughout the morning, he was making gestures to some invisible person and seemed to be speaking to his mother.
The last time I saw him, he was asleep with a big smile on his face. He died a few hours later.
This was my first encounter with death in a hospital — and it wasn’t long before I, too, could sometimes predict when patients were about to die. Like Billy, they’d start calling out and gesturing to some invisible presence.
Sometimes, a patient is able to describe his vision before dying. A hospice nurse in Wales told me about a 65-year-old man, Ernest, who kept seeing people he knew to be dead at his bedside.
The medical team put this down to hallucinations and reduced his medication — but it made no difference. The figures kept appearing.
In the end, the hospice staff seemed more concerned about them than he was. According to Ernest, he felt no fear yet knew perfectly well that his visitors signified approaching death.
I imagine that this is what my own paternal grandfather must have felt. In the days leading up to his death 18 years ago, he often used to point to the doorway and whisper: ‘Look who’s here — they’re at the door.’ He told my grandmother that his dead father had been visiting him. But whenever he tried to talk to her about this, she’d have to walk out of the room.
She knew that the vision presaged imminent death and she didn’t want him to see her upset.
Older generations, who had far more experience of seeing loved ones die at home, often knew all about death-bed visions and what they signified. Indeed, they have been documented since Victorian times.
More recently, in the 1970s, death-bed visions were the subject of a large survey conducted in both the U.S. and India. This concluded that patients usually died within two to five days of the start of a vision.
Other research suggests that such visions result in a peaceful acceptance of death — whereas drug-induced hallucinations tend to cause anxiety or confusion.
But conversations with invisible people aren’t the only signs that have been widely noted at the bedside of a dying person.
Numerous reports by healthcare workers have recorded other bizarre phenomena, including: a change in temperature, a light around the body, the malfunctioning of electrical equipment and the stopping of clocks. There have also been incidents of glasses smashing — without human intervention — at the moment of death.
In addition, I’ve come to realise during my 17 years as an intensive care staff nurse that some patients actually have control over the timing of their deaths.
The first time I noticed this was one Sunday morning, when I was looking after an elderly woman called Jean Hunt. She’d been suffering from heart failure and her husband had visited her religiously every day for a week.
Unused to being separated from Jean, who’d been chronically ill for ten years, he was very anxious. But, that morning, her condition was stable so he’d been persuaded to accompany his mother on a day trip.
An hour after he left the ward, Jean’s blood pressure suddenly began to drop. She died not long afterwards, and we all blamed ourselves for encouraging her husband to go on the day trip.
That’s when it occurred to me that Jean may have chosen her time of death. And, since then, I’ve known many patients to die while their families were taking ‘a quick break’.
One I particularly remember is Sam, who was in his 80s. His family had been with him almost constantly for a week, and one day I suggested they have a break in the canteen. It was 2pm and they’d been keeping vigil since 8am.
Within minutes of their departure, Sam was dying. I ran to fetch his family in the canteen, but he’d gone before we reached his bedside.
Why would anyone deliberately choose to die alone? It may be that love is sometimes the only thing keeping a seriously-ill patient alive — and the absence of loved ones makes it easier to let go.
I’m by no means the only person who’s noticed this. Hospice and palliative-care consultant Dr John Lerma has reported that 70 to 80 per cent of his patients waited for their loved ones to leave the room before dying.
Some patients, on the other hand, appear to be waiting for a specific event to take place before they can permit themselves to die. This could be a wedding or birthday, or the arrival of an estranged family member.
In one memorable case, a male patient was expected to die very soon, yet lingered for days longer than expected. Finally, he died on the day that a crucial insurance policy became valid, thus ensuring his wife was financially secure.
Even people who appear to be incapable of understanding what’s happening to them can regain some control on their deathbeds.
Recently, researchers in Britain and Germany have started investigating reports of people with late-stage Alzheimer’s disease or dementia suddenly becoming coherent just before they die.
This case comes directly from a good friend.
‘My mother, Peggy, while in the latter stages of Alzheimer’s, was no longer able to converse with any coherency at all,’ said Lyon White, who lives in Sussex. ‘Her conversation consisted of what could only be described as ‘gobbledygook.’
As Peggy’s condition deteriorated, she had to be admitted to hospital. One day, Lyon heard her speaking as he entered the ward. She was having a conversation with her father, a much-loved policeman in Kent who’d been murdered while on duty. Among the things she told him was that she knew that her husband — also deceased — had loved her very much.
Lyon was astounded. It had been a long time since his mother had even been able to form a word, let alone a sentence. But as soon as he interrupted her vision, she once again lost the power to speak.
Why do such remarkable events occur at the end of life? Naturally, some of the people who’ve witnessed them invoke religion and the after-life. But, equally, many remain agnostic.
Whatever our beliefs, we should keep an open mind. And when death comes — as it must — it may not be as fearful as we imagine.
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