Are We Getting a Glimpse Into the Afterlife as We Die? Or Are Our End-Of-Life Experiences Just Hallucinations?
Are We Getting a Glimpse Into the Afterlife as We Die? Or Are Our End-Of-Life Experiences Just Hallucinations?
Grandpa Needs Some Company
It was January of 1986. Kim, my sister, was waiting for me at Grandpa’s house. After five years of one personal crisis after another, I was making a new start. I’d bought a house in the neighborhood where I’d grown up. The reasons for my move were twofold:
- I wanted my kids to feel safe, surrounded by people I’d known since childhood, in the quaint neighborhood I’d treasured.
- I wanted to be closer to my grandpa so I could help my sister take care of him.
My grandpa, our only remaining grandparent, lived by himself a block from Kim and two houses from my new home. He’d fallen into a funk after Grandma died a few years prior, and my mom had became his savior. She ran his errands, cleaned his house, kept him company, and made sure he bathed.
He had just started laughing again when mom died. Her death devastated him. Two years later when dad, his only child died, he went into a full blown depression.
Kim had stepped in to take mom’s place running his errands, and making sure his house was clean. My brother, Bob, spent as much time with him as he could during his days off, listening to the stories he liked to tell about the cold winters back in North Dakota, and the years ‘at the shop’ where he had worked as a barber.
Although Grandpa was being taken care of, other than seeing us here and there, he didn’t get out much and we worried that he just wasn’t coming around. He had lost his spunk. Nothing much made him happy anymore.
It’s Time to Make a Plan
Having just moved in, I had unpacked boxes stacked everywhere, was juggling two jobs, and had two small kids who were feeling disoriented and needing extra lovin’. But Grandpa still weighed heavily on our minds and hearts.
We all talked about things we could do to perk him up. We put ourselves in his shoes to try to feel what he must be feeling. He had to be lonely waking up day after day in a dark, quiet house with nothing to look forward to, surrounded by memories of people he’d loved and lost.
We came up with a plan. Bob would increase his visits. After taking a couple days for me to get settled in, Kim and I would spend a day gathering things that might lift Grandpa’s spirits…
- Music to fill the quiet – we bought him a boom box (hey, it was the ’80’s), and music by Jim Reeves, his favorite.
- A fresh new wardrobe – we chose soft comfy shirts, new undies, slippers, jammies, etc.
- Things to brighten his house – new couch pillows, pictures, rugs, accessories, bedding.
- Gadgets – some useful, some just to make him laugh, and some to keep his mind busy.
Our “plan” filled Kim’s trunk! We called Grandpa and asked if we could take him to breakfast the next morning. He happily accepted, and Kim and I couldn’t wait for him to see all the cool things we were bringing him.
Kim Got to Grandpa’s House Ahead of Me
I walked into Grandpa’s kitchen all amped up expecting to hear grandpa shout a smart-ass greeting from the couch chastising me for being late. Instead, Kim hushed me before I could say anything, and I heard grandpa in his bedroom talking to someone on the phone.
Everything felt off. Grandpa was hardly ever on the phone. The expression on Kim’s face was odd. I’d seen it before. Dad had worn that same expression when mom was so sick and I’d ask him how she was doing. That frozen disconnected smile. Hesitation. Confusion. Denial. Fear.
Concerned that the caller had brought bad news (although grandpa’s continued animated chit chat contradicted it), I asked Kim who was on the phone as we made our way to grandpa’s bedroom. “He’s not on the phone” she said.
Who Are You Talking to and What Have You Done With My Grandpa?
There he was, comfortably leaning against pillows in the middle of his bed. Although he had known we were coming to take him to breakfast, there were no signs he’d made any effort to get up and ready. His hair was all messy, he hadn’t put his teeth in yet, but he was looking up and smiling like crazy. He seemed unaware that we were standing in the doorway of his bedroom as he continued his extremely animated conversation with “Allie” – the pet name he had called my grandma.
He waved away my stunned “Hey grandpa” greeting with his eyes still riveted to his ceiling obviously anxious to continue his conversation with grandma. My speechless question to Kim was answered with, “He’s been like this since I got here”.
Where Are You? What Are You Seeing?
Kim told me that he was still in bed when she got there, and was acting weird. He knew who she was, but didn’t seem to know what time it was. Because he was acting so strangely, she told him he needed to get up so we could maybe have the doctor check him out. He told her he wasn’t sick. She said he just kept looking up, smiling and talking. She asked him who he was talking to thinking he’d tell her he was talking to God.
She was surprised when he told her that Vivian (my mom’s deceased mom), was visiting with him on her way to the train station. Then he waved good-bye to her and turned to Kim explaining that Adeline, his (dead) sister, had stopped by earlier and, just as if it had happened in real-time, told her all about the conversation they had had.
We stood there watching our grandpa, who wasn’t our grandpa, in his own world with his own people. We were left to stand on the outside looking in. He was so animated. He kept looking up, smiling, waving and appeared that he was part of something happening that was very busy and exciting. He’d often look up, give a quick wave and a chuckle as if someone may have called out a greeting to him.
It felt we were watching him at an invisible party where people were stopping by to say hello…or as if grandpa was moving through a crowd and would give a two-finger wave, like a little salute, when someone recognized him and called his name. There were periods of time that he would say something, and then appear to be listening to a response. Like we were hearing only his end of a phone conversation.
It felt so bizarre. Grandpa wasn’t normally the friendly outgoing guy that we were staring at now. He’d always been a little rough around the edges, and his humor had always leaned heavily toward sarcasm. Not a party guy. Not particularly easy going. That day he was acting almost giddy. He seemed happier and more relaxed than I’d ever remembered seeing him, but at the same time a little shy and embarrassed by all the attention he appeared to be receiving.
Okay Grandpa, the Party’s Over.
Trying to bring him back to planet earth, we kept telling him he needed to get up to see what we brought him. He said, “No”. We told him we bought him a phone to have by his chair. He said, “I don’t need it”.
I guess we thought that at some point he’d snap out of it. When he didn’t, we called an ambulance.
When the EMTs arrived and were wheeling him out of his bedroom, he kept telling them, “They think I’m coming back. I’m not coming back!.” He was pretty amused by that. Then he’d look up and say “They didn’t need to buy me all that stuff. I won’t be using it.” Kim rode with him in the ambulance. She said he seemed fine, and was joking with her, but continued to look up, and as if sharing an inside joke say, “They think I’m coming back!.”
Was Grandpa Really Seeing Grandma?
Did she visit him often?
Was she there that day to guide him to Heaven?
Grandpa Suffered Right Along With Grandma.
Grandma “Allie” had dementia and multiple medical conditions. Toward the end of her life grandma was plagued with hallucinations…little men trying to squeeze under her bedroom door at night, women hanging clothes on her backyard clothesline, loud parties outside her bedroom window and people peering in at her.
Each frantic phone call from grandpa brought yet another change in medication for grandma, and several hours of mom and dad calming and consoling grandpa. It was scary for him, but must have been terrifying for grandma. Bless her heart. Grandma was on a lot of medication, some with side effects that might have been responsible for the hallucinations.
Grandpa, on the other hand, took no medication.
Grandpa also did not have dementia. His mind had stayed as sharp as a tack. Until this morning.
I hate to admit it, but my first thought was that he was faking it. Knowing that Kim and I would both be there that morning, was he so lonely that he had staged this act to make sure we’d worry, tell Bob, and all start spending more time with him? Grandma’s drug-induced hallucinations and dementia had gained her (and him) a lot of attention and kept a steady stream of visits and phone calls from mom and dad. Was he so lonely that he’d go to this extreme to recreate that scenario for himself?
I’ve Never Forgotten That Morning at Grandpa’s
Looking back, I’m ashamed that thought went through my mind as I stood at his bedroom door that morning.
When grandpa had turned into a one-man welcoming committee that day, totally oblivious to us, it had rooted me in place in shock. Because it caught me so off guard it scared the hell out of me. Now I kick myself for not participating in his joy by asking him to share what he was seeing.
Fast forward 30 years.
As I was researching a related topic for a blog post, the title of a book caught my eye and took me immediately back to that morning at grandpa’s house.
The book was “Words at the Threshold. What We Say as We’re Nearing Death“. The author, Lisa Smartt, founded the Final Words Project, an ongoing study devoted to collecting and interpreting the mysterious language that is heard at the end of lives.
If you have any interest at all in this subject, you’ll be mesmerized by this book. It’s a quick read, and is filled with excerpts from last conversations with the dying that she has collected in her research. There are so many similarities of what people say and what they see during the final days of their lives. It sends a chill down the spine.
Would I Have Acted Differently?
I thought of grandpa repeating over and over that day “I’m not coming back!”.
He’d been right. He didn’t come back. The gifts Kim and I had brought him never left her trunk. We didn’t get to take him to breakfast. He’d spent a short time in the hospital, and then died peacefully.
Remembering grandpa, I was curious to see if there was any mention in the book of people who were close to death appearing to be speaking to deceased loved ones. After a quick scan, the heading “The Arrival of Deceased Loved Ones” jumped off the page at me. Oh. My. God.
On page 107 Lisa writes “If you hear a loved one begin to speak of or with a deceased friend or family member, you can ask questions and lean into that moment fully, for it may be a signal that death is near…“
Having recently lost both parents, was I so afraid of losing another loved one that I refused to acknowlege what I probably knew was true? I’m so glad that grandpa was so absorbed in what was happening in his world that day that he wasn’t even aware of our efforts to rip him away from it.
I’d like to think we’re greeted and accompanied to the afterlife when we die. Since fear of the unknown and feeling alone are associated with our thoughts of death, wouldn’t it be nice if instead of dreading it, we knew we could look forward to it being a pleasant experience?
Have you been near someone as they were nearing death? What experiences did you have? Please share below. It may be helpful to someone who’s facing the death of someone they love, or their own death. I so wish I had read Lisa’s book or had talked to someone prior to my last day with grandpa.