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Standing Room Only at the Pearly Gates?

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Standing Room Only at the Pearly Gates?

Who you see before you die.
David  Kessler
David Kessler More by this author
May 10, 2010 at 10:00 AM

One type of deathbed experience I often hear about refers to “crowded rooms.” As I’ve listened to these stories, I’ve been intrigued by the use of the words crowd and crowded. Perhaps we don’t have a full grasp of how many people we’ve touched in our lives. We don’t remember everyone we’ve met, and we certainly can’t recall all of the individuals who crossed our paths when we were children. In the tapestry of life and death, we may not always think about those who have come before us; we just know where we as individuals are positioned in the family tree. In dying, however, perhaps we’re able to make the connections to the past that we’d missed earlier in life. 

I often say that when someone is dying, it may be a “standing-room only” experience. And I firmly believe that just as loving hands greet us when we’re born, loving arms will embrace us when we die.

I’d like to share the story below, which is a good example of the crowded-room vision:

An Invitation
by Lainey

About ten years ago, I started working in end-of-life care as a social worker. Those of us in this field get sort of desensitized to death because for us, it’s an everyday event. And although people often think that my job must be depressing, they don’t understand the gifts that come out of it.

The hospice employees seek my team and me out if they want to share something or check out whether or not a situation is normal. We become the staff shrinks in a sense. New team members also come to us when a dead loved one appears to a patient. One woman especially stands out in my mind.

Mrs. Riley was 88 years old, and she was “unrepresented,” meaning that she had no family. She was assigned to one of our newer hospice nurses, Katie, who was in her 20s and previously worked on the oncology unit of the hospital. Katie loved helping people and hoped to have more contact with patients in hospice.

I wasn’t surprised when Katie appeared at my office door, requesting that I visit Mrs. Riley with her. I knew something was up, so I agreed to go but asked her to update me first. After filling me in on all of Mrs. Riley’s medical history, she hesitantly told me, “I heard her call out ‘Mommy.’ I think she thinks that I’m her mother, but when she repeated it, she was looking over and past me, as if I weren’t there.”

“Do you think she might be having a vision of her dead mother?”

“Do we know for sure that her mother is dead?” Katie inquired.

“No, we don’t, but if she was alive, don’t you think she’d come in the front door rather than appear over your head?”

Katie didn’t find my sarcasm amusing, but I went on. “Seriously, Katie, why not just accept it for what it is? The patient believes her mother is there, and what could be more comforting than having your mom with you at the end of your life?”

“Thanks, Lainey. You’ve given me a lot to think about. I guess I can try to accept that her mom is coming to visit.”

The next day, however, the young nurse pulled me aside in the hallway, and in a worried voice, said, “Okay, I was getting used to Mrs. Riley’s mom being there, but now Dad has shown up, too.”

Katie was a good nurse who truly cared for all of her patients—she just knew more about pain and symptom management than she did about deathbed phenomena. The next day, like clockwork, Katie called and asked me to meet her in Mrs. Riley’s room.

When I got to her room, Mrs. Riley didn’t look like she was in pain, but she seemed to be mumbling something.

“There are so many of you.” Mrs. Riley softly remarked.

“So many of who?” I asked.

“I don’t know.” Then she clearly said, “You are all so young—still so young.”

“Do you know why they’re here, Mrs. Riley?” I asked.

“They’re inviting me to join them.”

“How many are there?”

“So many,” she replied. “It’s so crowded. I can’t believe that so many are here.”

“Do you recognize anyone?”

“I can’t really see their faces—only some. It’s blurry. I do see Timothy, though. He was my first.”

“First what?”

“My first student to die.”

Katie grabbed my arm tightly as I continued asking Mrs. Riley questions. “It’s so nice that your parents and your students wanted to see you. You must have been a wonderful teacher.”

“Nice,” was all she said.

When the young nurse and I left the room, she started treating me like I was some sort of spirit communicator. She peppered me with questions, such as, “How did you do that? How did you know she was a teacher, too? Did you guess, or did you know intuitively?”

I would have loved to take credit for being psychic and all powerful, but I decided to tell Katie the truth. “I read her history on file and found out she taught for more than 40 years. I thought that maybe teachers are comforted by their former students in their hallucinations. Or maybe certain students were coming to her because she played a significant role in their lives.”

At the end of the day, the staff had a long discussion about Mrs. Riley. She’d been single her whole life and was totally devoted to teaching. We debated if her vision of all those children whom she couldn’t clearly see represented the students she’d taught during four decades. She had no family, yet she was never frightened by the experience. She died peacefully . . . and, unbeknownst to her, she taught Katie a lot about the end of life.

About Author
David  Kessler
David Kessler is one of the most well-known experts and lecturers on grief and loss. He co-authored two bestsellers with the legendary Elisabeth Kübler-Ross: On Grief and Grieving and Life Lessons. (David was honored to have been at Elisabeth’ Continue reading