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Sunday, March 09, 2014
Ghostly Apparitions. 'Visits'From Dead Relatives
Doctor Penny Sartori was barely halfway through her night shift at Morriston Hospital in Swansea when one of her patients began behaving in a most peculiar way. Through the maze of equipment keeping Peter Holland alive, Dr Sartori could see him slowly regaining consciousness and becoming increasingly alert.
Peter was staring intently at the foot of his bed - and then started talking to an invisible presence. 'He suddenly regained his energy,' says Dr Sartori. 'He seemed to be having a conversation with someone we could not see. After a while, a beautiful peaceful smile crossed his face and he relaxed completely.
'When his family arrived, he told them that he'd been visited by his sister in the night and that they'd had a long chat. The strange thing was, his sister had died the week before, but nobody had dared tell him because they thought the shock might kill him.
There was absolutely no way he could have known about his sister's death.' It was in that moment, says Dr Sartori, that she realised Peter was going to die, no matter how much medical attention he received.
'When a patient says that they have been "visited" by a dead loved one, you know that their time has come,' she says. 'It's commonly accepted by nurses and we see it quite a lot.
Nurses will tell each other that "he's just had a visit so he'll be off soon".' Indeed, shortly afterwards, 75-yearold Peter Holland did die.
Such deathbed phenomena, of the type experienced by Mr Holland, are surprisingly common. According to recent research at King's College London, around 10 per cent of the terminally ill or those caring for them report some kind of mysterious, inexplicable event that gives them a glimpse of an afterlife.
Patients may report visits from deceased loved ones or experience visions of a heavenly realm. While such deathbed phenomena are undoubtedly comforting for the dying and their loved ones, could they really shed light on the vexed question of whether there is life after death? It seems so.
Over the past few years, a growing number of scientists have begun studying such events and have concluded that many of them defy all rational understanding.
Professor Peter Fenwick, a neuropsychiatrist at King's College London, who leads the research team investigating the phenomena, says the sheer number of reports he has examined makes for compelling evidence: 'One possible interpretation of the data is that there really is life after death,' he says, 'while another would be that something paranormal, such as Extrasensory perception (ESP), is behind them.' So how exactly do these haunting experiences manifest themselves?
'Deathbed phenomena come in three forms,' says Professor Fenwick.
'The dying can receive visits from dead loved ones or they may have visions of lights and other worlds.
They may experience strange coincidences such as receiving a visit from a relative they did not know had died.
'Their loved ones and family may experience inexplicable events such as clocks stopping or strange lights appearing around the patient. Others have seen a translucent shape leave the body at the time of death.
'You don't need a religion or a belief system to believe in these phenomena; you just have to look at the data and make up your own mind.' Of course it's easy to dismiss anecdotal cases like that of Peter Holland, and the 'visit' from his dead sister. Sceptics argue that such apparitions result from a heady cocktail of a patient's faulty memory, powerful painkillers and the desire to believe in an afterlife at an intolerably stressful time.
Lewis Wolpert, Emeritus Professor of biology at University College London, denounces deathbed phenomena as mere delusions.
'Such stories are the result of hallucinations, wishful thinking or coincidence,' he says. 'There is no evidence for God or life after death. I have no doubt that it must be
reassuring for those who believe in these things. On the whole, religious people do tend to be happier. I would love to be religious and think that there was a heaven - but it simply doesn't exist.' Doesn't exist? Or hasn't yet been scientifically proven? For despite the scepticism of the atheists, there remain many deathbed encounters that defy easy answers. And these are the cases that Professor Fenwick's team are studying.
Linda Jacobs's experience is typical. Her father was terminally ill at a Manchester hospital, but as the family gathered around his bedside for what they believed was his last night, he became increasingly alert.
'He kept saying "move out of that smoke",' says Linda. 'He then began smiling and laughing as though he was meeting with people we could not see.
'He then turned and looked at my mother and said "your Mum is here! What on earth is she doing here?"' But the figure wasn't really there, for one very good reason. She had died earlier in the week, but the family had decided to keep the news secret for fear of causing further upset. Moments later, Linda's father also passed away - with a smile on his face.
What can account for such mysterious events? Linda is convinced that it provides evidence for an afterlife. And her case is far from unique. The story of Kate Batchelor, a sheep farmer in the Western Isles of Scotland, is equally puzzling. Her brother died in hospital, and a friend was dispatched to tell her the news.
When they reached the farmhouse, they were greeted by Kate, who said: 'I know why you've come.
I heard him calling me. He was saying "Kate, Kate" as he passed over.' She even knew the exact time her brother had died.
Of course not all of the cases being studied by Professor Fenwick are so dramatic. Far more common are stories involving clocks or other household items that suddenly began malfunctioning at the precise time that a person passed away.
'One lady told me that all of the clocks in her house stopped working at the time of her husband's death.
They started again a week later,' says Prof Fenwick.
Other cases have involved mobile phones, video recorders, and TVs that all mysteriously ceased to function at the moment of a loved- one's death, only to resurrect themselves shortly after. Pets, too, can mysteriously fall ill or even die at the same time as their owner.
These, too, could be dismissed as mere coincidence. But far less easy to rationalise are cases where people have witnessed the precise moment of an individual's death, and have seen mysterious shapes emerge from the body, or circle nearby.
For example, one acquaintance of Professor Fenwick's, a GP from New Zealand, went to the aid of a golfer who suffered a sudden, and overwhelming, heart attack.
'As he was going to help, he saw what he described as a white form which seemed to rise and separate from the body,' says Prof Fenwick.
Even more dramatic was the case of Diane Smyth, from Harlow in Essex, who recalls the time she sat with her elderly father as he died.
As she awoke in the darkened room, she noticed something strange hovering above her father's body. As her eyes focused on the mysterious shape, she couldn't help but notice 'a flame licking the top of the wall against the ceiling'.
Diane says: 'I saw a plume of smoke rising, like the vapour from a snuffed-out candle. It was being thrown off by a single blade of phosphorous light and was indescribably beautiful. It seemed to express perfect love and peace.
'I eventually switched on the room light. The mysterious light vanished and the room was the same as always on a November morning, cold and cheerless, with no sound of breathing from Dad's bed. His body was still warm.'
Professor Fenwick hopes that research into these bizarre apparitions will not merely offer insights into the paranormal but will help us come to terms with the process of dying and of death.
He plans to produce a textbook for doctors and nurses caring for the terminally ill. It will be the 21st century equivalent of the Ars Moriendi, the 15th century classic on the art of dying, which described how best to prepare for death.
A common thread runs through many of Professor Fenwick's case studies, and he has now been able to build up a tentative picture of what he believes happens in the hours before death.
Often the first thing that those close to death experience is the realisation that there are friendly spirits in the room, who arrive with the express purpose of carrying them to another realm. As the patient becomes more aware of their presence, fear turns to happiness and eventually bliss.
These spirits will often sit for hours comforting the dying person as their body progressively shuts down and dies.
As part of this process, the spirits precipitate a review of your life - including all of its failings - that enables a dying patient to resolve any lingering conflicts with friends and loved ones.
It would appear that when this process is complete then death quickly follows. It's almost as if, in the final moment of peace, the body finally offers up the ghost.
So what advice can Professor Fenwick give us about preparing for death? He says: 'You should be ready to die at a moment's notice.
Those with a clear conscience die well. Those who are angry or frustrated have a much more difficult death.' Just as there is a good way to live, it seems there is also a good way to die.
IF you have experienced a deathbed phenomenon please contact Professor Fenwick on
Some names in this article have been changed to preserve medical confidentiality
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