Readers Share Stories of Their Loved Ones’ Deathbed Visions

Rich, deeply personal stories of visions and the peace they have brought to people’s lives

By Phoebe Zerwick

Credit...Photo illustration by Amy Friend

When I started reporting “What Deathbed Visions Teach Us About Living,” about the visions, often of loved ones, that some people have in the final stretches of their lives, I had no idea just how universal the experience was. But within minutes of the story’s publication, readers took to the comments section to post their own memories of having witnessed the phenomenon. The stories were rich, deeply personal, and seemed to confirm something that the researcher featured in my story, Dr. Chris Kerr, knew in his years of studying such visions: they bring peace to the dying and solace to the living.

What Deathbed Visions Teach Us About Living

Researchers are documenting a phenomenon that seems to help the dying, as well as those they leave behind.

March 12, 2024

Family members wrote in with stories of watching loved ones have visions, as did health care workers, who had years of experience witnessing them. I was especially moved by readers diagnosed with terminal illnesses who wrote in to say they had found comfort in the comments section, and could now face the days ahead with less fear.

As readers’ reactions suggest, these visions, and their meaning, are open to interpretation. Some readers saw evidence of an afterlife. Others see them more as vivid memories, conjured from within. Until my own mother’s death, I had never witnessed an end-of-life vision or thought much about them. One afternoon, as she was talking about her latest vision, my mother remarked, “I wonder if other people have this experience.” As a regular reader of The New York Times, she would have been delighted to find the answer in the comments section, from readers like herself

Mark Ferguson, computer programmer, Austin, Texas

Mark Ferguson’s grandfather, Bartlett MitchellCredit...Courtesy of Mark Ferguson

As my grandfather lay in his bed, close to the end of his long life, he had a vision and pointed to the far wall. “What are you seeing?” my grandmother asked. “A transcendent view of the queen,” he replied. “Which queen?” “The queen of all the world,” he answered reverently. “Is it your mother?” He nodded and smiled, falling back to sleep.

Mary Thurstonhistorian and author, Austin, Texas

George B. Thurston, Mary Thurston’s father.Credit...Courtesy of Mary Thurston.

Toward the end of my father’s long life, he kept telling me he was seeing a little dog sitting in a chair next to his bed. He described the dog in detail and would point his finger at it with serious certainty. After he died, going through a very old and dusty box of his things, I found a sketch he had done as a child — of his little pet dog sitting in a chair. I put it on the cover of the card for his memorial service.

Georgia Metz, retired hospice nurse, Brooklyn, N.Y.

I am a retired hospice nurse, having worked in the field since the 1980s. I can recall many stories like those commented on here. My favorite was a male patient in his 60s who had been a smoker most of his life and was dying of lung cancer. One day I walked into his room and to my surprise he was making lunging motions up in the bed. I asked him what he was doing. He said he was climbing the stairs to heaven. I helped him lean forward as carefully as I could to help him safely make the motions. About an hour later he died. We can support the dying best by believing them.

Karen Stein, marketing manager at a college, Portland Ore.

Karen Stein’s mother, Martha O’Donnell and her grandfather, Willis Morris.Credit...Courtesy of Karen Stein

My mom passed away in 2023 after gradually declining from Alzheimer’s, vascular dementia and myelodysplastic syndrome for a couple of years. About a month or two before she passed away, she started talking about how she needed to get the suitcase down from her closet because she had a train to catch. And just a couple days before she died, when she had been barely conscious for maybe a week, all of the sudden she opened her eyes, looked at a fixed point in front of her, and said, “Hi, Dad!” Clear as day, in a calm, confident, hopeful voice. Then she closed her eyes and went back to sleep, as if nothing had happened. Her father had passed away about 20 years earlier, and clearly came to guide her, as he had done in life. I feel so grateful to have been present with her to see that sacred moment.

Jane French, caregiver, Naperville, Ill.

Jane French’s father, Larry DohertyCredit...Courtesy of Jane French

At the end of his life, my dad was blind. Arthritis fused his cervical spine, forcing his head downward. He lost the ability to walk. His kidneys and heart fought each other. He became unresponsive. A week before he died, I paused in the doorway before entering his room to find him engaged in a lively monologue. I touched his arm. He announced, “Everyone, I’d like you to meet my daughter.” I straightened and waved to the empty room. He spoke and looked around with ease. He sat relaxed, crossing, and uncrossing his legs, conversing with his children and long gone co-workers. As he spoke, he made grand gestures. I audibly gasped when he lifted his spindly arms over his head and looked toward the sky while making a point. His movements resembled a man decades younger than 91. After a while, he grew tired and fell back asleep. I will never forget how the mind can overpower the body with such ease.

Keith Walters, retired college professor, Portland, Ore.

Throughout the ’90s, I volunteered at a five-bed, residential AIDS hospice that accepted all who needed care. I spent time with many, many people, most young, many older, living with the knowledge that they would soon die. All the staff and volunteers had stories of residents announcing that they needed to pack for a train or bus that was coming, or that they had been visited by people we could not see but who had been an important part of their lives. With rare exception, these were narratives characterized by a sense of peace and acceptance. We learned to read them as signals that death was near, and it always was. Like Sara Teasdale contemplating the stars, I know that I am honored to bear witness to their stories.

We lost my father in 2018, and Mom mourned and grieved that loss every day. They were a team. Mom fell gravely ill in February 2023. I spent almost every day at her bedside in hospitals and a nursing home until her last day. Her final week was filled with conversations with my father, as if he was right next to her — asking him if he wanted the other half of her sandwich, or would he hand her the TV remote — mundane conversations, but so profound, too. Startled at first, I was relieved to see her find peace after having witnessed her agonizing battle with decline and disease in the prior months. Her passage was not the graceful one that I wished for until that final week. I kept pleading with my father to “come and get her” and he did, when the time was right. I am grateful even as I grieve.

Denise Bryndal, hospice nurse, Gunnison, Colo.

I’ve been a hospice nurse for the last 10 years. When patients talk about “needing to go” or say someone is “picking them up” it’s like another vital sign. We know the end is near, even if they have periods of lucidity. People regularly see deceased family members and pets. I cared for one younger woman dying of cancer who told me that her room often seemed “crowded” at night, all these people waiting for her. She was clear as anything when we were speaking. I’ll never forget that.

Milena Fiore, nonprofit executive, Sausalito, Calif.

Ruth H. Basch Falsetto in 1948Credit...Courtesy of Milena Fiore

My mother was a German Holocaust survivor, and even though her father was Jewish, hers had not been a practicing family. She had a religious experience right before she married my father (he was in the U.S. Army Special Forces; that was how they met) and became a practicing Catholic. She had a stroke a few months before her death and was partially paralyzed. While lying in her hospice bed weeks before her death, she told me that all of her relatives were there in her room, and began to have conversations with them in German, sometimes laughing, sometimes weeping. She requested a visit from a rabbi and became more and more peaceful in her final days. Moments before her death, she opened her eyes and looked up. She started to sit up, and with a face that I can only describe as illuminated, said, “Oh, the love!”