Experiences with the dying

By Brother Mark Dohle.

I suppose one of my main interests in life is looking at and studying the subjective experiences that seem to be part of everyone’s life. At least it seems that way, not only from my own experiences, but also in my conversations with others and the plethora of literature that is out nowadays that deals with this subject. It is like we live in a small box world, an everyday place. Yet many people, perhaps the majority, have secrets that have to deal with experiences that seem to point to something more beyond the world of consensus-reality. Perhaps due importance is not given to them and they are filed away or forgotten. Or they feel they can’t share them. However that seems to be changing and perhaps for some it is disturbing. For human experiences cannot be contained by certain philosophical, political or religious beliefs.

At this time I am reading a new book that was published last year. The title of the book is: “The art of dying”, co-authored by Peter Fenwick and his wife Elizabeth. It deals with the experiences that people have just before death and some of it is based on the experiences of caregivers. It is well written and I would highly recommend it to anyone interest in this particular subject. Dr. Fenwick is an internationally renowned neuro-psychiatrist and Britain’s leading clinical authority on near-death experiences. His wife Elizabeth is the author of numerous books dealing with health issues and child care. In reading the book, about how other caregivers relate their experiences with the dying, brought some of mine into consciousness. Though in fact they were never far away, for from time to time I will relive some of them. Funny thing these experiences, for when actually witnessing them they don’t some unusual at all, either for the one having them, or for me who just happened to be present as a witness.

Clarence for instance in the last week of his life seemed to be having ‘visitors’ in his room. I can remember one day, I was in the room with Rose, our head nurse who was standing at the foot of the bed. Clarence was trying to look around her at something. So I asked him what he was looking at. He replied in a matter fact sort of way, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world, that he was seeing an angel. It did not occur to me until later that this was a deep and healing experience for him.

Michael was a charge of mine in the mid-eighties, in his eighties, a handsome man, looked like Santa Claus with his long white beard and hair. One day I entered his room to clean him and as I entered I saw that he was in ecstasy, his hands folded and his face actually had a glow to it. I stopped and stood still for I did not want to disturb him. When he saw me, he turned his head and said with a beatific smile: “Oh Mark, you have no idea how beautiful heaven is”. Again, the experience seemed normal and natural to me, but later it struck me that again, I witnessed a profound moment with someone. Perhaps when the box opens up a bit, it quickly becomes something normal while the experience is happening. Or perhaps not everyone sees it that way; we are all so unique in how we relate to our experiences in life.

Michael died soon after that. In the early days I would have ‘visitation dreams’ from those I took care of. In this dream I was in a hospital ward walking towards a room. In the room I saw Michael in bed, his face again glowing like the sun and he looked at me, laughed and said: “I am ok Mark, just resting up”. I had that dream almost 25 years ago and have not forgotten it. It is still fresh in my mind as if I had it yesterday, yet it seems so normal. However most dreams that I have fade and only come to memory when I happen to read about one of them from my journal. Though I don’t write many down, if I stared doing that I would have to spend a couple of hours a day just recording them. I think I dream too much. However visitation dreams seem to stick.

Mark had Parkinson’s and was also suffering from dementia. So he had to be watched 24 hours a day. We had to use a simple restraint for him and he did not seem to mind. He was a pleasant man, a country boy, and served in the Navy during World War Two. He had an interesting face, one that looks somewhat like the “Sad Sack figure” from the comics. I remember the day he died. I was sitting with him and he had the labored breathing that seems to be present when most die, at least from my limited experience. So as I was sitting and praying with him, staying in rhythm with his breathing, I realized I had to leave the room and do some other chores. So I left and as I was returning, when I was about 20 feet from his room, I said to myself: “Damn, he just died”. I don’t know how I knew, I just did. So I entered his room and sure enough he was gone, his body still at the normal temperature, perhaps it was timed so he could die alone. Well a few days after his death I had another visitation dream. I was in Church fixing some books when he walked up to me. His face had a gentle glow to hit, he still had his Sad Sack face but it was suffused with love and compassion, he also had the gentlest smile. He looked at me and said: “I love you Mark, thank you for all you did, I will pray for you”. I woke up with tears in my eyes. This dream happened fifteen years ago and I have not forgotten it either, just as fresh as if it happened yesterday.

I had other dreams about dealing with those I helped to take care of, but over the years they stopped. Perhaps they did because I no longer needed them to help me deal with their loss. I am not really in touch with my feelings and it was others who would notice that I would withdraw after a death and not being my usual loud, hyper self for awhile. So perhaps they were a way of helping me to deal with it better.

Philip was our longest living resident. He needed full time care for almost eleven years. The last six he spent all of his time either in his Gerry chair or in bed. He was a very gentle man and he had a smile that would melt a glacier. He suffered from dementia, yet he had the kind in which he was almost always happy and laughing. There were times when he would be angry or sad of course. One night when I was working the late shift he was beside himself with sorrow. From what I could understand, he was reliving a painful experience with one of his brothers. I think he was really hurt emotionally and all he could say to me was: “Why did he do it”? So he was trapped for a time in a past memory. So I just held him a bit, wiped his face and in about thirty minutes he was back to his smiling self. One night I went into his room and as I approached he was laughing and talking. As I stopped at the door I could feel that the room was full. Philip saw me and called me in and one by one he introduced me to old friends and family members. So I bowed to each space that he pointed to and told him I would come back later after his friends left. He would also deliver messages to some of the CNA’s who worked for us. One lady lost a brother and she was worried about him, wondered if he was ok. As she was feeding Philip his breakfast, he suddenly became very clear and told her that her brother was ok and to stop worrying about him. She never talked to Philip about this and even if she did, most times he would not respond in any kind of a rational way. She came down to me; she was in tears and told me what happened. She was a little scared. So I told her not to worry, her brother simply found a way to communicate with her, it happens all the time. So in reality I told her that peeps outside the box are perfectly normal and everyday occurrences. It calmed her down but the experience deeply touched her. She shared it with her family and it helped them with their grief.

I suppose I could write on and on about this, but there is no need, at least for now. What do these experiences mean? I think they point to something other, to a wider reality that our brain has to filter out so we can simply live in this very difficult reality. Those who don’t, well perhaps some of them or the ones we call mentally ill. In any case, since I am a Christian I will have a tendency to see them in this light. Those who believe differently will have to deal with them in ways that make sense to them. For our beliefs both limit and free us in our dealings with life; just another paradox I believe. It would seem to me that for the brain to evolve this way, to allow these experiences that help us die would not be able to evolve from a mindless blind process. All through history there have been stories about these experiences. Today because of our medical care we are hearing more about them. No, this points to some kind of process that has some point to it. Again we will all have to deal with this in our own way.

To get the absolute answer I feel is not possible and for someone to think that they have would in reality only limit ones ability to be open to the deep ever expanding mystery of life and our existence.