My Atheist Dad’s Deathbed Visions

ImageImage: Christmas Morning by Andrew Wyeth

The week before mom died, as she lay intubated in the ICU, we received news that my father had advanced kidney cancer with mets all over his 92 year old body. And so, after brief discussion with his doctors, the day after mom’s funeral service, he was placed on in home hospice care. Our family gently braced itself for what would come next and the unknowns about how dad would die. Because my father was very weak, but still mentally active and independent, my husband placed a mattress on the floor next to dad’s bed and slept there every night, to assist him to the bedside commode, and later to administer breathing treatments that kept him comfortable.  All of us in the household would alternate lazing about on the mattress at various times, keeping dad company,  the kids after school, me after work, Tim on night shift.

In the weeks before dad died, he began having visions. One saturday morning I was lounging on the mattress and reading a book when dad spoke.

Where am I?

Right here, dad, in your bedroom, with me.

I feel like I’m in a tunnel, and I’m waiting for instructions on where to go next.

I sat up in a bit of a panic. I had read about these types of near death phenomena. I read Raymond Moody in the seventies and Elizabeth Kubler Ross, too, but I really did not want to have to give my dad instructions.

Um, gee dad, can you describe anything? Is there anybody around? I was fishing to understand.

I see a staircase, right over there. He began gesturing towards the upper corner of the room, pointed toward the ceiling.

Ok, great.  A staircase. Shit. Maybe this is it. He’s going to somehow ascend this invisible staircase and then my daddy’s going to be gone. I looked around for help. We were alone.

Dad, can you describe the staircase?

It’s olive green with black metal handrails.

Honestly, this was kind of a let down for me. I was thinking, silver and gold, or jewels or at least something shiny or sparkly. Olive green? Black metal? Nevermind, I told myself, it’s his staircase, not yours. I told myself that the staircase sounded, well, elegant, dad was never a fussy sort, and kept talking.

Uh, well, is there anybody around? Do you recognize anyone? You could ask for a guide you know, if you don’t know what to do.

I said this feigning confidence as if this was a customary procedure. I mean, when you go to the air port there are flight attendants, when you at a train station, you ask the conductor, if you see an invisible staircase in the corner of your room, there should be some kind of guide to go along with it. Right?

All the while I was thinking, maybe I’m the guide, maybe it’s me. Oh no, what do I do? He deserves a much better guide, or at least a dead guide, for heaven’s sake. I admit I was a bit of a mess. I looked at dad and he looked pretty calm, actually. He’s better at this dying thing than I would be, I thought.

After a few minutes of appearing as if he was in a daze of sorts, or a waking dream, really, Daddy solidly came back to me. But this experience began a string of conversations between us. Opened the door to a crash course in spiritual beliefs, and it felt urgent to me. When I asked dad what do you think happens when you die, his answer without much hesitation was nothing. Wanting to remain neutral and supportive, I asked him, how does that make you feel right now? His answer: That every moment counts.

He didn’t appear fearful or in distress of any kind. Scientific to the end. Except for these pesky visions, you know. Over the next days, he would see his father every time he closed his eyes, standing “crisp and clear, like on a cold winter’s day.” One day he saw trees in the room, 40 feet high, with tall buildings beside them. Look at all the life forms up and down the trees, he said to me. Another day it was a garden, Where did all these flowers come from? he inquired, gesturing towards nothing. Once he saw people in many costumes of different countries, dancing, and celebrating. I told him they were celebrating his life. And then there was the time  I looked up and dad’s face was beaming as he held his hands up in front of his face, as if framing an image: Look, he cried with delight – right here in front of me – it’s Times Square! He laughed softly with happiness.

My father had visions like these fairly frequently, and he would describe them to me as they occurred. It was an odd experience, listening to him and watching him, like he had one foot in the spiritual realm, and one foot in the bedroom, with me. He was translating, if you will, what he saw. I’d like to mention that these were all drug free experiences. And as I said, they opened the door to many a discussion on a variety of end of life and afterlife belief systems, which I think was a comfort to us both in the end.

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About reneetamara

Writing about death, mental illness, spirituality, art and perfume. Because beauty feeds the soul, and love is beyond what we think.

26 responses to “My Atheist Dad’s Deathbed Visions”

  1. Garce says :

    First – that’s a wonderful graphic. Did you make it? I love it. While I was reading I was thinking of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. I don;t know if you;ve read it, but the depiction it gives of the death experience and what happens after the body shuts down is what i suspect is probably the truth about what will happen to each of us someday. When he saw the stairs and you wanted to guide him, the Tibetan book is actually for that purpose. A monk reads it out loud to a dying monk, kind of like an ancient version of a GPS system. First you turn here, go three miles and then turn there. Everybody sees something different, because I think the spirit is actually experiencing something it is interpreting in images. Its very interesting your father’s stair case was so drab and institutional. That must mean something. And what will it be for each of us? We are at that time in our life when we look back and wonder what it has meant so far and if there were wasted years. I think when we die, and if we know the truth of our lives, we’ll probably find its not even something we can judge.

    Garce

    • reneetamara says :

      Hi Garce,

      The painting at top is by Andrew Wyeth, one that I saw in person at the Philadelphia Art Museum a number of years ago when they had a Wyeth retrospective. I was entranced by the image, quite beautiful and tender.

      The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Yes, I have been reading it on and off and was struck at how the progression described mirrored what I witnessed my mother go through physically. I found it reassuring. Things were happening according to nature, even in the midst of the hospital, in my mom’s case.

      WIth Dad it was different. He was so alert up until hours before death. It was quite remarkable. He was so “in” life, even at the worst of times, and especially in the most ordinary of times.

      The Tibetan Book of the Dead warrants another post of its own…

      R

      • Jim says :

        I’ve been searching for someone who witnessed the same deathbed vision as my father, and here it is. “Once he saw people in many costumes of different countries, dancing, and celebrating.” My father was describing them in detail. He said the crowd looked like “millions” and stretched as far as he could see.

      • reneetamara says :

        This is so fascinating, isn’t it? And also comforting to hear these details from our loved ones in those transitional moments. I treasure those memories of sitting with Dad, and sense that there is still a lot of gold to be mined from the conversations we shared.
        Thank you for posting, Jim.

      • Josie Varga says :

        Hi, Rene, I love your story. I am an author working on a book called Deathbed Visits and would love to include it. If interested, please email me at josievarga@comcast.net. You can read more about my books at http://www.josievarga.com. Thanks for sharing, Rene.

      • reneetamara says :

        Thanks for your kind words, Josie. Will explore your site.

  2. Undina says :

    With these type of posts it’s really hard to comment. I just want you to know that I read all of them – even those I didn’t comment on – and I’m thankful to you for sharing all these memories and experiences in the way you do.

    • reneetamara says :

      Thank you for taking the time to read, and for your kind comments, Undina. If you find some value in these stories it means a great deal to me.

      Just so you know, I’m digging your blog too!

      • Undina says :

        It’s really beautiful how you love(d) and cared about your parents. I can’t go into details but it helps me. Thank you.
        One suggestion: it would be really helpful if you could add Subscribe to Email updates widget.

      • reneetamara says :

        Thank you.
        And thank you for the widget tip…still finding my way about this wordpress world…going to try and do that now…

  3. Harry Klein says :

    Renee, this is so beautifully written! So heartfelt, with the right amount of humor. A lovely tribute to your dad!!! Thanks so much for sharing it with us!

  4. Monica Coelho says :

    Beautiful!

  5. Robert says :

    Renee, I loved your descriptions of your father’s wonderful experiences (and yours too, being at his side) toward his transition to the spiritual realm. I just lost my mother on June 17 after five long months in hospitals/rehab fighting kidney failure and severe peripheral vascular disease (due to good ole diabetes). We had hope despite 3 bypass surgeries, amputations of the all toes of her right foot, and dialysis. I am an RN and moved back to my childhood home to be close to my brother and her. The weeks before she passed, she developed severe GI bleeding, pneumonia, and then finally, it looked like her left leg needed to be amputated below the knee as well. Her suffering would only continue. Wow, what a difficult conversation to have with your own mother…about letting go. But she was depressed and tired and knew that there was no way out. The body was going! I got her home 2 days before she died with hospice care. It was the best experience that a death could be. I was with my mother (along with two close friends and my brother) at the time of her last breath at 9:55 pm. It was peaceful, it was with dignity; it was in the comfort of her own home with loved ones nearby. While I did not notice anything supernatural (unfortunately), your experience gives me a feeling of peace and joy. I feel certain that there is an afterlife and God and spirits of loved ones that await us. I hope we can all meet again one day. Thank you so much -Robert

    • reneetamara says :

      Robert, I’m sorry for your loss. It’s so wonderful that your mother was surrounded by so much love and care in those final months and moments. Thank you for sharing your family’s experience and I am glad that my dad’s story brings you a sense of peace at this time.

  6. Conway Williams says :

    I consider myself very spiritual but how could this be interpreted as a spiritual experience and not a hallucinatory episode of sorts? I mean how could Times Square be part of the afterlife? Sorry for the blunt tone of this comment it just leaves me a little confused.

    • reneetamara says :

      Hi Conway, thanks for your candor and for taking the time to read my experiences with Dad. The truth is that I don’t know whether or not Times Square figures into the afterlife – but I am okay with the fact that none of us truly know. You pose the question of hallucination vs. spiritual experience … sure, you can look at these visions either way and it would take more than a panel of neuroscientists and theologians to debate the question. None of us have the real answer until we ourselves take that final leap. What I do know, and what I am grateful for, is that these experiences that Dad had were peaceful, comforting, and even brought him delight in those final momennts. I don’t have to understand to appreciate the mystery. That might sound like hogwash to you for want of another word, but again, I’m okay with that.
      What is spiritual? What makes something “spiritual” vs. what? mundane? earthly? What a great question for discussion!
      Thanks for commenting.

  7. dianegoble says :

    I wish more people were aware this happens so they could be present with their loved ones as they are preparing for their transition. I’m a Near-Death Experiencer and I wrote a book based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead to help the dying and their caregivers share the blessings of this amazing experience of helping their loved ones make their transition (Beyond the Veil: Our journey home). We are guides on this side handing them over to their spiritual guides waiting on the other side. I just had friends tell me about their experience with the husband’s 87-year old father, a WWII vet and atheist, who died two days ago. The son, who his wife said was dyslexic and never read any books, had my book with him through the past two weeks of his father’s letting go process, which he fought every step of the way. It was all marked up, tattered and dog eared because he had my book with him through it all and it helped all of them to be prepared and aware and present for their dying loved one and the family who were present at the bedside. What a blessing!

    • reneetamara says :

      Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments. Your book sounds quite worthwhile and how wonderful that your book was there for the family you describe. My experiences with my father, mother, and sister, have left a love filled and indelible impression on me.
      Warm regards,
      Renee

  8. ladyhawkpublish says :

    Thank you so much for sharing this!!!!
    I’m a retired RN and cared for many Hospice patients. They taught me so much. On occasion shared what they were seeing as they were “transitioning”. Huge gift to me!!

  9. Jenny Johnson says :

    Thank you for sharing the wonderful story of your dad. It sounds like you have encountered a profound spiritual experience.

  10. joshlangleyauthor says :

    Thank you so much for sharing your personal story and adding to the many other wonderful experiences people are having. Every little bit brings us all closer to our own truth. We all have to go through the same thing, so it’s nice to hear stories from people that have gone before us.

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