The New York Times ran a somewhat interesting piece on deathbed visions recently. Called "A New Vision for Dreams of the Dying," it was written by Jan Hoffman and appeared originally on February 2, 2016. Throughout the article, the term "deathbed" is used rather loosely, as some of these visions occurred months before the patients actually died.
A woman who died of ovarian cancer is quoted as saying:
I was laying in bed and people were walking very slowly by me. The right-hand side I didn’t know, but they were all very friendly and they touched my arm and my hand as they went by. But the other side were people that I knew — my mom and dad were there, my uncle. Everybody I knew that was dead was there. The only thing was, my husband wasn’t there, nor was my dog, and I knew that I would be seeing them.
This account is given of a 13-year-old girl:
While the patient was lying in bed, her mother by her side, she had a vision: She saw her mother’s best friend, Mary, who died of leukemia years ago, in her mother’s bedroom, playing with the curtains. Mary’s hair was long again. “I had a feeling she was coming to say, ‘You’re going to be O.K.’ I felt relief and happiness and I wasn’t afraid of it at all.”
An octogenarian WWII vet had visions that were both disturbing and omforting:
The patient had never really talked about the war. But in his final dreams, the stories emerged. In the first, the bloody dying were everywhere. On Omaha Beach, at Normandy. In the waves. He was a 17-year-old gunner on a rescue boat, trying frantically to bring them back to the U.S.S. Texas. “There is nothing but death and dead soldiers all around me,” he said. In another, a dead soldier told him, “They are going to come get you next week.” Finally, he dreamed of getting his discharge papers, which he described as “comforting.” He died in his sleep two days later.
The article notes that disturbing visions, while less common, are not unheard of:
Not all end-of-life dreams soothe the dying. Researchers found that about 20 percent were upsetting. Often, those who had suffered trauma might revisit it in their dying dreams. Some can resolve those experiences. Some cannot ...
This fall, Mrs. Brennan, the nurse, would check in on a patient with end-stage lung cancer who was a former police officer. He told her that he had “done bad stuff” on the job. He said he had cheated on his wife and was estranged from his children. His dreams are never peaceful, Mrs. Brennan said. “He gets stabbed, shot or can’t breathe. He apologizes to his wife, and she isn’t responding, or she reminds him that he broke her heart. He’s a tortured soul.”
Researchers make the point that these experiences should be called visions rather than hallucinations, a term with derogatory connotations. There is an ongoing debate about whether or not to sedate patients whose visions are troubling. Should the caregivers' priority be ensuring the patient's comfort or facilitating his/her spiritual journey?
No researcher quoted in the piece explicitly endorses the idea that some of these visions may be veridical, but at least the value of such visions is not dismissed out of hand, as might have been the case a few years ago.