“A male hospice patient in his 60s with cancer was minimally responsive and nearing transition when he sat up and began to call for his mother. He was smiling joyfully and described his mother as coming to get him in a white pickup truck. She was sitting in the passenger seat next to Jesus who was driving the truck. His little pet bird was sitting on Jesus’ shoulder. The man died shortly after this. On his wife’s return home, she found the little pet bird was dead in its cage.”
“A 98 year old female told me the night before she died that it would be her last night on earth. She spoke with many of her dead relatives. She said they were waiting for her.”
“A 63 year old female several days before she died was talking to her deceased father and other dead relatives she had never met before. It had a very calming effect on her.”
— From survey respondents in We Do Not Die Alone
We Do Not Die Alone is a fascinating little book based on Dr. Marilyn Mendoza’s review of the research in death-related experiences and her own study of nurses’ observations as they attend their dying patients. The book is written for nurses, hospice workers, counselors, psychologists, and anyone who may work with those encountering the unusual but well-documented experience of deathbed visions.
Dr. Marilyn Medoza received her doctoral degree in Counseling Psychology from Loyola University of Chicago and for the past 24 years has been in private practice in New Orleans. She has obtained advanced training as a bereavement and spiritual facilitator and has lectured frequently, including at Tulane University School of Medicine. Her practice focus is trauma, bereavement and women’s issues.
In a concise but complete 126 pages, Marilyn explains various types of death-related phenomena that might be encountered by those caring for the dying. The mix of experiential reports, research findings, and supportive instructions to caregivers, helps place these phenomena in a meaningful and sensitive context.
The book chronicles and places into theoretical context the personal accounts of 234 nursing professionals. Marilyn conducted this study in pre-Katrina Louisiana and Maryland through 2005 and 2006, asking nurses from hospices, hospitals, nursing conferences, nursing homes and home health facilities to complete a survey about their perceptions and some of their more memorable observations.
The first ten chapters of We Do Not Die Alone describe nurses’ accounts of death-related phenomena beginning with the most common– visual accounts of deceased relatives.
Sixty-five percent of the respondents in the survey indicated that they had witnessed a patient having a deathbed vision (DBV) and 57 percent of these have to do with deceased relatives. Often the vision includes awareness that the relative is present to help the patient, sometimes to help in a “journey.” The book explains the comforting affect these visions have on the dying person.
Marilyn notes that DBV have been overshadowed in the research by near-death experiences, and so she focuses the major part of the text on these experiences.
Other chapters describe common DBVs such as visions of angels, “beautiful” scenes, bright lights, and music. Distressing deathbed visions are reviewed in Chapter 8, visions which accounted for 3 percent of those reported in her sample. Guidelines for dealing with these occurrences in a nonjudgmental way to support family members are offered.
Chapters 9, 10 and 11 complete the spectrum of death-related phenomena. The author explains the connection between DBV and near-death experiences, popularized by Kubler-Ross, summarizing worldwide research efforts and findings. Near-death experiences, pre-death visions that come in dreams, and after-death communications are described for readers, along with scientific reviews. History and theory about DBVs is the subject of Chapter 12.
The last three chapters comprise a section of guidance for those giving care to the dying and their families. “Nursing, Individuals and Spirituality,” and “Caring for the Caretaker” address the emotional reactions and needs of nurses and hospice. Ideas from the American Academy of Bereavement are included in Chapter 15, “Direction for the Caretaker,” and help to address the rights and needs of the dying.
About the writing process, Marilyn told the Times, “I totally immersed myself in researching and writing the book. It was quite intense. It would have been great to just work on the book and not see patients. I used to look forward to a cancellation so I could write.”
“I found the topic so interesting and thought provoking that the learning process was very enjoyable,” she said. “Of course, getting a contract to publish the book was also very enjoyable. The least enjoyable part of the process was getting my first–of many–rejection letters. Even though you know it is coming, it still hurts when it happens.”
For later projects, Marilyn noted, “I am hoping that my research at Angola with the prisoner caretakers in the hospice will turn into a book.”
Dr. Mendoza’s private practice is located in New Orleans and she consults with Serenity Hospice. She is a frequent lecturer at various facilities in the New Orleans area regarding her work about deathbed visions, and other matters of grief work and counseling.
“It is not known if these visions prove the existence of an afterlife,” writes Marilyn in her concluding thoughts, “but what a gift of comfort we receive as we leave this world. In our final moments, is that not what we all want?”
We Do Not Die Alone is available on Amazon.