Deathbed Communications

Deathbed communications occur to individuals who are terminally ill. Death is imminent. The dying person may communicate with deceased friends and/or relatives during this time.  These types of communication can occur up to four weeks before death occurs, with the most frequent times within an hour of death (Lawrence & Repede, 2012; Callahan & Kelley, 1992).

Originally these types of communication were called deathbed visions (Barrett, 1926). The focus on those descriptions was on what the dying person saw.  It is possible for a person not only to see a deceased friend or relative but also hear or feel that person.  One woman dying of cancer reported feeling ‘poked’ by her deceased husband (Lawrence, 2014). 

Incidence of deathbed communications

Osis (1961) described the result of his survey of 640 physicians and nurses.  He reported the incidence of deathbed communications to be 39.2% of the dying patients these health professionals cared for.  In a follow up study by Osis and Haraldson (1977), the doctors and nurses reported 27.6% of their dying patients having visions of deceased friends or relatives.  In these two studies only visual experiences were included.

Lawrence and Repede (2012) studied a more specific incidence of deathbed communications that included visual, auditory and kinesthetic experiences.  Their research included the review of 60 hospice charts during the 30 days before the death of the patient within the past month.  Only  five (8.33%) of the 60 charts reviewed included descriptions of DBCs.  Nurses, social workers and chaplains at the agency stated the incidence was much higher but the charts did not allow for inclusion of this information.  In addition the researchers surveyed 75 hospice nurses across the United States. These nurses were asked to describe the incidence of DBCs, including, visual, auditory and kinesthetic experiences, that occurred to patients within the past 30 days. The 75 hospice nurses identified 363 incidences of DBCs, with an average of 4.8 patient occurrences per nurse in the last 30 days. 


In a study of hospice patients, Luczkiewicz, Depner, Nosek, Kerr, Woodworth, Wright, et al (2014) over an 18 month period of time, enrolled 63 hospice patients willing to participate in the study.  Of those 63 hospice patients, 82.5% reported an end of life dream or vision.


Distinguishing among DBCs, drug induced hallucinations and confusion    

According to Lawrence (2014), during a DBC the dying person is oriented to time, person and place. The only extraordinary experience is communication with a deceased person.  Also DBCs tend to be short lived lasting seconds to just a few minutes.  Drug induced hallucinations and confusion tend to encompass a lack of orientation to time, person and place and are more likely to be continuous states.  DBCs have a dramatic, positive affect on the dying person. Typically the person feels less anxious, calm and occasionally elated, requiring much less medication. Here is a report of a case by Bartlett (1926)

 A young boy, aged fourteen, …. dying of consumption, had wasted away very rapidly in four   or five months.  During the whole of that period he was very bright, full of interest in all around (him), and did not seem to be aware of his rapidly failing strength.  About a week before he died he slept in a room off his mother’s, with no door between, he called her,…..full of excitement about a door he could see at the corner of his room, which he said was ‘opening wider and wider, and when it is open wide I shall be going through it, Mother.’On the morning of the day he died, his mother…found him sitting up in bed, looking towards the corner of the room.  “There is a nice old man coming for me; he is holding out his arms for me.  I must go.  …. He fell back gently on his pillow and was gone, without any struggle for breath, and with a smile of joy on his face, which remained (p 45).

Instant feedback

Which of the following helps caregivers distinguish a deathbed communication from confusion or hallucinations? In a deathbed communication the patient
feels he or she is in another universe
is oriented to person, place and time.
only sees close deceased relatives.
all of the above