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The Visions of Dying Children Seem to Bring God Alive

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Dr. Geni Bennetts, director of hematology and oncology at Childrens Hospital of Orange County, is a woman of science. She heals children, or she tries to, with the aid of the world’s most advanced medical technology.

I have come to see her today, however, to talk about the vastness beyond the limits of medicine, a phenomenon that fuzzes black and white and verifiable scientific explanations.

Talking about this with me makes Geni Bennetts a little uncomfortable. She doesn’t want to sound like a kook, which she is most certainly not.

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“I cannot accept it as science,” she says. “I accept it as part of life. I have never tried to prove it--or disprove it. I just accept it.”

Dr. Bennetts and I are talking about life after death, about hope, and about children’s amazingly similar visions only hours, or moments, before they die.

Listening to children foretell their own deaths, and then hearing them comfort the parents they will leave behind, has changed Dr. Bennetts’ life. Never in her 15 years of treating children with cancer has she found a child’s premonition to be wrong.

When Geni Bennetts tells me some of these children’s stories, her eyes, and my own, cloud with tears.

Seven-year-old Danny had leukemia. He was hospitalized at CHOC and was not expected to survive. His friend, Timmy, had died not long before.

Late one afternoon, Danny’s mother was at his bedside as her son slept. When he awoke, Danny found his mother in tears.

“Don’t cry,” Danny told his mother. “Do you see my angel? She’s outside my window. She’s telling me that she is going to take me to Timmy. She says that Timmy and I are going to go fishing.”

Danny died later that night.

Some of the children that Dr. Bennetts tells me about have come from religious homes; others have not. All of them have been on medication, but their visions, reported matter-of-factly between more prosaic talk of everyday life, belie the suggestion that they spring from a drug-induced haze.

“We in medicine have seen people hallucinating,” Dr. Bennetts says. “It isn’t like that. These children are perfectly lucid.”

The number of children who have had peaceful visions of their own death is impossible to know. Dr. Bennetts, however, is not the first to publicly talk about them.

Dr. Diane Komp, a specialist in oncology and a professor of pediatrics at Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven, is writing a book about similar experiences with her young patients.

After publishing an article in Theology Today in October, 1988, which spawned further publicity, she says many parents wrote to tell her of their children’s peaceful deaths after experiencing such visions--during their waking hours or in their dreams.

“I think the impartation of peace from these experiences is what has had the most impact on me,” says Dr. Komp, who has been practicing medicine for almost 25 years.

Dr. Bennetts says fewer children tell her of their visions these days because, thanks to medical advances, fewer of her patients die. And if it is at all possible, physicians honor requests to transfer terminally ill children to their homes.

Still, it seems, regardless of where a child dies, the stories of deathbed visions are remarkably the same.

“So many of the kids talk to their angels,” Dr. Bennetts says. “One mother called me after her child died at home. She said the angels were there too.”

And many of the terminally ill, she says, hang on to life until they have completed certain tasks.

Michelle, stricken with bone cancer, had been a patient of Dr. Bennetts for seven years. One day, Dr. Bennetts called on her in her hospital room. Michelle, then 21 years old, asked if she was going to die.

“I said yes. And then I started to cry. I told her I had done my best. She started to comfort me. She said that she just needed to know and then she showed me a list, which I didn’t even read then, of the things that she wanted to get done. Before she died, everything on that list was done. . . .

“Children seem to know when life is leaving them, even at 2 or 3 years of age,” Dr. Bennetts goes on. “I’ve seen one 3-year-old sit up in bed and say, ‘I’m dying,’ and two hours later, the kid was dead. . . . These children are not afraid if they are not in pain.”

Another CHOC patient, 5-year-old Johnny, had leukemia. He had been close to a little girl, Erica, who had died of a brain tumor.

Johnny, at the time, was a big fan of “Star Wars.” The movie had just come out. Johnny was taken by ambulance to see the movie in a theater, while lying on a gurney. He had all his “Star Wars” toys lined up at the foot of his hospital bed.

“I was in the room,” Dr. Bennetts says. “And he started talking to someone. He was perfectly lucid. He had been talking to me and his mother. Then he said it was Erica who was there, and that she wanted to play with his toys. He wouldn’t let her.”

Over the next few days, Johnny told of seeing Erica again and again. He still wouldn’t allow her to play with his toys.

“I had been thinking, as this went on, that if Johnny let Erica play with his toys, maybe he would die. . . . That’s exactly what happened. The day that he told his mother that he was going to play with Erica was the day he died.”

Jonathan, who was 8 years old, had a brain tumor, but he had been receiving chemotherapy and his condition was stable. Dr. Bennetts thought he had, at the very least, several more months to live.

“One night, at 2 in the morning, he bolts upright in bed,” Dr. Bennetts says. “He says, ‘I want to see a priest.’ He wasn’t Catholic, so I didn’t really understand this, but he was demanding to be blessed and to see his mother and father and brother.

“They called me, and I told them to go ahead and call everyone. Father Mack (then a chaplain with St. Joseph’s Hospital) got out of bed and blessed him. I came in. His family came in. He said goodby to everyone. He said he knew he was dying and that everything was fine. He lay down and never woke up.

“I couldn’t have predicted for anything that he would have died that night.”

Another boy, a 4-year-old Asian whose family did not practice a Christian faith, had a vision of an angel visiting him and then summoned members of the hospital staff into his room. He thanked each of them for helping him and then he said goodby.

“Then he laid down and died,” Dr. Bennetts says. “He was not upset, not at all. But you can imagine. There wasn’t a dry eye on the floor.”

Geni Bennetts says that for most of her life, she did not believe in life after death. She has abandoned the religion of her childhood, and to this day she is not formally affiliated with any faith.

Yet her experiences with dying children have deepened her personal conviction that there is indeed a God, one who has taken, and cradled, the children that she loved.

“God was real to these children,” she says. “It certainly is comforting to me that these kids are going on to a better place, where someone is taking care of them better than I could. I couldn’t fix them. . . . These kids have changed my life.”

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