The first thing required when reading “Visions, Trips, and Crowded Rooms” by the renowned thanatologist David Kessler is the suspension of skepticism. His book is about “the other side” — as in experiences in which the dying claim to achieve glimpses of an afterlife. One might readily dismiss such a book were it not for the author’s credibility: He co-wrote two bestsellers with his mentor, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the pioneering psychiatrist in the field of death and dying.
Some deaths, of course, are more peaceful than others, but Kessler expresses hope that readers will “come away less afraid and with a deeper understanding about what happens in our final moments of life.” His book offers personal stories — many of them deeply moving — from doctors, nurses, hospice and social workers, and others who have witnessed patients and family members experiencing deathbed phenomena.
Does it matter if these stories of the dying seeing and hearing from deceased loved ones are real or imagined? Kessler argues that they can’t all be attributed to hallucinations, fever, a lack of oxygen to the brain or the effects of pain medication, yet he admits that providing evidence to the contrary is an impossible task. And these stories are far more common than people realize.
Whether such visions are “real” is beside the point — what matters is that all of these dying patients believed in what they had experienced, and found solace and relief in the midst of suffering. Many end-of-life narratives describe visitations by mothers (or maternal figures both familiar and unknown); others close to death were reassured that they’d be reunited with deceased spouses, parents or children.
It’s hard to disagree with Kessler’s insistence that healthcare professionals should strive to become better, more empathetic listeners to those in their last days and hours of life. He notes that a patient’s reality should never be minimized or ignored — however “impossible or ridiculous” it seems. Being respectfully heard, he writes, is one of the greatest comforts a patient can be given.
Aside from sharing testimonies, Kessler explores the long history of deathbed phenomena in literature — such as from Shakespeare, Harriet Beecher Stowe and contemporary novelists such as Isabel Allende and Alice Sebold; and in films including “Ghost” and “Saving Private Ryan.”
It’s not easy to come away from “Visions, Trips, and Crowded Rooms” with a definitive conclusion, but the questions it poses are intriguing. At one point in the book, Kessler recounts how a woman tried to tell a nurse about the remarkable deathbed phenomenon experienced by her terminally ill father, who was fading from cancer.
The nurse’s response? She dismissed the woman’s story and simply increased the patient’s level of sedation.
Ciuraru is the editor of poetry anthologies, including, most recently, “Poems About Horses.”