A deathbed vision (DBV), is a term for the experiences dying people and their families encounter just before death. Frequently, dying people report visions of deceased loved ones, religious icons, angels, and colors or lights just moments, hours or days before the physical death occurs.
Only about 10% of dying people are conscious shortly before their death, but of this population, it is estimated that between 50 and 60% of them experience visions which last an average of about five minutes, especially those suffering from terminal illness or life-threatening traumatic injury. In most cases, the apparitions are only seen by the dying, but in some cases caretakers and those attending the dying person have also shared the experience and witnessed the apparitions.
Stories of DBV’s are common in folklore and literature from all cultures and historical time periods. However, the first mention of a DBV in the medical or scientific literature is from the late 1920‘s when Sir William Barrett, a professor at the Royal College of Science in Dublin, began studying and writing about them. Dr. Barrett’s wife, an obstetric surgeon, had delivered a child to a woman who later would later die of a hemorrhage. As she lay bleeding, she described seeing and interacted with her father (who had passed away years before), and at the end of the vision, her sister as well. Unbeknownst to her, the sister actually had passed away the previous week—news of her sister’s death had been withheld because of her delicate condition so there was no way she could have known her sister was no longer alive.
In 1961, Karlis Osis published an analysis of 640 questionnaires that were given to physicians and nurses on their observations of over 35,000 deaths. Osis categorizes the DBVs into two types of experiences. 1) Nonhuman experiences, such as natural objects or landscapes, and 2) Human experiences, such as visions of family and/or friends. His research confirmed that the predominant form of DBVs is apparitions of deceased loved ones who had come to aid the person in transitioning into death.
These two researchers and an abundance of other literature on DBVs confirm that regardless of culture, religion, economic status or historical time period, the dying frequently experience DBVs. While these may be attributed to a number of medical causes, such as hypoxia (lack of oxygen to the brain), research into DBVs confirm that the events are common, but no clear, plausible explanation has been found to date.