Martha Atkins, founder and CEO of Atkinsosity, on More to Dying Than Meets the Eye at TEDxSanAntonio 2013 Conference (Transcript)
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: more-to-dying-than-meets-the-eye-by-martha-atkins-at-tedxsanantonio-2013
I’d like for you all to transport in time with me. We’re going to go back to 1932.
So my mother went with her family to a house in 1932, and she told me about going up the stairs. I’m taking a little break to the right and there was a room there. There were flowers. There were people talking. She was little, so she’s looking up at everybody. And the dearly departed was there, laid out on a chair between two boards between, well, he wasn’t that big, one board, two chairs.
How many of you have seen something like that? Yes, if you’re of a certain age, perhaps. We did have a few hands raised. Fabulous. We’ve taken death out of the home, and when we took death out of the home, we stopped learning about dying and what to do about it. And we stopped learning how to do something or what to do — we get scared. And when we get scared of something, very often we stop talking about it.
So we have in this country — we don’t talk about death and dying very often. I’m a death educator and a death researcher, and that makes me a little crazy. So we’re going to talk about death and dying today.
I want to start by telling you about my mother. My mother opted to go on hospice in 2005 and she and I had a lot of frank conversations. I said to her one afternoon, “Mom, you may have some visitors when it’s your time to go. You may have angels or family members. I don’t know who’s going to show up but somebody may show up. Will you tell me if somebody comes?”
And she’s walking down the hall and she looks over shoulder and she said, “It depends on who it is.” OK, I have no idea what that means.
Four months later, she was in the hospital bed, in the living room at her house, and her eyes were closed and I was watching her track something, something underneath her eyelids. I said, “Mom, what do you see?”
She said, “Daddy Charlie, grandmother, mother and daddy, uncle Claude, aunt Nala.” She has a beautiful smile in her face.
I said, “Where are they?”
“Walking up the road from the farmhouse.”
My brother Jim had been gone about 13 years. He had died some 13 years before and I expected him to be there. I had had a dream that he was sitting in a chair, his legs crossed, reading a book. So I said, “Mom, where’s Jim?”
“Oh, he’s been right here.”
The night she died, my mom was reaching up towards something I couldn’t see, and I didn’t know then that that was part of deathbed phenomenon until I began my research.
And here’s some other things I learned. For six centuries, anecdotal accounts and a little bit of research have detailed the auditory visual and tactile experiences of those nearing death. Most often people are met by friends or family members. Their purpose seems to be to help the dying person with the death experience. And most often these visions are comforting. People see angels. People see religious entities that are important to them culturally. So you may see the Buddha, or the Virgin Mary, or Yama, the Hindu god of death. People see landscapes. People hear music. Kids have kid-friendly visions.
There’s a story about a hospice. There was a pediatric hospital here in San Antonio in the ‘80s. And the story went that there was a boy there that was dying. He was complaining to the nurse about the noise in the corner, the noisy boys in the corner. The nurse looked over, and there wasn’t anybody. She said, “Who’s there?” And he named off three names of three kids who had been at that hospice before he got there. These experiences happen all over the world, all religion, all cultures, all ages. They happen to people who are blind, they happen to people who are deaf.
Some researchers say, this is the limbic system going crazy. These are purely hallucinations. These are embedded memories of a lifetime that are coming out. Others say, this is proof of the souls’ existence after death. Neither side can prove their hypothesis, and my conjecture is this: it doesn’t matter — sorry for all the scientists in the room — it doesn’t matter why they happen, it matters that they do.
In my research, I talked with people who were at the bedside when somebody was dying. One wife said to me, she was talking to her husband one afternoon and said, “Do you ever see anybody or hear anybody?” She said in her estimation, he was completely lucid. He had had a little bit of pain medication. He was doing a Sudoku puzzle, and he said, “Yeah, there is a soldier that comes and stands by my bed at night and keeps me company. Can’t you just see him standing there at attention? And there’s a dog that comes in and lays by my feet in the afternoon.” And he went on to describe the beloved family pet that had been theirs early in their marriage.
Witnesses in my research talked about how they saw something happening and they knew they didn’t need to do anything about it. So when Mrs Harrison walked in and saw Mr Harrison talking to somebody, she was a little perplexed, but she asked him about it. He was terrified to die. He had been horribly abused as a child, terrified to die, afraid his family was going to come. Instead, on the scene came this seven-year-old boy named Jimmy. Mrs Harrison said, she went with it. She said, “I really didn’t know what else to do. I just went with it.”
And Jimmy stayed with Mr Harrison the last two weeks of his life and kept him company and helped his transition being an easier one as he left this world. Witnesses talked about how they recognize that the phenomena that were happening were signs that death was near, even when experts said that wasn’t the case. They saw the signs, and they knew the difference between hallucinations and visions. So hallucinations, for them, didn’t have any kind of context, and were frightening, anxiety-provoking, versus the visions, which did have a context, and brought great comfort.
When I work with families now, I tell them, “Your person may see things you can’t see, they may hear things you can’t [see], they may reach up to the sky, they may look through you, they may talk in metaphors about moving or leaving or going, even though they’re bed bound, they need their shoes, or they need their map, or they need their purse, or they need to get to the stadium. They’ve got to get somewhere.
When Mom said – just before her three-year-old died, he said, “Daddy, the train’s here. I’ve got to go now.” For that mom and for other folks in my research, these visions, these deathbed phenomena, were of great comfort to them. When we educate families about these experiences, and we educate the patient about these experiences, there’s less fear. And, my goodness, we need less fear around death and dying.
I had the opportunity to work with a family named Butch. Butch was 94, he had congestive heart failure, and he decided he needed to go in hospice. He was ready. I got a text one afternoon from his daughter that the visions had started and everything was okay. His daughter talked about how Butch was often in the other room. And this is the language she used for him being there, talking with the unseens, versus over here, talking to the daughter and the other people who are in the room. And he was often in the other room.