The Death Instinct: A Time to Live and a Time to Die?

As for everything, there is a season,

And a time for every matter under heaven,

A time to be born, and a time to die….

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

Years before his fatal car accident, my son had a pre-death premonition. Between the ages of fifteen and twenty-one, he told us three times that he would die in his twenties. We chose to dismiss his warnings, because the thought was too horrifying to contemplate. We put it all down to youthful fantasy and banished the thought of his early death from our minds. In one of those conversations, he said he would die in a car accident, and that his car would be totalled, though he jokingly added that it would be more glamorous to be shot while performing on stage, in the manner of one of his rock idols. One month before his 22nd birthday, Zak died when his car swerved off the road and hit a wall. His car was barely recognizable. Zak’s early-death prophesy and my encounters with other people’s death situations moved me into an understanding of life that I had long needed to reclaim. I discovered a perspective that hinted quite strongly at a Divine Plan. Fate, I discovered, despite its perceived elusive nature, when placed under focussed observation, is actually quite glaringly obvious.

The 9/11 tragedy brought to light many stories of death premonition, some of them recorded by Bonnie McEneaney in her book Messages. Bonnie’s husband died as a result of the 9/11 attacks, and she tells of him always knowing that he would die young, and just one week before the tragedy, sensing his approaching death. After the attacks, Bonnie explored many of the stories of the families of victims of 9/11 and heard numerous accounts that resembled her own experience. In all descriptions, people talk of changed moods, discussions of impending death and in some cases, planning for disaster.  In the case of Ruth McCourt, who was on United Airlines Flight 175 with her four-year daughter Juliana when it went into the South Tower, her husband David reports her uncharacteristically strange mood in the months before her death and her uncanny words, ‘if anything happens to me, put my ashes in Ireland’. She had also informed a number of friends of feelings of impending doom, and to add to it, David himself, on the evening before Ruth and Juliana’s flight, saw a vision of the explosion in his mind.

A British newspaper reported the case of father-of-one Andrew Bailey, 29, whose American fiancée Miosotys told how he woke up screaming on September 9 and told her that in his nightmare, he’d opened the front door of their house to the Grim Reaper. A security supervisor (originally from Britain), he was among the 3,000 people killed when hijacked planes flew into the World Trade Centre in New York.  ‘Andrew always told me he would die before he was 30,’ Miosotys told The Sunday Mercury. ‘He would have dreams about dying in different ways. I would tell him it wasn’t going to happen to him and not to be so negative. But I guess deep down he really did know.’

Six months before the crash, I dreamt of Zak’s death. When I spoke to him about it the next day, he was very quiet and pensive. In the following months I was haunted by images of death, and for three days before he died, those heavy feelings of impending doom preoccupied my thoughts. In his last week, he visited a number of people he hadn’t seen in quite a while and called up a good friend in Ireland that he had argued with and not spoken to for a long time. He spent quality time with his long-time girlfriend from whom he’d become estranged, and she reported that she was surprised by his affection and that being together felt like old times. In those last weeks, I wondered in silence about the air of waiting that he seemed beset by. When we talked about the future, he declared he could not see himself as a husband, a father, and that he couldn’t see himself planning a long-time career in a world that was overwhelmed with human misery. He’d only just received his degree in politics, and was the lead singer in a local band, but it seemed at the time, and it became evident later, that these things were just something for him to do while he waited for fate to make its move. After Zak died, I found a letter from an old girlfriend way back in high school in which she referred to a discussion they had had about ‘the world ending on the 5th of May’. That was the day he died in 2007. And it was the day the world as I knew it ended.

There are numerous celebrities who have known that they would never get old. Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin predicted his own early death from a young age, and this intuition became compounded when his mother died in an automobile accident on February 11th 2000. His wife Terri spoke out about him always being in a ‘great hurry’ to accomplish his dreams because of this premonition. On the 4th September 2006, Steve Irwin died at the age of 44 after being pierced in the chest by a stingray.

I also remember watching a documentary about Lisa ‘Left-Eye Lopez’ (one of the three singers in the band TLC) on location in the Honduras. She constantly spoke about her own death and feelings of ‘a dark presence’ stalking her while filming and while she slept. She accidentally killed a young boy as he was crossing the road, and since his surname was also Lopez, Lisa was convinced that Death had made a mistake and taken the wrong person. On film she talked about her dark foreboding dreams and the documentary ended with a number of people getting into a jeep with her and somewhere along the road careering into a ditch (all of this caught on tape). Lisa Lopez was the only one who died.

It is also widely reported that John Lennon had premonitions about his death, and was so fearful, it led to the break-up of the Beatles. It seems he was always waiting to be murdered, and when his former manager was shot, the feelings of doom became more intensified. Asked about what he thought about the circumstances of his death, he replied that he would ‘probably be popped off by some looney’. Lennon died on December 8th 1980 after being shot four times in the back by psychopath Mark Chapman.

It must also be said, that there are many people who die who are not surrounded by death-premonition-talk. Whether or not this is because these particular people were not sensitive to their impending psychical shifts, or simply preferred not to talk about what they felt, is anyone’s guess. Not all of us have psychic tendencies, or sensitivity to non-physical phenomena. Perhaps many of those who died did feel some shift occurring but did not know what to make of it. Talk of death is a frightening thing for a lot of people, and many of us about to pass on may choose not to inform the family for this reason. One month before Zak’s death, we were all having a family meal in a restaurant when he once again referred to his sense that he would die in his twenties. We all descended on him in anger, telling him not to talk of such things. The expression on his face is etched in my memory. He had tried to tell us something important and now felt stupid for having attempted to broach such a contentious subject. He looked sheepish and changed the subject. Many other people in Zak’s situation may have felt it best not to frighten the family, and so kept their premonition to themselves.

A lot of the reports I have read by surviving family members say that death was never mentioned, but that the person who suddenly died went to great lengths to tidy up their affairs and ensure that the family was taken care of. Others said nothing to friends and family, but went about repairing old relationships, calling people they hadn’t spoken to in years – in other words, saying goodbye, leaving on a good note.

To my mind it doesn’t matter why certain people have no premonition story associated with their deaths. What is important to me is to place focus on those who do sense their imminent mortality. For me, the only proof of anything in this universe is direct experience and I find it more intelligent to rely on my own experience when trying to get to the truth of any spiritual matter. The whole point of comparing my experience with others is to explore a far bigger picture than death itself. In making comparisons, we can see patterns emerge, and since there are different ways in which we approach death, we see much more than we bargain for, as the following stories demonstrate.

Dr Peter Fenwick, Consultant Neuropsychiatrist emeritus to the Epilepsy Unit at the Maudsley Hospital and The Radcliffe Infirmary Oxford, is one of the leading clinical authorities in the field of death, dying and transition. With an extensive research record and publishing record of over two hundred papers in medical and scientific journals, he is widely regarded as an authority on the subject of End of Life Phenomena, Near Death Experiences and what he terms ‘the mind brain problem’.

Dr. Fenwick’s research of the End-Of-Life phenomenon deals both with what we refer to as sudden death and terminal illness, the latter condition taking a person through a gradual movement from this life to the next. Sudden death it seems, is sudden to everyone but the person who dies, since Dr. Fenwick has implied that impending death can make itself known in the body some years before the event.

In his studies of terminally ill patients, Dr. Fenwick describes the phenomena reported by dying people in the 24 hours before death. The most prevalent accounts are of what he calls ‘deathbed visions’. In these visions witnessed by the dying person, people that they know, but who have passed on, appear before them with the message that they are here to collect them and ‘take them on a journey to the other side’. Some will also speak of angelic and religious figures visiting them and comforting them in their last moments in this life. These visions usually have an extremely positive effect on the dying person, and a deep and peaceful acceptance of death comes about.  All previous fear of death dissipates. Dr. Fenwick says there are rare cases where the dying person is resistant to leaving with their deceased friends or relatives.

The most interesting aspect of these visits, Dr. Fenwick reports, is the fact that the people who have come to collect those who are dying, usually give the patient a specific date upon which they will leave the body. This, the patient is told, is so that they feel fully prepared; they may tie up their affairs, settle unresolved issues with family members or friends and say goodbye to everyone. During the time that the patient is given this information and the time that the final transition takes place, the patient takes journeys with these deceased people to ‘the other side’ in some kind of preparation for the psychical shifts that will take place.

A second common phenomenon is that of ‘deathbed coincidences’. These stories are usually described by family or friends of the person who has died suddenly, or who is dying of a terminal illness. They report visitations of the dying person at the hour of death. Dr. Fenwick says that many relatives are unwilling to speak openly about these phenomena, but that they are frequently reported in studies such as these. An example that he gives concerns a woman that he spoke to in his research activities. Whilst living in Australia, she wakes to find her son (who lives in the UK) standing before her bed. He is dripping with water, and swathed in a halo of light. He reassures her that he is alright, and that she needn’t worry about him. She calls the UK the next day knowing that he is dead, to find out that he died in a boating accident at the moment that she saw him in the visitation.

This same phenomena was frequently reported by relatives after the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers.  This story was told to Bonnie McEneaney by Monica Iken whose husband Michael Iken died in the South Tower. He and Monica had met on September 11, 1999 and had married on the same day a year later. As they said their vows, a plane flew overhead and was so loud that they had to stop the service until it had passed overhead. Michael believed this to be a sign of impending doom. After the 9/11 attacks one year to the day, Monica was unable to get hold of him, knowing he had gone to the Twin Towers that morning. That night, in a state of anxiety, she went to bed in the hope that her husband would find a way to contact her by morning. In the early hours she woke up to find Michael standing in the doorway of their bedroom, surrounded by a radiant light. ‘I’m okay, everything is fine.’ He said.  In her book Messages, Bonnie goes on to say that ‘other relatives had similar experiences in the chaos and confusion of the immediate aftermath – either a vision of their loved one or a strong feeling of their presence that would reassure and then disappear with what many described as a ‘whoosh’’.

The relatives of many terminally ill patients report the same type of incidences. In some cases, especially when it is a child who is dying, the parents are asked by their child to leave the hospital, claiming that they feel okay and want to sleep. This, it is reported by care-workers, is because children are deeply sensitive to the pain that their parents are feeling in the time just before their impending departure. Having been told of their time of death, and unable to communicate to their parents how happy they feel in those last moments, they ask their parents to leave in order to spare them the agony of their last moments together. Often, after the child has passed, and just before the parents have been informed by the hospital staff, they will receive a visitation from the child.

For the carers of dying patients, these death-bed phenomena are routine occurrences. They often describe a radiant white light that surrounds the dying person and which sometimes spreads throughout the entire room and the people in it. Feelings of peace and love are associated with this light and deeply affect the people sitting in the room.  Some carers report changes in room temperature and animals behaving strangely, while others mention synchronistic events such as clocks stopping or bells ringing. Still other carers will speak of hearing ‘heavenly’ music, and seeing a vaporous mist that surrounds the dying person. Patients very often report having glimpses of places not of this world, as well as travelling with deceased relatives to and from the place to which they eventually go upon death.

An Aunt of mine died about three years ago; she was 75 years old and was experiencing heart problems and a host of other age-related issues. To any observer, it was obvious her body was shutting down. On two occasions that she was admitted to hospital, she told us of the ‘people’ who were sitting on a row of chairs near her bed. One of them was her husband who had died two years previously, and another, her son, who had passed on eighteen years before. She was adamant that she wouldn’t speak to them because she said that she wasn’t ‘ready to go’ and that ‘they’d come to fetch her’. When she forcibly discharged herself from hospital in an attempt to ‘get away from them’ the family assumed she’d lost her mind. While giving her reflexology treatments, I discovered that these same people were present, even at home. This time my aunt mentioned her mother, as well as her husband and son. As much as she loved them, she put up a huge fight, declaring that she was not ready to go and leave her adult children. She did of course die, a few weeks later.

Through my reflexology treatments, I often came across dying people who needed attention as death approached. One of them was the father of one of Zak’s friends. This man was dying of cancer and in our time together, we spoke of many issues he needed to resolve before he died. About 48 hours before he left this world, I became aware of the presence of his mother and his beloved Golden Labrador dog of childhood. His wife reported that just before I had arrived, she had found him grappling with the window as he had seen angels outside and was trying to open them up to let them in.

Robert was a man who, unable to let go of his ailing 80 year old wife, had asked me to somehow help her back to life. Throughout our short time together, this bedridden woman often drifted in and out of this reality; she spoke of going to another place and constantly referred to the people in the room with her, sometimes telling them with annoyance that it was too crowded with all of them present. Robert, aware of what this meant, often told her to stop talking to them and focus on life here. She died very soon afterwards, demonstrating to Robert that when an appointed time of death is near, there is nothing that can be done to stop it.

Sceptics, people who cannot accept these stories, are usually those who have not cared for the dying and have had little experience of death of relatives or friends. Professional carers, especially those who work in hospices, accept these End-Of-Life experiences for what they are, natural states of change, transition periods between one life and another, between one state of being and another. In different studies, some of which have been conducted by Dr. Fenwick and his team, most carers stated that they tend to keep these stories to themselves for fear of ridicule from people with little or no experience of the process of death.

Some sceptics feel sure that End-Of-Life experiences are no more than hallucinations that are brought on by drugs prescribed to the patients. Dr. Fenwick and many other professional carers who have experience in this field argue that the differences between genuine End-Of-Life experiences and drug-induced hallucinations are very apparent. Drug-induced hallucinations it appears, are deeply disturbing to the patient. Frightening phenomena occur such as wall-paper images looming out of the walls, devils and dragons taunting the patient, animals walking about the floor, or children running in and out or the room. These hallucinations are usually symptoms of the drugs they are taking and occur during any phase of the patient’s illness, even years before. They can be controlled by adjusting dosage or changing the type of medication prescribed.

The genuine End-Of-Life experiences, however, can begin for as long as three weeks before death, but are usually obvious in the days before the patient finally passes away. They occur when the patient is clear-minded, and they bring about a deep and meaningful experience to the patient and to relatives and carers who are at the patient’s bedside over an extended period of time. Carers and relatives have described the last moments of a patient’s death as being akin to standing in rays of loving light.

The process of dying is a fascinating subject, simply because it is shrouded in mystery. That mystery, it must be noted, is one of our own making. Whilst what happens after death cannot be known by anyone, the process of dying most certainly is absolutely apparent and consists of phases of transition that have very specific characteristics. Dr. Fenwick believes that in our culture, we have lost the art of dying, which in itself is a very special, very beautiful process. Instead of heeding the signs and working with the shifts of the life force as it transitions from one dimension of experience to the next, the medical profession insists on fighting our completely natural processes. We get fed with drugs, and stuffed with tubes that attempt to prolong our lives, and this activity mars the beauty of the inevitable dying process.

The process of dying applies to death that occurs as a result of terminal illness as well as what we term ‘sudden’ death. In sudden death, people who die are not only reported to have had a premonition and then sorted out their affairs, they are also said to have spoken about having accomplished everything that they needed to do; even people of a young age have spoken this way. In some, there is a sense of depression that arises as a result of the enthusiasm for life being diminished and the usual pleasures of life not bringing the same sense of joy. It appears that when death makes its appearance, our connection to the world is slowly severed, and in some people, this is felt at a deep level. Sudden death, when we really examine it closely, is not sudden death at all.

In the same way that we enter into this dimension of human experience through the phases of conception, gestation for nine months and then birth itself, so we leave through a similar process. Our fear of death is very powerful, and it is this terror that prevents us from observing more closely what we go through before we die. I wish now that I hadn’t been so afraid when Zak spoke of his death. I feel that had I been a different type of person, I might have learned something profound about the transition period just before death, and that the process itself might have given me more insight into what exists ‘on the other side’. I truly hope that the work of Dr. Fenwick and people like him opens our eyes more completely to this aspect of living. For me, birth and death appear to be the same thing; we are prepared for entry into a new dimension of experience and from what we witness in both the birth and the death process, they are beautiful events. In gaining more exposure to this wonderful event in life, the joy that we witness in the dying person’s last moments might alter our perceptions of death and eradicate our intrinsic fear of this unknown element. Just reflecting on my own experience and doing all my research for this post has transformed the way that I think about death. I hope that this article might prompt you to go and do research of your own. I can’t think of anything better than to approach our moment of death with absolute joy and a knowing that no matter what the picture looks like, everything will be okay.

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Comment by Deb on December 6, 2012 at 7:22pm

This was an absolutely fascinating essay, and I greatly enjoyed every word.

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