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Opening Heaven’s Door: What the dying are trying to tell us

Author Patricia Pearson discusses spiritual experience involving her sister Katharine and their father Geoffrey, pictured here.

That morning we all received the call, the what-the-hell-are-you-talking-about news that my mother, with Rachel's astonished assistance, dialled to the family. But Katharine, 100 miles east of my parents, in Montreal, received her message differently. "On the night of my father's death," she would tell mourners at his memorial service some weeks later, "I had an extraordinary spiritual experience."

My sister, please know, wasn't prone to spiritual experiences. Stress she was familiar with, as the single mother of two teenaged boys. Laughter she loved. Fitness of any kind – she was vibrantly physical. Fantastic intellect, fluent in three languages. But she hadn't been paying much attention, in essence, to God.

"It was about 4:30 a.m.," she said of that night, "and I couldn't sleep, as usual, when all of a sudden I began having this amazing spiritual experience. For the next two hours I felt nothing but joy and healing." There was a quality of light about my sister Katharine, a certain radiance of expression, a melody of voice that hushed every single person in the church – atheist, agnostic or devout. She clutched the podium carefully, determined to be graceful while terminal illness threatened her sense of balance. "I felt hands on my head, and experienced vision after vision of a happy future."

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Katharine had described this strange and lovely pre-dawn experience to her elder son as she drove him to high school before she received the call about Dad. She also wrote about it in her diary: "I thought, is this about people praying for me? And then I thought of Dad cocking his eyebrow, teasing me about hubris." She hadn't known until the next day how to interpret the powerful surge of energy and joy she felt in her bedroom. "I now know that it was my father," she told the mourners. She said this flat out, without the necessary genuflections to science and to reason, no patience for the usual caveats: Call me crazy but. … None of that. "I feel deeply, humbly blessed and loved," she said simply, and sat down.

We are not a family in the habit of experiencing ghosts. We took it in as an aftershock. But almost immediately it began to make profoundly resonant sense, like a puzzle piece slipping perfectly into place. Without discussing it, we were convinced as a family that he had done something of great emotional elegance. He had died for his daughter. Or he may have died unknowingly but then seized a mysterious opportunity to go to her, to her bedroom in Montreal, to caress her and to calm her before going on his way.

Later I would learn that this sort of experience when someone has died is startlingly common, not rare. Families shelter their knowledge, keeping it safe and beloved like a delicate heirloom, away from the careless stomping of strangers.

There was much I would learn in the ensuing year about the kept-hidden world all around me.

Katharine moved to the hospice on May 14, 2008. She knew very well that she was dying, and more than that. Forty-eight hours before she died, she told us she was on her way. Literally, as in "I am leaving." How did she know? Hospice could have lasted two months or six months or two years. If nothing else, hope could have swayed it that way; she'd subsisted on hope for the first 11 months of her illness. A study conducted by Harvard researchers found that 63 per cent of doctors caring for terminally ill patients wildly overestimate how much time their patients have left. The patients themselves, however, become crisply precise, sometimes nailing their departure to the hour.

Katharine woke up one morning and, looking decidedly perplexed, said to her sweetheart Joel, who lay in wild dishevelment on the cot beside her, "I don't know how to leave." As if the difficulty of the task at hand was akin to learning to water ski, or the trick to making bread dough rise.

She remained present, but also elsewhere. Katharine had removed herself to some new plane of consciousness where we were now unable to follow.

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That afternoon she gazed through her French doors for a long time, with a look that seemed to me, sitting beside her and stroking her hand, to be slightly exasperated. Vexed.

"What are you looking at?" I asked her.

She lifted her arm languidly and pointed in the direction of the garden, remarking, "Hapless flight attendants."

Katharine left the next night, in silence and candlelight, while I lay with my cheek on her chest and my hand on her heart, feeling her breathing slow and subside like the receding waves of an outgoing tide. Joel sat on one side of the bed, my sister Anne on the other. The nurse came in, barefoot and with a flashlight, to confirm death with a deferential wordless nod, and we anointed Katharine's body in oil and wrapped her in silk. The staff lit a candle in the hospice window.

The sense that the dying might open a door to us that leads elsewhere came first in hushed confidings. During the summer and fall of 2008, people began to tell me things. Some were friends and colleagues I'd known for years; others were people who sat beside me on an airplane or met me for the first time in a bar. If I told them what I'd witnessed with my father and sister, they reciprocated. Almost invariably, they prefaced their remarks by saying, "I've never told anyone this, but. … " Or, "We've only ever discussed this in our family, but if you think you might do some research…" Then they would offer extraordinary stories about deathbed visions, sensed presences, near-death experiences, sudden intimations of a loved one in danger or dying. They were all smart, skeptical people. I had had no idea that this subterranean world existed all around me.

In the late nineties, the palliative-care physician Michael Barbato designed a questionnaire for family members of patients. He realized that neither his unit nor most other hospice facilities had ever formally investigated how common such experiences were. To his surprise, he found that 49 per cent of his respondents had undergone an uncanny encounter that couldn't be easily explained away. "Even if we cannot understand the basis for these phenomena," Barbato argued in a subsequent journal article, "the weight of evidence suggests we cannot continue to ignore them." Certainly you cannot ignore them when they happen to you.

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Why had my sister had a powerful spiritual experience in the hour of my father's unexpected death? How did she sense a presence in her bedroom and feel hands cupping her head? Why did she enter into her own dying experience afraid, only to become increasingly joyful? What was she seeing, what was she learning, what would she have told me if she could have, after she could no longer converse?

What I learned in the few years that followed was far richer and more mysterious than I ever imagined. By sharing it with you, I am hoping that I open a door.

Excerpted from Opening Heaven's Door. Copyright © 2014 Patricia Pearson. Published by Random House Canada, which is a division of Random House of Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.

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