Why Do We Hallucinate Before We Die?

People often see things that aren’t there when they’re nearing the end of their road. Whilst it might be a little unsettling when your grandparent starts talking to their grandparent, or even that old favourite movie star of theirs hiding in the curtains, you can rest assured there’s nothing to be afraid of.
Why Do We Hallucinate Before We Die?

Hallucinations are an expected part of the ageing and dying processes. If someone you love is getting older and experiencing hallucinations, here’s what you need to know.

What is a hallucination?

When a person hallucinates, they may be seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting or even smelling something that isn’t actually there (that’s right – the whole range of senses can be tapped into!). It’s pretty common for people with Alzheimer’s, or someone on their deathbed, to experience this, and changes in your brain will most likely kickstart these visions.

There are different types of hallucinations people experience, but before death you’re most likely to see loved ones – dead or alive – visiting you, often to bring a sense of calm to your final days. And, of course, lots of people see a dark tunnel with (hopefully) some light at the other end of it.

Why do people hallucinate?

As we now know, hallucinations can be experienced by those living with dementia, but they can also be experienced by those living with schizophrenia, those who have abused alcohol and/or drugs, those with eyesight and/or hearing problems, or those who have just commenced a new medication, or when they’re in palliative care in the week before they pass away.

While there’s no one explanation as to why or how hallucinations occur, people have speculated they could be caused by a number of factors, including (but not limited to):

  • A lack of oxygen to parts of the brain
  • Dying brain cells
  • Medication affecting the brain improperly
  • Anxiety or stress around your death
  • Different body systems shutting down gradually

What can I do if my loved one starts hallucinating?

While you’ll likely want to help your loved one during this time, it’s important to take a step back and look after yourself. Watching a loved one hallucinate can be confronting, as it can provide us with a sense of them leaving us, or them living in a different reality to us.

It’s important to:

  • Remember that this is a normal part of the dying process
  • Take time to ground yourself
  • Step out if you need a break or are overwhelmed
  • Listen to some relaxing music
  • Reach out to friends and family for support

There are also plenty of ways to ensure that the person having the hallucinations can feel safer and grounded:

  • Gently ask them questions about who they’re speaking to and what they’re speaking about in a non-judgmental way.
  • With permission, place a hand on a shoulder or arm to offer physical grounding.
  • Help them focus on something else in the room, or take a walk to another room.
  • Try to minimise strange sounds that could be misinterpreted, like TV noise or fans and air conditioners.
  • If they ask you if you can see the person too, answer honestly but kindly, saying something like, “I know you can see someone, but I can’t right now”.
  • If they seem agitated or fearful, seek professional advice. If you don’t know what to do or aren’t sure if their hallucinations are ‘normal’, it’s always worth checking in with a professional. 

Ultimately, the best thing you can do to support them is remind them that they’re safe, and that they’re loved. 

Wrap up 

End-of-life hallucinations can be confronting to witness, and may be a sign that your loved one is close to passing on. However, it’s important to remember that hallucinations are a completely normal part of the dying process – they’re a sign that the body is slowly shutting down, reacting to medication, or they can be a sign of mental distress.

It’s important to provide your loved one with support where you can, seek professional advice when you need it, and to take care of yourself so you can best care for your loved one and get yourself through what will undoubtedly be a difficult time.

If your loved one is nearing the end of their life, and you need help with arranging their direct cremation or funeral service, the team at Willed are here to guide you. Please call 1300 945 533 for assistance.

Disclaimer: The content of this blog is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. This blog should not be relied upon as medical or legal advice.

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