Ghosts

For months, as I’ve visited Evan as his hospice social worker, he’s been praying to die. In his early nineties, he has been dealing with colorectal cancer for more than four years, and he’s flat tired out. As he sees it, the long days of illness have turned his life into a tedious, meaningless dirge with nothing to look forward to other than its end. He’s done, finished. He often talks about killing himself.

On this visit, though, his depression seems to have lifted. He’s engaged and upbeat–and this sudden about-face arouses my suspicions: Has he decided to do it? Is he planning a way out?

“You seem to feel differently today than on other visits,” I say casually. “What’s going on?”

He looks at me cryptically.

“Do you believe in ghosts?” he asks.

It’s not the first time a patient has asked me this. People can have unusual experiences when they reach the end of life: near-death or out-of-body experiences, visitations from spiritual beings, messages delivered in dreams, synchronicities or strange behaviors by animals, birds, even insects.

“There are all kinds of ghosts,” I respond seriously. “What kind are you talking about?”

“You remember me telling you about the war?” he asks.

How could I forget? He’d traced his long-standing depression to his time as a supply officer for a World War II combat hospital. The war, he’d said, had soured him on the idea that anything good could come from humans and left him feeling unsafe and alone.

“I remember.”

“There’s something I left out,” he says. “Something I can’t explain.” He goes on to describe one horrific, ice-cold autumn day: Casualties were coming in nonstop. He and others scrambled to transport blood-soaked men on stretchers from railcars to triage, where those with a chance were separated from those who were goners.

“I’d been hustling all day. By the time the last train arrived, my back felt broken, and my hands were numb from the cold.”

He grimaces and swallows hard.

“What happened when the last train got there?” I ask softly.

“We were hauling one guy, and my grip on the stretcher slipped.” Tears roll down his face. “When he hit the ground, his intestines oozed out. Steam rose up from them as he died.”

Evan rubs his hands as though they were still cold.

“Later that night I was on my cot crying. Couldn’t stop crying about that poor guy, and all the others I’d seen die. My cot was creaking, I was shaking so hard. I even started getting scared that I was going insane with the pain.”

I nod, waiting for him to continue.

“Then I looked up,” he says. “Saw a guy sitting on the end of my cot. He was wearing a World War I uniform, with one of those funny helmets. He was covered in light, like he was glowing in the dark.”

“What was he doing?” I ask.

Evan starts crying and laughing at the same time. “He was looking at me with love. I could feel it. I’d never felt that kind of love before.”

“What was it like to feel that kind of love?”

“I can’t put it in words.” He pauses. “I guess I just felt like I was worth something, like all the pain and cruelty wasn’t what was real.”

“What was real?”

“Knowing that no matter how screwed-up and cruel the world looks, on some level, somehow, we are all loved. We are all connected.”

This turned out to be the first of several paranormal visits. Each time the specter arrived, he’d wordlessly express love and leave Evan with a sense of peace and calm.

“After the war, the visits stopped,” he says. “Years later I was cleaning out Mom’s stuff after she died, and I found an old photograph. It was the same guy. I looked on the back, and Mom had written the words ‘Uncle Calvin, killed during World War I, 1918.’ ”

We talk some more, then I ask, “What does this have to do with your being in a better mood?”

“He’s back,” he whispers, staring out the window. “Saw him last night on the foot of my bed. He spoke this time.”

“What’d he say?”

“He told me he was here with me. He’s going to help me over the hill when it’s time to go.”

As I’m formulating more questions, Evan surprises me by asking one of his own.

“You ever have something strange happen? Something that tells you that no matter how bad it looks, you’re connected with something bigger, and it’s going to be okay?”

A memory flashes into my mind. It was thirty-five years ago. It was after midnight, and I was asleep in a graduate-student apartment at Syracuse University. A siren’s blare woke me, so loud it sounded like it was inside the room. Adrenaline pumping, heart pounding like a hammer, I sat up and wondered what had happened. Was it a dream?

From outside, I distinctly heard what sounded like a two-man stretcher crew talking.

“Bring it here quick,” one guy told the other. I heard a gurney being rolled across asphalt.

I went to the window and pulled back the curtain, certain there was trouble outside.

The night was silent. Nothing was stirring in the parking lot. No one was there.

Just before daybreak, Dad called to tell me that just a few hours earlier, my Uncle Eddie had been killed in an automobile collision.

That was a tough day. As night fell once more, questions filled my head: Why did this happen? What was he experiencing when it ended? Was he scared?

On the kitchen table sat a beat-up radio; some kind of malfunction occasionally caused it to turn off or on for no apparent reason. As my questions swirled, the radio turned on, and I heard the opening chords of the Beatles’ song Let It Be.

Not being a fan, I’d never listened closely to the song before–but this time, I did. The music and words filled me with an almost otherworldly sense of peace and comfort. The song ended. Shortly after, the radio cut off.

For years, I tried to explain away those events. It must have been a dream, I told myself. Or some kind of fabricated “memory” to fool myself into thinking that Uncle Eddie and I were connected in that moment. As for the radio, it was nothing but a random coincidence. Any other conclusion is just wishful thinking.

Inside, though, a part of me knew it was real.

After nearly thirty years as a hospice social worker, I’m certain of it. And I have patients like Evan to thank: dying patients who have convinced me that the world we inhabit is lovingly mysterious and eager to support us, especially during times of disorientation and crisis. It even sends messages of love and reassurance now and then when we’re in pain.

I return to the present. Evan is looking at me, waiting for an answer. I feel grateful that he’s pulled up these memories. Outside, a flock of crows takes off in unison from the branches of an ancient oak.

“Yeah,” I say with a nod. “I guess I have.”

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Scott Janssen is a clinical social worker with University of North Carolina Healthcare Hospice. He has published numerous articles in professional and literary magazines and academic journals. His novel, Light Keepers, was published in 2015; his book Standing at Lemhi Pass: Archetypal Stories for the End of Life and Other Challenging Times explores the use of therapeutic storytelling with hospice patients. “Working in health care allows me to be present at poignant, often pivotal moments in people’s lives. Writing is a way of catching these moments and bearing witness in a sacred way. It’s also a way of crafting them into stories that can be shared and that may, perhaps, help someone else who is facing a crisis or standing at some difficult crossroad.”

Comments

55 thoughts on “Ghosts”

  1. Melissa Bruning

    I am very touched by your story. My husband and I think it would be a very touching short film. Would love to talk to you.

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  3. This is Scott. I wrote the story in present tense for narrative effect. The actual hospice visit occurred maybe 15 years ago.

  4. I read your article on “Ghosts” with more than just a passing interest. On January 03, 2021, while perusing the Washington Post from my home on the beautiful island of Puerto Rico, I came across your article and immediately empathized with the following words uttered by the focus of your anecdote otherwise known and named by you as, Evan:

    “I can’t put it in words.” He pauses. “I guess I just felt like I was worth something, like all the pain and cruelty wasn’t what was real.”
    “What was real?”
    “Knowing that no matter how screwed-up and cruel the world looks, on some level, somehow, we are all loved. We are all connected.”

    I am now 67 years old and approximately 40 years ago I had a similar experience under different circumstances. At 27 years old I left my wife and infant son feeling trapped in a marriage that was not working for me. Luckily, I quickly found a place to live thanks to the generosity of my best friend’s parent’s. They allowed me to live in their converted garage apartment in the Bronx, NY Castle Hill area. A celebration of my newfound freedom was short lived, however, since I had no idea that my leaving my wife and son would cause me such incredible pain and guilt. As I tried to fall asleep on my first night apart from my wife and child I began to cry and was gripped by a powerful feeling of remorse that made me feel worthless. As I think of it now, it seems incredible that I did suffer an intensely emotional feeling of loss that I can only describe as feeling as if my soul was dying. I felt as if I was committing an absolutely terrible sin. Yes, it was that profound and yes, it felt as real as could be. Suddenly, I saw a beautiful angelic face with a stunning smile appear before me as if from nowhere. I was somewhere between awake and falling asleep when my angel planted a kiss on the right side of my neck, and instantaneously, all the pain I was feeling was no more. But there was more. I had the physical sense that I was as light as a feather; I had the visceral sense that I was touched by a force so powerful that I could do nothing else but accept the changes it had wrought in me. It was absolutely beautiful. I never felt so loved and/or worthy of such love. I felt absolute joy. From that moment, my agnostic self ceased to exist. I, like Evan, came to believe that, “Knowing that no matter how screwed-up and cruel the world looks, on some level, somehow, we are all loved. We are all connected.”

    1. What happened to your wife and infant son?
      I’m curious to know how this revelation affected your family going forward.

    1. Virginia Branch

      I agree. I was really struck by the mention of the Beatles’ song “Let It Be.” Years ago I was struggling with a rare cancer with no prognosis. One night I had a dream which ended with my hearing a song that brought me to tears. I know I may have, probably did, hear it prior, but I had no memory of it and no idea where the song came from. Several years later, I heard the song again in a grocery store and ‘learned’ it was sung by the Beatles. I cryed in the store. I don’t care when I first heard that song. Hearing it in my dream gave me peace and hope and it runs through my mind now whenever I am discouraged.

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  7. Seriously?
    Early 90’s, Supply Chain officer?
    The war started 80 years ago so he must have been an ‘officer’ when around 15 years old?

  8. Beautiful story. I’m generally an agnostic, who at times think this is all by chance. Then I think about the few times I’ve had strange occurrences happen to me. The first was when I was 4 and was in my bedroom playing. My grandmother, my dad’s mother who lived in another state, appeared to me. She told me that she wasn’t going to see me for awhile, and that she loved me and for me to be a good boy. When I told my mom this she was visibly shaken. Turns out she had just received a phone call that my grandmother had just passed from a heart attack. When my dad got home they told me and my sisters. Then years later, at the age of 27, I woke up from a dream that my dad had died. This was more than realistic. My dreams usually are strange and don’t make sense. This dream was like I was awake and experiencing it real time. I woke from it crying, waking up my wife. I told her the dream, which is a blessing since I would have later talked my self out of being it if I didn’t have a witness. I told my 60 year old dad of the dream, and he would joke about it when he would see me. About a month later my mom called in a panic telling me that she couldn’t wake my dad. It was 9:00 PM, and my dad was watching TV when he had a heart attack. It appeared that he fell asleep and died in his sleep. I lived close by and arrived before the paramedics. I ran into the house to see my neighbors doing CPR on him. I immediately knew that he was not their. His “soul” had departed. We went to the hospital, and got the bad news from the doctor that he had died. After going back to my parents house late that night I hadn’t remembered or thought of that dream the entire night. Then my mom said to me…”I feel worse for you, he was your father.” This hit me like like a shovel to my face! This was EXACTLY what she said to me in my dream, at exactly the same place in the house. I ran outside overwhelmed by emotions. I have no idea why I had this premonition. However it made me understand that the idea that this is all there is is crazy, and to look at this existence as a mystery and be open to a spiritual plane we all are part of. 18 years later I was with mom and sisters when my mom passed away at home during hospice. When I was in bed later that night I had a visitor in the doorway of a much younger mom smiling at me and my sister, who was asleep across the room. She said nothing, but I knew was she happy to see her family together.

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  10. This was so beautiful. It made me cry in the best kind of way. In the end, love is all that matters and love waits for us.

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    1. My brother died of AIDS early in the epidemic in 1984. That night I could not sleep until about 3am. I learned the next day that was when he died in a hospital 100 miles away. A few weeks later I had a dream that he was at a party and very happy. It was then that I felt he was at peace and safe. All these years I have remembered this dream/vision clearly.

  12. Just another confirmation of what I have always believed. I know my loved ones are waiting for me so when my time comes I will not be afraid.

  13. I had a similar experience, twice. So glad to know I’m not the only one. I’m not afraid to share my story with friends & loved ones. No-one has ever told me I’m crazy. I think many people have had similar experiences or want to believe my “angels” are real. They sure were to me.

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  27. This is such a moving story. I too have seen ghosts at just the right time. It is always about messages of love as love came to us through those we loved.

  28. Dr. Esther Joseph Pottoore

    Agree on all comments! Thank you Scott!
    A beautiful read and I felt that I was right there!
    As an RN with over 32 years of experience, I recently published a book with 25 true stories (many from dying patients) in Dec 2019 titled”Sightings After Death” on Amazon, which may bring comfort and answer many questions that patients and family have about the dying process and what happens after. I am hoping to get it to hospice patients—

  29. You are gifted in the art of the interview. I love the open-ended questions. What you do in that very special hospice space with your active listening, genuine interest in memories that will soon be lost to the world, combined with your skills as a writer set you apart from your peers. Your patients, their families and I are all grateful that you have chosen this path.

  30. Your sharing of both “ghost stories” reminded me of my son speaking over my shoulder as I left his tiny gravesite at sunset in Papua New Guinea in 1988.
    Brian had diedat five days of age in 1974 [needlessly in my view] of neonatal sepsis, traced to a contaminated water supply.
    He told me as I left the cemetary: ” You can go now, Dad. I am 14 and I know both of us will be alright.” This ghost has stayed with me in comfort for the 32 years since.

    1. As a former Hospice nurse of 17 years nothing in this story surprised me. Working with the dying person we frequently heard the dying person seeing or talking to an unseen entity. We often referred to them as angels. Gives one great comfort to know there is something out there that we can’t see but is there when our time comes.

  31. Pamela Mitchell, RN

    I am breathing a deep sigh of relief. Finally, we are openly acknowledging these experiences in a medical journal. Beautiful story Scott. Thank you. Hurrah to the editors for publishing.

  32. Thank you for sharing your story. It resonated with many of my experiences as a country doc. Patient centered care has its place but often ignores the presence of the practitioner. Your story beautifully illustrates person centered care, acknowledging as it does that there are two people in the conversation.

  33. Thank you for the story and for reaffirming the connections between people – ones that reach far beyond a place or a time.

  34. Loved my work as a hospice nurse. An honor to be with people and listen to their experiences near the end of life. The little children in the corner of the room…

  35. What an honor it must have been for Evan to share his memory with you that triggered your own memory with another realm. It seems you both made a connection with each other and beyond.

  36. I was a hospice Social Worker for 7 years. I too witnessed patient’s talking about loved ones who appeared to them to help them transition and a myriad of stories that stay with me to this day. Thank you for sharing this poignant experience.

    1. What a beautiful telling!
      I understand from experience all that you say. I have listened as my dying Aunt clearly spoke and was comforted by her Aunt who had passed years earlier. I have been visited and (silently) counciled many times by my friend and mentor, who died suddenly, far too young. And, I have had that terrifying premonition dream of a deadly car accident involving a dear friend, who blessedly was spared as others died.
      Going forward from these early events, I never doubt, and always encourage folks to connect with each other on both sides of the veil. ❤

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