What happens when we die? Do our loved ones communicate with us in the moments after death? Scientific evidence is growing that our brains and even our cells remain active after our hearts stop beating. Research recently published in The Canadian Journal of Neurological Sciences reported that delta wave bursts, the same kind of brain waves observed during sleep, were detected as long as 10 minutes after life support was turned off in a study of four terminally ill patients. Other scientific studies in 2016 showed over 1,000 human genes were active and their activity increased in days-old human cadavers.
My eighty-one-year-old mother passed away on March 20th at 4:30 a.m. I was asleep in her hospital room when the overhead lights flipped on and six nurses gathered around her bed. Her heart and lungs were failing and she was vomiting. The nurses rushed to clear her airway, but she was already gone. With a DNR order in place, there would be no resuscitation. I was mentally prepared for her death because she had been gravely ill for the past two weeks, but the timing still caught me off guard. Her health had been improving each day in the hospital. I had fed her a meal of broth and jello earlier that day. She had sat up on the side of her bed with the help of a physical therapist. She smiled at my dad and spoke a few words to both of us. I called my brother using Facetime and held up my phone so he could see Mom and say hello.
The first moments after her death overwhelmed me. I felt disorientated as I watched the nurses clean her body and disconnect the bi-pap machine that had been helping her breathe. After the nurses left the room, my mind raced. Should I hold her hand, should I pray, should I call my dad and my brother? I was in shock. I studied her face for a few minutes. She looked peaceful, but I felt like an intruder in a sacred space where her spirit was no doubt ascending into heaven. I walked out of her room to make the dreaded phone call to my dad and was met in the hallway by the attending physician on duty. He shook my hand and introduced himself as Dr. Mark Thompson. I was stunned. God is hilarious, I thought to myself. Thompson was my mother’s maiden name and my first cousin Mark Thompson lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I explained my surprised reaction and shared our family’s personal connection to his name. He chuckled and said he had met my mom a week earlier when she returned from a brief stay at a rehab center. He said they had joked about the Thompson name that night. Dr. Thompson sat with me on a bench at the end of the hallway while I called my dad, but there was no answer. The hospital called the police who woke up my nearly deaf father from his sleep a few minutes later. When my dad called back, I shared the bad news. He agreed that there was nothing to be gained by him driving to the hospital at 4:30 a.m. I visited with the doctor about the next steps and he wished me well as he walked away. I decided to post my mom’s passing on Facebook. I had been using social media to communicate about her health with family. I figured most people would see my post sometime later that morning when they checked their phones.
A nurse helped me gather my belongings from my mom’s hospital room. I stumbled to my car and drove to my parent’s house in a daze. I felt numb. My dad met me at the front door in a tearful embrace. My heart broke even more for his deep sorrow, and we held each other in grief. We sat down at the kitchen table and cried and talked for a while, and we both agreed that we were up for the day. At six a.m., I decided to run out for coffee and my phone rang. It was my brother Chris. I was surprised because I had not called him yet about my mom’s death. He said he had woken up from deep sleep around 4:30 a.m. and couldn’t fall back asleep. He walked out to his kitchen to make coffee, but the electricity to the island was not working. He felt compelled to look at his phone and saw my Facebook post. I listened to his eerie story in frozen silence. Had my mom reached out to my brother from the afterlife? I thought about a mother and child’s relationship, the physical connection of the umbilical cord for nine months, their shared DNA and blood. It seemed perfectly plausible that my brother would feel the severing of such an intimate connection.
The graveside service for my mom was held at the Mountain View Cemetery later that week. God provided a perfect spring day. The clear blues skies, singing birds and lush green wheat fields felt like a glimpse of heaven on earth. My mother’s sister Sandra had passed away in December of the previous year and her grave in the Thompson family plot was covered in rocky Oklahoma soil without a single sprout of grass. Her husband Gail spoke and said, “It’s interesting, Sandra passed away on the 20th at 4:30 a.m., too.” Another sign, another family connection. In a moment of levity, I turned to my mom’s younger brother, John Ed and said, “I hope you don’t have plans next month on the 20th.” We laughed and the joke lifted the sadness for a moment as we began telling stories about my mom’s life and what she had meant to us. Losing a parent is hard, but it gives me great peace to know that God and love connect us, even in the last minutes of life and death.