Not Debunked

Knocking on Heaven’s Door: True Stories of Unexplained, Uncanny Experiences at the Hour of Death

The father who appears before you in a dream, hours before you find out he’s died. The accident you knew would happen. These tales are real—and collected in Opening Heavens Door. Read an excerpt.

Marc Romanelli/Getty

A humid night in summer, no sounds but the incandescent humming of the streetlamp, the tick of an invisible clock on an antique dresser. Ellie Black rouses quietly to consciousness at around 3, her eyes unfocused, mind placid. It’s not time to get up yet; nothing is troubling her sleeping child. There is a smell of August grass and last evening’s cigarettes. In the stillness, a movement at the end of her bed commands her attention. There, amazingly, she sees her father. Why is he here, she wonders, now fully alert, this difficult man from whom she’s so long been estranged? Why here in her bedroom? And what on earth is he wearing? Is that a top hat and tails? Her father gazes back at her happily, tips his hat, and bows with a flourish. He is bidding her—his audience?—some sort of farewell. Then he’s gone. She blinks. Her bedroom reverts to shadow and silence.

The following morning, she related the experience—whatever it was, a waking dream—to her daughter at the breakfast table. My childhood friend Michele remembers the breakfast conversation with her mother clearly, because she was so surprised when the phone rang later that day, bringing news of her grandfather’s demise.

That seeming whisper across the universe, a susurration or hint transmitted by some unknown current the way that birds bend their wings in unison, or ants follow their invisible queen: Humans clearly and repeatedly encounter some kind of unexplained attunement. Research done in Wales, Japan, Australia, and the United States shows that between 40 and 53 percent of the bereaved experience “anomalous cognition” when someone close or connected to them has died. Usually, they sense a presence; sometimes they see or hear one. Psychiatrists call these experiences “grief hallucinations,” although they have not been studied neurologically. We don’t know what to call the intimations—like an estranged father at the foot of the bed, that are our first gleanings of death.

In 1991, the British neurosurgeon J.M. Small wrote to the medical journal The Lancet to describe a perplexing experience he had had. “Sir,” he began, “what are those waves of communication, that extra sense not yet understood? Something remarkable happened to me.” He went on to describe a Sunday morning, “when crossing the hall to the kitchen to make tea, a presentiment of doom beset me and I feared we had been burgled. When I opened the kitchen door all appeared normal, but then there seemed to be a curious descending dark shimmer in the far part of the kitchen, immediately gone—but I knew it was death and female. I thought some catastrophe to one of our daughters-in-law. Disturbed by these suppositions and deciding not to tell my wife, I made the tea and took the tray to the bedroom. As I reached the bedroom, the doorbell rang and I was not surprised to see the village policeman.”

One of the two elderly sisters who lived next door to Small had just died in the hospital; the policeman had received the message on his radio and thought Small or his wife might know the surviving sister and could help him break the news. Small was shocked. Why him? Had the dying sister been trying to recruit his help for the living one? “Was that the cry? My wife and I did have to support the sister, a woman we did not know who had a considerable disability.” To The Lancet, he concluded: “As a neurosurgeon my mind has been pragmatically directed and I had had no interest in telepathy or extrasensory perception. Here was the reception of information from a source I did not know nor comprehend when it declared its nature, female death…For me to have received such a message remains astonishing. It would be valuable if declared telepathic communicators could be investigated by scanning and electroencephalography to find which areas of the brain are involved with inception, reception, and onward conscious recognition. There was a message in my mind. How it reached there is not defined; although at first confused with fear, it was so very clear.”

In 2012, the psychologist Erlendur Haraldsson reported a comprehensive study he had done on 340 cases of extraordinary encounters around dying and death. They happened to men, to women, to young and old, to scientists and sailors, to the bereft and to the content. They happened at night and in the day, waking or napping, traveling, or working. Most commonly people encountered their fathers or mothers, as if the parental impulse to connect and to reassure continues past death. About a quarter of his subjects saw or heard the deceased person either at the hour of death or within the day. In 86 percent of those cases, they weren’t aware of the death yet by ordinary means. Thirty-eight percent of the subjects had not expected that such an encounter was even possible.

A musician, Rory McGill, sent me a letter that captured this sense of being absolutely mystified and at the same time moved by the symbols and portents of spirit:

“The night my dad died,” he wrote, “I dreamed about him passing.

“I had last seen him three weeks prior. He had suffered something like a stroke. He was unable to speak or otherwise communicate, apart from some signs of recognition in his eyes, and the touch of his right hand. He was also completely naked, lying under a sheet, for his own comfort, and his scalp was shaved clean on one side for medical purposes. So, he had a striking new look, which remains vivid in my mind’s eye today.

“When I left to return to university, the doctor’s prognosis was for a fairly good recovery. Three weeks later, I dreamed of my father. He was lying on a hospital bed, on top of the sheets, and he was wearing beautiful new yellow pajamas. Rich yellow, like the color of zucchini flowers. And he had a full head of hair. I was delighted. I climbed onto the bed and held him in my arms, but in an instant I was standing alone in the room, he was gone, and the bed was now empty and neatly made, set in a different corner. The beautiful new yellow pajamas were folded on the pillow.

“I woke up perplexed by the dream but, strange to say now, I didn’t make much of it. It didn’t trouble me much, oddly, but stayed in my head and colored my day somewhat. When I returned to the rooming house in the late afternoon, I found a handwritten note pinned to the front door. It said, RORY CALL YOUR MOTHER.

“I went immediately back down the street to the nearest phone booth with my heart speeding and my throat beginning to close. I dialed my mum’s phone number and my head started to spin. I had no conscious idea of what would come next as the phone rang, but then the instant she picked up at the other end, I started to sob and I just knew. My dad had died while I slept and dreamed of one last visit.”

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Cross-cultural surveys show that “about half of all spontaneous [telepathic] experiences occur in dreams, and many of them involve accidents or the death of a family member,” according to Dean Radin, a scientist at the Institute of Noetic Sciences in Petaluma, California, who is arguably the most accomplished investigator of psi phenomena in the world today. (Psi, short for psychic, refers to cognitive abilities that can’t be accounted for through identified senses, including clairvoyance, telepathy, and precognition. Don’t look these up on Wikipedia, because at this writing, activist skeptics are editing paranormal topics to present them as having been officially debunked.) Odds against chance in a review of spontaneous telepathy studies have been calculated, Radin says, at “22 billion to 1.” Meaning that it could be a coincidence that you had that particular dream on the day when someone you loved died—but it is very, very unlikely.

“I’ve never experienced that sort of communication so intensely before or since,” Rory concluded in his letter, “but it made it abundantly clear to me, for all time, that the signals and waves are transmitting.”

In the late 19th century, the German psychiatrist Hans Berger, creator of the electroencephalogram (EEG), was prompted along the path toward his invention because he wanted to locate the “psychic energy” that somehow enabled his sister to know when he was almost run over by a horse-drawn cannon, a day’s distance from where she lived. Picking up on her brother’s acute terror in the moment of near collision, she was abruptly beset by an urgent certitude that he was in danger. She begged their father to contact him, refusing to relent until he sent an inquiring telegram. Berger was fascinated by his sister’s belief. Do we have a form of consciousness—a way of knowing—that has yet to be charted? he wondered. In 1929, Berger unveiled the first technique for “recording the electrical activity of the human brain from the surface of the head” by using electrodes to detect and transmit electrical signals or brain waves to a graph. Because he was a relative unknown within German medical circles, his invention was initially greeted with skepticism, but his measurement technique was eventually tested by others and soon adopted around the world, laying the foundation for modern neuroscience.

Three decades later, the EEGs of distance-separated twins were studied and tentatively found to correlate.

One of the first of the twin studies showed that, when one twin being monitored by EEG was asked to close his or her eyes, which causes the brain’s alpha rhythms to increase, the distant twin’s alpha rhythms also increased. Twin studies using EEG were subsequently performed more than a dozen times, refining protocols and controlling for design flaws. They continued to confirm subtle correlations in the brains of the separated siblings. In 2013, a study of British twins reported that 60 percent felt they had telepathic exchanges and 11 percent of identicals described themselves as having frequent exchanges with their sibs, including shared dreams. What can science contribute to those claims? After reviewing the methodology of all the EEG experiments done over a decade or so, the Czech neurophysiologist Jiri Wackermann concluded in 2003 that, “We are facing a phenomenon which is neither easy to dismiss as a methodological failure or a technical artifact, nor understood as to its nature.” What, indeed, is its nature? How else to get at this question?

In the early 1960s, the University of Virginia psychiatrist Ian Stevenson began to investigate what he referred to as “telepathic impressions.” Like Hans Berger, he was interested in determining how people could know that someone emotionally close to them but physically distant was dying or in distress. Unlike Berger, he hadn’t had such an experience himself, at least not that we know of, but he was aware that the Rhine Research Center, established by Duke University in North Carolina, had collected and archived thousands of such “spontaneous psi” cases. The Rhine Research Center is generally better known for its early efforts to study telepathy through controlled experiments, like card guessing games. But its researchers have also been interested in these spontaneous cases that arose from the rough, swift-moving emotions of human life. Stevenson wanted to know more about the collection. What did they mean? Could they be verified and analyzed? Would a pattern emerge?

A quiet and meticulous scholar originally from Montréal who would go on to head UVA’s Division of Perceptual Studies, Stevenson decided to start by reviewing the first collection of spontaneous telepathy cases known to have been investigated: 165 reports published in the late 19th century by the Cambridge scholars Frederic Myers and Edmund Gurney. One of the criteria that Myers and Gurney used for including cases in their book was that some action had been taken because of the experience but before the corresponding event was learned of through conventional channels. For instance, a sudden declaration before others that “so-and-so has died!” in advance of the news arriving by cable or messenger, or an insistence on sending an inquiring telegram, as Hans Berger’s sister had. Myers and Gurney felt such actions were a means to validate the report.

They also included rare cases of collective perception they had come upon: For example, a man and his son simultaneously saw the face of the man’s father near the ceiling of their parlor at precisely the time (they later learned) that the father had died. The man’s wife, who was sitting in the same room, had witnessed the reactions and comments of her husband and son, although she did not herself perceive anything unusual. Another instance of shared perception in the late 19th century, investigated by E.M. Sidgwick, involved distress—a storm at sea—rather than death: “Mr. Wilmot and his sister Miss Wilmot,” it was reported, “were on a ship traveling from Liverpool to New York, and for much of the journey they were in a severe storm. More than a week after the storm began, Mrs. Wilmot in Connecticut—worried about the safety of her husband—had an experience while she was awake during the middle of the night, in which she seemed to go to her husband’s stateroom on the ship, where she saw him asleep in the lower berth and another man in the upper berth looking at her. She hesitated, kissed her husband, and left.

“The next morning Mr. Wilmot’s roommate asked him, apparently somewhat indignantly, about the woman who had come into their room during the night. Miss Wilmot [the sister on board] added her testimony, saying that the next morning, before she had seen her brother, the roommate asked her if she had been in to see Mr. Wilmot during the night, and when she replied no, he said that he had seen a woman come into their room in the middle of the night and go to Mr. Wilmot.” This would, of course, have seemed terribly inappropriate in the mid-19th century. A woman in our room? Good heavens. Mrs. Wilmot, back in Connecticut, was equally bothered by the impropriety: “I had a very vivid sense all the day of having visited my husband. I felt much disturbed at his [the man in the upper berth’s] presence, as he leaned over, looking at us.” Still, the experience or dream or whatever it was seems to have moved her. “The impression was so strong that I felt unusually happy and refreshed.”

In carefully reviewing such collected curios from 19th-century England, Stevenson found that the cases broke down roughly equally between men and women. Eighty-nine percent occurred when the person was awake, rather than dreaming or dozing. (Oliver Sacks steps lively over this research in his recent book, Hallucinations, noting simply that “one suspects” the percipients were mostly snoozing. They were not.) Two-thirds of the gathered cases involved news of an immediate family member. Eighty-two percent pertained to death, or a sudden illness or accident. People did not, apparently, pick up on one another’s good tidings. “Is it that the communication of joy has no survival value for us, while the communication of distress has?” Stevenson wondered. It was impossible to know. In assessing 35 of his own contemporary cases, Stevenson discovered that a third involved violent death, whereas only 7.7 percent of all deaths in America in that year, 1966, were violent in nature. (His findings were replicated in 2006, when researchers again found a dramatically higher number of abrupt or violent deaths in telepathic impression cases, in a study in Iceland.) Perhaps, Stevenson mused, there was something in the emotional quality of the event—a thunderclap of fear or pain—that carried like a sound wave across water.

Stevenson was careful with the cases he chose to research. He excluded “instances of repeated gloomy forebodings which on one occasion happened to be right.” He refused to consider accounts without witnesses who could confirm what the original person felt or saw. He interviewed those involved separately and cross-referenced their descriptions of what happened. In over half the instances, “the percipient’s impression drove him or her to take some kind of action apart from merely telling other people about it.” A phone call, a frantic trip, an abrupt change of holiday plans. One woman drove 50 miles home in the middle of the night after suddenly gleaning that her teen daughter was in trouble. (It turned out that their house had been broken into by armed intruders, with the daughter inside.) A South Carolinian named Mrs. Hurth provided him with an account, wherein her 5-year-old daughter went off to meet her father at a movie theater close to home. Mrs. Hurth saw her on her way and then began doing dishes. “Quite suddenly while I held a plate in my hand an awesome feeling came over me. I dropped the plate. For some unexplainable reason, I knew Joicey had been hit by a car or was going to be.” She phoned the theater at once. Her daughter was not seriously injured in the accident but later wrote her own letter to Stevenson: “I was so terrified (as it happened)…I made a silent plea for my mother.” Was the child’s plea important, Stevenson wondered, in whether her mother caught wind of the cry? Reviewing the cases, he found that it wasn’t crucial that “the agent” be focusing on “the percipient” in terms of picking up their signal of distress, but it did affect whether they took action. Notably, they responded to cries for help.

How people feel confidence about the telepathic impression they receive is a further mystery. Stevenson found that “a feeling of conviction” was one of the characteristics that separated telepathic impressions from ordinary dreams and anxious imaginings, but it’s hard to walk around what that feels like if you haven’t experienced it. In a series of email exchanges with a businessman from northeast England, I explored this “feeling of conviction.” When he was 12, Max Bone had a vivid and distinctive nightmare that spurred him to do something that remains unique in his life experience. The dream concerned a house his father had bought, which he was planning to convert into an office. “I awoke in terror,” Bone told me, “in the early hours of one morning, after having what seemed like a nightmare, but the content of which had a noticeably different and unusual quality. It had been very windy that night, and I had dreamt that I was outside the rear of this property in Borough Road, standing on the pavement, and facing directly towards the rear yard gate. This green-painted wooden-paneled yard gate off the street was unfastened and was opening, then banging shut, again and again in the wind. I approached the gate and the gate opened, the peeling paint and grain of the gray and denatured timber was shown in incredible detail. As the gate swung open, revealing the small backyard, I noticed that the white half-panel kitchen door had been pushed completely open, leaving just a dark rectangular hole in the wall. The top pane of the small kitchen window was also broken, and partly open. As I moved through the open gate, and across the yard towards the empty door, fear started to build in me. My vision centered on the small kitchen step. As I reached the threshold I was looking right down at the step, and the fear became incredible, and as I began to cross the threshold I woke up in terror.

“The next morning (I believe it was a Sunday morning), I still recalled the dream in detail, and I did something unusual—I acted on the dream (I have never acted on a dream before or since this event). I immediately went downstairs and told Dad about the dream whilst he was having his breakfast. I explained the dream’s unusual quality and made clear that I believed that something had happened to the property, pestering him to drive over to it immediately.

“Dad finished his breakfast and decided to indulge me, as he hadn’t checked on the house for a while anyway. My two elder brothers, overhearing the story, and I think sensing something exciting, wanted to come along, too. So my dad, myself, and my brothers drove over to the house. We pulled up at the rear of the property, opposite the green gate, which was indeed blowing open and shut in the wind. When we all saw this, both my brothers turned to look at me in the car and pulled ‘spooky’ faces at me.

“We left the car and entered the backyard through the gate, to find the kitchen door wide open; it had been pushed right back against the kitchen units so that it was not visible, just like in my dream. The top pane of the kitchen window was also broken and slightly open, again just as in my dream. We entered the house to find water gushing through the ground floor ceilings, and the beginnings of mold on the dining room carpet.

“It became clear that the house had been broken into some days before, and the thieves had been returning to remove fixtures, fittings, and lead piping over some period of time. We secured the house and turned off the water. Dad refused to talk about the incident for many years, although he does talk about it now. My two brothers found the whole affair creepy and unsettling, and recall the incident to this day.

“I have thought deeply about the incident for the whole of my life and drawn the best conclusions I can to explain [it].” Bone keeps an eye on theories and speculations in paranormal and neurological research, and is convinced that there is something in the electromagnetic field that enables thoughts and perceptions to travel between minds. He doesn’t think he actually went out of body in his dream. He suspects that he saw, somehow, what the thieves saw, tapping into their perception of the back of the house. He doesn’t accept that the dream was a coincidence. I pressed him about why he couldn’t accept it as coincidence, and he said it was the distinctive nature of the dream.

“My dreams tend to be sort of ‘softer,’ still plenty of visual detail but they don’t have the hard-edged detail of this dream. I had absolutely no problem in recalling the dream and remembering I needed to do something about it. That’s not typical in my experience. It was almost as if the memory had been lodged somewhere it shouldn’t really be lodged. Almost as if ‘raw’ unprocessed imagery had been laid down, accidentally bypassing my normal visual preprocessing, having what I considered to be almost silly levels of recorded detail, like the peeling paint on the gate.” As the sole inhabitants of our heads, we are generally the best judges of a strikingly different perception; it is, invariably, the clarity and specificity of the impression that prompts people to act.

Ian Stevenson found that there were two other factors that made people sit up, wide-eyed, and reach for the phone or the pen, or otherwise take action. One was if the “agent,” which is to say the person in the crisis, specifically focused on the “percipient” during the moment of danger. This seemed particularly true of parents responding to children, although that would make sense because children would be most likely to cry out to an absent parent. The second factor was, possibly, a higher giftedness for picking up such signals in the first place; a number of his cases involved people who had formed “telepathic impressions” at key moments more than once. Janey Acker Hurth, for example, who had sensed her daughter’s imminent collision with a car, had also, some years earlier, twigged to her father’s sudden illness. She and her husband were newly married and visiting her in-laws when she woke to “a feeling of deep sadness, an impression that something was wrong.” She waited for the inexplicable sentiment to fade away, but instead it intensified and she began to sob. This woke her husband, who questioned and tried to console her, to no avail. In the morning, she went downstairs exhausted and bereft. “I put bread into the toaster and while waiting for it I suddenly wheeled around and exclaimed, ‘It’s my father! Something is terribly wrong with my father!’” A phone call to the house within moments of this exclamation confirmed her sense of how she was narrowing in on the matter. Her father, her mother said on the phone, had fallen into a coma after his kidneys failed in response to a sulfa drug. (He would die shortly after.)

Stevenson was struck by how information sometimes gradually came into focus for people. “The percipient’s mind,” he mused, “may scan the environment for danger to his (or her) loved ones and, when this is detected, ‘tune in’ and bring more details to the surface of consciousness.”

Stevenson’s findings from the 1960s are echoed in cases collected three decades later by the British neuropsychiatrist Dr. Peter Fenwick, of King’s College, London, a longtime specialist in epilepsy who has an abiding curiosity about unusual perceptions and experiences around death, sparked when one of his patients described a near-death experience. Fenwick, by now in his late 70s, has amassed more than 2,000 accounts of what he calls “deathbed coincidences.” Working with solicited written letters from the British public, Fenwick’s research is less exacting and more exploratory than Stevenson’s. But the accounts give a rounded flavor of what people encounter.

One woman wrote to Fenwick about the husband from whom she’d recently separated, who committed suicide in February 1989.

She awoke at 3 a.m. from an intensely vivid dream in which her ex was sitting on the bed, assuring her that it was over, that he had found peace. “I got up, ‘on automatic,’ did some work I needed to do, two clients phoned me around 8 o’clock and I freaked them out completely, as I told them I would be taking some time out because my husband had just died.” She didn’t yet objectively know this to be true, but she knew it was true. She went over to his flat with Merlin, their dog, and she discovered the body. A coroner’s report fixed the time of death at around 3 a.m. Here, the “agent” in distress didn’t seek help by focusing on the “percipient” but rather sent a message of reassurance after all was done. He was dead.

Richard Bufton, a college lecturer and commercial diver, was aboard ship when he learned of his grandfather’s death via unconventional means. He wrote to Fenwick: “I was lying in the bunk in the forward cabin in a sort of half-asleep state, when what I can only describe as a vision similar to seeing a teletype ribbon went past my eyes. The words, which I read in my mind, simply said, ‘your grandfather is dead.’” Fueled by that feeling of conviction, he dashed into the common area to put through a radio call to his mother in England. “When she answered the phone she said she had some bad news. I interrupted to tell her the reason I had rung was that I knew my grandfather was dead.”

What’s interesting about Bufton’s experience is that, according to the neurologist Dominic ffytche of King’s College, London, one of the world’s leading experts in visual hallucinations, when people hallucinate text, they don’t see meaningful messages. The hallucination is visually incoherent, either a rough approximation of text or a random assemblage of letters. So, if Bufton was hallucinating, how did he see words stating clearly that his grandfather was dead? In the one case that ffytche has found where a woman was actually visualizing written-out “command hallucinations,” suggesting that she should throw tea in a family member’s face, for instance, he discovered that she wasn’t reading the words in the sense of visually scanning each word. Instead, she was inferring them. And that seems to have been the case with Bufton. It was as if he were picking up a message about his grandfather in some other way and then imaginatively projecting it as a teletype ribbon. Some researchers propose that people intuit these death and distress events, garnering the raw information, and then their brains instantly assemble a representation of what they intuited, much the way we impose meaning in our dreams on external sounds like a ringing alarm clock.

When someone appears at the end of the bed, are they reaching out to you, postmortem, or are you perhaps sharing telepathically in their dying experience of calm and peace? Impossible to know.

Several people have reported the strange joy that my sister Katharine felt, as if she received from my father not news of his death but a shared sense of his final elation. Sudden peace, buoyancy, contentment, or alternatively sorrow or physical pain. A sailor named Raymond Hunter appears to have shared both the pain of his father’s illness and the peace that followed. Of the evening his father died of lung cancer, he said, “I cannot possibly describe the feelings of love and peace I experienced.” But these emotions flowed after a much more bizarre and intense interlude where he felt as if his lungs were collapsing and he could scarcely choke in breath. This abrupt and violent experience of another’s dying symptoms has been noted by some researchers, although it remains almost completely unexplored. Ian Stevenson came across it in his cases and suggested that it could be a kind of telepathic extension of a more commonly documented phenomenon in which people who live together sympathetically take on one another’s symptoms or moods. “The syndrome of couvade, in which a man imitates the symptoms of his wife’s labor pains and delivery, has been well documented with numerous examples,” Stevenson noted. He himself had had a patient suffering from right shoulder pain with no identifiable cause, whose son had just died of a cancer that generated right shoulder pain. “Pain due to identification and mediated normally through the senses raises the question,” he wrote, “whether a similar identification can take place by means of extrasensory perception.”

A particularly vivid instance comes from an interview conducted by the journalist Paul Hawker in 2010. A woman in her late 30s told him:

“I was awoken around 2 a.m. by the sound of my heart breaking. I know that sounds really odd, but that’s what it was. I heard it crack and felt my chest sort of splitting. It was massive, sudden, and explosive. The next morning I did all my usual early morning things and got into the car to drive to work. I was sitting at a set of the traffic lights when I became aware of or felt this pressure on the side of my face. I distinctly remember that the pressure was that of a cheek lightly pressed against mine, sort of cuddling me. The feeling I was filled with at this time was one of love and support—it felt fine. I then felt a hand holding my hand and ‘felt’ it had no middle finger. I knew this because there was no pressure in this area. And then it dawned on me. I realized it was my dad’s hand; he’d lost his middle finger in a building site accident when I was a little girl.

“I continued on to my first appointment, which was a short one, and I returned home after an hour to be met by my husband’s words, ‘Your dad’s gone.’ Apparently he’d died from a massive heart attack during the night. I wasn’t at all surprised.”

Dismissing these experiences as wishful imaginings of events after the fact ignores their intensity, clarity, and power to unsettle. They take place on a different plane than the cool realization that you’ve just been thinking of someone who then calls on the phone. Consider the sailor Raymond Hunter’s description: “I remember grabbing my mouth, forcing it open to help me breathe. I was fighting for all I was worth, but the pains were now unbearable.” Unbearable. That is not something you shake off as a strange bit of dreaming, particularly when you learn that your father died in that moment of your panic and pain.