In the winter of 2010, 90-year-old Helen Budzinski described what she saw, which no one else could see.
A blond girl, age 5 or so, at the foot of her bed. Then twin girls. Then a pair of boys named Michael and David.
Helen’s stroke in October sharpened what had been a slow decline. Her granddaughter, Jocelyn Pappas, whom she raised, now served as Helen’s full-time caregiver at Jocelyn’s home in rural Connecticut.
On Monday morning, Dec. 20, with darkness shrouding the woods outside the window, Jocelyn placed a hand on the back of her grandmother’s blue floral nightgown and eased her upright.
“Oh, you work so hard for me, Jocelyn,” Helen said.
“I only work hard for you, Nana.”
“You only have to work five more days,” she said. “I got my ticket.”
“What do you mean, your ticket?”
Helen said she would be leaving this world at 4 a.m. on Friday. “They’re coming for me.”
“She was so absolutely convinced,” Jocelyn said.
Jocelyn called her grandmother’s hospice nurse, who explained that nothing on Helen’s chart suggested she was near death.
The hospice team may have disagreed with Helen’s self-administered prognosis, but did not discount the value of the vision. The dying often talk of death not as a character clothed in reaper garb but as one rendered in the visage of a loved one or kind stranger offering safe passage.
While hospice workers understand this, many families, patients and non-hospice clinicians do not. And so patients keep quiet about what they see.
That, said Dr. Christopher Kerr, one of the few researchers to venture into this territory, strips patients of what is often a great gift. “Patients need permission to experience and express this, because it often carries profound meaning and very much lessens the fear of dying,” he said. “Dying is isolating enough — to deny them this is even more isolating.”
Helen was no champion of the supernatural. She was a deeply beloved family matriarch who lavished attention on the youngest members of her vast family. She was active through her 80s, opting for a walker only as she approached 90.
Still, as Christmas that year approached, Helen’s visions grew more vivid: Her husband John, dead for nearly 20 years, began visiting, and a door materialized on the wall near her bed. Helen frantically searched for keys to open it, until Jocelyn found a spare set to placate her.
Jocelyn said she didn’t share these newer visions with others. She was consumed by the swirl of taking care of her grandmother and her own family.
Helen’s condition began slipping in the three days after she spoke of her impending departure: She was eating and drinking less and sleeping more. Jocelyn exhorted family members to pay their last respects.
Her cousin Bennett MacKinney, who had come east from Phoenix, arrived Thursday afternoon and joined the chorus of family members who were, by now, joking with Jocelyn about Helen’s prediction.
Helen had grown largely unresponsive, and the family suspected that she may indeed be close to dying. But when she woke, her family said, she showed no signs of emotional distress.
By 10 p.m. on Thursday night most of the relatives had departed; MacKinney and Jocelyn chatted past midnight, at which point she moved to Helen’s bedside. MacKinney slept on a downstairs couch for about three hours, and when he woke, he recalled a vivid dream.
In it, MacKinney saw Jocelyn leaning over Helen’s bed, which was now angled toward the wall. Two children were playing on the floor and a third stood at the head of the bed. Moving closer, he saw his grandfather with his arms around Helen, pulling her toward the wall.
MacKinney said he began weeping in the dream, and Jocelyn appeared. She hugged him and said she knew why he was crying. She said: “If I tell you that I am seeing the same thing that you are seeing, then you will know this is really happening.”
At 3:45 a.m., MacKinney heard Jocelyn’s cellphone alarm. He went upstairs, where she and Helen were sleeping peacefully.
Jocelyn’s cat was nearby. McKinney sat and turned on his iPad. “When it said 3:59, I looked at the cat as if to jokingly say, ‘Ok, here it comes.…’”
MacKinney went back to the iPad. At 4:05 he looked up at Helen again.
“She made two little coughs,” he recalled, “and her breathing stopped.”
He checked her pulse and her breathing. “I teared up and said, ‘Goodbye, Nana.’”
MacKinney woke Jocelyn. They called the relatives, then traded more stories about their grandmother. Jocelyn told him about Helen’s visions during the week. She talked about the children, and Helen’s husband, and, finally, she mentioned the door Helen had described.
He asked Jocelyn where Helen had seen that door, and Jocelyn nodded toward the wall where, in MacKinney’s dream, their grandfather was carrying their grandmother.
MacKinney paused a long moment. Then he took a deep breath and told his cousin about a dream he’d had.