You are the author of the new release, Death Is But a Dream: Finding Hope and Meaning at Life’s End. What prompted your desire to write this book?
Caring for the dying was something I was ill prepared for after medical training. As a part-time job, I began working in hospice 20 years ago and was struck by the non-physical aspects of the dying process, particularly the remarkable and transforming experience of pre-death dreams and visions. I found very little to support the significance of these events and was frustrated in trying to teach their clinical importance to young doctors who needed data. So I began taking an evidence-based approach to validating the frequency, comfort, and meaning such events had for patients at the end of life. I began videotaping patients and published several studies in medical journals. I received no response from the medical community. However, the non-medical community found out about our work and the response has been overwhelming and our studies have been published throughout various forms of media around the world. I was, and continue to be, struck by the value our work has to those who have witnessed such phenomena or facing end of life. For many, validating such end-of-life experiences has provided much needed comfort, context, and reassurance. On this basis, I decided to write the book.
What is your message to those who fear death?
There is more to dying than the physical suffering we either endure or observe. There is a better, less fearful aspect to end of life which also includes inner, subjective experiences such as remarkable and transforming pre-death dreams and visions. Our study results show that such end-of-life experiences most often address the dying patient’s most urgent needs, whether it is to be forgiven, guided, reassured, or simply loved. Using quantifiable data, we demonstrated that pre-death dreams are experienced by the majority of dying patients, are described as “more real than real,” and increase in frequency as death nears. These dreams and visions typically bring comfort to the patient and their loved ones and often include the transition from distress to acceptance. When the end draws near, age and debility vanish and seem to give way to an incredible affirmation of life. Dying is an experience that pulls us together by binding us to those who loved us from the beginning, those we lost along the way, and those who are returned to us in the end.
What are examples of patients who found meaning and acceptance at the end of life?
The book is based on actual patients who participated in our studies.
These are brave individuals like Kenny, a retired funeral home director and father of five children, who, right before his death at 76, was visited by the beloved mother he had lost when he was only six years old. As his death neared, he always appeared as a little boy in his dreams and could hear his mother’s soothing voice uttering the words “I love you” again and again. He even reported being able to smell the distinct aroma of her perfume in his hospital room.
Or 91-year-old Deb, a retired retail sales worker at a department store, who eight days before passing from an ischemic heart disease had “extremely comforting” visions of six deceased family members in her room, including her father who “was waiting for me.” A day later, she saw herself being driven away by her childhood friend Leonard as her deceased aunt Martha exhorted her to “let go.”
Another patient, Sierra, who, at 28 and facing the unbearable thought of her four-year old boy becoming motherless, was understandably in denial about the severity of her condition. The cancer hospital had sent her to hospice “to be more comfortable,” a metaphorical turn of phrase she interpreted literally with all the sanguineness of the youth. “I am going to beat this,” she whispered to our confounded staff mere days before her death. A vision of her deceased grandfather telling her he didn’t want her to suffer anymore finally brought acceptance and gave her and her grieving family the strength to let go. She no longer feared her own nonexistence and died peacefully in her mother’s arms.
And then there was Jessica, who at 13 was asked what her dreams meant to her. She simply responded, “That I am loved. I will be fine.” There are times when it takes the innocence of a child to guide us through the inadmissible.
How can we be most helpful to our loved ones facing the end of life?
It is very helpful for loved ones to give permission for the dying to reflect on what they are experiencing. Dying is isolating and lonely for many; perhaps it can be less so. There is data that suggests patients are reluctant to disclose their experiences for fear of being misunderstood or even ridiculed. Normalizing these experiences is inherently therapeutic and encourages further discussion. The dying strive to find meaning, relevance, and love right until the end. There is a tendency to disengage rather than engage people at the end of life. Their bodies may be frail and fading but emotionally and spiritually they are very alive.
For those interested in learning more, what resources do you recommend?
Visions, Trips, and Crowded Rooms: Who and What You See Before You Die by David Kessler
Dreaming Beyond Death: A Guide to Pre-Death Dreams and Visions by Kelley and Patricia Bulkley
Final Gifts: Understanding the Special Awareness, Needs, and Communications of the Dying by Maggie Callanan
Hope and Grace: Spiritual Experiences in Severe Distress, Illness and Dying by Monika Renz
Connect with Dr. Christopher Kerr:
Ted Talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rbnBe-vXGQM
Book: Death Is But a Dream: Finding Hope and Meaning at Life’s End
Social media links:
Christopher Kerr, MD, PhD, is the author of Death Is But a Dream: Finding Hope and Meaning at Life’s End. He is the CEO and chief medical officer at Hospice Buffalo. Born and raised in Toronto, Kerr earned his MD as well as a PhD in neurobiology and completed his residency in internal medicine at the University of Rochester. His research has received international attention and has been featured in The New York Times, Atlantic Monthly, and the BBC. He lives on a horse farm in the small town of East Aurora, New York.