As Death Approaches, Visions of Lost Loved Ones Offer Comfort

April 13, 2021

One doctor’s research reveals the peace the dying gain from dreams and visions of the previously deceased.

One of the most devastating elements of the pandemic has been the inability to personally care for loved ones who have fallen ill.

Again and again, grieving relatives have testified to how much more devastating their loved one’s death was because they were unable to hold their family member’s hand—to provide a familiar and comforting presence in their final days and hours.

Some had to say their final goodbyes through smartphone screens held by a medical provider. Others resorted to using walkie-talkies or waving through windows.

How does one come to terms with the overwhelming grief and guilt over the thought of a loved one dying alone?

I don’t have an answer to this question. But the work of hospice Dr. Christopher Kerr—with whom I co-authored the book “Death Is But a Dream: Finding Hope and Meaning at Life’s End”—might offer some consolation.

Unexpected Visitors

At the start of his career, Kerr was tasked—like any and all physicians—with attending to the physical care of his patients. But he soon noticed a phenomenon that seasoned nurses were already accustomed to. As patients approached death, many had dreams and visions of deceased loved ones who came back to comfort them in their final days.

Doctors are typically trained to interpret these occurrences as drug-induced or delusional hallucinations that might warrant more medication or downright sedation.

But after seeing the peace and comfort these end-of-life experiences seemed to bring his patients, Kerr decided to pause and listen. One day, in 2005, a dying patient named Mary had one such vision: She began moving her arms as if rocking a baby, cooing at her child who had died in infancy decades prior.

To Kerr, this didn’t seem like cognitive decline. What if, he wondered, patients’ own perceptions at life’s end mattered to their well-being in ways that shouldn’t concern just nurses, chaplains, and social workers?

What would medical care look like if all physicians stopped and listened, too?

The Project Begins

At the sight of dying patients reaching and calling out to their loved ones—many of whom they hadn’t seen, touched, or heard for decades—he began collecting and recording testimonies given directly by those who were dying. Over the course of 10 years, he and his research team recorded the end-of-life experiences of 1,400 patients and families.

What he discovered astounded him. More than 80 percent of his patients—no matter what walk of life, background, or age group they came from—had end-of-life experiences that seemed to entail more than just strange dreams. These were vivid, meaningful, and transformative. And they always increased in frequency near death.

They included visions of long-lost mothers, fathers, and relatives, as well as dead pets come back to comfort their former owners. They were about relationships resurrected, love revived, and forgiveness achieved. They often brought reassurance, support, peace, and acceptance.

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