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“Soon We’ll Be Back Together”: The Comforting Dreams of Dying Patients

Some philosophers say Man is the only animal that knows with certainty that one day he will die. But with a focus on keeping our brains and bodies functioning for as long as possible and at all costs, the medical profession has lost its way on how to properly deal with patients that are about to pass away. In an age that’s become ever more secular, it’s almost as if dying is still an unforgivable sin —“he lost his battle to cancer,” isn’t that what we often say? So not only has the person had the misfortune of dying, but Death even made a ‘loser’ out of the poor bastard…

That is the reason why Dr. Christopher Kerr, Medical Officer at The Center for Hospice and Palliative Care in Buffalo, New York, has devoted his time to documenting the final moments of thousands of terminal patients, focusing on their dreams or visions of deceased loved ones –commonly referred to as visitation dreams and deathbed visions— which tend to bring comfort and even prepare them in some way for the inevitable.

This is the focus of a recent news segment produced by CBS Pittsburgh:

In 2015 Dr. Kerr gave a talk at a TEDx event in Buffalo, which we covered here at the Grail, in which he explained how he became interested in these comforting dreams of terminal patients as a new doctor in the hospice, when he was kindly chastised by one of the senior nurses after he suggested a treatment for one of the patients. “Oh no, there’s no need for that. He’s dying” was the matter-of-fact reply of the seasoned nurse, and she patiently explained to the rookie doctor the patient had had a recent dream about his deceased mother, which was a tell-tale sign of his imminent death. Dr. Kerr was skeptical, but after the prediction shortly became true he became genuinely intrigued, and has since spent the last 10 years studying the dreams and visions of the dying.

It’s important to point out Dr. Kerr remains firmly agnostic with regards to the mechanism behind these dreams, or whether they could be used as evidence for an afterlife. He’s much more interested in bringing them to the attention of his medical colleagues in order to improve the caregiving of terminal patients, and also to show to the general public how Death should not be perceived as a ‘defeat’ but rather like a potentially life-affirming experience, as counter-intuitive as that may sound to our Western sensitivities, which has conditioned us to keep death and dying away from our thoughts —only in the West does the idea of getting a stainless steel, hermetically-sealed coffin for dear Granny make any kind of sense! Why don’t you get her some Wifi while you’re at it, Junior??

But here at the Grail we *like* to speculate about the non-local nature of consciousness and NDEs –which is why our own Greg Taylor wrote the excellent book Stop Worrying! There Probably Is an Afterlife— and there are at the very least three elements mentioned by Kerr that could be used as evidence for life after death:

  • The fact that dreaming about a deceased loved one is so indicative of imminent death. How is it that the patient’s mind is able to ‘predict’ it with such accuracy?
  • The ‘transitional’ nature of the dreams or visions are very specific, with the ‘visiting dead’ reassuring the patient that “soon they will be together” and they need to be ‘ready’.
  • The ‘hyperreal’ characteristic of the dreams, which are said to be more vivid and colorful than waking life. This is also a very common characteristic in near-death experiences, and strongly suggest we’re not dealing with simple hallucinations confabulated by the dying brain out of past memories.

Of course, skeptics will never be able to be convinced by such arguments —“the mind is so powerful it might be able to CAUSE the death as a way of ‘self-fulfilling’ prophecy or a ‘Nocebo effect,” they might say. And they would also allude on how the recent memories of the elderly tend to be quickly forgotten, whereas the older memories are recalled with more accuracy. I certainly would like to know if Kerr has recorded cases of ‘terminal lucidity’ at his hospice, in which the patient’s mental faculties –which had been severely degraded by dementia or Alzheimer’s– are all of the sudden fully recuperated and are able to recognize their visiting friends and family. Or also if they have been instances of ‘precognition’ in which the visions/dreams involve individuals whom the patient hadn’t met in their lives or weren’t even aware that they had passed away.

““When they wake up crying because they’ve been so deeply moved by something,” said Dr. Kerr. “That just should be respected. Period.”” True enough. And one way or another, we will all find out for ourselves… in due time.

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