Death dreams as the new near-death-experience frontier

The “death dreams” of dying patients that are usually about being reunited with deceased loved ones are coming under new scrutiny from medical researchers and are viewed by chaplains as adding a new spiritual meaning to dying, writes Paul Lauritzen in the Catholic magazine Commonweal (April 23). While those claiming near-death experiences make up a spiritual movement in their own right, death dreams and visions are far more common, though they are only recently being acknowledged. End-of-life dreams and visions (ELDVs) are often found in hospice settings, where a patient will report having dreams or a visual experience of being reunited with family members and other loved ones. Even if a patient is not seen as being in immediate danger of dying, having these dreams is regularly viewed as a sign of their impending death within a few days. The phenomenon is widely known among hospice nurses as well as chaplains but had not been documented before hospice physician Christopher Kerr started studying it. Even though Kerr has “generated a substantial body of evidence that ELDVs are common, therapeutically important, and frequently predictive of imminent death,” it has been an “uphill battle to get clinicians to take end-of-life experiences seriously,” Lauritzen writes.

Source: Heart & Soul Hospice.

But popular reception of Kerr’s work, which is chronicled in his co-authored best-selling book, Death Is But a Dream, has been strong, with a popular TEDx talk and PBS documentary spreading the word about this phenomenon. The singular setting of hospices, allowing hospice nurses, doctors, and chaplains to spend in-depth time engaged in conversation and social activities with dying patients, stands in contrast to the more impersonal and technologically driven practices of conventional medicine, which may account for the former’s ability to capture such experiences, Lauritzen writes. In tracking these end-of-life dreams and visions, Kerr found that 90 percent of patients reported having at least one dream or vision that could be classified as an end-of-life experience. These dreams are distinguished from regular dreams by being particularly vivid and can occur both during periods of sleep and periods of wakefulness. Kerr found that as patients approached death their dreams changed from being about living friends and relatives to deceased ones. On a scale of one to five, with five signifying the highest level of comfort, dreams with dead relatives and friends scored a 4.08, while dreams of living friends and relatives scored a 2.86.

These experiences were also found to have positive effects on the bereavement of patients’ family and friends, who were comforted by knowing that their loved ones were at peace. Interestingly, almost none of Kerr’s patients had a dream or vision that was explicitly religious. Kerry Egan, a former hospice chaplain who has written about dying experiences, said that in all her years of listening to the dreams of patients, she “never once heard a patient talking of seeing Jesus in a dream.” Yet she argues that the dreams, which are often about deceased parents, sometimes beckoning the dying to join them, are profoundly spiritual. Hospice chaplains who spend time talking to these patients find that talking about their families functions as a religious experience. Such conversation “is how we talk about God,” Egan said. “This is how we talk about the meaning of our lives. That is how we talk about the big spiritual questions of human existence.” Lauritzen concludes that although his own original question about how such dreams could predict death remained unanswered, “knowing that such dreams provide comfort to the dying is itself comforting.”