EASTON — Many scientists have tried to untangle death’s mysteries, but one hospice and palliative care physician, Dr. Christopher Kerr, recently dove into his patients’ end-of-life dreams for answers.
Kerr, the chief medical officer at the Center for Hospice and Palliative Care in Buffalo, New York, presented his findings Thursday, June 20, at the Avalon Theatre in Easton.
He said his research looked at the frequency, content and emotional significance of his terminally ill patients’ dreams. The dreams mostly followed a similar formula, Kerr said, and were reported by his patients to be a source of comfort in the days, weeks or months leading up to their deaths.
Kerr also said the dreams most commonly consisted of interactions with deceased friends or relatives, a notion of travel or preparing to go somewhere, and life affirmations.
“These experiences don’t only hold personal meaning, but they’re tied to some of our greatest needs,” he said. “[It’s] the need to be forgiven, loved, et cetera. They’re therapeutic.”
Many of the patients, Kerr explained, described the dreams as hyperrealistic — feeling more real than any other dream they had experienced throughout their lives.
One might think a dream like this could elicit fear, but Kerr said his patients reported “quite the opposite.” They seemed to have gained new insight into mortality, and even shedded their fear of death, he said.
“I can’t stress enough that these patients come out of these experiences with answers, not questions,” Kerr said. “I have yet to have one patient ask me, ‘I wonder what that means,’ because they’re not looking for metaphoric analysis or associations. They just seem to know.”
During his research, Kerr facilitated several studies of differing methods, looking at different populations. His first study was a series of more than 400 interviews with 50 male and female hospice inpatients of varying ages.
Kerr found that, of those 50 patients, nearly 90 percent reported having at least one lucid, life-like dream. And of the patients who had the dreams, 99 percent said they “felt or seemed real,” according to Kerr.
Kerr’s research concluded that end of life experiences with identifiable themes, realism, and emotional meaning, are in fact a “commonly experienced phenomena in the dying process.”
While there is still a lot more to be uncovered about death, Kerr said his research has the potential to “completely reframe the dying experience” and reveal what the human brain is capable of comprehending.
Until now, Kerr said scientists have not taken this phenomenon seriously, dismissing the experiences as a result of delirium. So he felt responsible for bringing credibility to end of life dreams, he said.
Kerr’s research has been the subject of many medical reports, as well as TEDx talks. And his work is the focus of a still-developing Netflix documentary film, titled “Death is but a Dream,” set to be released in 2020.
His presentation at the Avalon Theatre was sponsored by Talbot Hospice as part of its 4th Annual Outreach Event.
Vivian Dodge, Talbot Hospice executive director, said, “We [were] thrilled to share Dr. Kerr’s groundbreaking research with our community.”
“Individuals find closure and meaning through dreams,” Dodge said. “’Death is but a Dream’ will offer insight into the emotions, feelings and values our loved ones experience during this passage.”