Dreams of the Dying

A team of clinicians and researchers led by Dr. Christopher Kerr at Hospice Buffalo has begun a study that looks at the important of dreams and their role in supporting a “good death” for hospice and palliative care patients and their families. The team conducted their first study (published in The Journal of Palliative Medicine) by conducting multiple interviews with 59 terminally ill patients regarding their dreams. The team found patterns that could help patients and their family members find peace and closure. Dr. Kerr discusses the study at length in a TEDxBuffelo speech in December 2015. 

Among Dr. Kerr’s findings were that dreams were often reassuring and only 1 in 5 were negative or caused conflict. From a piece in the New York Times

The dreams and visions loosely sorted into categories: opportunities to engage with the deceased; loved ones “waiting;” unfinished business. Themes of love, given or withheld, coursed through the dreams, as did the need for resolution and even forgiveness. In their dreams, patients were reassured that they had been good parents, children and workers. They packed boxes, preparing for journeys, and, […] often traveled with dear companions as guides. Although many patients said they rarely remembered their dreams, these they could not forget.

Dr. Kerr and his team found that among those who dreamed of the deceased were more likely to report high levels of comfort than those who dreamed of the living. Furthermore, they found that as patients approached their death, they dreamed more and more of the deceased. 

Dr. Kerr discusses many of his findings and their effects on how he practices medicine in a TEDx episode here. 

A full length article on these findings and their implications can be found here.