What Makes a “Good Death”?

joan olinger - a good death - kerr

If you recall our November 4, 2018, post about Maria’s mother asking her to stand aside to make visible “a lot of people” who had come to welcome her into the next life, you may be pleased to know that both Maria’s and her mother’s experiences are corroborated by scientific research. In the post below, Dr. Joan Olinger brings together the highlights of these studies so that, like her, we can ponder this question:

What is “a good death” for you or a loved one?

Great things can happen at the time of death, or just before! I believe, however, that this isn’t the way most of us feel when faced with the departure of a loved one. Instead, we often focus on the decline of that person’s physical body. We see our loved one shrink and curl into a fetal position. We watch with great apprehension as very normal aspects of everyday life—like breathing—change from automatic and easy to labored and difficult.

Of more importance, however, is that while our loved one’s body is in the process of shutting down, their psychological, existential, and spiritual needs are still being attended to in a totally normal process that is inherent in the process of death itself.

Here, you might wonder what in the world I’m talking about. I’m referring to what is being revealed about the natural process of dying in some very exciting research by Dr. Christopher Kerr, Chief Executive Officer, at Hospice Buffalo in Cheektowga, New York. Dr. Kerr and his team have been studying end-of-life dreams and visions (ELDV’s), also known as pre-death experiences.  In these experiences, people who are dying often have highly meaningful, inherently therapeutic, and comforting dreams or visions that allow them to lose their fear of death.

In turn, these dreams and visions help transform the process of dying into a peaceful acceptance of the transition to what lies beyond. They often have dreams or visions in which they are greeted by deceased family, friends, pets, and religious figures. These pre-death experiences can be profoundly meaningful for both the dying and their families.

Recently, I saw my friend Maria transformed after her dying mother saw a large group of loved ones who were already dead come to visit. Lying in her bed, Maria’s mother was so delighted by their welcoming visit that she clapped her hands in glee. Previously agitated and afraid, she was now at peace. She died a few hours later. Just witnessing this transformed Maria, too, and gave her a renewed appreciation for life. (See the full story here.)

Research bears out Maria’s experience: Often, those who know of their loved-ones’ profound pre-death experiences are better able to accept their passing.

Visions Through the Ages

ELDV’s have been reported throughout the ages, across different nations, different cultures, and different religious backgrounds. Some examples of these can be found in The Bible, and in the writings of Plato and Shakespeare. Until the Dr. Kerr’s research, however, these dreams and visions have not been scientifically studied from the dying person’s perspective.

Typically, the previous research into pre-death experiences has been from the viewpoint of nurses or family members. One example is a 2004 study in which nurses indicated that patients who had pre-death visions or dreams were more likely to have peaceful deaths.

In Dr. Kerr’s research, dying persons were asked every day prior to their death to describe any dreams or visions, and they were asked if they found their experiences comforting or distressing. Interestingly, almost 90% reported at least one dream or vision, and nearly 100% described these pre-death dreams or visions (ELDV’s) as distinctly different from normal dreams. They described them as “more real than real”.

The research participants felt as though they were awake in these very vivid and profound experiences. Most were with predeceased family, friends, pets, or religious figures. Two-thirds involved travelling or preparation for travel. Most of the dying people enjoyed talking about their experiences and said they derived great comfort from them—particularly if they involved predeceased loved ones.

Dr. Kerr’s research found that, as dying people come close to the time of death, the frequency of the ELDV’s with predeceased loved ones increased dramatically. Since dying people report that the most comforting experiences are those with deceased loved ones, they found more and more comfort as death approached. Only 15% of dying patients reported distressing dreams or visions. Even here, however, the distressing dreams served to help resolve painful or traumatic experiences from the past.

Dreams with a Purpose

Although the timing of these experiences varies from months to hours before patients pass on, there seems to be a psychological or existential purpose behind the dreams about predeceased loved ones.  Typically, the predeceased are those who have been the most loving. As one illustration, Dr. Kerr tells of a man who lost his arm playing on a train track when he was a boy. Most of his siblings were highly supportive and loving afterwards, but one teased him mercilessly. This person’s end-of-life experience turned out to be with the siblings who had given him love throughout his life. The one who had treated him badly was not there.

Dr. Kerr says these types of pre-death dreams or visions can serve to help heal old pains and losses. He describes one such instance in his TEDx Talk, I See Dead People,”  in which he describes the experiences of a woman named Mary.  She was observed rocking, cuddling, and loving an unseen infant, whom she called Danny. No one knew who “Danny” was. When Mary’s sister arrived the next day, she explained that Danny was Mary’s first child and had been stillborn.

Mary had been so grief-stricken by the loss that, throughout her life, she never spoke of it. Now, in a pre-death vision, Mary had regained the lost baby and was giving it all the love and care that she hadn’t been able to give earlier in her life. Dr. Kerr notes that dreams and visions are often about regaining what was lost, including the love of a predeceased one, and regaining a sense of wonder and meaning about life.

War-Time Trauma Healed

Dr. Kerr offers another story about a dying man named Mack. As a 17-year-old, he had joined up to fight in World War II. During the D-Day invasion of Normandy in 1944, Mack helped ferry the soldiers from the off-shore boats to the invasion beaches. On each return trip, he would bring the dead and dying soldiers back to the ships. He felt responsible for these men, and long afterward he was concerned about what he might have done to help save more soldiers.

Mack never spoke about this horrific event after the war. But as he neared death, he couldn’t sleep because of terrible nightmares in which he relived those experiences. Mack began to talk about these nightmares. He then experienced comforting dreams and was transformed, being able to sleep peacefully.

In one of Mack’s dreams, he was able to relive the day he was discharged from the military, which he said was the happiest day of his life. Mack also had a dream that one of the soldiers he hadn’t been able to save on the beaches came to talk with him. This man told him the soldiers would soon be coming to get him, and he was rescued by the soldiers he had not been able to save. Mack died peacefully two days later.

Dr. Kerr points out that it is completely normal that, as we approach our own deaths, we begin to reflect on the meaningful experiences of our lives, on our own mortality, and who we might meet “beyond the veil.” He says that most dreams and visions bring reassurance and a knowingness we’ll be okay after death.

Just as it is built into a tadpole to become a frog, and a caterpillar to become a butterfly so, too, it is built into us that, through the dying process, we are intrinsically healed, loved, comforted, and welcomed into the life beyond death. Personally, I can’t image a death that would be better. When the time comes, I will welcome this as “a good death”.

Points for Reflection

If you like, you can ponder what would characterize “a good death” for you, or for a loved one. What would it be like?  Who would you or your loved one want to be reunited with? What lifelong issues would you or your loved-one like closure and healing for? Such may very well be the themes of dreams or visions that you or your loved-one encounter in the intrinsically meaningful and inherently healing process of death.

Isn’t that amazing?

Further Investigation

Here are links and references if you would like to investigate further the world of End-of-Life Dreams and Visions:

Kerr, C.W., Donnelly, J.P., Wright, S.T., Kusczczak, S.M., Banas, A., Grant, P., Luczkiewicz, D.L. “End-of-Life Dreams and Visions: A Longitudinal Study of Hospice Patients’ Experiences” JOURNAL OF PALLIATIVE MEDICINE Volume 17 No. 3, 2014.

Badgery, E. “Vivid Dreams Comfort the Dying” Scientific American November 1 2014 found at https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/vivid-dreams-comfort-the-dying/

Bullkeley, K. “Pre-Death Dreams: Their Psychological and Spiritual Value” Huffington Post Feb 8, 2017 found at https://www.huffingtonpost.com/kelly-bullkeley-phd/predeath-dreams-their-value_b_9153778.html

Petrow, S. “At the end of her life, my mother started seeing ghosts, and it freaked me out” The Washington Post July 22 2017 found at https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/at-the-end-of-her-life-my-mother-started-seeing-ghosts-and-it-freaked-me-out/2017/07/21/af8a7c40-56b5-11e7-a204-ad706461fa4f_story.html?utm_term=.566e877452f0

Kerr, C. “I See Dead People: Dreams and Visions of the Dying” Tedx Talk November 2015 found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rbnBe-vXGQM

Kerr. C. “Dreams and Visions of the Dying” June 2018 found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l3eM6Der7Jw

The Meaning of Forever Project continues to accept stories of comforting experiences with loved ones who have passed on, and of near-death experiences that have helped to show the continuation of life beyond the physical body. You can email your story to us at themeaningofforever@gmail.com and you can find more about our project on our Facebook page, and our Meaning of Forever Website.





2 thoughts on “What Makes a “Good Death”?

  1. Pingback: What Makes a “Good Death”? – The Meaning of Forever

  2. Pingback: How to Help a Dying Loved One and Yourself Too – The Meaning of Forever

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