In our January 11 post, Dr. Joan Olinger summarized the work of Dr. Christopher Kerr at Hospice Buffalo, in New York, in which he chronicles the End of Life Dreams and Visions (ELDV’s) of his patients, thus adding credence to the idea that, when we finish this life, we continue in yet another one—possibly welcomed by loved ones who have gone before.
All the same, says Dr. Olinger, knowing this makes it is no less difficult to watch someone we love decline. In her latest contribution, she summarizes a few ideas about how to make the dying process easier for those who are leaving, as well as for those who will be left behind. And it all begins with loving and listening.
By Dr. Joan Olinger
Sitting with a dying loved one can make us feel helpless and uncomfortable. It can be hard to know what to do and be very upsetting when they begin to talk with people who are invisible to us, or to tell us of visits with others we know are long dead. We might worry they’re losing their minds, having hallucinations or negatively fixating on a traumatic past. What are we to say or do?
There was a time when this type of experience would have been very upsetting for me, too—even believing, as I do, that the essential part of each of us lives on after the physical body expires.
But, putting my own experiences together with recent research into end of life dreams and visions has changed my perspective. I now realize the things dying people may say or do that I may have previously viewed as out of touch with reality—hallucinations, even—are actually integral to the dying process.
According to Dr. Christopher Kerr and his research team at Hospice Buffalo in New York, these strange happenings are probably helping our loved ones make peaceful transitions from this life to the next. Long-time palliative care specialist Barbara Morningstar supports this view in her recent book, Honoring the Mystery (mentioned in our October 14 blog).
Dr. Kerr’s research suggests that ELDV’s allow our loved ones to resolve issues and problems that may have dogged them their entire lives. They provide comfort, reassurance, guidance, awareness of lessons they have learned, and reunion with loved ones. Through these dreams and visions the dying person begins to feel safe, perhaps even look forward to being reunited with predeceased loved ones in a world very similar to the one they know now. Morningstar’s writings would seem to agree with this. And, both Morningstar and Dr. Kerr stress the importance of listening without judgement.
Dr. Kerr counsels against withdrawing when a loved one starts to describe unusual dreams or visions. Instead, he suggests that we “open the door” for them to talk by asking questions: “How did you sleep?” for example; or, “Did you have any dreams or unusual experiences?” When given a chance to talk about their dreams and visions, nearly 90 per cent of patients in Dr. Kerr’s research reported having at least one. They also said the experiences were comforting, and that they enjoyed talking about them.
But Morningstar points out that fear can be a factor, too. She witnessed this with her own husband, who was dying of cancer. At one point, he was overcome by a debilitating fear, which she could do nothing to alleviate. What she could to, though, was show him that she was there, that she loved him, and that she was listening—even if the words he was using were unlike his normal conversation.
“When fear is present in the dying or their loved ones, a companion’s love and compassionate presence is more powerful than words. In the silence alone, when love is present, profound transformations happen.”
Finally, her husband was able to work through his fear and communicate to her his final insight: That life is really about “the essence of love”.
“We make it so difficult, but it is so simple,” he told her. And she knew no more words were needed, just a long and loving embrace.
The research shows that, if you pull your chair up beside your dying loved one and just listen, you can learn a lot you didn’t know before. This happened as I sat with my own mother as she was dying. The stories she told me shortly before she lost her ability to speak coherently due to Alzheimer’s have become her legacy.
She told me about herself, her family, and their experiences with death (See earlier posts here and here. She and I had always been very close, and so I was surprised that some of the very meaningful stories she told me had never been mentioned before. I learned things about important events in Mom’s life, how she was raised, and why some things unfolded in my life the way they did.
So, being able to talk with the dying person about their ELDV’s can provide a profound sense of meaning, comfort, connection, and hope for the dying person—as well as their families. You can even take notes if you like. Moments like these can ease the loneliness that the dying person may be feeling.
Even though, sometimes, your silent presence may be enough, I believe the sound of your voice is important at others. While there is no scientific proof that the sense of hearing is the last to go, many believe this, and care givers in the field often counsel to treat the dying person as if they can hear and understand every word you say.
Maggie Callanan, a critical care nurse turned hospice professional and author of Final Gifts: Understanding the Special Awareness, Needs and Communications of the Dying (Bantam, 1997) told the Spokesman Review that she has been there during the deaths of 2,000 people.
Her advice is this: “…[D]o not say anything you do not want this dying person to hear. Just don’t. Not in the room, but not even down the hall, because it appears hearing becomes acute.”
I’ve believed this for a long time. That’s why I talked with my Mom and sang to her, even when she was unconscious, just a few hours before she died (or translated). Although she was a devout Christian, I told her I’d be there to help her cross over and that my spiritual guide would be there for her, too.
We’ve mentioned the importance of not passing off strange ramblings as hallucinations, and Dr. Kerr describes major distinctions between vivid ELDV’s versus disturbing hallucinations, which can often occur as a person’s brain is dying. One of the main differences between these two phenomena relates to the effect on the individual.
Dying people tend to experience healing dreams and visions as enjoyable, comforting, uplifting, and hopeful. In addition, they can clearly describe these experiences to others. In contrast, hallucinations leave a person agitated, distraught, disoriented and unable to communicate clearly. And it is possible for a dying person to have healing dreams and visions at one time and hallucinations at another.
The reason why it is important to differentiate between ELDV’s and hallucinations is that hallucinations may require medications (such as anti-psychotics) to ease the distress they cause. Unfortunately, if an ELDV is misunderstood as a hallucination, the antipsychotic medication may interfere with the healing effects of the ELDV.
In a New York Times interview from 2016, Dr. Kerr says, “Often when we sedate them (patients having ELDVs), we are sterilizing them from their own dying process…I have done it, and it feels horrible. They’ll say ‘You robbed me—I was with my wife.’”
To see for yourself what it can be like for a dying person to tell others about a healing dream or vision, you might wish to view Dr. Kerr’s TED talk titled “I See Dead people” on YouTube, in which Dr. Kerr plays videotapes of palliative care patients talking about their experiences. You can see that they are comfortable, engaged, coherent, and eager to share their experiences.
Points for Reflection: What leads you to have an interest in the subject of death and healing at the time of death? How might this become a legacy for your loved ones? How does what you believe about death effect the way you live your life now?
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 firstname.lastname@example.org and you can find more about our project on our Facebook page, and our Meaning of Forever Website.