Death is not exactly a sexy topic. In fact, it’s right up there with public speaking as a top fear for many people.
Yet, it’s an inescapable phenomenon, as everyone eventually dies. However, the dying have been shown to have end-of-life healing moments, which are contrary to the medical field, where death has been viewed as “a kind of medical problem to solve,” Dr. Christopher Kerr says.
“So you don't get to step off and see the more humanistic view of it. You're looking at it through medicine, and dying is obviously more than organ failure; it’s closing of life. I think where I'm at after all these years, is a more hopeful interpretation that on the one side, the actual experience of dying is less fear and pain-evoking than people anticipate,” Kerr said during an interview with The Batavian. “So the actual dying process is not defined by the suffering one would imagine, necessarily, and in terms of what people experience at the end of their life, I think there's a more hopeful story, that there's a better version than the one that I had previously, which was there was a finality to it.”
Kerr, author of “Death is But a Dream,” public speaker, researcher and medical doctor, will be talking this week about his book and a related study conducted with 1,500 people at the end stages of life. Hosted by First Presbyterian Church and Crossroads House, the event is set for 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the church, 300 East Main St., Batavia.
Have you ever wondered what happens at the end of life? For years, Kerr had avoided the topic and had no interest in digging around to find such answers. Perhaps it was the death of his father when he was just a child or his medical training that focused so much on the mechanical functions of one’s being that pushed Kerr another way.
In fact, he petitioned to get out of the hospice rotation of his training at the University of Rochester, homing in on a career in cardiology.
“I think I was going through a lot of what young doctors go through, which is that you're so enamored by technical medicine, what can be done with intervention diagnosis, that you lose sight of the other side, which is sometimes your role isn't to cure, but to comfort,” he said. “And so I was too busy on a steep learning curve, enamored by everything in so much to learn, and it was such a rich, enjoyable part of life. But what gets lost in that equation is what the patients actually need you for. And sometimes they just need you not to do things to them, but to be present for them.”
He ended up dropping out of cardiology and his path took him to the exact spot he originally had no interest in: as a hospice doctor. As his book jacket states, Kerr has cared for thousands of people who, “in the face of death, speak of love and grace.” It’s seemingly an oxymoron — a peaceful end-stage patient — however, Kerr believes he witnessed the unseen process of death that involved life-like dreams and visions that provided a spiritual balm for the dying.
He noted how patients would often get visits from late loved ones in their dreams, but not from others who had caused harm or hurt in the past. Patients would describe their experiences as more than dreams, and with a resounding reality. Themes of love and forgiveness emerged, providing a journey from distress to comfort and acceptance, he said.
His talk will include actual videos of study participants, all of whom had tested to be lucid, and how they describe their experiences. The Batavian asked if it was possible they were susceptible to suggestion by being part of the research, and he said there was a bias in that everyone was in hospice. But as for them being influenced by the study, it was the other way around, he said: participants were referred to him because they were already having dreams or visions, he said.
Although these dreams connected patients with loved ones from their past, they didn’t contain much in the way of religious symbols, Kerr said. There was a heaven in some descriptions, but no hell, and not many visions of God or Jesus. These episodes were not “a dry run,” as is the case with people who have died and come back to life. Those people seem to return to life with a renewed mission to learn and become a better person, whereas hospice patients — those who know their end is imminent — make healing connections.
“Somebody wrote that our first and last classroom is our family. And that's what people tend to focus on,” he said. “And that's where we learn the messages of faith, of love, and forgiveness. And that's where they return at the end.”
Not so surprising to animal lovers, pets were a recurring theme as well. These studies — which include interviews and surveys of 750 family members — aren’t just for the dying.
“Their death is also the end of a relationship. So it's often in consideration for their family or their loved one. How you view someone dying absolutely affects how you remember them. And so it's really for both,” Kerr said. “I think people are advocating in this generation and really wanting to say that they don't necessarily want the doctor’s version, (for a patient to be) medicalized or hospitalized. So that's what it's for.
“I like to think that we created room for more discussion to step off of their traditional medical role and viewed as more on the whole. The people who tend to get this are people who are truly at the bedside involved in care, so nurses, nurse’s aides, social workers, and chaplains. This doesn't just pertain to the purview of the physician. This belongs to everybody,” he said. “So I hope we're looking at it differently. I don't think you have to understand where it's coming from, or what the cause is, but you at least have some reverence for it. And I think that's what we find; people who've had personal experiences are pretty moved.”
I think the most important thing is to give people permission. And allowing them to share is often very therapeutic. So I think any time you're unburdening somebody, you're helping them in their journey.
Organizers invite you to “join us as we explore such questions through a presentation” by Kerr that will highlight and validate the powerful dreams and visions often experienced at the end of life. Seating is limited and admission is free. Register HERE.
Dr. Christopher Kerr, author of "Death is but a dream," along with Carine Mardorossian, was part of a research team at Hospice & Palliative Care Buffalo that spent years researching the impact of end-of-life experiences on hospice patients and their families. His next project is about caregivers. Photo by Joanne Beck.