Most people don’t just suddenly drop dead. Instead, their death comes at the end of a long and steady decline. In the absence of dementia or other loss of mental faculties, the dying are usually acutely aware of death’s approach and either struggle with or make peace with it, as Elisabeth Kübler-Ross so eloquently described in her seminal book On Death and Dying.
Coming to terms with death extends beyond conscious thought. It permeates the unconscious, manifesting as nighttime dreams and daytime visions that can be so vivid and realistic to the person experiencing them that others can mistake them for delirium or hallucinations triggered by medications.
Researchers at the Center for Hospice and Palliative Care in Cheektowaga, New York, conducted daily interviews with 66 of their patients over the weeks leading up to their deaths, asking specifically about the presence of dreams and visions and their content. The researchers found that almost all the patients experienced dreams and visions involving interactions with both deceased and living friends and relatives. Virtually all the dreams were described as feeling intensely real. The majority were experienced as being comforting and reassuring, especially those in which they interacted with friends or relatives who were no longer alive.
Some described meeting childhood friends, or playing with a beloved childhood dog, while others visited with long-dead parents or grandparents. One 91-year old woman dreamed of being reassured by her mother that “everything will be okay.” Others described hugging parents and siblings who told them that they loved them. Still others involved angels and God.
One theme common to many of the dreams was the need to prepare for a journey. Some patients told the researchers that although they felt ready to die and join their loved ones, they were told by those they met that it wasn’t their time yet.
The closer the dreams were to a person’s actual death, the more comforting they became. Likewise, the presence of end-of-life dreams and visions was predictive of a peaceful and calm death.
This study helps us to frame these vivid dreams and visions as a natural part of the dying process and not necessarily as a sign that something is wrong, such as too much pain medicine, for example. It also empowers us to speak openly about them with the person who experiences them. In turn, this allows us to share in their acceptance of death as the natural conclusion to life; to better comfort them; and to be comforted ourselves.
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