in: Behavior, Character, Podcast

• Last updated: March 30, 2022

Podcast #785: The Dreams That Precede Death

As the dying approach their death, up to 88% of them experience certain vivid, moving dreams — though “dreams” isn’t even the best word for these experiences, as they can happen to people when they’re both awake and asleep, and are described by them as being “more real than real.”

My guest today has studied these visions and dreams for many years and thinks they have important insights into the nature of life and death. His name is Dr. Chrisopther Kerr, and he’s a hospice physician and end-of-life researcher, as well as the author of Death Is But a Dream: Finding Hope and Meaning at Life’s End. We begin our conversation with Dr. Kerr’s efforts to study end-of-life experiences on an objective, scientific basis, and how his research into these visions and dreams doesn’t attempt to find their spiritual or paranormal origin, but simply seeks to catalog the phenomenon from a clinical perspective. We then discuss how long before death people begin having these dreams, the content of the dreams, and who shows up in them. Dr. Kerr describes how pre-death visions and dreams are typically positive and comforting, and how even the rarer, disturbing variety can end up being transformative. And he shares what these dreams do not only for the dying, but for their caregivers as well.

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Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. At the dying approach death, up to 88% of them experience certain vivid moving dreams, though dreams isn’t even the best word for these experiences as it can happen to people when they’re both awake and asleep and are described by them as being more real than real. My guest today has studied these visions and dreams for many years and thinks they have important insights into the nature of life and death. His name is Dr. Christopher Kerr, and he’s a hospice physician an end-of-life researcher, as well as the author of Death Is But a Dream: Finding Hope and Meaning at Life’s End. We begin our conversation with Dr. Kerr’s efforts study end-of-life experiences on an objective, scientific basis and how his research into these visions and dreams doesn’t attempt to find their spiritual or paranormal origin, but simply seeks to catalog the phenomenon from a clinical perspective. We then discuss how long before death people begin having these dreams, the content of the dreams, and who shows up in them. Dr Kerr describes how predeath visions and dreams are typically positive and comforting, and how even the rare disturbing variety can end up being transformative, and he shares what the dreams do, not only for the dying, but for their caregivers as well. After the show’s over, check our show notes at Alright, Chris Kerr, welcome to the show.

Christopher Kerr: Thank you for having me.

Brett McKay: So you are a hospice doctor, and you’ve published a book, Death Is But a Dream: Finding Hope and Meaning at Life’s End. Tell us, how did you get into becoming a hospice doctor?

Christopher Kerr: I wish I could tell you it was a noble aspiration, but the truth is, I just needed to pay some bills, I was a cardiology fellow, pretty impoverished, with kids, and was looking for moonlighting opportunities, and I saw an add in the newspaper for a hospice doctor, and actually ironically, I had petitioned to get outta that rotation as a resident, and so I did it, and I wasn’t here long and realized this was the most meaningful work I had ever done, and never looked back 22 years later.

Brett McKay: Okay, so when you were a young resident working at Hospice Buffalo to pay the bills, you had an experience with a dying patient and a nurse that led you down this path that you spent the past two decades exploring the phenomenon of predeath visions and dreams. Can you tell us about that experience?

Christopher Kerr: Sure. It was a bit of a set up because I’d gone through training, where we were really not taught to address the dying patient in the full sense and certainly don’t have any real appreciation for their experience, so I find myself here, I’m a fish outta water, there’s no technology, and I’m forced to be present at the bedside. And I walked into the nurses station, this is a young guy who’s dying of complications of HIV, and he was in his 40s, and I thought he could have more time if we did things to him, you know, IV’s, antibiotics, and the nurse didn’t even look up and she said, “Oh no, he’s dying,” and I said, “Well, how do you know?” And he said, “Well, because he’s seen his dead mother.” And within our culture, and particularly those who are closer to the bedside, like nurses, this is a part, an accepted part of their clinical interactions, when they see this, which is common, they’ve actually learned to value it and that it had prognostic significance, so she was seeing something basically that I wasn’t, which was, I’m focused on the objective aspect of the patient, and she’s actually going deeper and trying to appreciate what he’s actually experiencing.

Brett McKay: So nurses have known about this phenomenon of people having visions and dreams typically of dead relatives before they die. Has this been a known phenomenon with doctors in medicine in the scientific field?

Christopher Kerr: Less so because as soon as you stray again from the objectivity of medicine and as soon as you step further away from intervention, measurable things, things that can be imaged or more abstract, as soon as you go from the brain to the mind, I think medicine, particularly in a modern, in our more western world, it gets harder to appreciate. We’ve disassociated ourselves and really looked at dying as organ failure rather than a closing of a life or human experiences, and I think nurses, pastoral care, etcetera, they’re faced… Because they’re present to deal with the patient in totality, so this becomes undeniable to them. Whereas the doctor comes by as a spot welder and is in a position not to necessarily have to have regard for it.

Brett McKay: Well, if it’s a doctor, did you recognize, “Okay, this person’s having a… He’s seen his dead grandmother.” How would they explain it? Would it be that scientific way?

Christopher Kerr: Yeah, that’s actually part of the problem, and again, it goes back to the distinction between mind, soul, spirit, versus organic bases such as brain function, so what they do is they try to put it within a medical framework, so right away it goes to questions of brain function and it goes questions of delirium or confusional states, in other words, it’s doctors today, the more we know, the more they seek to claim definition around things, so they have to explain it, which is where we get stuck medically, if we can’t treat to cure, we’re stuck; and if we can’t diagnose, explain in a scientific rubric, then we’re lost. And this is something you just have to stand back from and just have some degree of reverence for without necessarily finding its etiology or trying to pathologize, right? So when they see this, is this a manifestation of a dying broken brain function?

Brett McKay: Yeah, you highlighted a lot of times they think, “Well, that’s just… He’s losing oxygen to his brain, that’s what’s going on.” But I think you did research on this, like, “No, a lot of times when people are having these visions, they’re fine.”

Christopher Kerr: Yeah, that was just… This is how this basically happened, I tried to teach this to medical students and residents, and the response I always got was… From the vantage point that they are sitting at is, “There’s no evidence for this,” and that was true in a medical framework, and it was easy to dismiss into this black box of what we call dementia or confusion, so what we did… Our findings aren’t new. They were just put in the right context, we did things like ruled-out confusion, so you had to be screened because the study was university-approved, you had to actually be screened to make sure you were cognitively intact. And we also went upstream in illness, and this is really important, so we’re not talking about the minutes and hours before death when the brain is deoxygenated and confusion is more common than not, we’re talking about the days and months before death, so a lot of these people are living independently, highly functional, and then what we did, of course, is we filmed them because there was always gonna be the doubter. And we tend to project our belief on what we think a dying person is, frail, feeble, inarticulate perhaps, confused, and so what we did is we let the patients speak for themselves, and that turned out to be a very powerful additive to the research findings, so if I’m being challenged in a lecture setting on this, you just press play and you have to see it for yourself.

Brett McKay: Well, why did you think it was important to study this phenomenon scientifically?

Christopher Kerr: I think because… And this actually turned out… It has turned out to be true. This got momentum that’s gone around the world and hasn’t stopped, and it’s not that our work is so novel or unique in its findings, but it had never been put in a proper clinical context, in a caregiver context, so why it matters is this, originally I was trying to influence the medical community, and I soon found out I’m holding the wrong end of the stick. The people for whom this resonates the most are actually patients in the dying process, and probably more importantly their caregiver, so if you look at my TED Talk, for example, what’s most interesting isn’t the TED Talk, it’s the 6,000-7,000 responses where people are sharing their experiences, so in other words, if you’re a caregiver confronted with this, this may not have explanation for you. You’re not sure how to interpret, so normalizing it.

One of our roles is to take away the obstacles between the loved one and the bedside, so translating this, giving it validity, and that’s what’s propelled this work forward and around the world really, is that it matters to the people who are still connected to others, who may be nearing the end of their life, and it absolutely goes into bereavement. In other words, in the end of all of this, I think where I end up is basically less reliant on the medical community to catch up and to help connect family to patient and the patient to this experience, but it’s more an empowerment. Our culture’s changing and we don’t want the doctor’s death. We don’t wanna sterilize the dying process. We wanna say, we want the voice to be heard, so this is a form of empowerment as well, I think.

Brett McKay: And how do you scientifically research a subjective experience like dreams and visions? Like you said, there’s no objective, there’s nothing, a chart you could look at or a graph and say, “Yeah, this person is having a vision right now.” If someone says, “I see my dead father in the corner there.” Yeah, you look and you don’t see anything, so how do you study a subjective experience like that?

Christopher Kerr: Well, again, it’s really important to point out that we’re not trying to find the basis of this, we’re just trying… All we’re trying to do is translate these experiences and document them with some scientific rigor, so again, you rule out confusion. A very important thing that we did was we talked to these patients every day up until death, because dying is a process, and we wanted to see the kinda changes that happened as patients near death. We were very good at coming up with questionnaires, for example, that were standardized, so we scale things, so, “How real is this to you, zero to 10?” We looked at the content. We asked whether it was comforting, distressing or both, and again we graded that.

So we were trying to at least do some comparisons and to put some structure behind our findings, and then we had more open-ended questions where we asked people to go into more of a narrative, and we analyzed that actually, and then there was filming, and then we looked at… We did interesting things, we put known validated instruments on the topic of post-traumatic growth and we applied it to these people, so could it be true that even though there’s physical lessening and decline, could you psychologically, spiritually be actually growing and adapting and gaining insight and understanding during the dying process? So dying is a paradox. And so those are some of the ways we approached this.

Brett McKay: And then just to be clear, you’re not making any claims about the source of these dreams, like they’re supernatural or embraced by the light-type stuff, right?

Christopher Kerr: Yeah, so if there’s one ground we wanted to be solid on was that. The risk of going into this research is that it’s this blank canvas and you can paint your own biases and perspectives. And we are really, really clear, we’re looking at the predeath process without trying to extrapolate into the afterlife, the religious paranormal, anything like that at all. We’re simply trying to record and translate their experiences without assigning it either cause or meaning.

Brett McKay: So based on your research, big picture, what do these predeath dreams and visions have in common? When do they typically start, and what do you see most frequently with their content?

Christopher Kerr: Sure. We generally see them appear around the two to three-week mark prior to death, although we’ve gone months upstream and we do see them there as well, and generally, the path is an increase in frequency of these events as one approaches death, and then during that time, as you get closer, the content also shifts, so the closer you get to death, the more likely it is that you see people who you’ve loved and lost. And what’s really fascinating is we measured comfort levels to content, so does this content give you a high level, or a low level of content? We found that the most comforting dreams were the dreams where people were reunited with those they loved, so there’s this built-in process that as you get closer to death, the fear of actually dying lessens and you’re ever more comforted by your inner experiences, which includes reconnecting. Some really interesting themes come out though, you tend to edit and remove the people who either harmed or conditioned their love for you, so you may see one parent and not another, that the whole idea of time and distance seems to go away, so you could have lost a parent when you were five, and you’re 95, but it’s her voice you here, so it’s like you’re being put back together to the most fundamental relationships that you’ve had, and they tend to focus on love and sometimes forgiveness, if you have wounds from having lived but that need to address, often those appear in these processes as well.

Brett McKay: And just to be clear, this happens for people who know that they are dying, you don’t have this experience if you die in a car accident or something like that.

Christopher Kerr: I get that question a lot, and so about 10% of deaths are acute, and it’s a hard thing to study obviously, but you’ve gotta wonder sometimes the expression, “My life flashed before my eyes.” And this week, there was a case that was widely reported in the media around the world, I actually have somebody who… They were doing a brain study on seizures and he happened to die in the study, and before death, and others have reported this, he had this massive dumping of this certain type of wave which is focused on memory and recall, and that was just prior to death. So yeah, there’s no way to know, but it is interesting what the dying tell us, even those who are very acute and sudden death, but it’s hard to tell.

Brett McKay: And also the way you describe these dreams and visions, for some people, they have visions while they’re awake, correct? And then some people, they just have dreams, very vivid dreams?

Christopher Kerr: Yeah, we’re really stuck there, and this is where I am really quite frankly don’t know what to do with this. The thing of it is that we call them dreams ’cause that’s the only nomenclature we have. The truth is, the things we hear the most from our patients is this, “You don’t understand, I don’t normally dream,” or, “This was virtual for me, it was a happening, I’m not recalling it, it occurred.” And when we ask for how real it is, they score a 10 outta 10, and it’s not like we walk in and see people who are seeing things that we don’t see. Dying at its core is progressive sleep. You’re in and out of sleep states, and this may be a different form of sleeping and dreaming, where it blurs into wakefulness, it’s really hard to decipher that, like lucid dreaming?

Brett McKay: Yeah, yeah. Lucid dreaming, no, yeah, that’s a good description, so I think to give people an idea of what these visions and dreams are like, I think it would be helpful to describe some for us, and this is what you do in your book, Death is but a Dream. One that I found really powerful was the predeath vision of your patient, Mary, tell us about her.

Christopher Kerr: Oh, sure, yeah, Mary was wonderful, and actually, I’m still in touch with members of her family 20 years later, or whatever it’s been, and Mary was a magnificent woman and artist, and very communicative about what she was experiencing at the end of her life, so she was making references to people and things, and she had four children who were always at the bedside, and they understood the references, and then outta nowhere, she starts cradling a baby that they couldn’t see obviously, cooing and kissing the baby and stroking the infant’s head, and she kept referring to him as Danny, and nobody knew the reference, and then a day or two later, her sister flew in from another state, and the children say, mom’s dreaming of Danny, and then the mystery was solved.

Danny was her first child, and who had been lost shortly after birth, he passed away after birth, and there’s a wound that was so painful that she wouldn’t talk about it in life. And we see this a lot, this spiritual or psychologic wounds and damages that may not have been… May not have been addressed in life actually get addressed in the dying process, and we see it with veterans who have had PTSD and survivor’s guilt, those are wounds that often get healed, we’ve got a lot of case… But an awful lot of mothers and fathers who have lost children seem to be reunited again back to this idea that they’re put together or made whole. Yeah. It’s really pretty remarkable.

Brett McKay: Yeah, you’ve treated several veterans over the years, and you had one, a World War II vet who, before he died, he started seeing dead comrades of his in his visions.

Christopher Kerr: Yeah, he was remarkable because he… That was another family who came in and actually contributed to the book. He was from Texas and went to war at, I think he was 17, and he was on the USS Texas and the Normandy, and he never spoke of what had happened, he wouldn’t go to veteran events, he was so traumatized, and his wife obviously was able to validate that had suffered horribly with nightmares and restless sleep and cried in his sleep, and he came in because he couldn’t sleep ’cause these visions, now these nightmares were getting more intense and disruptive and really not allowing him to rest. And in his dreams initially, he’s seeing body parts and hearing screams, and then I come in one day and he had slept beautifully, and he had two dreams, one that was extremely comforting, which was, he got to relieve what he said was the best day of his life when he got his discharge papers, and the other one was a neutral dream. And what had happened was, he was on the beach in Normandy and he’s approached by a soldier who tells him, “We’re coming for you now.”

And somehow in that interaction, he was reached in a way he couldn’t reach in life, which was that he was relieved of that burden and the nightmares, and he rested peacefully and he died in sleep. But it was remarkable to think of how many decades he had struggled with this, and those parts of ourselves are residual, they’re there, and they come to surface at the end, which really makes sense. Dying changes your perspective and your perceptions, your vantage point. You’re not gonna think about taxes or whether I’ve gotta get my car oil changed, you’re gonna ultimately be distilled down to the most important elements of having lived. These processes don’t deny the hard parts of living. This isn’t about flowers and rainbows, it’s about you, and for a guy whose life was so defined early and then haunted by war, it just makes sense that this is what came to him at the end.

Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors.

And now back to the show. And so you mentioned, with some people, these dreams, time stops existing. It’s very fluid. They’ll go backwards and forward in time. I think you talked about one example, you had a patient where he started seeing a dead uncle that had died a long time ago, and then the guy himself started thinking like, “Man, I’m back in 1922. I’m 10 years old again.” Is that a pretty common thing to happen?

Christopher Kerr: Yeah. It’s really weird because they’ll come in and out and they’ve got a foot in both worlds for parts of this, and most people are very unfiltered or disinhibited in describing it, and it’s a sort of experience, it’s interesting, they don’t come out asking questions. The time for therapy is over. These are their actual lived experiences, so they’ll describe them that way. In that case, the guy just comes out of it and he’s going, “Wow, it’s like I’m in 1927. How’d they do that?” So there’s some bewilderment, but what always intrigues me is if that happened to you or I tonight, we’d be pretty rattled. That’s not what happens. There’s a knowing that comes with this, and again, it goes back to this idea that it’s felt like it occurred, but they’re not haunted, and they don’t wake up looking for metaphors or analytic. I’ve never had a patient say, “Hey, Doc, what do you think this means?” They just come out of it as though it was an actual experience.

Brett McKay: So a lot of your patients that are dying, they see dead family members, but some patients don’t see family members. Any patients that fit that bill to come to mind?

Christopher Kerr: Yeah, an awful lot of people dream of themes of travel, which are pretty clear to understand there’s transition, or somebody’s waiting for them, usually that feels in their description that it’s a guide or they’re confident that they’re not alone. This idea they’re not alone, it’s really important. I see that a lot with children. Pets are extremely common, I don’t know, it’s almost 40%, and they’d often be the pets from childhood, and if you think about it, whether human or pet, in terms of objects of our love that’s unconditional and who we feel that unconditioned love back, pets are indistinguishable from some of our best human relationships, so you’ll hear a lot, and it’s funny because they may not recall the details of the pet before they start the dying process, but as they get deeper, their recollection, and it goes to the full, all senses, it’s like, “I can smell my mother’s perfume.” That kind of thing. And the same is true with the animals. There’s this idea of reuniting with something that was really formative and impactful to them.

Brett McKay: So oftentimes these visions are very positive. People have them and they feel a sense of integration, it gives them comfort, but you’ve had patients who have negative experiences with these visions and dreams. Any examples come to mind there?

Christopher Kerr: Yeah, about 12-15% of people have pretty traumatic, if not discomforting experiences, and probably the best example, and his name was Dwayne, and he was a super jovial guy, despite the fact he was in his 40s and he had spent most of his life in prison. He had had neck cancer, so he had open wounds on his neck, and he’s talking to us and we’re asking about these dreams, at first he starts joking, “They’re all sexual.” Then all of a sudden he starts to shake and cry, and this is all on film, and he reveals what he’s experiencing is the people who he’s harmed in his life, and he had seriously harmed some people, mostly in self-defense, he says, who were stabbing him where his open wounds were, and again, not denying death, these events, and they’re not obscuring the actual life that the person lived. But what happened was, and this is so true of these more negative, discomforting ones is they’re often the most transformational, and he wakes up and he asked to speak to a daughter.

And we got a hold of her, brought her in, and for the first time, he came to some kinda reckoning, and he apologized for who he was and said that he loved her very, very much, and this happened in the hallway and they wouldn’t let go of one another, and then after that, he slept. Gain, soothed, healed, put back together in some way, and that’s what I think is so interesting is these negative ones actually aren’t and don’t end up feeling that way, at least to me. Forgiveness is real, accounting for things is real, being released from obligations is real, so although they’re negative, they end up being pretty meaningful.

Brett McKay: You have a chapter on children, which is always the saddest thing to happen, when a child dies, and for a child, they might not know anyone who died. Their grandparents might still be alive, so when you have children going through this process, what do they dream or have visions of?

Christopher Kerr: Children do this remarkably well, and I’m actually an adult doctor by training, so I have this discomfort and recoil around ill children, but it’s a long story, but I was forced to participate over the years, and now I’m very involved with overseeing children’s care. A couple of things that I think are fascinating, one is that these experiences are so self-informing, the idea that we’re going to either deny somebody the reality of their own dying processes, the joke is on us because these experiences, even in very demented patients often become informing, and that’s true with children, children figure this out and in a very interesting way, so yeah, they often won’t know an adult who has died, but inevitably they know a pet, an animal that has, may not be their’s, it could be their neighbor’s or grandparent’s, and they’ll come back to them, and the meaning tends to be the same, and again, these children, several of whom are on film, and interesting, on the film, two of them say the same thing, which is basically, the presence of this dog that I lost, or my grandmother’s parrot, means that I’m not alone, and that I’m loved, and they typically see them in health.

And then they’ll do very interesting things because they don’t have a concept of finality, of mortality at all, and they don’t know what it’s like to be without the person or situation they’re dependent on or within. So in the film, one young lady dreams that she’s in a castle, and so she imagined that she’s actually surrounded all the way around 360 and secured, and there’s warm light coming in. And when we ask what it meant, she goes, “It’s a safe place.” The other young lady, she was 13, raised by a single mom. She didn’t know life separate from her dependency on her mother, but what she did is she had a dream where her mother’s best friend who had died shows up, and she’s in her mother’s room, adjusting the curtains, a light in her mother’s room, so this fear of being, again, without her mother was replaced by a maternal figure. And again, what kills me is these kids know intuitively what this means. They’re not interested in the analytic piece of it, they’re more interested in how they were made to feel and what they came to understand, and again, the idea is that they’re leaving something, but that they’re gonna be okay, that they’re not alone, they’re secure, and that they’re loved.

Brett McKay: So looking at all these experiences and researching this, again, you can’t make a hypothesis about the source of them, like are they coming from beyond, or is it just in the psyche? But do you have… Like have you theorized like why is it that so many people go through this process before they die, where they start having visions of loved ones and dead dogs and things like that? What do you think… What do you think is the purpose of it?

Christopher Kerr: I’m probably a good messenger on this because I don’t necessarily have a religious philosophy, and the more spiritual, paranormal stuff actually intuitively creeped me out, so it’s not validating a view I have. I think where I end up is, one, is just to have immense reverence for it, and I think the other… The big take-home for me is that dying is more than we see and that there’s a hopeful, more positive story and the overarching theme is really love and that we remain connected to those who we’ve loved and lost, so that there’s this continuity between and across lives, and it sounds cliche, but that they’re never gone from us, we end up where we began. And I don’t know whether that argues for a continued consciousness because the people who died seem to have access to the people who are still living. I don’t know, and to be honest with you, I don’t care, I’ve just learned to respect it and to be in awe of it, and maybe it’s not for us to know, and I think that’s maybe where we end up.

Brett McKay: Okay, so people have these visions of family members before they die, possibly it’s an integration it’s just the transition from life to death, find comfort, but what about… You said early on in our conversation that you think these dreams help the caretakers of the dying, what effect have you seen these predeath visions have on those who are taking care of dying family members?

Christopher Kerr: Oh, it’s immense, it’s powerful. This makes sense. How we see somebody leave us absolutely influences how we grieve, how we process, how we go from loss to remembrance, is death horrific and a lessening and an emptying of finality versus something that’s actually life-affirming. So imagine, and I’ve seen this so many times, you’ve got two life partners together, been together 60 years, and they’ve lost a child, and one spouse is looking at his partner and she’s holding the child that’s lost, that completely recontextualized dying from horror, pain, loss, emptiness, to actual love connectedness, and again, life affirmation.

So we looked at this, and we’ve actually done two studies, and I think in aggregate we’ve got surveys or interviews of over 700 bereaved family members, and just what seems obvious is true, which is that it absolutely influenced them in very positive ways, particularly if it’s explained and it’s given some kind of understanding. What we did was, then we looked at various instruments, there’s instruments you can use, survey instruments, to measure grief processing, and people who had witnessed this in a positive way, absolutely showed a healthier adaptation through the process of grief, and so it’s gone from something you see anecdotally to something that’s objectively measurable. And my own view is that those stories are some of the most meaningful, is how those left behind are influenced by their loved one dying, if they’re seeing these things.

Brett McKay: How do you hope your work changes the way we approach the dying process particularly in the West?

Christopher Kerr: Yeah, it’s a great qualifier because what’s really, really important is there are cultures and peoples who for whom this is just baked into their belief system. I’m working with a film producer in Australia who’s dealing with the indigenous people in South America and Australia, and this is actually part of how they remain connected to their ancestors, and it’s just a given. I hope it increases a conversation, I hope again, it views dying from a strictly medical paradigm and more of a human event, one that recognizes that the patient has something to say, that they have meaning right up until the very end. I hope it brings the loved one closer to them, and that somehow they remain connected and they can process loss differently. I hope, honestly, that it gets pulled into a more human realm than a sterilized medical one. This has to be more than… Death has to be more than medical futility and failure, and I think we’re seeing that more and more as particularly baby boomers are facing this issue. They’re not viewing medicine in the same… It’s a tool in the toolbox, but that’s not the end of it, so we see death cafes and death doulas, so I just hope this work enters that conversation and it’s more rich and meaningful and reclaimed.

Brett McKay: Well, you mentioned that you discovered that your audience, your primary audience is really the family members who are taking care of dying people and not so much the medical field, but have you seen… Have you gotten a toehold a little bit in the world of medicine, where you see doctors taking these visions seriously?

Christopher Kerr: Yeah, we do see… We’ve some evidence to suggest that the light that’s been shone on this has put it on the radar at least. I think what’s most interesting is that the doctors… There’s a set of doctors that… You’re basically preaching to the choir, and the ones that recognize this actually experienced it personally rather than clinically, so I think what it does is it’s probably… There’s some data that suggests that there’s a reluctance to acknowledge this, and I think that helps. I think that empowering the nurses and the folks who really do this work at the bedside, who care for patients, I think it’s given them a stronger voice. I think there’s some evidence for that. Yeah, I think so, it’s a harder rock to chip away at, but I think maybe we are.

Brett McKay: Let’s say someone is listening to this and they’ve got a loved one who is dying, and I think everyone listening to this eventually will have a loved one who’s gonna die, and your loved ones having these predeath dreams, and they’re talking about them, how do you respond when they tell you, “Oh, I see my long-dead grandmother over there in the corner.” How do you interact with that?

Christopher Kerr: The first rule of anybody who’s having that experience is, don’t fragment it, don’t counter it, don’t try to redirect them to the present. You obviously acknowledge and validate. We see this a lot clinically, when people try to tell a patient to deny their reality, it’s harmful, and then dying, that’s already lonely, becomes more isolating, so encouraging to not only… You need to give it permission to occur and to encourage people. I’ll give you a very quick story. Oftentimes, dying people will revert to their native language, and then there was an immigrant from Poland, and I come in and the daughter’s in the corner of the room looking scared as her mom’s recalling in Polish her childhood, and the daughter’s alarmed, thinking that she’s got brain tumor or it’s drugs or whatever, explained that it’s normal, etcetera. Come back the next day, and she’s got a notepad, and she’s hearing for the first time rich details about her mom’s childhood friends, her grandparents, the pet she had, so my point is, get closer to it, ask, honor, and you might be surprised that you’re in there too, and there’s a lot of richness in hearing how somebody is describing the best parts of having lived.

Brett McKay: Well, Chris, this has been a great conversation. Is there someplace people can go to learn more about the book and your work?

Christopher Kerr: Sure, sure. There is a website, it’s, and at that site, there’s some summary of our research findings, I think we have seven or eight manuscripts published about 1,500 patients. There’s also links to patient family videos, which I think is the most important part. There’s a link to the TEDX Talk, also how to see the Netflix special and the PBS show, as well as the book.

Brett McKay: Well, fantastic. Well, Chris Kerr, thanks for his time. It’s been a pleasure.

Christopher Kerr: Very much so. Thank you. Great questions.

Brett McKay: My guest here is Dr. Christopher Kerr, he’s the author of the book, Death Is But a Dream. It’s available on and book stores everywhere. You can find more information about his work at his website, Dr. Christopher Also check out our show notes at, where you can find links to resources where we delve deeper into this topic.

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