Finding Hope and Meaning at Life’s End
by Christopher Kerr, MD, PhD
Many of us are so frightened by death that we are unaware of its true potential – that it can be the ultimate experience of healing and grace. Christopher Kerr, a Hospice Doctor, has cared for thousands of people who tell of finding love, insight, and grace before they die. In the transition between life and death, the dying often describe unseen processes that are life-affirming and rich in love. In remarkable and recurring dreams and visions, they see long-lost relatives who have returned to reassure, their past wounds healed, and final forgiveness achieved. In Death is But a Dream: Finding Hope and Meaning at Life’s End, Dr. Kerr presents years of evidence-based research that is movingly translated through the stories of patients who describe dying as much more than the suffering we associate with it. The inner experiences of the dying are often medically ignored, but Dr. Kerr suggests instead that end-of-life experiences ought to be recognized not only “as evidence of the inspiring resilience of the human spirit” but also as clinically relevant.
It was by happenstance that Dr. Kerr, an MD with a PhD in neurobiology who was training as a cardiologist, took a weekend job at Hospice Buffalo for extra income. While tending to his hospice patients, he was struck by the paradox of dying; people were physically deteriorating yet emotionally and spiritually alive, even enlightened. What he witnessed at the bedside had such a profound effect on him that he made it his life’s work.
Death is But a Dream is so intimate and powerful because of the range and depth of the stories of the patients in Dr. Kerr’s care. It’s through their eyes that we see how an experience typically wrought with fear and sorrow can be filled with tranquility and peace. Each anecdote transcends traditional conceptions of the dying experience, offering solace to the dying and their loved ones alike.
We meet an octogenarian couple, Joan and Sonny, whose relationship began when Joan, a child to immigrants, was only eleven. Sonny gave her a plastic ring that she would cherish her whole life. It was fitting that they entered Hospice together, after 57 years of marriage. This is where, 24 hours after their last anniversary, Sonny died. Joan dreamt and called to him every night, which helped her cope with his passing and kept Sonny’s love alive for her as well as for their grieving family.
And then there are the children, who have few reference points for death and lack the language for mortality. Yet, their end-of-life experiences are full of the events, people, and pets they need to approach death with dignity and peace. For thirteen- year old Jessica, the dreams of her deceased dog Shadow were interpreted as “the meaning of love” and left her feeling that she was “not alone” and was in a “safe place”.
Equal parts poetic and life-affirming; Death is But a Dream celebrates our power to reclaim dying as a deeply meaningful and soothing process for both patients and their loved ones, and, more often than not, as a form of spiritually healing.
About the Author
CHRISTOPHER KERR, MD, PhD is the CEO and chief medical officer at Hospice Buffalo. Born and raised in Toronto, Kerr earned his MD as well as a PhD in neurobiology and completed his residency in internal medicine at the University of Rochester. His research has received international attention and has been featured in The New York Times, Atlantic Monthly, and the BBC. He lives on a horse farm in the small town of East Aurora, New York.