Here is the full transcript of Dr. Christopher Kerr’s TEDx Talk: I See Dead People: Dreams and Visions of the Dying at TEDxBuffalo conference.
I read a recent survey, and the title was, “Survey on American Fears,” and what Americans fear most is public speaking and dying. In other words, my TEDx talk. If that weren’t tough enough, tonight’s topic is illumination, and the question is really: can dying be illuminating?
What we know of dying is based on what we have observed as witnesses. We have all seen grim, physiological decline and suffering, and we’ve all felt profound loss. So, if there is light within the darkness of dying, it’s in the experience not in the observing.
So tonight, I’m going to share with you the words and experience of dying patients. And my hope is that you hear what I have heard: the dying often describing their end of life in ways that are actually life-affirming, and rich with meaning, love, and even grace.
Before I go any further, I need to give a few disclaimers. If it looks like I cannot stand still and I’m pacing, it’s because it’s true. The second is that, aside from my mother, nobody has ever described me as particularly spiritual or for that matter, enlightened. And trust me, this talk has nothing to do with the paranormal. A much harder truth for me is that I have a deep aversion to the non-physical, spiritual aspects of dying that goes back to my childhood.
On August 6, 1974, I was 12 years old, and I was standing over the bed of my dying father, who was 42. As he lay in there, he reached out and started playing with my buttons on my shirt, and he said we had to hurry; we had to catch a plane. We were going to go up north and fish like we had before. And that was the last time I saw him.
My point here is I didn’t choose this topic of dying. I feel it has chosen or followed me throughout my life, personally and professionally. Like my father, I became a doctor. This may sound strange, but if you have an aversion to dying, medical schools are a pretty safe place to be. They never mention dying, let alone the experiencing of it. Medical training is learning how to defy death, and when you can’t defy it, you deny it, in whole or in part. This approach to medicine worked for me when I was doing things like working in emergency rooms.
But in 1999, through a series of unusual events, I ended up at this place called hospice. At hospice, the curative science has not only failed the patient but has abandoned the doctor who is, eventually, compelled to be present. And when I was present at the bedside of the dying, I was confronted by what I had seen and tried so hard to forget from my childhood. I saw dying patients reaching and calling out to mothers, and to fathers, and to children, many of whom hadn’t been seen for many years. But what was remarkable was that so many of them looked at peace.
In April of 1999, I was in the room of a patient I was particularly fond of. Her name was Mary. She was nearing the end of her life, and her four children were also present. One day, Mary starts cradling a baby that nobody can see. She refers to him as Danny – a reference nobody understands.
The next day, Mary’s sister arrives from out of town, and explains that Danny was, actually, Mary’s first child, who was stillborn. The loss was so deep that Mary was unable to speak of it during her life. Yet, while dying, this indescribable loss returns to her in some manner of tangible warmth and tangible love. Mary, like so many dying patients, had physical wounds that could not be cured, yet her spiritual wounds were being tended to.
A few weeks later, I went and saw a young man named Tom. I came out to the nurse’s station, and I said, “I think Tom has more time if we just give him some IV antibiotics and some IV fluids.” Without so much as looking up, a nurse named Nancy says, “Nope, he’s dying.”
I say, “Why?”
She says, “Because he’s seeing his deceased mother.”
I say, “I don’t remember that class from medical school!”
She says, “Son, you missed a lot of classes!”
Anyways Tom ends up dying. What Nancy knew that I did not know was that Tom’s end-of-life experiences had meaning. They were significant, and not just to him, but to those of us entrusted with his care. So, if I were to have any worth, I needed to understand, I needed to learn.
I learned that end-of-life experiences are the subjective experiences of the dying and often refer to pre-death dreams and visions. Such experiences have been reported throughout history and across cultures. They are mentioned in the Bible, Plato’s “Republic”, Shakespeare. In our culture, the richest and most thoughtful discussions have always come from the humanities and never medicine but from poets, playwrights, and philosophers. These observers have commented that end-of-life experiences are so frequent they are essentially intrinsic to the process of dying. They’re characterized as real, intense, meaningful; provide comfort, insight, and in so doing, help alleviate the fear of dying.
So why does medicine have so little to say about something that’s so meaningful, and actually, potentially therapeutic, not just for the patient but for the patient’s loved ones? In part, it’s because end-of-life experiences can easily be dismissed as confusion. And it’s true; many dying patients experience confusion as they go through the process. However, in contrast to patients’ experience with end-of-life dreams and visions, confused patients are detached. They have disorganized thinking.