By Ivan Shen; Edited by Kaitlin Zhong
As Benjamin Franklin once wrote in a letter, nothing is certain but death and taxes.
However, while it seems that it is possible to avoid taxes, we have yet to figure out a way to evade death. The concept of death carries a different meaning for every individual; however, a common theme for many people is fear of death. In many cultures even speaking of the topic or mentioning anything related to the deceased may be considered taboo.
Perhaps this fear is ingrained in our fear of the unknown. After all, we cannot ask the dead what dying felt like. Or maybe we fear death because it is often portrayed as painful or sudden or involving a great deal of grief and a sense of loss for the dying individual and their loved ones.
But death might in fact be a comforting experience. End of life dreams and visions (ELDVs) are well-documented since ancient times and across many cultures. They refer to extremely vivid and hyper-realistic dreams experienced by individuals near the end of their lives and often involve an experience related to deceased family, friends, or a past trauma.
Often in medicine, we are told to consider holistic medicine, especially for end of life or palliative care. While yes, we do alleviate symptoms such as pain, we are asked to consider and accommodate for the emotional, social and spiritual wellbeing of the individual so they may have a ‘dignified death’. And it appears that the human body and mind already has an in-built system designed to do alleviate our emotional suffering; an area of which biomedical treatments may never be able to achieve.
ELDVs are comforting experiences. In Dr Christopher Kerr’s Ted Talk “I See Dead People: Dreams and Visions of the Dying”, he reads multiple anecdotes and shows multiple interviews of individuals describing their end of life experiences. Many of those anecdotes show common themes of comfort and warmth provided by familiar, loving figures in their lives, whether they be deceased or living.
However, it is even more interesting that some people relive past traumatic events. Stories of former soldiers experiencing war again, or stories of an old lady hurt and betrayed by a childhood friend when she was very young. And the most beautiful thing is that after reliving these experiences which have hurt them on a deep emotional level, ELDVs provide them closure. The soldier then dreams of sitting on a beach alone, when an unfamiliar soldier walks up to him and informs him “Soon, they (his fellow deceased soldiers) are going to come and get you”. The old lady sees her childhood friend in a vision, reunited again and this time her friend apologises and tells her “You’re a good person. If you need help just call my name.”
As individuals come closer to their time of death, it has been reported on a very small-scale study of 66 individuals, that traumatic dreams become less frequent as more comforting experiences take over. Of those comforting experiences, the ELDVs start to involve more people who are deceased rather than those who are living, almost as if nature helps the individual slowly wave goodbye to those who are still living.
As Dr Kerr states in his talk, ELDVs do not mean individuals are confused. Confusion tends to be associated with anxiety or agitation, yet people who experience ELDVs are all peaceful and are all smiling when we see videos of interviews prior to their death.
The experience of ELDVs almost feels cathartic. It appears to cleanse an individual’s spiritual wellbeing of any unpleasant feelings of fear, guilt or pain which they may have hidden inside their heart for their entire lives. Yet at the same time, they do not bring about any huge surges of positive emotion like euphoria or excitement.
Instead just a calm mind, warmth and solace.
I forget where I read or heard of this, but I was really confused and strangely enlightened when I saw someone say that we as humans are just ‘atoms that know we are made of atoms’. It showed me a perspective where on the most fundamental level, we are no different to every single object that surrounds us in the universe: from the earth to the sky to the stars and to the planets. Our human brain is just one of infinite possible arrangements of atoms and yet we are conscious.
Perhaps consciousness is a gift. A gift that nature has given us temporarily. Temporarily, as all things must come to an end. But when that end comes, nature is gentle. Through visions and dreams, it eases our spiritual suffering. It does not provide us extreme emotions whether they be happy or sad, and instead it provides us a feeling of peace, because in death we are assimilating back into nature. It ends all that we have experienced emotionally and spiritually on a gentle note.
In death, we dream to achieve peace and comfort as we return our gift of consciousness and life to Mother Nature.
Tedx Talks. (2015, December 2nd). I See Dead People: Dreams and Visions of the Dying | Dr. Christopher Kerr | TEDxBuffalo[Video]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rbnBe-vXGQM&t=639s&ab_channel=TEDxTalks