What Deathbed Visions Teach Us About Living

This is not only powerful material for thought, it’s also compelling storytelling.

At the time, only a handful of published medical studies had documented deathbed visions, and they largely relied on secondhand reports from doctors and other caregivers rather than accounts from patients themselves. On a flight home from a conference, Kerr outlined a study of his own, and in 2010, a research fellow, Anne Banas, signed on to conduct it with him. Like Kerr, Banas had a family member who, before his death, experienced visions — a grandfather who imagined himself in a train station with his brothers.

The study wasn’t designed to answer how these visions differ neurologically from hallucinations or delusions. Rather, Kerr saw his role as chronicler of his patients’ experiences. Borrowing from social-science research methods, Kerr, Banas and their colleagues based their study on daily interviews with patients in the 22-bed inpatient unit at the Hospice campus in the hope of capturing the frequency and varied subject matter of their visions. Patients were screened to ensure that they were lucid and not in a confused or delirious state. The research, published in 2014 in The Journal of Palliative Medicine, found that visions are far more common and frequent than other researchers had found, with an astonishing 88 percent of patients reporting at least one vision. (Later studies in Japan, India, Sweden and Australia confirm that visions are common. The percentages range from about 20 to 80 percent, though a majority of these studies rely on interviews with caregivers and not patients.)


Kerr has been nagged ever since by the inadequacy of science, and of language, to fully capture the mysteries of the mind. “We were so caught up in trying to quantify and give structure to something so deeply spiritual, and really, we were just bystanders, witnesses to this,” he says. “It feels a little small to be filling in forms when you’re looking at a 90-something-year-old veteran who is back in time 70 years having an experience you can’t even understand.” When Kerr talks about his research at conferences, nurses tend to nod their heads in approval; doctors roll their eyes in disbelief. —DNYUZ

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