For the majority of adults, death is not sudden, but comes at the end of a long and steady decline. In the absence of dementia or the loss of mental faculties, the dying are usually acutely aware of death’s approach and either struggle with or make peace with it, as Elisabeth Kübler-Ross so eloquently described in On Death and Dying.
This coming to terms with death is a process that extends beyond conscious thought and into the realm of the unconscious. This is reflected in the visions and dreams of the dying that can be so vivid at times that the person experiencing them can be mistaken for being delirious or hallucinating in response to medications.
Researchers at the Center for Hospice and Palliative Care in Cheektowaga, New York interviewed 66 patients in the weeks leading up to their deaths about the content of their dreams and found that almost all experienced dreams and visions involving deceased and living friends and relatives. Virtually all were described as feeling intensely real; about one third of the visions occurred while they were awake.
The majority of these dreams and visions were described as comforting and reassuring, especially those involving deceased friends or relatives. Some described encounters with childhood friends, others with long-dead parents and grandparents. One 91-year old woman dreamed of meeting her mother in a garden who reassured her that “everything will be okay;” others dreamed of parents and siblings who hugged and told them they loved them. Still others dreamed of angels, God, a beloved dog from childhood.
A common theme of many dreams was that of preparing for a journey. Some of those interviewed spoke of wanting to die and to join their loved ones, and of having been told it wasn’t their time yet.
The researchers found that the closer the dreams were to the person’s death, the more comforting they became. Likewise, the presence of end-of-life dreams and visions was predictive of a peaceful and calm death.
This study helps us to better understand the final stages of death, and encourages us to be reassured—rather than alarmed—by the presence of these kinds of vivid dreams and visions in the dying. By understanding and being able to talk openly about these dreams with the dying, it becomes possible to share in their acceptance of death as the natural conclusion to life that it is, to comfort them, and to be comforted.