“I see dead people,” said Cole Sear, the fictional boy character in the 1999 American horror film The Sixth Sense. What if people could see dead people? And what if it wasn’t scary? What would that mean?

Dr. Christopher Kerr, CEO/chief medical officer for the Center for Hospice and Palliative Care in Buffalo, N.Y., and a team of researchers are studying the dreams of terminally ill patients who reported having dreams or visions of lost loved ones and described their dreams as feeling “more real than real.”

Community members are invited to join Dr. Kerr at the 6th Annual PHorum: Perspectives in Healthcare 5-7 p.m. Thursday, March 7, at the Hilton Santa Barbara Beachfront Resort. Dr. Kerr will share his research on Validating Dreams & Visions of the Dying.

Admission to the event is free with registration. To register, visit https://interland3.donorperfect.net/weblink/weblink.aspx?name=E9655&id=102.

After the keynote presentation, Dr. Michael Kearney, Visiting Nurse & Hospice Care associate medical director, will further explore with Dr. Kerr how these end-of-life dreams and visions are characterized by a consistent sense of realism, and how they may be a profound source of potential meaning and comfort for both the dying and bereaved who remain.  

End-of-life experiences are intrinsic to the process of dying, and have been reported throughout history and across cultures. Yet, the dreams and visions of the dying have been dismissed by the medical community as confusion or hallucinations.

No one had ever asked dying patients directly or attempted to quantify their end-of-life experiences — until now.

Dr. Kerr and the research team have interviewed more than 1,400 terminally ill patients, and are the first to quantify and document end-of-life dreams and visions directly from patients during their final days.

The vast majority of patients reported at least one end-of-life experience, and shared a common thread in their dream content: 72 percent dreamed of deceased loved ones; 59 percent dreamed of traveling or preparing to go; 29 percent dreamed of the living; and 28 percet had “other meaningful experiences.”

The researchers also discovered that the different types of visions and dreams provided different levels of comfort. On a scale of 1 to 5, where 5 is the highest level of comfort, those who dreamed of deceased loved ones reported a comfort level of 4.23; those who dreamed of the living reported 3.03.

People who are close to death often reported dreams of deceased loved ones at their death beds, usually “invisible” to others in the room.

For example, Mary, a dying woman in bed surrounded by her four children. One day she was sitting up and cradling a baby no one else could see. She  called the baby Danny, but none of her children knew of a Danny.

The next day Mary’s sister visited and shared that Danny was Mary’s first born child, a stillborn. The loss was so deep that Mary never spoke of Danny; but as she faced end of life, her indescribable loss returned to her transformed into tangible love and peace.

Many dying patients, like Mary, have physical wounds that could not be cured, but through end-of-life dreams, their spiritual wounds are healed.

Dr. Kearney has spent some 30 years working as a physician in end-of-life care.

He trained and worked at St. Christopher’s Hospice in London with Dame Cicely Saunders, the founder of the modern hospice movement, and subsequently worked for many years as medical director of Our Lady’s Hospice in Dublin, and later with Professor Balfour Mount at McGill University in Montreal.

He is currently a medical director of the Palliative Care Consultation Service at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital and an associate medical director at Visiting Nurse and Hospice Care in Santa Barbara. He is the author of two popular books in the field, Mortally Wounded and A Place of Healing.

— Visiting Nurse & Hospice Care.