Book Review: Death Is But a Dream

by Christopher Kerr, MD, PhD, with Carine Mardorossian, PhDAvery
reviewed by Sam Mowe
Death is But a Dream cover

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“The prejudices of present-day medical training have caused an inability to see dying as anything but failure,” writes Christopher Kerr in Death Is But a Dream, “and they compromise the self-soothing power of patients’ end-of-life experiences.” These end-of-life experiences—specifically pre-death dreams and visions—are the subject of Kerr’s compelling new book, which proposes that these experiences can provide patients with a deep sense of love, acceptance, and meaning as death nears.

Kerr became interested in patients’ end-of-life dreams and visions shortly after leaving his training as a cardiologist to become a hospice doctor. He went on to conduct more than 1,200 interviews with dying patients, research that he discussed in a 2015 TEDx Buffalo Talk, which led to his work being covered in The New York Times, Huffington Post, Atlantic Monthly, and other outlets. This public interest in the work was not matched by interest from doctors, Kerr says, which he finds “emblematic of the gap between the perceived and the actual needs of patients and their loved ones.”

Because we all will die, Kerr suggests that medical training that focuses exclusively on defying death will not create the optimal conditions for experiencing death as a sacred event. “Patients are often emotionally and spiritually alive, even enlightened, despite a precipitous physical deterioration,” he writes. “The physical and psychological toll of dying may be undeniable, but it is also what makes the emotional and spiritual changes brought about by end-of-life experiences border on the miraculous.”

The bulk of Death Is But a Dream consists of the stories of Dr. Kerr’s patients. We meet elderly couples separated by death after a lifetime together, the surviving partner keeping their other half alive through vivid dreams. We encounter people who have painful dreams at the end of life but who heal important relationships as death nears. And we hear from children who find acceptance and comfort by reconnecting through dreams with a lost, beloved pet. What comes forth from these stories is a sense that, for many of us, our final hours are our finest, most alive, and deeply felt.

“Within the obvious tragedy of dying are unseen processes that hold meaning,” Kerr writes. What a gift for the living that this book sheds light on the mysterious meaning that can emerge at the end of life. 

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