Christopher Kerr is a hospice doctor. All of his patients die. Yet he has cared for thousands of patients who, in the face of death, speak of love and grace. Beyond the physical realities of dying are unseen processes that are remarkably life-affirming. These include dreams that are unlike any regular dream. Described as "more real than real," these end-of-life experiences resurrect past relationships, meaningful events and themes of love and forgiveness; they restore life's meaning and mark the transition from distress to comfort and acceptance.
Drawing on interviews with over 1,400 patients and more than a decade of quantified data, Dr. Kerr reveals that pre-death dreams and visions are extraordinary occurrences that humanize the dying process. He shares how his patients' stories point to death as not solely about the end of life, but as the final chapter of humanity's transcendence. Kerr's book also illuminates the benefits of these phenomena for the bereaved, who find solace in seeing their loved ones pass with a sense of calm closure.
Beautifully written, with astonishing real-life characters and stories, this book is at its heart a celebration of our power to reclaim the dying process as a deeply meaningful one. Death Is But a Dream is an important contribution to our understanding of medicine's and humanity's greatest mystery.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.10(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
It is true that everyone will have come across the story of an old couple who died within days of each other. I have known many. I met people who followed their partner into death in the absence of any clear medical prognosis. We all knew that it was due to a broken heart, and that this was neither a metaphor nor a romanticized assessment. It is now established as medical fact that a real-life broken heart can lead to cardiac consequences. The medical diagnosis has a name: broken-heart syndrome, or in medical parlance, stress-induced or takotsubo cardiomyopathy. It usually happens quietly, surreptitiously, with no further ado.
A broken heart best describes what happened to ninety-year-old Bernard—Benny to his loved ones— shortly after his wife Gloria’s passing. At the time of Gloria’s death, Benny had been in good health. At eighty- even, he was active, gregarious, and independent, visiting a lifetime’s worth of friends and family. He loved to drive, and did so daily around Buffalo, the town in which he had lived his whole life. After Gloria’s precipitous death from an infection, he was inconsolable. He kept wishing for an early death, imploring God to let him rejoin his “Glo.”
Benny would visit the cemetery daily, sometimes up to three times a day. There, he would sit or kneel in front of Gloria’s gravestone, praying and talking to her, resurrecting her in memory. When his daughter Maureen tried to dissuade him from prostrating himself, his rebuke was immediate. “To each his own,” he answered.
On Valentine’s Day 2016, exactly two months after Gloria’s passing, Benny insisted on sticking to his daily routine despite subzero temperatures. When Maureen arrived at the cemetery, she could not refrain from asking the question whose answer she knew too well: “What are you trying to do? Kill yourself?” Benny did not miss a beat: “I could only wish.” This is the same man who had found it in himself to tell his dying wife that it was “okay to let go now.” But it wasn’t, not then, not now, not ever.
On that fateful day, with temperatures plummeting to minus 15, Maureen found her father walking around Gloria’s tombstone. He looked like he was going around in circles, resolute and heavy-footed as he worked his way through the snow. From a distance, she first assumed it was the cold that kept him moving, but she soon noticed that he was walking in too deliberate a pattern and was retracing his steps. As she drew closer, she saw that he had been carving a heart in the snow around her grave.
Benny was usually solemn and reflective after his visits to the cemetery. Things were different that evening. He appeared breathless and uncomfortable. His status worsened over the next forty-eight hours, and by the time he was taken to the emergency room, he was critically ill. He was diagnosed with having suffered a heart attack that had been stuttering over the past few days. Benny’s heart literally broke on Valentine’s Day.
The absence of immediate medical intervention had caused an irreversible heart condition that required hospice care. In the space of forty-eight hours, Benny had gone from being fully independent to being unable to fend for himself. He had to move in with his daughter. He could no longer visit Gloria’s grave, so he began to visit her in his dreams. Or, as his daughter evocatively stated, “He is living in his dreams now.” She could hear him at night, singing to his beloved Gloria in Polish, the shared language of their upbringing. This once overly social man would awake only briefly to eat, preferring to return to bed so he could close his eyes and revisit his wife.
Old couples have much to teach us about true love. Their bond requires no big declarations, loyalty tests, or dramatic endings. It just needs and takes time. It unravels and infuses every fiber of their being, so much so that they cannot conceive of living without it. And so they don’t. They move on through life’s obstacles with the certainty of its existence. They continue to feel and believe in it even when the person through whom that love originated leaves them. For elderly patients especially, their love for their other half is who they are. Job, ambition, hobbies, mortgage, and plans have come and gone. What is left and what matters is the relationships they have maintained, cherished, and tended to through a lifetime of small gestures and greetings, loving glances and humorous words, shared stories and forgiven faults.
It may be that our cultural representations of romantic love have it all wrong. Love at its best, deepest, and strongest is not about youth, impulsivity, drama, or despair. It is about constancy, patience, trust, forgiveness, and sustained acceptance. It is about letting go of the living and not letting go of the dead.