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What Deathbed Visions Teach Us About Living

ScienceWhat Deathbed Visions Teach Us About Living


The talk received millions of views and thousands of comments, many from nurses grateful that someone in the medical field validated what they have long understood. Others, too, posted personal stories of having witnessed loved ones’ visions in their final days. For them, Kerr’s message was a kind of confirmation of something they instinctively knew — that deathbed visions are real, can provide comfort, even heal past trauma. That they can, in some cases, feel transcendent. That our minds are capable of conjuring images that help us, at the end, make sense of our lives.

Nothing in Kerr’s medical training prepared him for his first shift at Hospice Buffalo one Saturday morning in the spring of 1999. He had earned a degree from the Medical College of Ohio while working on a Ph.D. in neurobiology. After a residency in internal medicine, Kerr started a fellowship in cardiology in Buffalo. To earn extra money to support his wife and two young daughters, he took a part-time job with Hospice Buffalo. Until then, Kerr had worked in the conventional medical system, focused on patients who were often tethered to machines or heavily medicated. If they recounted visions, he had no time to listen. But in the quiet of Hospice, Kerr found himself in the presence of something he hadn’t seen since his father’s death: patients who spoke of people and places visible only to them. “So just like with my father, there’s just this feeling of reverence, of something that wasn’t understood but certainly felt,” he says.

During one of his shifts, Kerr was checking on a 70-year-old woman named Mary, whose grown children had gathered in her room, drinking wine to lighten the mood. Without warning, Kerr remembers, Mary sat up in her bed and crossed her arms at her chest. “Danny,” she cooed, kissing and cuddling a baby only she could see. At first, her children were confused. There was no Danny in the family, no baby in their mother’s arms. But they could sense that whatever their mother was experiencing brought her a sense of calm. Kerr later learned that long before her four children were born, Mary lost a baby in childbirth. She never spoke of it with her children, but now she was, through a vision, seemingly addressing that loss.

In observing Mary’s final days at Hospice, Kerr found his calling. “I was disillusioned by the assembly-line nature of medicine,” Kerr told me. “This felt like a more humane and dignified model of care.” He quit cardiology to work full time at the bedsides of dying patients. Many of them described visions that drew from their lives and seemed to hold meaning, unlike hallucinations resulting from medication, or delusional, incoherent thinking, which can also occur at the end of life. But Kerr couldn’t persuade other doctors, even young residents making the rounds with him at Hospice, of their value. They wanted scientific proof.

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.



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