By Annette Pinder
Dr. Christopher Kerr is the Chief Executive Officer and Chief Medical Officer at Hospice & Palliative Care of Buffalo. He is a hospice physician, end-of-life researcher, and the acclaimed author of the book and documentary, Death Is But A Dream. I recently spoke to Dr. Kerr, hoping he could help me better understand the fragility of life and loss, particularly in light of the past year, during which more than 562,000 people in the U.S. have died of COVID-19 and 605,520 people lost their lives to cancer.
Death Is But A Dream is the result of years of research conducted by Dr. Kerr and his team at Hospice & Palliative Care Buffalo exploring end-of-life experiences (ELEs), the impacts they have on the dying and their loved ones, and how what they learned can help improve the comfort of the dying experience and the experience of hospice care.
Dr. Kerr explained that ELEs are significant, subjective experiences within the dying process that occur while asleep or awake that can happen hours, weeks, or even months before a person passes. Common themes patients have expressed during these experiences are love and comfort; a feeling of preparing to travel somewhere; that they are watching or interacting with loved ones now deceased; and that loved ones are waiting for them. Hospice patients report these experiences as being extremely vivid and real; saying they provide comfort and lessen their fear of death; and hold personal meaning and insight. One patient, Jeanne, discussed her experience in a video at https://youtu.be/ECmFizzZEg0, after which she told her family that she looked forward to being reunited with loved ones who had passed. Many others expressed similar experiences that brought them comfort.
Like many who practice medicine, Dr. Kerr initially expressed skepticism of these experiences. Now, he expresses hope that they will open the possibility that there is light within the darkness of dying, saying, “What if, at the end of your life, at some appointed hour, the lost return, distant feelings become familiar, and meaning is restored?” If any of that is true, then dying is illuminating.”
Dr. Kerr comes from a long line of physicians. He has an undergraduate degree in Psychology, a Doctorate in Medicine, a PhD in Neurobiology, and completed his residency in Internal Medicine at the University of Rochester. Not only is he a recognized clinician, but he is also an educator and scientist. He and his research team have published multiple studies on this topic and documented over 1,500 end-of-life events, many of which are videotaped.
Watch Dr. Kerr’s TEDx Buffalo Talk, viewed approximately 3.5 million times and the subject of reports on BBC, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Scientific American Mind, Huffington Post, and Psychology Today at https://youtu.be/rbnBe-vXGQM. I found the Death Is But A Dream documentary moving, meaningful, powerful, and yes, illuminating. Watch for upcoming showings on PBS. Also, check out the new Netflix docuseries Surviving Death, in which Dr. Kerr’s findings are featured in episode five.
Learn more at www.drchristopherkerr.com, and purchase the book at https://tinyurl.com/4bejjz94. For information on Hospice & Palliative Care of Buffalo, visit www.hospicebuffalo.com or call 716-686-8077.