As a comfort care companion for Moffitt Cancer Center, I sat vigil next to a dying patient with cancer with no family.
The patient and family have a choice earlier in their journey as to whether they wish to have a trained companion volunteer sit bedside near end of life. We may be quick to judge when family members can’t be present, but we don’t know the full story. This gentleman’s only brother had to leave to stay with their dying mother in another state. The patient had lesions all over his body and was given something to ease his pain. He mostly rested, but on occasion he would gesture toward a corner. The nurses and I asked questions. Did he want something? Eventually, I decided to just say Yes when he pointed. He looked like he was trying to say “Finally” before going back to sleep.
I did some research.
I’ve learned that cancer patients at end-of-life often have peculiar and profound dreams. Referred to by the medical community as ELDVs – these end-of-life dreams and visions can be so intense that they continue from sleep to wakefulness. They may dream of dead people they knew, love requited or unrequited, forgiveness, unresolved issues and final destinations. They may have visions while awake like seeing their dead relative floating in a corner of the ceiling or seeing a burst of brilliant light. They may offer a chair to an invisible friend. Yes, there are a few dreams that do indeed veer toward the weirder - like dreaming of a plumber practicing dentistry on a cow. (I can relate to those dreamers). Some may call these end-of-life visions and dreams delirium, but it may be more of a luminescent spiritual experience and a cathartic way to transition.
In a study at Hospice in Buffalo New York, nearly every end-of-life patient had dreams and/or visions. Researchers, counselors and palliative care doctors are trying to identify and describe the phenomena. if you ask me, something supernatural is happening that will remain a mystery. For me, I hope it stays that way.
Dr. Kerr, the chief medical officer for Hospice Buffalo in 2016 said “Often when we sedate them, we are sterilizing them from their own dying process. I have done it, and it feels horrible. They’ll say, ‘You robbed me — I was with my wife.’”
In Dr. Kerr’s study of 59 patients at end of life, 52 (88.1%) reported having at least 1 dream or vision.The hospice team explained, “The results of this study suggest that a person’s fear of death often diminishes as a direct result of ELDVs, and what arises is a new insight into mortality. The emotional impact is so frequently positive, comforting, and paradoxically life affirming,” The person is dying physically but emotionally and spiritually, their identity remains present as manifested by dreams/visions.”
I am thriving post bone marrow transplant to tackle a recurrence of acute myeloid leukemia. I still have profound dreams. I sometimes dream that I have cancer again. In one of those dreams, I was destined to die. I was floating, but alive and on the planet. My peace was disturbed by the wailing of my siblings. I couldn’t speak. I wanted to tell them that I’ve been gifted a vision of the awaiting tranquil destination. The dream was actually a nightmare since I couldn’t communicate; I had to watch my anguished family push the medical team to cure me when there was no remedy. I shook my head, trying to send telepathic messages to my sister Amy that all will be okay. She didn’t have my superpower. Having peace and anxiety at the exact same time was a strange sensation. When I woke, sopping wet, I sat for a while with this feeling.
I was eventually comforted when I realized that the anxiety stemmed from intense love, and that there is possibly a profoundly peaceful transition when we pass.I can live, and die, knowing that.
For some levity - there were also floating animals in the dream. And a treehouse.
I believe dreaming is an important part of the cancer journey. My daydreams kept me in tolerable spirits during my bone marrow transplant. My night dreams were revealing and sometimes just downright entertaining. The scary ones were “just dreams.” We may instigate the content of our dreams, or we may be given a supernatural or spiritual experience.
I believe that visions at end of life are a precious phenomenon. I personally don’t want someone to “crack the code.”
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