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25 June, 2024
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Do adults and children truly navigate death differently?

Palliative care doctor shares profound insights on death

It’s only really when our time comes that we will know and understand what it’s truly like to die.

It’s a heavy subject, and something many don’t think about, but death is inevitable. It’s something we all have to face at some point, and what happens to us when it comes?

Well, it’s likely that each individual’s experience is slightly different, but if there’s one type of person who knows better than anyone, it’s the palliative care doctors whose vital jobs see them reassure those patients facing the ends of their lives.

One such doctor has recently revealed the differences between how adults and children experience and understand death. This is how what they see as they die deviate from one another.

Speaking on the Next Level Soul podcast, end-of-life care physician Dr Christopher Kerr spoke of his experiences and how children and grown-ups process death uniquely from each other.

Dr Kerr, whose work has been published in a recent book called Death Is But a Dream: Finding Hope and Meaning at Life’s End, is a hospice doctor who has watched all of his patients die.

It’s his belief that what we imagine, dream and ‘see’ as we die is part of the human experience and journey. It’s how we try to understand our lives in our final moments.

Dr Kerr conducted a study with 1,500 of his palliative care patients and the results are fascinating.

In his experience, he says that dying adults tend to go back over their lives and experiences in the form of dreams or daydreams, reliving key experiences and imagining themselves talking to major people in their lives.

Mostly, these fantasies see the person either connecting or reconnecting in a way that allows them to relive positive experiences they’ve had.

But sometimes the person nearing the end of the life is imagining a cathartic absolution, a forgiving of sins, crimes or wrongs.

‘Patients are not denying the bad things and painful things that transpire,’ he says. ‘They seek to address them and use them in a way that’s very interesting.’

In the podcast, Dr Kerr talks emotionally about a patient who had been involved in the Normandy landings when he was just a teenager.

Like so many others, it had made an enormous impact on him and his psyche, but it was something he had never fully confronted or processed. As such, the poor man had been living with PTSD for pretty much his entire life, all without seeking any help.

‘He came into our unit at the end of his life, he was having such horrific experiences where he’s seeing body parts and bloody water and screams and he couldn’t rest,’ said Dr Kerr. ‘Patients need to be relaxed and accepting of their situation, to some extent, in order to die.’

The Normandy veteran came in having trouble sleeping. One day, after he was able to get forty winks, Dr Kerr asked him if he had dreamt.

‘He goes, “I had a great dream, where I relived the best day of my life,” which was the day he received his discharge papers,’ said Dr Kerr. ‘He had a really good dream, presumably in Normandy, and a soldier who he didn’t know approached him and said, “We’re going to come get you”.’

The doctor saw a noticeable look of relief and release on the man’s face. Soon after, he fell into a deep sleep and passed away peacefully.

Older people who are in the process of dying will often see themselves meeting and speaking with the people they’ve loved and been close to in their lives. It’s something that fills them with peace. They go over poignant memories, landmark events and times they were most happy.

Often, they will experience feelings of meeting back up with people they’ve known and loved who have died.

So how does the adult experience of death differ from what a child sees and feels as they pass away?

The thought of children dying is, of course, an overwhelmingly upsetting concept. Yet if there is any consolation to be taken from the idea, it comes from Dr Kerr and his experience of how children experience the onset of death.

He says children experience death quite differently than adults. Often they’re less afraid, given that they go into the process unburdened by a lifetime of fear and anxiety surrounding death.

Most younger children cannot truly appreciate the gravity of their ending mortality and aren’t fully aware of the finality of it. They won’t often have the ‘meeting a lost one’ idea either, given that they may be too young to have lost a loved family member.

Instead, Dr Kerr says, children will often dream or imagine animals or beloved pets that ‘give them the message that they’re loved and not alone’. He adds: ‘Children are creative and imaginative and can access that part of themselves.’

Remembering the vision that one poor dying little girl had while she was on her deathbed, Dr Kerr recalls that, because she would have had too few strong positive memories to drawn from, she made up her own.

‘She created a castle for herself,’ he says. ‘There was a swimming pool, animals and a piano. There was a window with warm light coming through… When I asked, “What does the castle represent?” she said, “A safe place”.’

[Source: Metro UK]

Cyprus  |  death  |  adults  |  children

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