near death experience
Researchers studied dreams and visions people have in the weeks before death iStock

Visions and dreams of deceased friends and relatives in the final weeks of life are a "comforting" part of the dying process, a study has found. Scientists from The Palliative Care Institute in Buffalo and the Canisius College in New York were studying the phenomenon of end-of-life dreams and visions (ELDVs), which are well documented throughout history and cultures, but have been little studied in scientific literature.

The most common ELDVs reported by people close to death describe them seeing deceased family, friends or religious figures. These visions and dreams take place in the months, weeks, days and hours leading up to death.

Publishing their study in the Journal of Palliative Medicine, researchers were looking to work out the frequency of dreams and visions by looking at the content and subjective significance of them, while also examining these factors in relation to how close they were experienced before death.

Unlike other research into ELDVs that focuses on retrospective information from family members and healthcare providers, the team interviewed 66 patients receiving end-of-life care at the Palliative Care Center, part of Hospice Buffalo. They were asked daily about the content, frequency and comfort level of their ELDVs.

Most patients at reported having at least one vision or dream every day. Half of these occurred when the patient was asleep, and all said the ELDVs felt real. Most often, people reported dreams and visions with dead and living friends and relatives. However, they found the visions with the deceased friends, relatives and pets were far more comforting than those with the living. "As participants approached death, comforting dreams/visions of the deceased became more prevalent," the team wrote.

The team says the ELDVs are an important source of meaning and comfort to the dying and should be studied further for their beneficial effect on palliative care: "The impact of pre-death experiences on dying individuals and their loved ones can be profoundly meaningful... These visions can occur months, weeks, days, or hours before death and typically lessen fear of dying, making transition from life to death easier for those experiencing them."

Study author James P Donnelly said: "This study demonstrates that ELDVs are commonly experienced and characterized by a consistent pattern of realism and emotional significance. These dreams and visions may improve quality of life and should be treated accordingly."