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Perchance to Dream

The world is full of acronyms and abbreviations. Here’s one I’d never come across before: ELDV. It stands for “End of Life Dream or Vision” and is used in an interesting study recently published by scientists in America. Dr James P. Donnelly and his colleagues have been studying the experiences of patients at a hospice in New York State. The patients are of course well aware that they are approaching the end of their lives, but this isn’t necessarily a frightening or disturbing thing.

Why not? Because they report that they have powerful dreams or visions, often about deceased relatives and friends. They say that these ELDVs are comforting, offering reassurance about the final step they will soon be taking: out of life and into whatever awaits us beyond it. Human beings must have been having dreams like this for many thousands of years. It’s natural, after all, that someone approaching the end of life should find their mind turning to those who passed away before them.

When memories return, they influence our dreams. And if we dream about the dead as though they’re still alive, doesn’t that suggest that there’s an afterlife? So countless people have believed and it isn’t possible to dismiss their ideas as wrong or irrational. In their study, Dr Donnelly and his colleagues stress that ELDVs have to be carefully distinguished from delirium, or the madness that can also sometimes affect people in their final days and hours. Delirium is an abnormal and irrational state, indicating that the brain isn’t working properly and harming the brain’s powers of reason and perception.

ELDVs, by contrast, seem to be an enhanced form of a perfectly normal part of life: the dreams we all have during sleep, whether we remember them or not. Of course, visions are part of ELDVs too and they’re something we experience while we’re fully conscious. But they’re best seen as a kind of waking dream, not as a form of delirium. Unlike ELVDs, delirium can be a frightening and distressing thing, particularly when the suffering person is aware that something has gone wrong with their mind.

That’s why the study recommends caution for doctors and other professionals who are treating people in their final days. Delirium should be alleviated or cured using drugs or counselling. ELDVs, on the other hand, should be seen as a positive or neutral thing unless a patient reports that the ELDVs are causing distress. But this doesn’t seem to be the case very often: the patients in the study reported that their dreams and visions were powerful and meaningful, and that seeing dead relatives and friends was comforting. They also said that the dreams came more often as they approached the end.

The study certainly offers food for thought. You could see as ELDVs as a kind of preparation for death, like a parachutist checking their equipment as they get ready to jump from a plane. Death and dying are often portrayed as terrible and ugly things, and many people are frightened and disturbed by the prospect of their own death. ELDVs prove that there is another side to the story. They can offer comfort and reassurance, offering us a chance to review the life we’ve lived and ready ourselves for the next step.