Imagination and communication of trust at the end of life


At the end of life, patients often experience uncontrollable events and processes. These often include symbolic imagery as a form of experience. When all action has reached its limits, imaginative ranges of understanding and behaviour open up that are important for trust at the end of life. This project aims to elaborate orientation knowledge and provide help to interpretation for spiritual and pastoral care of the dying.

Project description (completed research project)

In pastoral and spiritual care it is often difficult to understand the highly symbolic things that dying persons say and to respond appropriately. Persons near death often describe unusual, imaginative experiences or use symbolic language to express themselves. This is both a challenge and an opportunity for end-of-life care. The relation between trust and symbolic communication in such situations has not been studied very much. This project seeks to close this gap.


The study aims to understand how trust influences behavior and perception in dying processes. For this reason, the study will investigate different ways in which persons express near-death imaginative experience. This includes, in particular, dreams of dying, death-bed visions and near-death experiences. We will examine the extent to which imaginative experience and symbolic communication near death aid self-interpretation and the processing of the experienced loss of control. Methodologically, the study is based on narratives of experiences, such as dreams and visions, as experienced by persons near death.


The project will lead to a deeper understanding of trust-based coping strategies near death and the symbolic language of the death experience. In this way, we will gain orientation knowledge and provide help to interpretation for spiritual and pastoral care of the dying. The study wants to make a contribution towards better spiritual and pastoral care in Switzerland.

In this study we will be looking closely at and interpreting phenomena that clearly play an important role for the dying but that have received little attention in research. This has been the case even though these phenomena clearly have an important function at the end of life when it comes to processing momentous experiences, such as loss of control or fear of death.

Original title

Hermeneutik des Vertrauens am Lebensende – Imaginatives Erleben und symbolische Kommunikation in Todesnähe

Project leader

  • Prof. Dr. Pierre Bühler, Direktor des Instituts für Hermeneutik und Religionsphilosophie, Universität Zürich
  • Prof. em. Dr. Brigitte Boothe, Klinische Psychologie, Psychotherapie und Psychoanalyse, Universität Zürich
  • Prof. Dr. Ingolf U. Dalferth, Universität Zürich, Lehrstuhl für Systematische Theologie, Symbolik und Religionsphilosophie
  • Dr. theol. Andreas Hunziker, Geschäftsführender Oberassistent am Instituts für Hermeneutik und Religionsphilosophie, Universität Zürich
  • Prof. Dr. Ralph Kunz, Universität Zürich, Lehrstuhl für Praktische Theologie, Universität Zürich
  • PD Dr. Simon Peng-Keller, Institut für Hermeneutik und Religionsphilosophie, Universität Zürich



Further information on this content


Prof. Dr. theol. Simon Peng-Keller Institut für Hermeneutik und Religionsphilosophie
(Institute for Hermeneutics and Philosophy of Religion)
Kirchgasse 9 8001 Zürich +41 44 634 54 00

Products of the project