Obituary: Dr W. Dewi Rees

by
14 September 2018

A correspondent writes:

DR DEWI REES, who died on 5 May, aged 88, pioneered research into bereavement. He found that nearly half of bereaved people had experiences in which they felt that their loved ones were with them during waking hours. His findings have been substantiated by research undertaken across the world from North America to Japan.

A man of profound faith, and with a strong interest in comparative religions, Dewi Rees considered that, while it was difficult to extrapolate life after death from these experiences, the concept was worth consideration within the Anglican Church and more widely. After publication of his work, a theological debate developed when the Fr Gerald O’Collins SJ expressed, in his book Easter Faith, concern that the experiences of bereaved persons would be perceived as directly analogous to the disciples’ experiencing appearances of the risen Jesus: that the Easter appearances were merely bereavement experiences. This had not been Rees’s conclusion or intent.

In response, Rees extended his work in Pointers to Eternity, clarifying that, although the original paper published in the British Medical Journal was entitled “Hallucinations of Widowhood”, he had always realised that the term “hallucination” was inappropriate, but could not think of a better one. He considered whether appearances of the risen Jesus continue to occur to this day but are only rarely reported; as part of the investigation he canvassed the views of retired Anglican bishops. He also argued that his and other researchers’ work should be recognised as significant for the theological and biblical presentation of the resurrection.

He was, therefore, content when, in a subsequent article entitled “The Resurrection and Bereavement Experiences” (Irish Theological Quarterly), Fr O’Collins concluded that there were too many dissimilarities for the analogy to be acknowledged as close and illuminating, but recognised that: “The work of Rees and his successors can serve to confirm Easter faith and hope for some people, especially the bereaved who experience their dead spouses.”

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William Dewi Rees (known as David to those struggling with Welsh pronunciation) was born on 9 September 1929 at Barry, Glamorgan, where his parents ran a grocer’s shop and the local dairy. He studied at Llandovery College, and then at St Thomas’s Hospital Medical School in London. There, he met Valerie Evans, then a chemistry student at Bedford College and subsequently a biochemist at Hammersmith Hospital. They were married in 1951; he always said that asking her to marry him was the best and wisest thing that he ever did.

Soon after qualifying as a GP, Rees joined the International Grenfell Association, founded by the medical missionary Dr Wilfred Grenfell to bring healthcare to fishermen and communities in remote areas of north-east Canada. He moved with Val to live in North West River on Lake Melville, where the hospital and its doctors served the entire coast of Labrador. There, he worked closely with Moravian and Catholic medical missionaries, but it was not until he returned to Britain and took a post in psychiatry at Whitchurch Hospital, near Cardiff, that his strong Christian faith took root. This formed the basis for his future work on bereavement and palliative care.

In 1960, the family moved to Llanidloes, in mid-Wales, where Rees joined a rural practice, became a churchwarden at St Idloes’s, and embarked on research, initially on tractor accidents, then on bereavement. The time in Llanidloes was formative. Here, he not only worked long hours as a GP, but published more than 20 papers in peer-reviewed journals. It was at this time that he gained his MD for his thesis on “The hallucinations of widowhood” from the University of London.

In 1974, he moved to London as a senior medical officer at the Ministry of Defence, but he missed the clinical contact, and returned to general practice in Stretton-on-Dunsmore, Warwickshire. In 1980, he was appointed medical director of the recently established St Mary’s Hospice, Birmingham, where he could address both the physical and spiritual needs of the patients. He also served as a senior clinical lecturer at Birmingham University, training the next generation of doctors in palliative care. He remained at St Mary’s until retirement in 1990.

Rees remained active and wrote four books: Death and Bereavement (1996), now in its second edition; Healing in Perspective (2003); Pointers to Eternity (2010); and General Practice As It Was (2012). He volunteered as a guide at Coventry Cathedral and led healing services instigated by the Dean, Dr John Petty. He enjoyed debate, particularly on religious or medical themes. A regular reader of the Church Times, he was delighted by David Winter’s article on the nature of post-death manifestations (Faith, 20 April), which referenced his work, and which he read shortly before he died.

Dewi Rees’ strong Christian faith remained with him to the end. His wife, Val, predeceased him in 2006. He leaves three children, Eileen, Anna, and David.

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