An excerpt from the new memoir, Waiting to Die
Not long ago, when I was reorganizing some of my books and papers, I happened to come upon an old newsletter from 40 years ago that had been edited by some then friends of mine. At the time they lived just a few miles from where I now reside, and seeing that newsletter brought back warm memories of our friendship.
But what struck me most forcibly was a little essay I had written for their publication, which was sent only to the people who were members of their organization, probably something like 50 and surely not more than a hundred. I had completely forgotten about this essay, and obviously only a relatively few people had read it at the time.
When I wrote it, I had just completed the research for Life at Death, my first book on Near-Death Experiences (NDEs). I was then deeply affected by the interviews I had conducted for the book, and in the essay I wrote about it in a very personal way. I could never, and never would, have written about my research this way in my book, but here I was, still in the emotional throes of my interviews and how they had already changed my life.
I was also aware that my work had completely validated that of Raymond Moody, and for that reason, I had actually entitled my essay, “Researching Life After Life: Some Personal Reflections.” In retrospect, I find something else I hadn’t been so much aware of at the time — my indebtedness to Moody’s book, Life After Life. What if I had never come across his book? How would my life have developed without that book? Was there ever a book that was so crucial to my life’s path? So, in a very definite way, if only in hindsight, I would like this essay to be read as a kind of homage to Dr. Moody and the critical role that he and his book have played in my life.
But here’s what I wrote forty years ago, when I was just at the beginning of my own journey into the world of NDEs.
Close to Death
Beginning in May 1977, I spent 13 months tracking down and interviewing persons who had come close to death. In some cases, these were persons who appeared to have suffered clinical death where there is no heartbeat or respiration; in most cases, however, the individuals I talked with had “merely” edged toward the brink of death but did not quite slip over.
Since this work was part of a research project, I had trained a staff of interviewers in the necessary procedures so that I — the busy professor — would not have to conduct all the interviews myself. After I had talked with a couple of near-death survivors, though, I saw that my life would just have to get busier: this stuff was plainly too fascinating to get it secondhand. I wound up interviewing 74 of the 102 persons who eventually comprised our sample.
Although I had been familiar with near-death experiences for some years, my interest in doing research in the area had been kindled by Raymond Moody’s book, Life After Life. I found that, although I didn’t really question the basic paradigm that he described, I was left with a lot of questions after finishing the book. How frequent were these experiences? Did it make any difference how one (almost) died? For example, do suicide attempts that bring one close to death engender the typical near-death experience? What role does prior religiousness play in shaping the experience? Can the changes that allegedly follow from these experiences be documented systematically and quantitatively?
So I wrote a little grant proposal and got some funds in order to answer these questions — and thereby uncovered a source of spiritual wealth that will always sustain me.
This was not exactly what I had bargained for. But I am happy to “share the wealth” with you. Not that it’s mine or was given to me. Nor does it “belong” to those who survive near-death episodes. It’s just there. It’s simply that talking to these persons helped me to see it.
In this little article, I am not going to bother to summarize the results from this study except to say that our data fully upheld Moody’s findings. Virtually every aspect of the near-death experience he delineated is to be found in our interview protocols. I have no doubt whatsoever that he has described an authentic phenomenon (though its interpretation is up for grabs). And others, since the publication of Moody’s book, have also corroborated his findings. As far as I’m concerned, then, the basic outline of the core near-death experience, as sketched by Moody (and before him by Kübler-Ross) is now established fact.
What I want to relate to you is something of the experiential residue that has remained with me now that the interviews are finished. I doubt that much of this is going to find its way into the professional publications I shall be writing based on this research or that it will even find explicit expression in a book I am planning on near-death experiences. And yet, in some way, I feel that it represents the essential finding of my research: that it is “the real message” hidden within the welter of statistics and the seemingly endless interview excerpts which so far make up the bulk of the manuscript I am presently working on.
You don’t forget their faces or their manner during the interview. I talked to one woman who had been close to death perhaps eight or nine times owing to an unusual respiratory problem. Once, when her life was in danger, she saw a ball of light and heard what she took to be the voice of the Lord. The voice said, “You will suffer, but the Kingdom of heaven will be yours.” This woman insisted that these were the exact words, nor a paraphrase or “an impression.” As with so many other incidents that were disclosed to me, this one seemed fully real. People will deny indignantly that what they experienced was a dream or an hallucination. But what I remember most vividly from this interview is how this women looked. She radiated peace, serenity, acceptance. She knew she didn’t have long to live — that the next time could be “it.” She has had many personal difficulties to contend with in her life. She lives every day as a gift. This was not said as an empty religious platitude. I could see it. She never said so, but it became clear that her friends are deeply inspired by her example. (She herself makes light of it all.) I looked at her face as she continued talking. It seemed lit up — from the inside.
How do you think I felt when I left her house?
I remember another woman. She had had her near-death experience more than 20 years ago. (Most of those we interviewed had come close to death within the past two years.) Her doctor had botched up a routine tonsillectomy and a cardiac arrest had resulted. According to the information she gave me and from what I could glean from her medical records, it appears that she was clinically dead for nearly three minutes.
I’ll relate just a portion of what she told me: “…The thing I could never — absolutely never — forget is that absolute feeling of struggling for words…peace… joy…or something. Because I remember the feeling. I just remember this absolutely beautiful feeling. Of peace. And being happy! Oh, so happy! That’s about the only way I can explain it. And I was above. And there was a presence. It’s the only way I can explain it, because I didn’t see anything. But there was a presence, and it may not have been talking to me, but it was like I knew what was going on between our minds. I wanted to go that way [toward the presence]. Something was there. And I had no fear of it. And the peace, the release, the fear was all gone. There was no pain, there was nothing. It was absolutely beautiful! I could never explain it in a million years. It was a feeling that I think everyone dreams of someday having, reaching a point of absolute peace. And ever since then I’ve never been afraid of death.”
The woman who told me all this (and much more!) is now in her mid-50s and recently suffered a near-fatal heart attack. There was nothing about her manner that suggested she was denying the fear of death that Ernest Becker says each of us carries within us. I wish he could have met this woman! No reaction-formation here! I have seen her socially several times since. She is the same woman. Love of life and of others animates her. Well, maybe she was always like this, but she denies it. She traces this attitude to the time when she was “dead.”
Suppose you had interviewed her. Suppose you had interviewed dozens of persons who described to you similar feelings, experiences and aftereffects. What impressions do you think you’d be left with as you drove back to the university?
Very deep experience
Another person who made a deep impact on me was a husky-voiced, elegant woman in her late 40s. At the time of my interview with her, she lived in a tasteful, well-appointed home in a well-to-do suburb of Hartford. The outward comfort of her life was in sharp contrast, however, to her years of severe physical suffering and psychological torment. Two years before I met her, she had lain, alone and comatose, in her home for three days before she was discovered and brought to a hospital. She had apparently suffered heart failure and was close to death for a long time.
This extended period during which she hovered between life and death enabled her to have a very deep experience, perhaps the deepest of any I heard recounted. She eventually found herself surrounded by a radiant light, feeling totally peaceful and ecstatic, reunited with her deceased parents, and in an environment that can only be described as representing a vista of what most people would call heaven. At the height of her joy, however, she felt herself being pulled back by the appeals of her children who stood around her bed, and at this point she remembers experiencing “an agonizingly painful wrenching sensation, as though,” she said, “being pulled out of a tremendous vacuum and just being torn to bits.”
Before her return to life she remembers: “One very, very strong feeling was that if I could only make them (her doctors and others) understand how comfortable and how painless it is, how natural it is. And the feeling that I had when this was happening was not that I was becoming non-existent, but that I was becoming just another identity, another part of me was being born. I don’t feel that it was an ending of my personality or my being. I just felt it was another beginning of my being. I felt no sadness. No longing. No fear.”
Even when she was feeling the pain of being caught between the worlds, her resolve did not ebb: “I cannot tell you exactly what happened — whether I heard my daughter or my children speak to me, and when they said, ‘we need you!’ (But) suddenly, the immensity of what I had experienced somehow made me realize that I had to; I have to make people understand. I have to make them realize that death is not a frightening or horrible end. It is not. I know it is not! It’s just an extension or another beginning.”
Since the time of this incident, this woman has been attempting to share her experiences with others. She has spoken to journalists, radio reporters, and was even in a film documentary that dealt with the experiences of dying. To live in accordance with what her near-death experience disclosed has become her life’s aim. At the present writing, this woman is undertaking a program to counsel the dying and the sick. She has found her life’s work and she found it through encountering her own death.
She is not the only person I talked with whose experiences have led to a mode of life devoted to helping others deal with their own deaths. Such persons who have had a near-death experience come to engage in this work but not simply out of a desire to do something useful or kind, but from an inner conviction that their own experience, by virtue of its having been vouchsafed to them, is meant to be shared so as to provide comfort and reassurance to those who are about to take their own journeys into something that we call death. And there is something about such people I have noticed, some special quality they have that draws you to them. They seem to radiate in life the peace that they felt when they were close to death. And it does something to you.
I could mention many other persons I talked with who have this ability to make a gift of their presence, but I think I’ll relate just one more vignette. Again, it is a woman (I think I should say that I found no sex differences in incidents of near-death experiences and many men gave me deeply affecting accounts of their episodes; it just happens that the memories that come first to mind in connection with this article all involve women), but this time it is a woman who had no conscious, Moody-type experience. In fact, though she never read Moody’s books, what she had heard about such purported experiences had left her feeling skeptical in the extreme.
I had driven a long way through a dreary rain to get to her home and when I rang the doorbell, there was no response. I was about to ring again when the door finally opened. A middle-aged woman, her face showing the pain which still affected her body, silently invited me inside. I understood immediately on seeing her that she could only move slowly and with difficulty. That explained the long delay on her doorstep. She lived alone. Her husband had died some years before. Her daughters, whose photographs were displayed on the living room wall, lived in nearby towns. I noticed that her daughters were strikingly beautiful. Her house was small, but tastefully furnished. Charming knickknacks and lovely flower filled-vases gave the living room a homey and cozy quality.
She sank heavily into a chair. Speaking slowly and with a German accent, she told me that a year and a half earlier, she had been severely injured in an automobile accident of which she remembers nothing. They didn’t think she would live. She showed me photographs taken at the time; they were not pretty. She spoke matter-of-factly, without any sense of self-pity. She was still recovering and she was still suffering physically, but somehow she exuded a quality of repose and serene pensiveness.
She began to reflect on what her experiences had taught her: “In my opinion, there are two things in life which keep a person going, or, I should say, which are important. To me, they are the most important things. And that is love and knowledge. And what I experienced when I was in intensive care, not only once but several times, when I went out of my consciousness, was the closeness of another human being, the love I was treated with from everybody including the doctors and including the nurses and most of all, my family, my children. And I think a lot of people who are very religious or so will say they more or less experienced God, whatever God I believe in, right?
“And love was one of the things I felt (when) I was close to them. I got more of it than others. And I could give more of it, too. I felt very much loved and I felt that I loved everybody. I did not only tell one time that I loved my doctor and I still feel that way because they [she paused], they gave me life back again. I think that this is worthwhile, to love somebody, because life is the most precious thing. And I think you don’t realize that before you actually almost die. (And) the more knowledge you have the better you will understand whenever anything happens to you. You will understand why certain things have to be this way and why.
“For example, a friend who was on a dying list, too, but he never believed in doctors, in nurses or anything like that. And he is still ill, and this is over a year now and he’s still ill, very ill. Because he did not trust in the people, that they can help. And [she paused again] I think that’s very important that you know that certain people love you and not only certain people, but most people love other people…. There may be some people, and one hears about it, that they live in hatred, but I think they don’t have the knowledge that it is so important to love and to understand what life is all about, because I think that’s the main thing… that’s what it is all about.”
I asked her if she had felt that way before her accident: “I did, but I did not feel as strong as I do now. The accident, as bad as it was and as much as I suffered and as much as I will probably never be exactly the same as I was before, but mentally I think I grew. I grew a lot. I learned the value of life more than I did before and I actually gained by this experience. It’s very important to me. That itself makes life worthwhile for me to go on and do whatever is in store for me, you know, and live to the full extent.”
She grew quiet then, for even talking was an effort, and I noticed the timeless stillness that had come upon us. The illumination in the room was dim, but the woman’s face was again aglow with that inward light of peace and love that I had seen before in other near-death survivors. Everything in that room seemed hushed and still and suffused in beauty. Those of you who meditate or who have taken psychedelic trips will understand…and will understand how much words fail here.
Everything — all meaning, all mystery, all holiness — was present in the specificity and precision and timelessness of that moment.
Express my gratitude
With a sense of wrong-doing, I finally broke the spell by asking another question. The interview continued. At the end I tried to express my thanks to her, but lamely. She thought I was thanking her for the interview.
Afterward, still feeling immensely moved, I felt that I wanted to send her something that would better express my gratitude to her. Since she had mentioned that she enjoyed listening to music, I chose a recording of Beethoven’s A minor string quartet. The third movement of this quartet is subtitled, “Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit” (Hymn of Thanksgiving to the Creator from a convalescent), and in view of her accident and ancestry, it seemed fitting. This quartet also had a special personal meaning for me since I had listened to it over and over at one point in my life when I had feared (mistakenly, as it turned out) that I might be seriously ill. I thought in listening to it, she would understand.
She replied by sending me a printed card of thanks with her signature. No more. Sometime later I wrote to her in order to see whether she might be interested in appearing in a documentary film on near-death experiences, but my inquiry went unanswered. I was somehow reluctant to call her. But I have never forgotten her or what she looked like when she spoke the words I quoted to you and what happened when she had finished speaking them.
I had begun this work during a time of sorrow and inward emptiness in my life. I remember feeling spiritually adrift, as if I had somehow lost my way. Suddenly, I found that I simply did not know what to do. Concealing my barrenness and distress, I took myself that summer to a nearby convalescent home and offered my services as “a volunteer.” I was secretly hoping that some old wise person, contemplating his own imminent death, would somehow give me a clue as to what I was supposed to do. Mainly, I played cards with people in desperate physical straits and saw suffering all around. And our conversations were mostly about how well someone had played a hand of bridge or when the refreshments would be brought in. Philosophical ruminations on life were not in vogue.
It was while I was vainly seeking “the answer” at the convalescent home that I happened to read Moody’s book.
During the 13 months of interviewing near-death survivors, I received my answer. The professor had found his teacher at last. They were ordinary people who described, in a consistent way, an extraordinary patterning of experiences that occurs at the point of death. The effect of personally seeing this pattern gradually reveal itself over the course of these interviews is something I shall probably never adequately be able to convey. But this effect, combined with that quality of luminous serenity which many near-death survivors manifest, made me feel that I myself was undergoing an extended religious awakening.
Quite a few of my interviewees claimed or believed that during their experiences they encountered God directly or sensed His presence intuitively. It was really astonishing how often this was asserted by persons of all sorts of religious persuasions, including non-believers. What to make of such statements is, of course, another matter. Professional interpreters can debate the question. As for me, I can only say that I have no doubt I saw Him, too. He left His mark on those I talked to. And they left their mark on me.