What Can Encounters with Death Teach Us About Life?
Whatever their cause, near death and shared death experiences change us.
Posted May 08, 2019
Most of us would like to know what happens to us when we die. Does our consciousness continue into an afterlife? Are we reunited with loved ones who died before us? Do we face a divine being who will judge us for our earthly actions? Do we come back to life in another form?
While nobody knows the answers to these questions with certainty, many people have had what they believe are glimpses of the "other side." The most well-known of these is the "near death experience" (NDE), which as many as four percent of adults have had, by some estimates.
Typical NDEs include things like an out-of-body experience, seeing a light, connecting with deceased loved ones, seeing a starry landscape, and the sensation of a tunnel. NDEs are often linked to medical emergencies like when a person's heart stops beating; a 2001 study in the journal Lancet reported that 18% of individuals who survived cardiac arrest reported an NDE. However, near death experiences have also been reported by people who were not imminently at death's door, such as those diagnosed with terminal illnesses or who thought they were about to die from an accident or near-accident.
Skeptics have argued that NDEs are nothing more than the direct effect of physiological causes like lack of oxygen to the brain. However, it's harder for these explanations to account for similar experiences by people who weren't clinically dead.
The related phenomenon of a shared death experience (SDE) also presents a puzzle for straightforward mechanistic explanations of the NDE. During an SDE the person has the experience of "visiting the other side" at the moment someone close to them dies—as though they are sharing in the experience of death, without physically dying.
I recently spoke with Dr. Sharon Prentice on the Think Act Be podcast about her vivid SDE many years ago when her husband died. She describes her SDE and the events leading up to it in her recent book, Becoming Starlight: A Shared Death Journey from Darkness to Light.
The most striking thing about these encounters may not be the experience of dying, but how they often change a person's life. Many people describe losing their fear of death following an NDE or SDE, and feeling greater love for themselves and others.
That was certainly the case for Prentice. She had lost her newborn daughter Stephanie eight years earlier, and understandably had grown angry, bitter, and withdrawn. But her SDE when her husband died brought her back to life. The experience of pure, ineffable love that she had in a hospital room for those few minutes have stayed with her in the decades since. It radically altered her view of the world and her place in it, and her beliefs about God and death.
Dr. Pim van Lommel's scientific review of near-death experiences describes similar reactions to NDEs, including "a greater appreciation of ordinary things, whereas interest in possessions and power decreased," as well as "enhanced intuitive feelings ... , along with a strong sense of connectedness with others and with nature." In short, it appears that NDEs and SDEs can lead to a more meaningful way of living.
Descriptions of NDEs and SDEs stand out to me partly because of my own death experience, which in my case happened in a dream. I've described my dream at length in a previous post ("What Dreams of Your Death Are Really About"); as with a typical NDE, I traveled into the stars, felt intimately connected with loved ones, and had a sense of timeless connection to pure love.
These experiences spilled over into my waking life, changing my beliefs about what happens when we die and about our ongoing connection with those who have passed on. Years later I was stunned to hear a very similar description of an NDE [spoiler alert] in the final episode of the first season of True Detective. (You can view it here; caution: contains lots of profanity.)
I had no concept before my dream of a love that defied time and space, and even death. The same was true for Prentice, who previously had no belief in an all-loving divinity, or expectation that she would talk with her husband after he died. As with many who've had an SDE or NDE, she was caught completely off guard by it.
NDEs, SDEs, and death dreams are particularly perplexing given the striking similarities in the experiences regardless of the person's mental state at the time, ranging from apparent consciousness to cardiac arrest and coma.
What are we to make of them? Are they purely products of the imagination? Religious beliefs manifested during altered states of consciousness? Half-remembered traces of our home before we came to Earth? The desire of a divinity to be known, and to tell us we're loved beyond measure and have no need to fear, even in death?
Whatever their cause, most people experience these encounters as gifts, as I did when I dreamed I died. When I woke up I was crying, and my wife (always the light sleeper) heard me and asked what was wrong.
"I dreamed I died," I said.
She patted me consolingly in her half-sleep. "I'm sorry," she said.
"No," I said, "it was beautiful."
Prentice, S. (2018). Becoming starlight: A shared death journey from darkness to light. Cardiff, CA: Waterside Productions.
Van Lommel, P. (2013). Non-local consciousness a concept based on scientific research on near-death experiences during cardiac arrest. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 20, 7-48.
Van Lommel, P., Van Wees, R., Meyers, V. & Elfferich, I. (2001) Near-death experiences in survivors of cardiac arrest: A prospective study in the Netherlands. Lancet, 358, 2039–2045.