“It is as if one is going through a tunnel, it gets darker and darker, then in the distance there is a light and you go into it. It is hard to describe what it is like, it is like being in the middle of the sun – incredibly bright light, but it is not blinding. One is simply in it and it is as if you are one with this light. It is not only light, there is something more, this light knows you as you are. You feel accepted. What really made an impression on me is the prevalent feeling there of a sense of love and warmth which overshadowed everything else; it simply overwhelms you”.
Thus a 35-year old Dutch chemist in a radio interview. He was speaking about a profound experience he had, on what he considered to be his deathbed, after a brain hemorrhage. He is one of many, in recent years, who have dared to speak out openly about – to them – a new reality: death is not the end.
Their belief is no longer theoretical, stemming from religious conviction, but a certainty based on the experience of having had a brief glimpse of ‘the other side.
Thousands, no, tens of thousands of people must have experienced something very similar. They kept silent about it for fear of being ridiculed by a materialistic society where fear of death is so dominant that to speak about it is almost taboo. This fear of death, according to the evidence given by ‘eye witnesses’ who have dared to speak out, is totally unnecessary. Many of those who have briefly passed the barrier between ‘life and death’ find it much more difficult to come back than to stay ‘on the other side’. In the words of the same Dutch chemist: “At a certain point I knew that I had to choose: either to go on (for you know that beyond that light there is something more) or to go back. That is just about the hardest thing to do, because the feeling of so-called ‘death’ is so pleasant that it takes a great deal of will-power to go back. I made the decision, but I can very well imagine that there are people who find it so pleasant that they stay there and go on.”
The fascinating thing about such first-hand testimonies is the striking similarity between these experiences. This can be seen from the results of the few scientific attempts which have been made to put this area of knowledge on the map. The American psychologist Dr Karlis Osis and his colleague from Iceland, Dr Erlendur Haraldsson, have been conducting such a survey into what they cautiously term ‘visions of the dying’. Questioning hundreds of doctors and nurses, they gathered information about 442 deathbed experiences in the USA and 435 in India (of which 163 people recovered). In no less than 91 of these cases, evidence was given of ‘hallucinations’; these all had in common the appearance of someone who said they were there to ease the transition. Sometimes it was a ‘figure of light’ but more often it was a member of the family who had passed on and had come to help the patient.
The following testimony was given by a doctor: “A female cardiac patient in her fifties knew that she was dying and was in a discouraged, depressed mood. Suddenly, she raised her arms and her eyes opened wide; her face lit up as if she was seeing someone she hadn’t seen for a long time. She said, ‘Oh, Katie, Katie’. The patient had been suddenly roused from a comatose state, she seemed happy, and she died immediately after the hallucination. There were several Katies in this woman’s family. All were dead.”
Another very similar experience: “A 68 year-old Polish housewife was afflicted with cancer. Her mind was clear. She was settling some financial matters and asked for her purse. She had not thought of dying. Then she saw her husband who had died twenty years before. She was happy with a sort of religious feeling and, according to her doctor, she lost all fear of death. Instead, she felt it to be the logical correct thing. She died within 5 or 10 minutes.”
According to Osis and Haraldsson’s survey, one of the significant characteristics of these experiences is their degree of similarity. Personal variables such as age, sex, conditioning, social status or religious background did not seem to have had any influence on the nature of the ‘hallucinations’. Their content, however, differs significantly from the hallucinations which, for instance, the mentally ill experience and which are mostly auditory. In the case of the dying (and that of the psychic) clearly visible images are seen. Another difference is that, of the apparitions to which terminal patients testify, about 90 per cent are close relatives. This is not the case with the mentally ill.
There are still more striking differences which prove that these appearances to dying patients cannot be dismissed as the fevered ramblings of the confused, gravely ill person. Feverish hallucinations and those of the mentally ill usually evoke anxiety, are threatening and confused. In the case of deathbed patients however, there is overwhelming evidence of experiences which give tranquility and joy. As instanced above, very frequently such an appearance results in the patient coming out of a mental depression and, comforted and freed of all fears, dares to meet death face to face. In over a hundred of the documented cases the experience was described as having been in ‘a heavenly place’ with magnificent landscapes and beautiful gardens. In many cases where no images were seen feelings of rest, tranquility and peace, sometimes of religious fervour, were experienced. It is also striking that these ‘hallucinations’ were experienced by many patients whose mental functions were in no way impaired. According to this survey nearly half of the patients were in a normal state of mind, were completely aware of their surroundings and reacted rationally on seeing the ‘apparitions’.
Religion – no influence
The patients’ expectations did not condition the type of vision experienced. Neither in the US nor in India did the purpose or the identity of the apparitions correspond to the hopes or otherwise which the dying or mortally ill person had concerning their recovery. In other words, patients who thought they would get better did not have any less deathbed visions than those who knew that they were dying. Whether they had a religious belief or not did not seem to make any significant difference either: both believers and non-believers had deathbed visions to the same degree. Osis and Haraldsson also had the courage to state their own personal beliefs: “When Osis started the pilot survey he was quite critical. However, after having encountered many consistent doctor’s reports supporting the theory of postmortem survival, he slowly changed his attitude toward the positive. Haraldsson also began with a reserved but searching attitude. Gradually he became impressed by the data from the many interviews he conducted. The outcome of long labors on statistical evaluations moved him further towards acceptance of the afterlife hypothesis as the most tenable explanation of our data. Osis concurs with this interpretation.” Even convinced humanists with a firm belief in the finality of death, and that one lives only once, cannot easily ignore the testimonies based on personal experiences of ‘life after death’. The book Life after Life by the American philosopher and MD, Dr Raymond Moody, for instance, caused the Dutch doctor and sociologist Albert Nieuwland to reconsider his world view. In a newspaper interview Nieuwland, who teaches at the Humanistic Educational Institute, admitted that his initial plan had been to ‘shoot the book down in flames’ in the magazine published by the humanistic organization. “But when I read the book I became profoundly impressed”, said Nieuwland, and it caused him to read more on the subject. His conclusion: “These stories are to be taken very seriously. They are still usually dismissed as vague tales or as experiences caused by the anaesthetic or the taking of medication. Yet, investigations done mostly in America have shown that such reasoning is nonsense. Since about 40 per cent of ‘dying’ people have these experiences, it would be much more sensible to ask ourselves if we could learn anything from them.”
Reprinted with the kind permission of Share International Magazine.
Authors Details: Peter Liefhebber. – Peter Liefhebber is the Dutch chief editor of Share International and a veteran journalist with Holland’s largest daily newspaper.