Author and journalist Judy Bachrach started volunteering in a hospice in the late 1980s, and her real motive was to try to overcome her fear of death. About two decades later, when her mother came down with Alzheimer’s, Bachrach decided to look into the subject of near-death experiences.
So she delved into the literature, and journeyed around the United States and the world to interview near-death experiencers (NDErs or, as she calls them, “death travelers”) and leading researchers in the field. The result is her book Glimpsing Heaven. Her conclusion from her inquiries: “there are simply, as some of the doctors and scientists I’ve interviewed point out, too many experiencers and too many experiences to discount.”
How many? Dutch cardiologist and NDE researcher Pim van Lommel says that in the last 50 years over 25 million people worldwide have reported NDEs. A 1982 Gallup poll found eight million Americans reporting them. As Bachrach comments: “Not every self-proclaimed death traveler could be an arrant liar or deeply unbalanced or both.” If you want to hear accounts by “travelers” who are evidently balanced, mature, and intelligent, you can easily find them on YouTube.
But were these people really “dead”? Aren’t these experiences just hallucinations caused by oxygen deprivation? Having looked into the NDE subject myself for a few years, I believe one can only hold that view if one is ill-informed or determined.
As British neuropsychiatrist and NDE researcher Peter Fenwick told Bachrach:
My view is that when the heart stops for, say, 11 to 15 seconds, you’ve lost consciousness.
Now there is no way, and I want you to put this in your book in large type—that the brain can then process information. It can’t process anything! It’s got all the signs of death. No pulse. No respiration. The brain stem reflexes are gone….
Sam Parnia, assistant professor of medicine at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and an NDE researcher who has just published a major study on consciousness after death, says NDEs occur in
people who have really died. At that point there’s no brain function. I work in intensive care. People with a lack of oxygen—they don’t have a near-death experience.
Although there are accounts of NDE-type phenomena going back to Plato, over the past 50 years advanced resuscitation (CPR) techniques have enabled vastly larger numbers of people to return from death. The experience is usually blissful—and changes them dramatically. They lose all fear of death, care much less about material pursuits, and turn to spiritual and altruistic activities instead. They often have enhanced psychic, intuitive, or creative powers; and often—altered as they are—end up divorcing. Pretty powerful effects for hallucinations.
Bachrach tells the story of one of the most remarkable NDE cases, singer-songwriter Pam Reynolds Lowery (1956-2010). In 1991, doctors had to remove a large aneurysm from the base of her brain. She was put in the deepest possible state of sedation: blood drained, body cooled to 60°F, eyes taped shut, ears plugged. Yet, in the midst of the major, difficult operation, something happened that “shouldn’t have”: the patient felt herself rise out of her body, watch the medical staff working on her, then rise further to a transcendent realm where she encountered a “shower of light” and deceased relatives.
Subsequently, when Pam Reynolds Lowery described the operation to the doctors—in finely accurate detail—they were aghast. And in the aftermath of her death travel, her intuitive powers were so great that she had to stop going to public places; it can be unpleasant to read the thoughts and emotions of total strangers waiting in line at the supermarket.
And there’s the case of Anthony Cicoria, an orthopedic surgeon who in 1994 was struck—dead—by lightning at a family reunion. Finding himself detached from his body but fully conscious, he thought: “Holy s—t! I’m dead!” As he told Bachrach, he became “immersed in this bluish white light” and had an awareness of “absolute love.”
Revived—through sheer chance—by a nurse who had been standing behind him and gave him CPR, it turned out Cicoria had “seen” events at the gathering he couldn’t possibly have seen while lying prostrate and insensate on the ground. But from there his story only gets stranger. Indifferent to music before his experience, he not only became obsessed with Chopin’s music, but obsessed with playing it—many hours a day on the piano, sometimes until 1 a.m., eventually also composing a work called “The Lightning Sonata.” Understandably, his activity “destroyed my marriage.” It was only years later that he and his ex-wife remarried—after finally agreeing to disagree about his death travel and what it meant.
Those are only two examples of the many death-travel cases that Bachrach describes in this very fascinating book. A small minority of such experiences are unpleasant and frightening, and she includes two examples of those as well. They are not unsettling; as psychiatrist and NDE researcher Bruce Greyson remarked to Bachrach, even “bad” death travels are “transformative” and “inspirational” like the blissful ones.
So if it’s bliss, peace, and love over there, why does so much awful stuff keep happening down here? My inquiries haven’t yet turned up a convincing answer to that question. But it is definitely encouraging to know that we’re on the way to someplace better.
image illustration via shutterstock / Bruce Rolff