Death is not something we tend to think about or discuss. We are usually so concerned with the hustle and bustle of our everyday lives that we perceive death as something that happens to others or something we read about in the newspapers – until something happens in our own lives which causes us to sit up and take notice. It was early in my seventeen year career as an intensive care nurse that I was thrown into the deep contemplation of death after an encounter with a dying patient. I became so depressed as a result of the suffering that the patient had undergone that I lost faith in my role as a nurse. At that point I had two choices – give up my nursing career or do something about it. Thankfully, I chose the latter and off I went on a quest to investigate the dying process.
Researching near-death experiences
I began reading all I could find on death and dying and came across near-death experiences (NDEs). These seemed incredible; people who had survived a close brush with death described amazingly peaceful experiences of leaving their bodies and looking down from above, travelling through darkness towards a bright light then finding themselves in beautiful gardens. They often described meeting dead relatives or friends who told them they had to return to life. I was intrigued yet sceptical – my scientific training as a nurse told me these were just hallucinations or the effects of a dying brain.
The more I read about NDEs, the more curious I became and this eventually led me to undertake my own research into NDEs at the intensive care unit where I worked. In 1997 I commenced the UK’s first long term prospective study of NDEs and in 2005 I was awarded a PhD for my research.
Unfortunately, there have been misconceptions about my research and it has often been associated with an investigation into the afterlife. This is incorrect; the research was intended to gain a greater understanding of the dying process. However, during the course of the research there were many interesting findings and it raised more questions than it answered. My research confirmed that NDEs clearly occur in some patients who lost consciousness and who fulfilled the criteria for clinical death.
A new understanding of consciousness?
During my career in intensive care I nursed thousands of unconscious patients and when patients regain consciousness they are usually vague, disorientated or totally confused. It can take hours, days or even weeks to be completely reoriented to time and place. Yet there were some patients who reported an NDE immediately after regaining consciousness. They clearly described a lucid, heightened state of awareness and, in one case, a patient accurately reported events that he claimed to view from an out of body perspective. These events had occurred during a time when he was deeply unconscious and I know what he reported was correct because I was present at the time. If, as our current science believes, consciousness is produced by the brain, how can a severely physiologically impaired brain produce such a heightened state of awareness and accurately describe events that occurred during unconsciousness?
The message of NDEs
However, the biggest thing I realised as a result of undertaking my research is that by trying to pathologize these experiences, we are missing a very important point and that is the message of the NDE. These people are usually profoundly transformed following their NDE and they have much to teach us about life. Some people have a life review and relive their life in great detail; they can understand how their actions have impacted on those around them. They realise that we are all interconnected and what we do to others, ultimately we do to ourselves. This is the Golden Rule – treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself, which is at the heart of all of the wisdom traditions. They may gain great insight into how they have been living their life and consequently come back to life with a renewed vigour and appreciation for all that they have in life. It is time that we took notice of this very important message and see how we can apply it to our own lives, then we can all benefit from the wisdom without having to nearly die.
© 2014 Dr Penny Sartori author of The Wisdom of Near-Death Experiences: How Understanding NDEs Can Help us Live More Fully, published by Watkins Publishing.