This article is from an editorial in Volume 2 Issue 4 of Natural Transitions Magazine: Life after Death.
Our fear of death is foremost a fear of the unknown. By the time we reach death’s door, most of us in the Western world will have given scant thought to what lies beyond our material existence — because the pursuit of the material has been our primary focus. Religiosity does not necessarily provide us with a roadmap to the afterlife either (although some traditions, notably Buddhism and esoteric Christianity, describe the after-death landscape in vivid detail).
How appealing it is then to think that science might be able to verify the experience of life after death. Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife by Dr. Eben Alexander has topped the New York Times bestseller list for weeks. Even my teenage daughter, who ordinarily would not willingly consume any book about death, was hooked by the title (and it is a very good one!). In passing my bookshelf, she pounced on the copy I had finished reading moments before, then maneuvered herself, nose in book, to the couch. Hours later, she was still immersed in Dr. Alexander’s account of his extraordinary out-of-body journey during an illness in which his brain was completely shut down. My daughter’s interest in matters beyond this life is emblematic of a growing spiritual yearning within our society to understand more of the non-physical world and, in so doing, remove the fear that stops us both living fully and dying with greater ease.
Not long after reading Dr. Alexander’s book, I found myself listening to an NPR interview with Dr. Sam Parnia, resuscitation specialist and author of Erasing Death: The Science that is Rewriting the Boundaries between Life and Death. While Dr. Parnia has concentrated his research on improving and standardizing resuscitation techniques, he has also initiated a project to document the near-death experiences of resuscitated patients. The patients in Dr. Parnia’s studies have all, “objectively died.” Their hearts have stopped and their brains have flatlined. Paradoxically, even though his goal has been to improve our odds of beating death, Parnia’s big take away is that “we no longer need to fear death.” He states this with absolute certainty after hearing countless stories of compassionate, loving beings greeting his patients when they die. In Dr. Parnia’s view, death is not so bad after all, except it seems for those of his patients who have attempted suicide. Of those he has resuscitated, reports of painful and distressing after-death experiences are universal.
This issue of NTM includes exceptional, thought-provoking accounts of life beyond our last breath. Christopher Sassano, after four near-death experiences, assures us that “death is absolutely safe.”
Patsea Cobb calms her dying mother (a near-death experiencer) with a reminder that death is familiar territory. Patricia L’Dara provides comfort to the dying by shepherding them across the threshold. Whatever we believe about what happens when we die, it may be easier if for us if we believe “something” rather than nothing. If we can create our own story – a story that gives meaning to life and makes sense of death, then the realm beyond the veil may no longer appear as a scary void – this great unknown that gives rise to our deepest fears.