People close to death or in a temporary state of clinical crisis marked by the disruption of heartbeat, respiration, and other vital signs often report a remarkable experience. Perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of this experience is that it seems to be very similar from person to person. That is, no matter what a person's race, cultural background, religion, or social standing, the near-death experience tends to follow common patterns: a feeling of profound comfort, beauty, peace, and ultimately, transcendence. Moreover, survivors often no longer have a fear of death. They become more loving, compassionate, and spiritual.
Not only is the Near-Death Experience (NDE) one of the few physical and metaphysical phenomena that have an absolute life-changing impact on the experiencer, it also has a dramatic, mystifying impact on clinicians, families and friends. The NDE is shared after the fact, sometimes years later, so we cannot actively participate in the experience at the time it is happening.
Distinction of Near-Death Awareness
When people dying slowly of a terminal illness are approaching death, they too, have remarkable experiences (like "terminal lucidity" - the unexpected return of mental clarity and memory shortly before death) and seem to develop an expanded awareness. This is called Nearing Death Awareness (NDA), and these experiences bear distinct parallels to NDEs. They occur, however, without warning and without disruption of vital signs, or other medical crisis. In fact, dying people seem to be able to drift from this reality into another and back with relative ease. Their attempts to share the wonders of these experiences by words or behavior are often thwarted by our lack of understanding of the symbolic language they use. But they are talking while the experience is actually happening.
As they drift back and forth, we understand the language they use for this reality, but not the language that belongs to the other reality. Observers are quick to label this communication as "confused" and, therefore, discount it, or sadly to medicate it. Once caregivers have the tools for understanding and participating in this verbal communication, they are afforded the unique and exciting opportunity to actually participate in these glimpses beyond, while they are actually happening. In this regard the NDE and NDA differ dramatically.
Healthcare providers and family members are valuable facilitators in the process of NDE and NDA. Patients may look to both for guidance and understanding of their experiences, and for support of their emotional and spiritual needs. On a daily basis, large numbers of patients are discharged from hospitals after undergoing a Near-Death Experience during their illness, accident or surgery—many without the benefit of sharing that experience with a healthcare professional who is often quick to label the NDE as a symptom of drug reaction, lack of oxygen, or confusion.
Oftentimes when these patients attempt to explain their experiences to their family members, they, too respond incorrectly. The presence of an informed and positive person in the support of patients who have had NDEs and NDAs is critical in offering comfort, support and holistic care to experiencers. It is also a profound opportunity for the caregiver, friend or family member to grow themselves.
Providers around the world are hearing patients, especially terminally ill patients, describe their experiences; unfortunately, many do not recognize the phenomena. They have the opportunity to be supportive and take an active role in educating families, friends, and professional colleagues to become informed listeners who can discuss patients' experiences in an objective and positive manner. To do so enriches both the caregiver and the patient.
Books and Articles
Callanan, Maggie (2008). Final Journeys: A Practical Guide for Bringing Care and Comfort at the End of Life. Bantam.
Callanan, Maggie and Patricia Kelley (2012). Final Gifts: Understanding the Special Awareness Needs and Communication of the Dying. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Kircher, Pamela (2013). Love is the Link. eFrog Press.
Lerma, John (2007) Into the Light: Real Life Stories about Angelic Visits, Visions of the Afterlife, and Other Pre-Death Experiences. New Page Books.
Mendoza, Marilyn A. (2008). We Do Not Die Alone: Jesus Is Coming to Get Me in a White Pickup Truck. I Can Pu. I Can Pub Inc.
Mendoza, Marilyn A: Deathbed Visions of Prisoners
Michael Nahm, PhD, and Bruce Greyson, MD,
Maggie Callanan Interview
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