Important Research Articles

Dr. Peter Fenwick, M.D.: Science and Spirituality


Approaching-Death Experiences and the NDE: A Model for the Dying Process?

In the final part of this presentation, I would like to try and put the near-death experience in the context that I feel it deserves. Is the NDE a model for the final stage of dying? My current view is that it may be. My reasoning begins with those experiences that I call approaching-death experiences, which sometimes occur in the 24 hours before death. These consist of ‘‘take-away’’ deathbed visions of relatives or friends; experiences of light and other worlds; and deathbed ‘‘coincidences,’’ that is, visits by the dying person to friends or relatives at the time of death. We, in fact, have three studies ongoing at the moment. One is a study with a palliative care team, asking caregivers about approaching-death experiences in the dying for whom they are caring; a paper describing this study has been accepted by the American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Medicine. Another is a study in hospices in Holland, looking at patients’ accounts of their experiences as they approach death. Thirdly, we are in the process of setting up a hospice study in the U.K.

Now what are these deathbed visions? On St. Francis’s tomb, there is a lovely picture of St. Francis when he was dying. He has several beautiful angels hovering over him, waiting to accompany him into death: a wonderful deathbed vision. I know that I will not have lovely people like that; I will just have my relatives. Just to give you a flavor of what the dying seem to see, here is a wife’s description of her husband’s death, from a paper by Paola Giovetti (1999, p. 38): ‘‘The gauze over his face moved, I ran to him and with his last strength he said to me: ‘Adrianna, my dear, your mother (who had died three years before) is helping me break out of this disgusting body. There is so much light here, so much peace.’’’ Forty percent of the approaching-death experiences Giovetti found were these ‘‘take-away’’ visions.

The next common approaching-death experience is of transiting to a new reality. This story was told to me by a woman who was with her 32-year-old daughter as she was dying of breast cancer. In her last two to three days, the daughter described being conscious of a dark roof over her head; then she would go up and go throughthe roof into a bright light. She moved into a waiting place where beings were talking to her, to help her through the dying process. She conveyed to her mother that everything would be okay, that these were loving beings, and that her grandfather was amongst the beings. She was able to move in and out of this reality, and she was quite clear that it was not a dream. We have been given other accounts by people who describe waiting in a garden, which sounds very similar to the sort of garden that NDErs describe. Light and love are absolutely primary to these experiences.

The third type of approaching-death experience is the deathbed coincidence, in which the dying persons go to visit somebody to whom they are close, to tell that person that they are dying. This is a fresco of St. Francis dying in one part of Italy. Here, in another part of Italy, is another prelate who is dying, and just as he is about to die, he suddenly sits up, sees St. Francis, and says, ‘‘Wait for me, wait for me, St. Francis; I’m coming.’’ He seems to have paranormal knowledge that St. Francis is dying at the same time.

Here is a more recent example, reported retrospectively:

Around 1950, a distant relative, John, was in hospital. It was a Sunday, and my father went to visit John, to be told that he had died that morning at a certain time. The hospital authorities asked dad if he would inform the next of kin, the deceased’s sister Kate and her husband, who were sheep farmers living in a relatively remote part of the country and not on the telephone. Dad and I drove the 20 or so miles and up a hill track to the farmhouse to be met by Kate who said, ‘‘I know why you have come – I heard him calling me, saying ‘Kate, Kate’ as he passed over.’’ She was quite matter-of-fact about it. She gave us the time of death, which was exactly the same as recorded by the hospital. I found it an amazing experience and have never forgotten it, nor will I ever. I was about 17 at the time.

Now, these experiences are common, and whenever I give a talk on approaching-death experiences, someone in the audience always has some experience to report. What we hope to do is find out exactly how common they are. We are building on the work of previous researchers such as Karlis Osis and Erlendur Haraldsson (1977), who examined deathbed visions in terminally ill patients in the United States and India. Other phenomena are also frequently reported at the time of dying. Light at death is very common. A mother in one of our studies whose son was age 7 and dying of leukemia in the hospital told us that, as he became more seriously ill, the curtains were drawn around his bed. She told us that, in the 20 minutes before he finally stopped breathing, the whole area around his bed was flooded with light – the same light that you talk about in the near-death experience: the light of love and compassion. And as he died, the light slowly faded.

I have been given other accounts which are very similar to that. Here is one from a woman whose husband was dying:

Suddenly there was the most brilliant light shining from my husband’s chest, and as this light lifted upward, there was the most beautiful music and singing voices. My own chest seemed filled with infinite joy, and my heart felt as if it was lifting to join this light and music. Suddenly, there was a hand on my shoulder, and a nurse said, ‘‘Sorry, love. He’s just gone.’’ I lost sight of the light and the music and felt so bereft at being left behind.

Once again, we see the phenomena of light, love, and music at the time of death. reminiscent of music described by NDErs.

Could approaching-deathexperiences and the NDE be a model for the dying process? If so, it would point towards consciousness beyond death. The brain identity theory says that consciousness ends with brain death. But if it can be shown in the cardiac arrest model that people can acquire information when they are unconscious and out of their body, if deathbed coincidences are real, it would be indisputable evidence that consciousness is separate from the brain. The brain identity theory – the reductionist view that consciousness is entirely dependent on brain function – then must fail, and this would have a heavy cost for science. Do not underestimate this cost. Science would have to change in a fundamental way, and so, interestingly, would our social structures. Because the theory also presupposes that consciousness does not survive death, and the evidence is beginning to be against that, too.

The nonreductionist view is that there is a process to dying. There is apparent separation of mind and brain. Love and light are fundamental to the dying experience. And the suggestions are that, in fact, love and consciousness are the fundamental ground structure of the universe and that consciousness may survive death of the body. So perhaps the near-death experience will help us to change science and to change our culture and bring back personal responsibility for our actions, if there is, indeed, continuing consciousness after death.

Will we ever really know? Perhaps, but let me end with a Zen parable. A nobleman asked Master Hakuin, ‘‘What happens to the enlightened man at death?’’

‘‘Why ask me?’’ said Hakuin.

‘‘Because you’re a Zen master.’’

‘‘Yes, but not a dead one.’’


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