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Sunday, March 11, 2012

Near Death Experience – What Comes After?

By Anna Olson

“If you expect to die when you die, you will be disappointed.”
P.M.H. Atwater

SO MANY PEOPLE have come back from the brink of death and described their visit to the “other side” that it’s no longer a taboo subject.
    It’s got a name now: near death experience or NDE for short – and the one who has been to “heaven” and back is called an NDEr.
In times past, “the great majority [of NDErs] were either ignored, made fun of, threatened, and in some cases physically abused because they dared to tell their story,” write Phyllis Atwater in Coming Back to Life: The After-Effects of the Near Death Experience.
    Atwater is a poster girl for NDEs as she survived three of them. A good part of her drive to learn more was a need to connect with other NDErs to facilitate her own recovery. She has now written ten books, and lectures extensively on the subject.
I floated up and out of my body, passed through a dark tunnel and ascended towards a light at the end of the darkness. I was greeted by friendly beings, some of who I knew. Then I was told that my work on earth was not finished and that I needed to return. I descended into my body, feeling confined and limited again.
    This is a typical NDE but Atwater has heard many variations. For example: one woman saw herself encased in a blue bubble; a man felt himself held by a giant hand; a woman straddled a light beam and toured the universe; and a man saw nothing, but heard a thunderous voice instructing him on work to be done when he returned to his body.
    But regardless of how simple or complex the near death episode,” says Atwater, “the vast majority of survivors commented most about the incredible, overwhelming love they felt, the peace, the feeling of total acceptance, and the Presence of God.”
    Atwater suggests that survivors of NDEs may go through several stages in their emotional recovery:

Withdrawal and internal adjustment. Not only has the NDEr had a metaphysical experience but is also likely recovering from an illness or accident.
Realignment with family and friends. Depending how receptive they are to this other-worldly experience, the process will be easy and smooth or rough and bumpy. Sometimes NDErs turn to drugs and alcohol because of the difficulty of adjusting to the “real world” after glimpsing the peace and love on the other side.
Balancing the internal and external pressures. If this balancing act is successful, the NDEr often develops more self-confidence and becomes interested in service to others.
A time of discouragement. If there is too big a gap between the NDEr’s values and those of family, friends and culture, the NDEr can become depressed. Some even attempt suicide.
Deep integration of the near death experience. The NDEr finds the strength to express his or her values no matter what others may think.

Finding love and warmth on the other side
A friend of mine, “Beth,” almost died after a car accident when she was in her early twenties. She floated away from her body, she says, and saw a “big warm light” in the distance. Also present was her grandmother who had died five years earlier. Beth and her gramma had had a close bond. Beth remembers longing to stay with the love of her gramma and go with her to the big light in the distance. But it wasn’t her time; Gramma told her to go back. The next thing Beth knew, she was waking up in a hospital bed with anxious medical staff peering at her.
    The happy part of the story is that Beth reveled in the love from her grandmother and the light. “Ever since then, I’ve felt her watching over me,” says Beth. “And I know there is more than this physical life. I know it from inside.”
    The sad part is that she was a victim of a more repressive time. She told no one about her NDE for over 40 years. “My family, even though they were religious, would have thought I was out of my mind,” says Beth. “I knew they would be afraid of the neighbours thinking they had a crazy daughter, so I kept quiet.” When she heard I was writing on this subject, she broke her 40-year silence and told me what she had been through.

A four-year-old boy meets Jesus
In this story, the parents are incredibly open and supportive when their four-year-old son, Colton, talks about what he saw and heard when he almost died from a ruptured appendix.
    We learn the full details in Heaven is for Real written by his father, Todd Burpo, a Wesleyan pastor in the small town of Imperial, Nebraska. (The Wesleyan Church is an evangelical Protestant denomination.)
    The revelation of the near death experience starts four months after the crisis when the Burpo family is traveling to another town to visit relatives. As they pass the turn-off to the hospital, Todd’s wife Sonja asks her son if he remembers his time there.
    “Yes, Mommy, I remember,” he said. “That’s where the angels sang to me.”
    Thus starts an amazing journey for Colton’s parents as they struggle to comprehend and accept what their son is saying. Over the next two years, the details gradually come out. Jesus has really pretty eyes, and he loves children (really loves children), and he has a rainbow-coloured horse, and I did homework up there, and there are lots of children. Plus many more details.
    At one point, Colton announces to his mother that he has two sisters. Sonja protests that he has only one and that’s Cassie. Colton is adamant, claiming a baby died in his mom’s tummy.
“In heaven, this little girl ran up to me and wouldn’t stop hugging me,” says Colton. She said she was the spirit of the baby that had died. The shocked parents had not told Colton about the stillbirth.
Colton’s announcement helped to heal some of the pain of losing a baby they very much wanted. “She said she just can’t wait till you and Daddy get to heaven,” Colton added.
    Todd and Sonja are religious parents, knee-deep in church dogma, committees and social life. Todd Burpo is a pastor and used to talking about heaven from scripture, not from experience. He adjusts, often with self-deprecating humour to the challenge of listening to a four year old talking matter-of-factly about what heaven is like.
    My understanding is that the other side is different for each person, reflecting their beliefs and interests on earth. I don’t think people need to assume that if what Colton is saying is true, this would rule out other religious figures and scenarios. It’s possible to read this book and enjoy one child’s experience, but still have respect for all the religious and spiritual variety in the world.

In a nutshell
·         *    If you’ve had a near death experience, you’re not alone. Even if friends and family don’t accept your new reality, there is help online and in books. Having an NDE is the first step; integrating that experience into the rest of your life is the second.
·        *  One such resource is the International Association for Near Death Studies (IANDS). Type that name into a browser and you’ll find a website loaded with information.
·        *   If you’re a caregiver (lay or professional), know that some institutions and medical courses include information on how to detect when someone has had an NDE (e.g. the person may be disappointed to be saved from death). Personnel are advised to gently ask patients if anything unusual happened while they were unconscious. This helps people to start the integration process.

Understanding the near death experience is just one aspect of the new “after life awareness” that is surging around the world. Books, videos, websites, and even conferences have sprung up. There is so much out there for the inquisitive person to explore.

Anna Olson is a Winnipeg freelance writer and editor. To enquire about reprint permission, email her at

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