Dying, death and Near Death Experiences

We are now a household of three orphans since the dowager dog, nearly 14, came to the end of her days and slipped peacefully into her last sleep with the help of an injection from a vet.  Unfortunately, he wouldn’t leave any spare drugs – a mixture of benzodiazepines and barbiturates – so I could, if necessary, avoid a long-drawn out and painful period of dying and skip the nasty bits at the end (see also my blog of 19 August 2018).

She had a good life, was an “absolute sweetie” and, almost invariably, very well-behaved, although we do have a photograph of her just after she’d stolen a stick of celery which was projecting from both sides of her mouth;  she was sitting with her eyes squeezed tightly shut so we’d know that she wouldn’t dream of stealing food and she didn’t have any celery and hadn’t been there at the time and, anyway, we couldn’t see her because she had her eyes shut.

Her son, the bouncy one, seems to have a feeling something’s changed but he too is a Labrador so, even though he’s suddenly become an orphan, it hasn’t put him off his food.

(Why does this remind me of the child who killed both his parents then pleaded for clemency because he was an orphan?)

The peaceful way she died makes me wonder what she experienced as the lights went out.  It’s far too easy to anthropomorphise about dogs but a lot of people – including me – are fascinated by ‘near death experiences’ (NDEs) of humans who have technically died, or got very close to death, before being brought back to life.

This then inevitably raises questions about when death actually occurs and the whole process of dying.

Lyall Watson’s first introduced me to the idea that there’s no clear-cut division between being alive and being dead.  He was a South African biologist interested in unexplained phenomena and his second book (‘Supernature’), published in 1973, made him famous.  ‘The Romeo Error’, published the following year, explored the difficulties of differentiating between ‘alive’ and ‘dead’.

Although NDEs have been known and written about for centuries (Socrates and Pliny the Elder each had one) and, in 1944, the psychologist Carl Gustav Jung suffered a heart attack and experienced a NDE (and, curiously, a nurse who was with him said his unconscious body seemed to be surrounded by a strange glow);  but, almost by definition, they are unpredictable and almost impossible to research ‘scientifically’. 

In 1975, Raymond Moody published ‘Life after Life’, the first detailed survey of NDEs, and a decade later, Margot Grey collected some survivors’ reports of their NDEs, including a few that were negative.  More recent research has shown that about one in six survivors had (or admitted to having?) NDEs.

No two NDEs are identical but most share common features.  Many report that their awareness of time was affected and they felt that past, present and future were all around them;  Grey reports that some of their experiences included visions of the future and there was a surprising consensus on what was to come:  widespread earthquakes and volcanic activity, a pole shift, erratic weather patterns, drought and food shortages, economic collapse, social disintegration, diseases of unknown origin and possible nuclear or natural catastrophe.  And now, 36 years later …

Much about NDEs has been researched and collected and published since then, and many suggestions, psychological, physical and spiritual, have attempted to explain them.  A new book, ‘After: A Doctor Explores What Near-Death Experiences Reveal About Life and Beyond’ by Bruce Greyson, has another go at it.

What I find fascinating is how many of the NDEs involve feelings of transcendence and the interconnectedness of everything which, to me at least, chimes with the basic concept of Zen as I understand it.

As our dog was dying and we were stroking her, there was no sign of any discomfort when first her brain and then her heart stopped functioning.  And therein lies the puzzle about the transition from life to death – when did she die?

Different parts of the body die at different rates and we’ve all heard of people who are ‘brain dead’ but still alive (and no, I’m not going to make a cheap joke about Boris Johnson) and we tend to associate consciousness with being alive but we also know that people who have apparently been in a coma later report they could hear what was going on around them, which leads to all sorts of debates about what the ‘mind’ is and how it relates to the brain.  (Neuroscientists currently tend to be dubious about the mind having an existence independently of the brain, possibly because this can lead to theories about spirits and souls whose existences are, as any fule kno, ‘unscientific’ and a matter of individual choice because scientists haven’t (yet?) been able to get them to interact with their machines.)

One eye-witness to the execution of Mary Queen of Scots was the son of William Cecil (the first Lord Burghley), one of Elizabeth I’s most trusted advisers.  Having seen the executioner have three goes at hacking off her head, he reported to his father that “Her lips stirred up and down a quarter of an hour after her head was cut off”.  Other eye-witness reports don’t mention this but there seems no reason why it couldn’t have happened with her brain still full of oxygen and the lip muscles still intact, except that 15 minutes seems a bit optimistic.

He didn’t lip-read what she said but I know that, if it had been me, much of it wouldn’t have been printable in a family newspaper.

When people have ‘died’ and returned to life and spoken about it, there are some remarkable similarities between their experiences but the feelings that accompanied them seem indescribable:  one subject told Bruce Greyson it was like trying “to draw an odour with crayons”.  They also share the fact that complex experiences and feelings take place in a very short time, sometimes just a matter of seconds, and the person sometimes becomes aware of things that they could not have experienced if they were conscious.

When Greyson was starting his psychiatric training in the 1960s, he came across a patient who claimed to have “left her body” while on a hospital bed and accurately described in considerable detail what had been happening in a different room.

NDEs seem to change about 80% of people’s attitudes, values, beliefs and their approach to life, and these changes can persist for the rest of their lives.  Most report feelings of wonder, mental clarity and absolute contentment, many involving a light at the end of a tunnel where they see long-dead relations or entities they describe as Yahweh, or God, or Allah or their own chosen god.

Some police and military officers felt unable to go back to work because they could no longer deal with violence and they ended up as teachers or healthcare or social workers;  and most people realised they were no longer afraid to die.

In a new book by Michael Rosen (‘Many Different Kinds of Love’), written after he recovered from Covid-19 after 6 weeks in an artificially-induced coma, he says of the illness:

“I start to believe the edges of my body are liminal,

They are touching other worlds”

And later, as he was recovering:

“They’ve been worried

About my low blood pressure

But they’ve brought me the Daily Mail

So it’ll be fine in just a moment.”

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