A century ago, the 1918 influenza pandemic spawned intense fear of sickness, of losing friends and family, and created a renewed interest in what occurs after death. A century later, a new pandemic is spreading disease and death. Is it leading to a renewed interest in what occurs when we die?
Certainly, compared to 100 years ago, there is far more research on the extraordinary experiences that persons have both as they are dying as well as those who struggle with bereavement—all of which fuel speculation about what happens when we die.
Lest readers think I am prone to mysticism, let me assure you that is hardly the case. My training is as a sociologist. Moreover, I am a Lutheran clergyman with very traditional beliefs about the afterlife. Yet, for fifty years, my focus both in academic research and counseling has been on the end-of-life. My research was so extraordinary that I felt compelled to share my experiences in When We Die: Extraordinary Experiences at Life's End.
Some of these experiences are quite familiar, while others may be less so. Here are four types of extraordinary experiences that some have experienced near death.
- Near-Death Experiences. First described by Dr. Raymond Moody (author of the New York Times bestselling Life After Life as well as Making Sense of Nonsense, Llewellyn, 2019) and Kenneth Ring, these are out-of-body experiences experienced by individuals close to death who recount being called back—often reluctantly— from a tunnel of light. And while these experiences are reported throughout the world, there are interesting variations depending on the culture. In some indigenous cultures, individuals escaping a close brush with death might recall other images such as a canoe traveling through a fog toward a beautiful island basked in light.
- Nearing-Death Awareness. Nearing-Death Awareness is another phenomenon that surrounds the end of life. Here, an individual close to death obliquely communicates the immediacy of their death. In some cases, it may be by communicating that they just saw or spoke to some now-deceased friend or relative. In other cases, they may speak about a trip they are about to take. For example, there is the story of a patient who, confined to her bed, announced that she had to get ready because she was going on a big trip; she died shortly after dawn. Sometimes the person may simply sense the nearness of death. My father did that at the end of his life. Though he was in the final stages of cancer and in hospice care, he had seemed to stabilize. One morning he woke up and asked if he was dying. He certainly did not mean whether or not he had a life-limiting illness; he clearly knew that. Yet, though there were no changes in his vital measures, he somehow sensed death. He died later that night.
Mark Twain, the author of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and other beloved books, was born in in 1835—the year that Halley's Comet made its once-in-a-76-year appearance. Years later he predicted he would die when Halley's Comet returned, adding that these two freakish occurrences—his death and the appearance of the comet—were destined to happen again. Just as the comet marked his birth, it would portent his death. He died in 1910 when Halley's Comet was at its apex over the Earth. Such premonitions and coincidences may just be a matter of chance, but even the great psychiatrist, Carl Jung, saw such events as central to this theory of synchronicity—a concept that sometimes events were connected in ways beyond simple cause and effect.
- Terminal Lucidity. First described over a hundred years ago, "terminal lucidity" refers to a phenomenon where patient regains consciousness or lucidity previously compromised by a coma, dementia, or other mental disabilities or disease immediately prior to death. Here the patient seems to revive—possessing cognitive abilities that had been long absent or never apparent. For example, Anna Katarina (Käthe) Ehmer was a 26-year-old woman with severe mental disabilities; she died of tuberculosis in 1922 at Hephata—a German institution for people with mental disorders. She had been at the institution since she was six years old, and was never known to have spoken a single word in her entire life—making only animal–like sounds. She gorged her meals and was never toilet trained. Now, as Käthe was dying, she began to sing songs of her dying—an old Protestant hymn. "Where does the soul find its home, its peace? Peace, peace, heavenly peace!"
- Extraordinary Experiences. There are also what a colleague, Louis LaGrand, termed Extraordinary Experiences. In these instances, after a death, the bereaved person experiences an encounter with the deceased. This, too, can happen in a number of ways. Sometimes someone struggling with grief simply feels the presence of their deceased loved one. In other cases, it is actually a sensory experience. They see, touch, hear, smell, or taste something associated with the deceased. One client shared that, while both living, he and his wife would walk most mornings at an indoor mall. On mornings when he chose to sleep instead of walking at the mall with his wife, his wife would return home, place in his mouth a dark chocolate nonpareil she had purchased at the mall, and say, “See what you missed.” After her death, he would wake with the taste of dark chocolate on his lips.
Other experiences might include something highly symbolic. LaGrand's interest in the topic was piqued by a bereaved mother who shared that, on the way to see him, she stopped at the gravesite of her adolescent son. A hawk was perched on the memorial stone. It cocked its head a few times at the woman and slowly flew off. When asked why this seemed so significant, the mother replied that her son's nickname was "Hawk."
In other cases, the bereaved may dream of the deceased or find reaffirmations of the deceased or messages in the words of others.
These extraordinary experiences are hardly unique. Research indicates that nearly two-thirds of bereaved persons report such encounters.
Individuals may seek ways to create contact with the deceased. The early 1900s, with the influenza pandemic and the first World War, became one of the "golden ages" of mediums, Spiritualism, and interest in communication with the deceased. For those without the income or access to mediums, Ouija Boards became popular. These, too, were ways to ascertain what happens when we die. Ghost stories serve a similar fashion. While they scare or titillate us, they also offer a promise of life after life. They reaffirm that there might be life after life.
Perhaps our fascination with reincarnation, one of the most enduring and common beliefs, offers us similar support. Not only are we comforted by continuing life—we are reassured that it will not be too different from the life we are already experiencing. Moreover, it has an inherent sense of justice—that those who suffered in this life may expect a better future while those who caused evil may find a suitable punishment in the next.
Naturally, there are many explanations for all of these events—among them, neurological, psychological, and, of course, spiritual.
So, however and whatever we believe about what happens when die, we can clearly reaffirm that even when someone dies, memories and love remain. We know we always retain a continuing bond with those who die. That, too, offers comfort.
Perhaps as we continue to study death—in all its aspects—we may learn far more about life than ever imagined. We exist in a sort of strange paradox. We know that we are mortal and that someday our bodies will fail us. Yet our minds embrace immortality. We like to think that some aspect of self—whether we call it mind, soul, or spirit—survives. Again, as a social scientist, I can only state that these experiences are both universal and yet cannot be scientifically verified. And as clergy, I confess they do not fully fit into my theology and my understanding of faith.
Yet, as we stare at the edge of forever, it is difficult to believe, or at least not to hope, that it is not a bottomless, lifeless abyss. These experiences perhaps promise or offers hope that when we die something still lives.