Many believers consider NDE’s as definitive proof that an afterlife exists, while skeptics contend that the NDE is merely the production of a neurological process in a dying brain. There was a time when I was wholly content with the believer’s side of the debate, and now I find like so many other areas of belief I am not so sure.
My first experience with a similarity to a NDE is when my great grandparents died.
My great grandfather died at age 97 with full mental cognition and physical ability. A few days before he died he had walked a mile from his home to a grocery store and then back. A day later his kidneys began to fail and he died from the natural causes of old age within two days.
I was among the family that was gathered at his bedside in the hours before he died. During this time he was alert but not talkative. A few moments before he died he reached out to grab my grandmother’s hand and in an excited voice he asked her, “Can’t you hear those angels singing?” He held a faint smile on his face which seemed to project utter contentment. A moment later he said, “Sing….so beautiful” and then he closed his eyes and his voice trailed off with a slight bit of a hum before going silent. He never spoke or opened his eyes again.
As profound the effect that his dying words had on me, it was only intensified when my great grandmother died five months later with a similar end of life experience. In her advanced dementia she made hardly any sense when speaking the months before she died, but then in those few hours before her death she became completely coherent and aware of family. Her last words were, “Let me go now, he’s waiting for me.” Some family thought the “he” was Jesus while others thought “he” was my great grandfather. Either way it seemed apparent from her words and the expression on her face that she saw someone standing before her, waiting for her to join him.
At the time that these events happened I was convinced that they were supernatural and I held that decisive belief for several years. As time passed I began to learn about NDE’s and the arguments for and against them as evidence of an afterlife. Despite having witnessed the dying words of my great grandparents, and acknowledging that they were indeed dying words and not an actual NDE as commonly accepted, I began to lean toward accepting the skeptic’s explanations for NDE’s. My belief that NDE’s were definitive proof of an afterlife was waning.
Even though I give considerable credibility to scientific thought on the dying experience, my doubt regarding NDE’s comes largely from the varying experiences that people report. Although there are many who claim seeing their lives in retrospect and experiencing tunnels and bright lights, there are way too many variations of the death experience for me to say with certainty that it is not the production of a dying mind. In addition to the most common experiences reported from those who have had a NDE, there are those who report seeing aliens, Moses, many who see Jesus, and still others who see nature landscapes and butterflies. My mind questions could these variations in the death experience during the last awareness of consciousness not be the presentation of the person’s most comforting thoughts? Could it not simply be the mind allowing them the comfort of previous hopes as a buffer from the knowledge of death? As in if someone hoped to see Jesus upon death, he saw Jesus; or if someone missed and longed to see a deceased husband, she saw her husband waiting for her?
But then my inclination toward faith objects. Perhaps that is exactly what it is: a gift not of the dying mind but from the spirit. Could it just as easily be the first introduction into the afterlife, a way of easing the anticipation of knowingly dying, a cloak of sort which abates fear until the spirit becomes aware of the next dimension?
As I consider the possible reasons for a near death experience to occur I think about the last words reported to have been said by Steve Jobs: “oh wow, oh wow, oh wow”. Like remembering the last words of my great grandparents before they died, I add the words of Jobs to my reasons to believe that something exists beyond what I can understand during this life.
Those who have had NDE’s are not unaffected by the experience. Some believe that they have experienced the afterlife and no longer fear death. Others are changed into embracing all that life is and enjoying each and every moment. For the rest of us, those who have not experienced a NDE, the answer remains unresolved and we are left to wonder and decide which side of the debate we agree with. I do not know for certain that there is an afterlife or if a NDE is evidence of one. What I do know is that when it is my time to exit this existence I hope that I see someone that I love waiting for me, in the midst of angels singing so beautifully, while my lips utter, “oh wow, oh wow, oh wow.”