Death Is Not the End of Awareness

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Elderly twins

Yeah, it’s about near-death experiences, but hold off on the cynicism for five minutes. Give me that, then unload both barrels of sarcasm as you will.

It was a late summer night in the early 1970’s in the Mississippi Delta, and Great-Uncle Kenneth was telling my grandmother about what happened to him on the operating table. He described what most of us today recognize as a “near-death experience”. His heart had stopped during surgery, and though he was clinically dead, he became aware of a beautiful light. He said he wanted so very much to go into that light, but it told him to go back, it wasn’t time yet. I spoke up as almost-teens often do and asked, “So what did it feel like, being dead?”

Even today I can picture his eyes as he turned to me. He said nothing, but just looked at me for maybe three eternal seconds. His eyes were steel-gray and didn’t contain hate or spite or malice or even anger, but instead were bottomless pits of utter disappointment, as if they were saying “you stupid, stupid kid, you don’t know anything at all.” He then turned back to my grandmother and continued to talk to her, telling her that he didn’t want to be revived on the operating table again.

I was mortified by what I’d done. I wanted to crawl under the table or run away…but I couldn’t. I loved Uncle Kenneth. He’d never told me any of his stories of what he’d done in WWII (except that he’d been so hungry that he’d eaten a lizard on some island in the South Pacific), and I knew he’d seen hard times before and after the war. He was hard-bitten and as cynical as they get, but he was always kind and patient to me. Like I said, I loved him…and I’d just been so stupid and unthinking in my question to him. I should have known better. I did know better. But what was done couldn’t be undone.

Like I said, this was in the early 1970’s, long before “near-death experiences” (NDE) became a part of our social lexicon. I’m sure that some people make up stories about what they supposedly saw while having an NDE, but not Uncle Kenneth. He wouldn’t have done so. He just wouldn’t.

So he, like so many others who have had NDE’s, was telling the truth as he knew it, as he perceived it. Yeah, yeah, I know, there’s lots of explanations and postulations out there as to what NDE’s actually are e.g. hallucinations, dreams (we all dream, right?), et cetera. Sure, I could track down the applicable references for these, but such do not answer the questions I have below. Likewise, there are recorded events where a person who experienced (not ‘suffered’) an NDE while under general anesthesia and described an out-of-body experience above the operating table, watching himself-or-herself on the table, and describing items or procedures that he or she can’t have known about. For the purposes of this article, let’s ignore these, for such can be faked.

Instead, it should be pointed out that:

  1. NDE’s have been been recorded for centuries, and have been seen in 95% of the world’s cultures;
  2. Researchers have defined common traits e.g. a profound feeling of peace, seeing a light (or a being of light), or seeing someone one once knew, and a longing to go with that person or ‘light’. Not all NDE’s include these, but many do.

The fact that these ‘common traits’ are seen in almost all the world’s disparate cultures means that it’s highly unlikely that the perception of NDE’s was spread by interpersonal communications or media over the generations. In other words, NDE’s are an organic part of every culture in which such have been recorded.

So here’s my questions:

  1. Why is it that so many NDE’s include a light (or being of light) or another person who personally knows the one having the NDE?
  2. Just as importantly, how can an NDE occur when one is under general anesthesia? Yes, cranial hypoxia (lack of oxygen to the brain) can result in hallucinations, but there’s no research showing that those with hypoxia have hallucinations with identifiable common traits.

There’s one more thing that troubles me. My wife and I used to care for an elderly woman who had dementia. She was a sweet old lady who never said a cross word to anyone. Best of all (for us) she always slept through the night, and any experienced caregiver will agree that this is a big bonus. In the four years we cared for her, there was one and only one time that she woke up in distress. It was about four in the morning, and she began yelling, “help, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe!” We responded and calmed her down (with a little help from Lorazepam), and she finally went back to sleep.

Later that morning, we got a call. Her sister had passed away at four that morning, eighty miles away. Yeah, I did get a chill down my spine.

I like to believe what I can see, what I can prove. Plate tectonics is real. Evolution is real. Global warming is real. Light does take 2M years to travel from Andromeda to our naked eyes. But there’s something there, on the other side of the death of our physical bodies. Something’s there, something that seems to personally know us as individuals. We can’t know what it is, at least not yet…but death is not the end of awareness. It is for that reason that when I die, I want to be awake and aware of what is happening. I want to know.

Retired Navy. Inveterate contrarian. If I haven’t done it, I’ve usually done something close.

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