Living with death and dying
Living with death and dying

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Living with death and dying

1.3.10 The impact of near-death experiences

In many studies (Sabom, 1982; Toates 1999) the main effect of a near-death experience was to reduce a person’s fear of dying. Individuals surviving similar types of near-death crisis without an associated near-death experience did not show the same reduction in fear of death, as Table 2 indicates.

Table 2 Effect of near-death crisis event on fear of death

Fear of death With near-death experience (61 people) Without near-death experience (45 people)
Increased 0 5
No change 11 39
Decreased 50 1
(Source: Sabom, 1982, p. 212)

The reduced fear of death doesn’t imply an increased desire to die or a rejection of the value of living, but rather an acceptance of both life and death. One of Sabom’s patients, who had a transcendental near-death experience during a cardiac arrest when he was 33 years old, illustrates this well. He is seriously disabled and can’t work.

I used to worry about life and living and trying to get ahead …I don’t do that anymore …I just live from day to day … I’m going to live what I’ve got left and I’m going to enjoy it… I’ve been through death and it didn’t bother me … I’m not scared of it.

(Sabom, 1982, p. 126)

For some, the new attitude towards death also affects views on the death of loved ones and frequently strengthens religious beliefs, especially beliefs in an afterlife (Table 3).

Table 3 Effect of near-death crisis event on belief in afterlife

Belief in afterlife With near-death experience (61 people) Without near-death experience (45 people)
Increased 47 0
No change 14 45
Decreased 0 0
(Source: Sabom, 1982, p. 212)

The Fenwicks’ and Margot Grey’s findings suggest that while religious beliefs do not appear to affect the likelihood of a near-death experience occurring, the experience undoubtedly subsequently changes the person’s relationship with religion. ‘The main shift would seem to be away from theological doctrines to a more spiritual ideology’ (Grey, 1985, p. 108). Fenwick and Fenwick quoted a similar illustration: ‘Although I am still a Roman Catholic, I feel the experience I had is beyond any denomination.’ Another put it this way: ‘I was raised in the Church of England, but since my experience I've become non-denominational. I now feel all religion is basically the same’ (Fenwick and Fenwick, 1996).

Among both the religious and non-religious alike, there is evidence of increased compassion and empathy towards other people following a near-death experience: ‘When I look at people now, I feel I really do love them, which is something I never felt before’ was how one person expressed this.

Usually interviews tell us little about the detailed practical working out of such changes, though some people have described ways in which their activities have been altered. So, for instance, increased acceptance of death has led some into an involvement with dying people. After her near-death experience this hospital volunteer lost all fear of death and so came to be regarded as the right person to sit with those who had been told their illness was terminal: ‘… because if they were going to die it didn’t bother me. It was really easy for me to talk to the people about it. I’d feel really good about it, and it seemed to make the people feel better’ (Sabom, 1982, p. 132).

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